Monday, 19 November 2018


The Roman biographer Gaius Suetonius Tranquilius was born in 69AD, probably in North Africa. A friend of Pliny the Younger, Suetonius wrote several notable works. His most notable and most notorious is The Twelve Caesars.
This was a collected biography of twelve ruling Caesars from Julius Caesar to Domitian. As an employee of the Emperor Hadrian Suetonius had access to the Imperial archives and he used materials from there to pepper his work. 

Pepper his work with SAUCE, that is. Yes, Tacitus is a brilliant writer and oh so very quotable. Yes, Virgil wrote an epic poem that apparently is so good first year ancient history BA’s are forced to write essays on it two thousand years later. Yes, some people think Livy wrote good histories. But NONE of them have a patch on Suetonius. 

For Suetonius is the master sauce merchant. There is no scurrilous rumour too unlikely for him to commit to papyri. We thank him for being a gleaming light of entertainment sandwiched betwixt the Aeneid and those books that Livy wrote on stuff.

So to give him his due I have elected to celebrate his work with a competition we, (or rather I) like to call THE SAUCE FACTOR!

I have read each of Suetonius’ 12 chapters on emperors and rated each one according to their sauce level. I have also added in a category for omen/portent-ability. The Romans were heavy believers in the Gods transmitting their will via freak weather events, odd occurrences, dreams and the eating habits of chickens of the sacred variety. I shall be picking out the most incredible omen associated with that emperor and giving it a score.

Settle down with a large glass of wine, set your mind to boggling and your eyes to goggling because we are going in....
Welcome to the Sauce Factor!

1) Julius Caesar

He wasn't actually an emperor but we'll overlook that. Lover of many ladies, fighter of pirates, destroyer of the Republic.

Top Omen – There was a long steady string of what Suetonius calls ‘unmistakable signs’ before his assassination. The Gods were very much trying to SAY something. If only he’d LISTENED. Which is Caesar’s tragedy in a much shorter form than Shakespeare managed. Ha!
The best of these unmistakable signs is undoubtedly the horses that couldn’t stop crying.

Omen Rating: 4/5 for sheer quantity. 

Top Sauce - Definitely an affair with the King of Bithynia that earned him the hardly original nickname, “The Queen of Bithynia”. Frankly everyone could have done better on that one.
Sauce Rating: 3/5

2) Augustus
Now Augustus was definitely an Emperor.

 He Instituted laws against adultery whilst putting it away all over the place himself, was debauched by Julius Caesar and possessed a cruel & ruthless streak as streaky as Danish bacon. 

Top Omen – Augustus’ life must have been very tiring what with all those portents/omens flashing all around him constantly. A one man weather magnet he was frequently accompanied by lightening (very, very frightening. No genuinely, Augustus had a fear of thunderstorms) and rainbows.
The most notable of the young Augustus’ 
constant brush with portents was undoubtedly: The Silencing of the Frogs. The toddler Augustus annoyed by the constant croaking around him order the frogs to cease. They did. And never ever croaked in that area ever, ever again. 
Omen Rating: 5/5

Top Sauce - Deflowering maidens gathered by his wife. 

Sauce rating: 3/5

3) Tiberius.
Forced to divorce the wife he loved, so fed up with Augustus he ran away to Rhodes in a sulk, terrible judge of character *cough* Sejanus *cough* . Tiberius did not have the happiest of lives. But it really all kicks off when he retired to Capri, where despite being in his mid 70s he partook in debaucheries that would have killed a lesser man. Possibly he gained such stamina in his youth as a successful general in the provinces. Or possibly it was all made up. Suetonius refuses to take sides on the debate and instead lovingly records every gruesome detail so that we may make up our own minds (once our eyes have popped back in our skulls).

Top Omen – Tiberius had no deep regard for the Gods and clearly they had not a lot for him because portents/omens are thin on the ground. The best Suetonius can find is an earthquake on Capri shortly before he died which destroyed a light house.
Omen Rating: 1/5

Top Sauce - Retiring to Capri & partaking of activities 'too vile to discuss'. Which Suetonius then lists. 

Sauce Rating: A deserved OMG 5/5

4) Caligula.
Suetonius does a nice quotable bit on Caligula which is worth memorising and repeating every time someone annoys you. “So much for the man. Now for the Monster.” Suetonius

Photo by Clio20
then has great fun listing all of Caligula’s monstrous acts including incest with all 3 sisters, wearing *the horror* silk robes, snuggling up with the actor Mnester, inviting people to dinner then nicking their wives and a thing with Valerius Catullus, who announced to all “that he had buggered the Emperor, and quite worn himself out in the process”

Top Omen – Much like Julius Caesar Caligula was plagued with signs of DEATH before his brutal murder. The best of these is the statue of Jupiter that burst into laughter. 

Omen Rating: 4/5

Top Sauce - Summoning three terrified Senators in the dead of night solely to perform a dance for them.
Sauce Rating:  5/5 for effort & speed of sauce given he only ruled for 3 years.

5) Claudius.
Not as kindly as Robert Graves would have you think. Married four times, Suetonius intriguingly tells us Claudius divorced his first wife for scandalous behaviour and suspicion of MURDER. Then infuriatingly does not elaborate any further.

Photo by  Marie-Lan Nguyen
Top Omen – Claudius unlike Caesar and Caligula actually paid attention to the Gods and was all over omens like a slobbering rash. 
One night Claudius’ attendant Narcissus had a terrible dream that the emperor had been murdered by a certain Appius Silanus. When Claudius told this to his wife she revealed she had had the EXACT same dream. Now this was clearly a sign that needed LISTENING to. So Claudius had Silanus executed. Only it was actually a FAKE omen dreamed up by the Empress and Narcissus to get rid of Silanus. 
Omen Rating: A pathetic and fake 0/5

Top Sauce - Making it legal to marry your niece. So he could marry his niece. She later had him poisoned
Sauce Rating: 3/5

6) Nero.
Fabulous at getting rid of family members including his wife, his step brother & most shamefully his mother, Nero lived life LARGE. So large he had to take himself over to

Greece to accommodate his growing ego. Suetonius informs us sagely that Nero practised every kind of obscenity. But this time, unlike with Tiberius, he leaves it to our imagination. After that Tiberius chapter my imagination has descended hitherto unknown depths, so I’m confident they were horrifically obscene.

Top Omen – Suetonius has several bad omens at the birth of Nero including the words of his own father that any child of his and Agrippina’s was bound to have a detestable nature. Which when you think about it is more of an informed comment
than an omen. 

After this the best Suetonius can do is to record the people who post Nero’s death remembered that the Emperor had during his artistic career played various characters who met unfortunate ends. But given Nero acted in Greek Tragedy this is not terribly surprising.
Though Nero’s death was short on omens the end of the Julio Claudian dynasty begun by Augustus was predicted by a bolt of lightening that hit the Capitol and decapitated all the statues. So we’ll give him points for that. 
Omen Rating: 2/5

Top Sauce - Toss up between marrying his eunuch Sporus as a groom & marrying his ex-slave Doryphorus as a bride. 
Sauce Rating: 4/5 for being ever the bride and the groom

7) Galba.
The first of the four emperors that ruled in a single year, Galba reigned but a short time. During that whole time there were omens everywhere predicting bad things. Or perhaps that was all the work of a certain Otho who organised the coup that deposed Galba.

Top Omen – So many, so lovingly recorded but my personal favourite is when Galba went to read the auspices. His garland fell off and scared the sacred chickens, who flew away. I like it because it’s the sort of thing that would happen to me.
Omen Rating: 2/5

Top Sauce - A preference for mature & very sturdy men.
Sauce rating: 2/5

8) Otho.
He reigned even shorter than Galba who he overthrew in a very bloody coup. Otho wore a toupee so good that nobody knew about it, says Suetonius 70 years later. He also used to 

prevent beard growth using moist bread & shaved his entire body of hair.

Top Omen – Otho owed his entire position to his astrologer Seleucus who convinced him that not only would he outlive Nero but also that he would become Emperor. Having dispatched Galba, Otho arrived at the palace to find that Vitellius had declared himself Emperor in Germania and was on route with a massive unbeatable army. Which rather served Otho right. Suetonius does not record what happened to Seleucus. 
Omen Rating: Because history would have been very different if Otho hadn't listened to his astrologer 4/5

Top Sauce - A threesome with Nero & his wife Poppaea 
Sauce Rating: 3.5/5

9) Vitellius 
Suetonius says Vitellius' main vices were extravagance & cruelty. So the sauce is literal sauce.
 Photo by Luis GarcĂ­a
Top Omen – When he was at Vienna a rooster perched first on his shoulder and then on his hand. As Vitellius was later overthrown by the advance of General Antonius Primus, whose childhood nickname had been Roosters’ Beak, this was seen as a very good premonition. Though the big question is surely what part of Primus was shaped like a rooster’s beak to gain him that nickname? 
Omen Rating: 3/5

Top literal sauce - So greedy he nicked meat off the altar during sacrifices.
Sauce Rating: Probably garum but we'll give him 1/5

10) Vespasian.
Picked up Rome after the civil wars of 69ad. Very lacking in sauce. But positively awash with omens! So it’s not all bad. The Gods were super keen to alert all that Vespasian would be emperor. They repeatedly threw odd events his direction to signal this. But much like

Attributed to Shakko
nobody can quite see that Clark Kent and Superman are clearly the same guy, everyone seems to have just accepted that weird things kept happening to Vespasian and thought no more of it. After Nero died the omens trebled in number and poor Vespasian couldn’t walk down a street without the statues turning round or random passersbys declaring he would be ruler. In the end it would have been rude not to declare himself emperor, so he did.

Top Omen – So, so many to choose from but my favourite is the dog that deposited a human hand on Vespasian’s foot. This was apparently a sure sign he would be emperor. Though the bigger question is where did the hand come from? And shouldn’t someone have gone and found out? 
Omen Rating: 5/5

Top Sauce - Treating his long term mistress Caenis as his wife. 
Sauce Rating: Sorry Vespasian that's nowhere near saucy enough, it's a 0.5/5

11) Titus.
He had a love affair with Queen Berenice of Judaea & declared that he had only one regret in life. Possibly his inability to finish sentences, because he never finished that one.

Attributed TcfkaPanairjdde

Top Omen
– Titus’ reign ought to be one of terrible omens given he presided over the eruption of Vesuvius, another devastating fire in Rome and an outbreak of plague. Annoyingly Suetonius does not attribute the Gods’ displeasure to any of these events and Titus gets off scot free. Apparently he was “an object of universal love and adoration.” I hate him.
Omen Rating: Pah! Only 1/5 because nobody recognised the Gods hated Titus and were desperately trying to tell everyone so.

Top Sauce - Owning a troop of dancing boys who he released into the wild on becoming emperor. 
Sauce Rating: 3/5

12) Domitian.
Domitian is an excellent study in paranoia and also how to induce it in others. 
He was so paranoid he had his floor polished to glass like standards so he could see anyone sneaking up on him. Which still didn't prevent his assassination.

Top Omen- Domitian's paranoia is probably explained by the fact that astrologers had long predicted the day and hour of his death. Something his father, Vespasian, used to joke about over breakfast. Then lunch. Then Dinner. Then just before he read young Domitian his bedtime story. Domitian did not find this remotely amusing.
Amongst a barrage of freak weather, including a hurricane, the top omen is surely the raven that perched on the Capitol and declared “All is well.” Suetonius points out helpfully that the raven was speaking in the future tense and all would be well once Domitian was dead 

Omen Rating: 4/5 for knowing his WHOLE life exactly when he would die. One has to appreciate the specifics of it.

Top Sauce - An affair with his niece Julia. Which isn't that saucy given Claudius had made relationships between uncles and nieces legal.

Sauce Rating: 3/5

The Results
Well, it's been a pleasure and I can now exclusively reveal (after a ten minute pause inserted to create tension) that our top Emperor for Suetonian Sauciness is a joint affair between..........drum roll.............

Tiberius and Caligula!!!!

And our emperor who produced the most impressive omens is....well would you believe's another tie! This time between Vespasian and Augustus.

Well done to all our losers also. Try not to take it too badly.

L.J. Trafford is the author of The Four Emperors Series. With the fourth book in the series being released on 1st December 2018.


  1. Brilliant! Thank you for a very amusing article, L.J. I must dig out my copy of Suetonius...

  2. You can prevent beard growth with moist bread? Off to Google that.

    10/10 for entertainment -- but 0 for omens. Not a single hurricano, hand delivery by dog nor talking raven warned me that I would enjoy this blog so much.

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