In 1787, Benjamin Franklin famously described the newly established American system as “a republic, if you can keep it.” But what happens if you can’t? Josiah Osgood, a professor of Classics at Georgetown University, seems to be alluding to this question throughout How to Be a Bad Emperor: An Ancient Guide to Truly Terrible Leaders, his translated selections of some of the most outrageous passages from Suetonius’s Lives of the Caesars.
Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus wrote around 120 A.D., more than one hundred years after the establishment of the Roman Empire. A biographer, imperial librarian, and secretary to the emperor Hadrian, Suetonius wrote histories of the emperors who ruled in the years immediately following the decline and ultimate abandonment of the republican system.
Osgood has written three books on Roman history, including one on Claudius, one of the most competent early emperors. In this collection, Osgood turns to some of the most infamous rulers of Rome’s early imperial period: Julius Caesar, Tiberius, Gaius Caligula, and Nero.
There is a direction to Osgood’s choice of passages: the flight of emperors from Rome to far-flung pleasure palaces, their vanity and ostentation, excessive boasting, and extravagant sexual appetites bring to mind Donald Trump. But when he is considered in light of these terrible rulers—next to the barbaric, murderous cruelty of Caligula or the perversions of Tiberius—Trump hardly even compares.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the book is its depiction of how these individuals took advantage of their unlimited power and enormous wealth to indulge in petty vanities or unnecessary cruelties. These were not third-world dictators, but leaders of what was at the time one of the largest and most powerful empires in the world. With leaders such as these, it’s incredible that the empire lasted as long as it did.
As Suetonius pithily demonstrates, civilization is much more easily torn down than it is built up. Most modern countries have guardrails against certain abuses, including some that did not exist in the same way in the ancient world. Monotheism is a natural guardrail against the theosis of emperors and kings, for example. Our conception of universal human rights guards against the arbitrary expropriation of private property, the enforcement of slavery, and the perpetration of many other civil injustices. Yet no matter how complex or efficient a system, corruption and decay are never far.
Osgood’s collection begins with Julius Caesar, the great military leader who established the dictatorial authority that would soon define the emperors of Rome, although he never seized de jure power himself. Osgood does not include Suetonius’s account of Caesar’s early triumphant military campaigns, his conquest of Gaul, or his vying for power with two other powerful senators, Pompey and Crassus, in the First Triumvirate. Osgood instead begins in medias res with Caesar’s establishment of himself as “dictator for life” and his adoption of the surname “Father of his Country.”
The excesses of the emperors were often the very instruments of their own demises. Osgood writes in the preface that Caesar’s “supreme self-confidence blinded him to signs of trouble, including clearly alarming omens.” These omens included an auspex who opened an animal and found no heart, flocks of his horses weeping and refusing to eat, and the famous warning from the soothsayer Spurinna to beware the Ides of March (March 15).
Suetonius writes that Caesar flippantly declared “nihil esse rem publicam, appellationem modo sine corpore ac specie. Sullam nescisse litteras, qui dictaturam deposuerit.” Or, as Osgood translates: “The republic is nothing, a name only, without body or shape. Sulla did not know his ABCs, seeing as he gave up the dictatorship.” Caesar could only offer desultory denials against the accusation that he wished to become king. But when two tribunes removed a laurel crown with a white ribbon, a symbol of royalty, from a statue of Caesar, he attacked the tribunes, claiming later that “the glory of refusing [kingship] had been snatched away from him.” In his arrogance, Caesar did not heed warnings that his luck was flagging, and it was really quite easy for the conspiring senators to assassinate him.
Tiberius, the adopted heir of Augustus and the second emperor of Rome, was not very interested in governance. He let many official duties lapse. As Suetonius writes: “he did not replace any of the tribunes of the soldiers, the prefects, or the provincial governors; he left Spain and Syria for a number of years without consular governors; he let Armenia be overrun by the Parthians. . . . The dishonor to the empire was as great as the danger.” Tiberius eventually decided to work from home permanently, ruling from the isle of Capri where he had a pleasure palace, the Villa Jovis. There, Tiberius was free to give himself over to orgies—with, according to Suetonius, young boys and even suckling infants. On Capri, Tiberius was distant but not aloof. He was exceedingly paranoid, even towards his own family. He barred his mother Livia from receiving any public honors, allegedly responded with apathy when his son Drusus died, and was rumored to be responsible for the death of his adopted son Germanicus. Osgood ends the section on Tiberius by noting that, in 37 A.D., the news of the emperor’s death caused rejoicing in Rome and shouts of “Tiberius to the Tiber!”
Last in Osgood’s volume comes Nero, a boy of only sixteen when he became emperor. Vain and cowardly, he wanted nothing more than to be a famous actor, lyre-player, and athlete. He ordered his own mother Agrippina killed when she did not support his vanity projects that occupied most of his time. Although he may not have fiddled while Rome was burning, he often was playing his lyre, acting, or chariot-racing when he should have been governing. As Suetonius tells it, after expropriating private property to fund an expedition to the Gallic provinces (or was it just an excuse for a victory concert?), importing sand for his court wrestlers rather than much-needed grain during a shortage, and failing to quell a rebellion in Spain, he was declared an enemy of the people by the Senate and sentenced to a torturous death. When Nero heard of his death sentence, he resolved to kill himself, but, wavering, eventually had to have his secretary help drive the blade into his neck.
Osgood’s Suetonius can be entertaining in its details of the outrageousness of Rome’s emperors, but also often sobering. Suetonius does not mince his words. At one point, the historian describes how the emperor Caligula engaged in an incestuous relationship with his sister and arranged for victims to be tortured for entertainment while he ate dinner. We are today a people intolerant of many vices, at least publicly. If a president were to murder his mother or make a horse a senator, there would certainly be outcry, if not open revolt.
But if our society continues to neglect these guardrails against tyranny, to become more atheistic, nihilistic, and uninterested in the exercise of duties or rights, then there will be little left between us and the vanities of a Nero or the perversions of a Tiberius. With this edition, Osgood has provided an important reminder of the delicacy of systems, and how once they are overturned, the citizenry will be eagerly and easily trammeled by power hungry narcissists.