Ten Caesars: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine
Barry Strauss | 432 pages | Simon & Schuster | ISBN: 978-1451668834 | $28.00
The story of the Roman Empire is well-known, its major personalities still celebrities even today. But the fame of the Empire and its emperors makes it a challenge to say something new about a subject that has spawned books both thoughtful and sensational for two thousand years. Cornell University professor Barry Strauss’s Ten Caesars, which will be published on March 5, doesn’t quite manage to say anything new about the ten men it profiles, but it does have the virtue of telling a familiar story well.
The title of Strauss’s Ten Caesars immediately recalls Seutonius’ famous Twelve Caesars, his account of the first twelve men to rule Rome with absolute power. Strauss’s narrative is somewhat broader in scope, covering the period from Augustus to Constantine, and it is less sensational, skipping over the gossip and hostile political attacks in favor of a more balanced—albeit slightly blander—narrative. He writers with admirable clarity and with an entertaining command of facts, as well as a judicious eye toward the well-selected detail and the thoughtful analytical conclusion where the historical record is incomplete. He also provides a more prominent discussion of the powerful women of imperial Rome than earlier narratives were wont to do. As a story, Ten Caesars provides many of the pleasures of its genre, though the book never entirely makes a case that it needs to exist.
Biographies of the Caesars, singularly or collectively, are a dime a dozen. I can’t tell you how many I have read. I have read biographies of individual emperors, reference books on the entire imperial line, and more ambitious volumes that take a group of emperors for their subject. I have read a book about the Julio-Claudian dynasty—which overlaps Ten Caesars by about a third—and one about the Year of the Four Emperors. My favorite is also the least scholarly, George C. Brauer’s, Jr.’s The Young Emperors: Prelude to the Fall of Rome (1967), which retold the story of the later Roman Empire from the disastrous reign of Commodus down to the forgettable reign of Gordian III. As scholarship, it was, frankly, awful, relying entirely on Roman historians for its facts; but as a story, it managed to capture the flavor of gossipy, uneven, and wildly biased ancient sources in a modern idiom. It might have been bad history, but it was written as popular entertainment.
Ten Caesars is more rigorous—its sources are carefully documented—but at times Strauss strives a little too hard to make his story relatable to an imagined popular audience. When I read ancient history, it takes me out of the story to have Antique actions compared to current events. Long ago, I faulted Tom Holland’s otherwise excellent Rubicon for making explicit comparisons to the then-current Iraq War, references that are themselves now dated. Ten Caesars will also lose something of its timelessness when readers from future decades puzzle over some of the modern comparisons.
Similarly, the author’s bias toward the modern is evident in one of the rare places where he challenges the historical consensus. In taking issue with older historians’ dismissal of Septimius Severus as too martial and too brutal, he praised the Severan emperors for their “magnificent multiculturalism” even while decrying their casual violence and use of domestic terror. The choice to frame the expansion of citizenship and the broadening of opportunity in the second and third centuries in terms of multiculturalism is certainly a modern one, and it is debatable whether cultural diversity is praiseworthy as an accomplishment and a goal in an ancient context, particularly one where romanization was the lifeblood of Roman civilization. In one sense, the end of romanization for newcomers and the widescale resettlement of non-Romans in the empire in the fourth century diversified the Western Empire out of existence.
These, though, are minor issues compared the bigger question that hangs over Ten Caesars. Strauss never really makes a good case for the ten men he selected to profile for the book. (Other emperors appear in potted summary in passing.) The men in question are Augustus, Tiberius, Nero, Vespasian, Trajan, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Septimius Severus, Diocletian, and Constantine. He claimed them to be the ten “most capable and successful emperors,” though even he recognizes that Nero doesn’t fall into that category and was included for being “titillating.” Nor are the they the most famous of the emperors. Caligula surely has greater name recognition than Trajan. They were not the most consequential from a policy perspective. Caracalla did more, for example, to expand citizenship than any other, and Aurelian basically saved the Empire and ended the Crisis of the Third Century. It isn’t even a list of the most interesting emperors. The stories told about teenage emperor Elagabalus could fill a book on their own, and Julian the Apostate’s reign tells us more about Christian-pagan relations in the fourth century than Constantine’s death-bed baptism.
The second question hanging over Ten Caesars is one of historiography. As a historian, Strauss well knows that the Roman Empire did not end with Romulus Augustulus in 476 CE, and he also understands that the Western Empire was not really the most legitimate representative of Roman power in the years after Constantine. The center of the Empire shifted to Constantinople, and as such, the thousand years of Byzantine emperors are the more senior imperial line and probably in better position to claim to be the true Caesars. As such, Strauss’s choice to frame his story around the traditional Western narrative (invented, in part, to help legitimate Charlemagne) that the real empire was always in the West, that Constantine’s removal of the capital marked an “end” to the real Roman Empire, and that the Western Empire’s passing marked the “end” of the Roman Empire, is a bit uncomfortable for me. Strauss understands this and makes plain that the Byzantine Empire is a (the?) legitimate successor to Rome and a continuation of it. But he ends his narrative with Constantine anyway, because most stories of the Roman Empire are really about the modern West, and our interest in Rome wanes when the narrative no longer speaks directly to the people and places we think of as the antecedents of modern Western cultures. Byzantium smacks too much of its successors in Russia and the Islamic world—the East—to feel wholly a part of the Western world, even if it is the real conclusion to the story of Rome.
Ten Caesars is a good book, but an inessential one. It is an entertaining series of portraits of some of the men who rule Rome, but it provides neither new revelations nor new interpretations. It is choppier and more impressionistic than the author’s previous and narrower volumes such as The Death of Caesar and The Spartacus War, but it is a book to be enjoyed for telling a familiar tale in an energetic way. Just don’t expect to learn much you didn’t already know.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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