“Ten Caesars: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine” by Barry Strauss. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019. 432 pages, $28 (hardcover).
Barry Strauss is professor of history and classics at Cornell University and the author of seven books on ancient history. His newest work is “Ten Caesars: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine.” In this book, he provides a good overview of Roman imperial history by focusing on 10 emperors and mentioning several other figures during the period from the late first century B.C. to the early fourth century and even adding an epilogue on Justinian’s Byzantine Empire in the sixth century. He includes maps, imperial family charts, several illustrations, a cast of characters, notes, sources and an index.
In his prologue, Strauss starts with a night on the Palatine Hill and invites readers to “give rein to your imagination and you will understand why the Palatine Hill gave us our word palace.” After all, it was from this site overlooking the Roman Forum that most of the emperors “ruled over 50 million to 60 million people.” He goes on to suggest: “Perhaps a modern night visitor to the Palatine could imagine a famous dinner party at which one guest said he felt like he was dining with Jupiter in midheaven. Or a less pleasant banquet when the emperor had the walls painted black and the dining couches laid out like tombstones, leaving the terrified guests in fear of their lives – which were spared. Or we might remember the rumor that another emperor turned the palace into a brothel – a salacious but not very credible tale. ”
In the first chapter, “Augustus, the Founder,” Strauss recounts the amazing rise to world power of the future emperor Augustus, although it is a little confusing to see C. Octavius referred to as Octavian during the years before that officially became his name when he was adopted in Julius Caesar’s will in 44 B.C. Octavian outmaneuvered his colleagues in the Second Triumvirate and, with Agrippa’s help, defeated the forces of Antony and Cleopatra in the battle of Actium in 31 B.C. He began to restore the Republic but in reality fashioned an imperial government where he was viewed as “first citizen.” The author says “Augustus had the fingertip feel for power that was typically Roman. He understood that successful regimes don’t merely crush the opposition but co-opt it. So he granted senators a degree of influence and honor.” Strauss also discusses Augustus’ building program that changed a city of brick to one of marble and the establishment of the long period of peace that brought the seemingly endless civil wars to an end. The emperor’s wife, Livia, also receives credit for significant influence on Rome’s first emperor.
The author includes interesting details about each emperor he discusses and also equates Roman leaders and situations with modern terms, some of which work better than others. In reference to Tiberius, he says: “One imagines a lonely man, the Citizen Kane of Roman emperors.” When discussing the eventual breakdown of the four leaders in Diocletian’s tetrarchy, Strauss quips: “Band of Brothers quickly turned into Game of Thrones as the four men fought.” The author credits Vespasian with keeping the empire alive in the period following the civil wars of A.D. 69 and “showing that there would still be Caesars even without the blood of the Caesars … running through their veins.” About the Flavian Amphitheater (Colosseum) constructed by this emperor and his son Titus, he says: “As a means of communication, it was as revolutionary as Facebook or Twitter. From its dedication in 80 on, everyone with power attended the games there, to see and be seen.” Although I understand his point, I am not sure this analogy really clarifies the situation. Strauss also points out that Marcus Aurelius’ wife, Faustina, had given birth to 14 children “and was possibly pregnant again” when she died at age 45. This point may be difficult to believe for some readers, but such an achievement was more common in centuries past than one might think.
Strauss describes Hadrian’s Villa at Tibur (Tivoli), about 18 miles outside Rome, as “Hadrian’s Neverland.” He also says: “The villa had everything. Besides a palace there were dining pavilions, libraries, baths, temples, a theater, and even an arena. There were heated buildings for winter use and cool northward exposures for summer.” Although the buildings were mainly Roman, the site, which spread out over about 300 acres, was filled with Greek art and also featured several Egyptian themes. Hadrian loved things Greek and personally traveled extensively throughout his large empire.
In discussing the chief Severan building accomplishment, the Baths of Caracalla, the author describes the removal of “around 17.7 million cubic feet of clay for the foundation” and “erecting columns that stood 40 feet tall and weighed about 100 tons.” He goes on to say “Yet the project was completed within six years, using an estimated 12,000 to 20,000 workers.” Strauss also mentions Caracalla’s extension of Roman citizenship to every free inhabitant of the empire and points out that citizen/non-citizen division was no longer as important in more recent decades, and that the purpose may have been to raise more money for military spending because of the citizens-only inheritance tax. He explains that the more important division in the Roman world by this time was between the rich and privileged and the poor and humble. Sound familiar?
Strauss’ closing two chapters deal with the last emperor to persecute Christians and the first one to adopt this religion. Although these two men may appear to be radically different, with respect to government, the military and the economy at least, the author is correct when he concludes: “In retrospect, the reigns of Diocletian and Constantine amounted to one common enterprise to reform and thus save the Roman Empire.” Although the western empire would survive less than a century and a half after Constantine’s death, the delay in taking over this region likely made the German invaders much more Romanized and the ultimate impact less violent and disruptive. The spread of Christianity during this period has, of course, also left a legacy that still continues to resonate.
The author says that his 10 Caesars “were Rome’s most capable and successful emperors” and then qualifies his statement by adding that Nero was one of the most titillating and that he was a great builder. I feel that Nero was an outlier who could have been mentioned between chapters, but did not deserve placement with the other nine who tended to be builders and/or consolidators and generally stabilized the empire.
There are a few problems in the text. For example, when the author discusses the funeral of Octavian’s mother, Atia, he says that “as far as we know” she was “the first woman to receive” a public funeral. However, Suetonius states that Julius Caesar spoke from the Rostra at the funerals of his aunt Julia and his wife, Cornelia, and Cicero documents a similar funeral for a woman around 100 B.C. In similar fashion, the author states that when Trajan asked the Senate to deify his sister Marciana when she died in 112: “No emperor’s sister had ever received such an honor before.” However, this ignores Caligula’s deification of his sister Drusilla. In addition, Strauss says that between A.D. 235 and 284 “twenty men were emperor, however briefly in some cases.” A quick look at the DIR Imperial Index for the same period reveals the names of 66 men who claimed the imperial title. Strauss also assumes that Constantine’s wife, Fausta, “fearing vengeance,” committed suicide, when the more common view is that Constantine executed her. There are also some typographical errors in the text, but all of these issues are relatively minor when one considers the volume of fascinating details included in this book. “Ten Caesars” is very readable and anyone with an interest in Roman history will find it enjoyable reading that summarizes effectively a fascinating period of time.
– Reviewed by Richard Weigel, Western Kentucky University History Department.