The Caesars Essay - Critical Context

Allan Massie

Critical Context

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.