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The Twelve Caesars

SUETONIUS. The Historie of Twelve Caesars … newly translated into English, by Philemon Holland

London: Matthew Lowne, 1606

4to. Contemporary limp vellum (some stains), spine lettered in early manuscript “Swetonius’ english.” Marginal worming at beginning, some staining at beginning and end. STC 23423, with Holland’s name on the title page.

First edition in English of Suetonius’ dramatic biographies of the first “Twelve Caesars,” translated by Philemon Holland. This entertaining work is a principal source for one of the most eventful and scandalous periods in ancient history. Suetonius is the first biographer in Latin whose works have come down to us.

Suetonius’s Twelve Caesars presents biographies of Julius Caesar and the eleven Roman emperors who succeeded him. He was well positioned to learn about the great events of the day as he served in a succession of posts at the imperial court, becoming director of the imperial libraries and finally Hadrian’s private secretary.

“There is an account of Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon, and a detailed narrative of his assassination; mention of his dark piercing eyes and his attempts to conceal his baldness. Augustus is said to have been short but well-proportioned, with and aquiline nose and eye-brows that met, careless in dress, frugal, and sparing in diet … There is a vivid picture of the grotesque appearance of Caligula, of his waywardness and insane cruelties; of the awkward walk, loud guffaw, and stammer of Claudius … The life of Nero reveals much about his stage displays and his passion for horses … and that of Domitian records his restoration of the libraries which had been burnt down and his efforts to collect manuscripts” (Oxford Classical Literature).

The translator was the Elizabethan physician Philemon Holland (1552-1637), who also translated Livy, Pliny, Plutarch, and Ammianus Marcellinus. Thomas Fuller, writing in the mid-17th century, declared that Holland was “the translator general in his age, so that those books alone of his turning into English will make a country gentleman a competent library for historians.” Holland noted that he wrote in “a meane and popular stile,” using “that Dialect or Idiome which [is] familiar to the basest clowne.”