Review: The Twelve Caesars

The Twelve Caesars
The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The decadence and audacity of some of the Roman emperors is beyond belief. How Suetonius could calmly catalogue the corruption with little more than wry critical comment on occasion amazed me.

But he was able to get to the root of the problem in few words:
“Caligula always found some cause for envy” (167).

There are several comments of interest to Bible readers.

1. “Because the Jews at Rome caused continuous disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus [Christ] he expelled them from the City” (197). This makes plain that the expulsion, noted in Acts 18:2, was the result of Jewish upheaval catalogued in the book of Acts in every city to which the gospel came. Rome was no different, but Claudius’ response was heavy-handed. Minor city officials worried about mistreating Roman citizen Paul and getting in trouble with Roman officials. Meanwhile the emperor sent all the Jews away from his own city, essentially telling his empire they had to deal with the troublesome Jews because he wasn’t going to!

2. “An ancient superstition was current in the East, that out of Judaea would come the rulers of the world. This prediction, as it later proved, referred to two Roman emperors, Vespasian and his son Titus; but the rebellious Jews, who read it as referring to themselves…”
So the Messianic predictions really referred to Vespasian and Titus! There’s a neat trick of co-opting a conquered people’s sacred texts and applying their prophecies to yourself. The Romans were masters of propaganda like this – “no, we aren’t your conquerors, we’re your saviors!”

3. Queen Berenice of Acts 25:13 gets a prominent mention as a lover of Emperor Titus. Suetonius recounts her biography before and after that incident with Paul (pg 290).

4. When Titus died he said he had only one sin on his conscience, and Suetonius thinks it was his entering the Holy of Holies when he conquered Jerusalem. Bernice apparently reproached him for it.

5. Though other emperors did this more subtly, for Domitian “’Lord God’ became his regular title both in writing and conversation” (304). I’m convinced this is one manifestation of the beast in Revelation. See Christ and the Caesars by Ethelbert Stauffer for more on that.

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