In his introduction, Massie states that his purpose in this work of popular history is to give insight into the achievements and workings of the Roman Empire. He has chosen to present this history within the framework of a series of biographies of the caesars, from Julius Caesar’s rise to power through Domitian’s assassination. The author acknowledges his indebtedness to Suetonius and to Robert Graves in using this format of presenting a history of an era through accounts of the lives of individuals. Drawing upon both ancient and contemporary sources, Massie succeeds in writing a collective biography that is of interest to young adult readers because of its entertaining portraits of the caesars.
In each of the chapters devoted to these rulers, Massie gives the individual’s full name and thereafter uses the name by which he is known familiarly; for example, Titus Flavius Vespasiana was known as Vespasian, and Tiberius Claudius Nero was known as Claudius. Each man’s life is presented chronologically, and in the case of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, his precise family relationship to both his predecessor and his successor is clearly explained.
The book includes numerous quotations from ancient authors, providing fascinating details about the personalities of the emperors. Julius Caesar’s memoirs of the war in Gaul and of the civil wars, as well as Augustus Caesar’s self-serving account of his accomplishments, provide source material. Massie also used the writings of Plutarch and Dio Cassius, both of whom based some of their work on now-vanished autobiographies by Augustus,...
(The entire section is 656 words.)
The Caesars is included in high-school library collections because it endures as a valuable resource material for younger scholars, as well as a lively account of individuals ranging in personality from the humorless and dutiful Tiberius to the depraved and reckless Nero. The book serves as a resource tool for young adults because it is a collective biography as well as a political history of Rome during the formative years of the empire. Although it is not primarily a social history, it nevertheless affords young readers a glimpse of Roman society and mores that is necessary for an understanding of the era.
Another valuable facet of the book for history students is the frequent comparison of the individual caesars to more recent historical figures as a means of illustration. Vespasian, for example, is compared with Ulysses S. Grant—both competent sol-diers redeemed from obscurity when called upon to salvage a difficult military situation. The author frequently uses Latin tags, immediately followed by translations, which adds to the authenticity of his narrative. Massie also compares events in Roman history of this period to events in more recent history, such as his observation that Rome’s troubles with Parthia correspond to Great Britain’s troubles with Afghanistan in the nineteenth century.
The author indicates where some of the more lurid information from Tacitus and Suetonius was based on hearsay and salacious gossip and contrasts this with accounts substantiated by more recent research. He juggles the sensational with the sober and gives young readers a balanced introduction to the caesars.