The 24 Caesars – Nos. 1-6

[I’m just going to keep adding to this post].

The fourth century AD was much like today: people didn’t have the time or attention to read long books of histories; so to provide for their need, there developed a whole coterie of epitomators, who shortened great works into manageable bite-sized chunks. Some of these epitomators were actually quite talented – for instance, the Gallo-Roman poet Ausonius (read his Cento Nuptialis on the Wikipedia page, in which he constructs an obscene poem entirely out of phrases extracted from Virgil’s Aeneid).

Ausonius also epitomised Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars, though he added an extra twelve on to the end (so from Julius Caesar down to The Magnificent Elegabalus) and I thought I’d translate three biographies a day – as a crash course in Roman imperial history. This isn’t too much of an undertaking, as you’ll see, since each biography consists of only four lines of verse (yet curiously tells you all you need to know).

OK then, well, here’s the Latin.

I. IULIUS CAESAR

IMPERIUM binis fuerat sollemne quod olim
consulibus Caesar lulius optinuit.
set breve ius regni sola trieteride gestum
perculit armatae factio saeva togae.

II. OCTAVIUS AUGUSTUS

ULTOR successorque dehinc Octavius idem
Caesar et Augusti nomine nobilior
longaeva et numquam dubiis violata potestas
in terris positum prodidit esse deum.

III. TIBERIUS NERO

PRAENOMEN Tiber nanctus Nero prima iuventae
tempora laudato gessit in imperio
frustra dehinc solo Caprearum clausus in antro
quae prodit vitiis, credit operta locis.

And here’s Obooki’s translations:

I. Julius Caesar

The power, which had customarily been split
between two consuls, Julius Caesar seized.
But this brief order of rule, lasting for only three years,
was struck down by a savage faction of armed togas.

II. Augustus

His avenger and successor, Octavius, also called
Caesar but made more noble by the name of Augustus,
A long-lived rule never violated by dangers
showed to be a God set down on Earth.

III. Tiberius

Nero, who received the first name Tiberius, governed
for the years of his youth with approbation.
From then on vainly hidden in the lonely cave of Capri
what he revealed by vice he believed he concealed by geography.

I don’t know, in those first two lines of Tiberius, he seems to be mixing him up with Nero. I seem to remember Tiberius was quite old when he finally became emperor.


And here’s the second half of the Julians, in Latin and English:

IV. CAESAR CALIGULA

POST hunc castrensi caligae cognomine Caesar
successit saevo saevior ingenio,
caedibus incestisque dehinc maculosus et omni
crimine pollutum qui superavit avum.

After him, a Caesar with a cognomen from a military boot
succeeded, more savage than his own savage ancestry
Who, stained with murder and incest and with every
kind of sin, overcame his perverted grandfather.

V. CLAUDIUS CAESAR

CLAUDIUS inrisae privato in tempore vitae,
in regno specimen prodidit ingenii
libertina tamen nuptarum et crimina passus
non faciendo nocens, sed patiendo fuit.

Claudius, while mocked in the private time of his life,
Once he came to power revealed proof of his nature.
Having suffered the crimes of his freedmen and his wives
he was guilty not in acting but in suffering.

VI. NERO

AENEADUM generis qui sextus et ultimus heres
polluit et clausit lulia sacra Nero
nomina quot pietas, tot habet quoque crimina vitae
disce ex Tranquillo sed meminisse piget.

Nero, who was the sixth of the race of Aeneas and the last heir
polluted and ended the sacred Julians.
Piety has as many adherents as there were crimes in his life:
learn from Tranquillus, even if the recollection is sickening.

There’s a couple of phrases which are really difficult to translate in this, as is the way with epigrams. In the Caligula poem is the phrase “saevo saevior ingenio”, which appears to mean something fairly nonsensical like “more savage than his own savage nature”. The Loeb goes for “more cruel than that master of cruelty”, one presumes meaning Tiberius. The word “ingenium” seems generally to mean something like “innate talent or nature”. Perhaps being “more savage than your own savage nature” is just a peculiar turn of phrase. I’ve decided to go for “ancestry”, by mixing up the terms “genius” and “genus” a bit (there always seems something of a connection to me).

For the Nero, the line “nomina quot pietas, tot habet quoque crimina vitae” is also pretty incomprehensible. The Loeb plumps for “for every name that natural kinship bears, his life also shows a sin,” perhaps implying matricide and incest (I can’t remember if Nero indulged in any incest). But I don’t think there’s that implication. “Pietas” means “piety”, and I think “nomina” (“names”) really means “[famous] people associated with”. Ausonius knew his Virgil (see the Cento Nupitalis), and knew that the one epithet more than any other associated with Aeneas – and therefore the gens Julius (again, see Virgil) – was “pietas”. So, as many of his ancestors were associated with piety, as there were sins in his own life.

Tranquillus is Suetonius Tranquillus.

(Next up: 3 of The Four Emperors).

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4 thoughts on “The 24 Caesars – Nos. 1-6

  1. Nice exercise.

    I’m finishing a book by English historian Nigel Hamilton where he adopts the approach of Suetonius to describe 12 US presidents from FDR to Dubya. No incest so far (I’m at Bush I) but there has been treachery, chicanery, indolence and womanising a-plenty.

  2. It is a nice site: I’ve christened the comments section. Are you going to put the link up somewhere here on the Obloquy? (apart from in your previous comment, obviously).

  3. Thanks for that. I’ve stuck the link in the blogroll, which it is quite inconspicuous. I might do a little post, I suppose.

    Also, I’ve now added a marvellous footnote feature.

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