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.
Ghost of Eusebius of Caesarea
2/23/2019 08:50:12 am
The Annals of Tacitus did not exist or I would have mentioned it in my Ecclesiastical History.
“Disco” danny ford
2/23/2019 12:00:11 pm
Would have “mentioned” it or dishonestly doctored the text like you did with the the Testimonium Flavianum?
Ghost of Eusebius of Caesarea
2/23/2019 01:12:25 pm
That's funny, there are two different contradictory accounts of the destruction of Jerusalem about Ananus in History of the Jews and Wars of the Jews.
2/23/2019 10:02:37 am
It's too bad that one of my favorite emperors - Caracalla - was omitted from Dr, Strauss' selection. As you stated, he's far more interesting and was more capable than Nero.
2/23/2019 05:19:07 pm
Jason you might enjoy this more. It could well be called "In Praise of Lobotomy"
2/24/2019 07:06:10 am
I don't think it wrong to end with Constantine. Arguably, Constantine was the end of classical Rome. From Constantine the rise of Christianity as the dominant religion of Europe was almost a foregone conclusion and you start to see political development towards a medieval world in other ways. I would further argue that this transition was complete after the reign of Justinian. Afterwards, a truly Byzantine empire emerges and with it a truly medieval world.
2/24/2019 10:23:41 am
"dominant religion of Europe was almost a foregone conclusion"
2/25/2019 09:32:27 pm
"Because Christianity took on a life of its own and evolved into something it never was originally."
2/25/2019 11:55:14 pm
But witness Strauss himself, another mainstream scholar perpetuating the absurdity about "Tacitus" (so-called)
2/26/2019 07:49:30 am
Scott Wolter, Erich Von Daniken, Graham Hancock, Dan Brown etc get criticised for doing exactly the same thing.
2/27/2019 04:58:58 am
It's also possible to argue that Diocletian and his reforms are the point where the Roman political system of the early empire breaks down completely. Making multiple emperors explicit and effectively splitting the state into two (and I am aware there were a few short periods where that wasn't the case, but largely it remained true) is a pretty good time to point at for the end of classical imperial Rome. But it's a very debatable point either way.
An Anonymous Nerd
2/24/2019 09:55:18 am
My first thought is that the book is perhaps-related to academic debates over what drives history: leaders, social forces, economic forces, what folks call "teleological necessity," etc. This author decides it's leaders and writes a (according to Mr. Colavito) coherent account using that assumption.
2/24/2019 02:10:33 pm
The issue comes down to perspective, and what made me uncomfortable was less that choice than the reason for it. The author ends the book by discussing the Roman Empire after Constantine and identifying 150 years of Western emperors as "Roman" and several Eastern ones, including Justinian. As with any culture, there was continuity and change over time. The Empire of 1453 is clearly not the same as the Empire of 453, but there is continuity along with change. Slicing and dicing is the work of historians, but the Byzantines always considered themselves Romans, and Gibbon devoted three volumes of the "Decline and Fall" to their part of the story. My concern is less that Strauss ended with Constantine than that his own conclusion belies the stated reasons for doing so.
2/25/2019 10:35:08 am
I'm impressed by anyone who's actually read Gibbon's 'Decline and Fall' in its entirety. I took one look at it and decided I'd either die of old age or go blind before finishing it, so I never started.
2/24/2019 11:36:18 am
I think Justinian II was actually the last gasp of the Romans and Byzantines. He tried one last time.....
2/24/2019 01:27:42 pm
I think that up until the fall of Rome the trend was for both eastern and western emperors to be mother tongue or fluent Latin speakers and Latin was the prestige language within the overall empire. Within a century or so after the fall of Rome I believe that Greek (already sharing the stage with Latin) had completely replaced Latin in the east Justinian I looks (arguably) to have been the last example of a revived Roman empire (in the original sense) under a Mother tongue Latin speaker.
“Disco” Deney Terrio
2/24/2019 03:23:56 pm
Return the gilded horses to their rightful place!
An Anonymous Nerd
2/24/2019 09:39:31 pm
Oh wow, I wonder how I missed the occupation in my reading until now.
2/24/2019 11:20:41 pm
Several years ago I waded through a very long treatise that dealt primarily with the Byzantine Empire under the last (Palaiologos) dynasty. But with quite a bit of material on the period leading up to it. Might have started out with the fallout from the battle of Manizert. Decent coverage of the Latin Occupation. My memory is hazy but I think that it was probably volume 3 by Norwich.
2/25/2019 07:37:40 am
Et In Bombacio Ego
2/24/2019 08:21:16 pm
You are forcing my hand this time, J.
2/25/2019 05:43:06 am
Widening citizenship had nothing to do with multi-culturalism, it was a reform of the class structure. Empires are multi-cultural by definition and so called Roman tolerance wasn't much different to how any other society worked. All societies go through periods of oppressing minorities that burn out and force the ruling powers to accept a position of tolerance, tolerance (if through gritted teeth) and mixing is the norm which is punctuated by outbursts of violence, in the modern world multi-culturalism is just a term used by the center right to claim benevolence for the following the path of least resistance,
Your comment will be posted after it is approved.
Leave a Reply.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.