The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, by Suetonius, Limited Editions Club (1963)

Anyone who doubts Lord Acton‘s dictum that “power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely” must read The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars (De Vita Caesarum), by Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus.  The real lives of these Caesars is more colorful, dastardly and shocking than any of today’s historical dramas that many spend weeks of their lives binge watching. The general depravity that society wallows in with those shows is nothing compared to what people suffered under during the times highlighted by Suetonius. In short, The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars is an excellent work. It is great literature that even after nearly 2,000 years remains a primary source on Roman history.

Suetonius (AD 69 – 140) completed The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars  in AD 121. Previously he had been employed as the personal secretary of the emperor Hadrian. He was also a good friend of Pliny the Younger. The book starts with a biography of Julius Caesar and follows with similar looks at each of the first 11 emperors of the Roman Empire.  He initially had access to the official archives, but soon lost such and had to rely on other accounts to gather his information. While reliability can be questioned at times, there is no doubt that he provides, as Wikipedia states, “valuable information on the heritage, personal habits, physical appearance, lives and political careers of the first Roman Emperors.

Covering the likes of Julius CaesarAugustusTiberiusCaligulaClaudiusNero and Domitian, the book is riveting historical reading and is accurately described as “racy, packed with gossip, dramatic and sometimes amusing.” Being emperor was not good for one’s life expectancy. Eight of the twelve covered here were assassinated, one other committed suicide. Only Augustus lived a long life, dying just before his 76 birthday. Some were outright mad in their “perversion, brutality and vice.” Others were seemingly decent in many regards, but even then, with flaws that clearly prove Acton’s comment.

As one expects from an edition designed by Giovanni Mardersteig at the Officina Bodoni and printed at the Stamperia Valdonega, this 1963 edition from The Limited Editions Club (LEC) is very competently done, and a joy to read. The translation is the classic Elizabethan translation  by Philemon Holland, who also completed the first English translations of works by LivyPliny the Elder, and Plutarch. The well-accomplished classical scholar Moses Hadas, who provides the introduction for this edition, and himself a translator of numerous works, says of Holland’s translation:

In the fashion of the great Elizabethan translators he is magisterial and exuberant…If his version is somewhat prolix and sometimes freer than a more pedantic age would approve, the reason is never faulty understanding of the original but a desire to make it more intelligible, more idiomatic, more lively. For bookish readers, who find archaic speech quaint rather than antiquated, his version of Suetonius is surely the most attractive in any language.

In fact, Hadas says “Holland’s English version is a more distinguished piece of writing that Suetonius’ Latin.” High praise indeed! While I have not read any other translations of this classic from Suetonius, such as the well regarded 1957 Penguin translation by Robert Graves (revised in 2007 by James B. Rives), I will say that reading this edition is just as good as what Hadas claims.

Mardersteig choose to print this edition using 14 point Bembo, which is extremely reading friendly. The LEC Monthly Letter (ML) gives some interesting background on Bembo. It was originally cut by Francseco Griffo for Aldus Manutuis, the great Venetian printer. So why is the font not called Griffo? Pietro Bembo just happened to write the first piece of copy using the type, and his name stuck! Bemba was a well accomplished scholar and poet himself, becoming a secretary to Pope Leo X.  He was named a cardinal by Pope Paul III in 1539. As an interesting aside, the great American typographer D.B. Updike tells us that the original of the famous ‘dolphin-and-anchor’ design which became Manutius’s printer’s mark “is to be found on a coin which was sent to Aldus by Bembo.

The text was printed on mould-made paper especially made for this edition by Cartiere di Maslianico. It has a nice, sturdy feel. My favorite part of the edition is the 12 full color paintings and 12 medallion portraits by Salvatore Fiume, the classical realism of such seem to me a great match for the work (though I am not a huge fan of the mixing in of coated paper in an edition like this). The ML calls the paintings ‘Romanly rich.’ Fiume (1915 – 1997), who also illustrated the LEC’s Quo Vadis?, was most famous as a muralist, though he also was a sculptor, and architect and stage designer. His works are included in such illustrious museums as the Vatican Museums, the Hermitage of Saint Petersburg, and the Museum of Modern Art of New York. Another interesting sidelight mentioned in the ML. Most of Fiume’s greatest murals are at the bottom of the ocean, having been on the ill-fated Andrea Doria which sank after a collision with the Stockholm in 1956.

Mardersteig’s choice of binding for this edition was a wine colored Italian linen stamped in gold, with boards covered in a decorative wood-blocked paper hand-made by Antonio Gabrielli of Montecatini. All in all, while not one of the greats of the LEC pantheon, this is a very handsome edition of one of the great biographical works of all time. And though limited to 1500 copies and signed by Fiume, one can occasionally find copies in near fine of better condition as low as $50. That, to me, is unbelievable and a sign of how far our culture has fallen!

About the Edition

  • Translation by Philemon Holland, emended by Moses Hadas
  • Introduction by Moses Hadas
  • 12 full color paintings and 12 medallion portraits by Salvatore Fiume
  • Designed by Giovanni Mardersteig at the Officina Bodoni and printed at the Stamperia Valdonega
  • 14 point Bembo
  • Mould-made paper especially made for this edition by Cartiere di Maslianico
  • Bound under the supervision of Giovanni Mardersteig in a wine colored Italian linen stamped in gold, with boards covered in a decorative wood-blocked paper hand-made by Antonio Gabrielli of Montecatini
  • 6 7/8″ x 10 1/4″, 528 pages
  • Limited to 1500 copies, signed by Giovanni Mardersteig and Salvatore Fiume

Pictures of the Edition

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The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, Limited Editions Club, Slipcase
The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, Limited Editions Club, Slipcase
The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, Limited Editions Club, Book in Slipcase
The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, Limited Editions Club, Book in Slipcase
The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Spine
The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Spine
The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, Limited Editions Club, Front Cover
The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, Limited Editions Club, Front Cover
The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Front Cover
The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Front Cover
The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, Limited Editions Club, Title Page
The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, Limited Editions Club, Title Page
The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Title Page
The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Title Page
The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #1
The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #1 (Introduction)
The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Text #1
The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Text #1
The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #2 (Contents)
The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #2 (Contents)
The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #3
The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #3
The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #1
The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #1
The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #4
The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #4
The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Text #4
The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Text #4
The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #5
The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #5
The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #2
The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #2
The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Illustration #2
The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Illustration #2
The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #3
The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #3
The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #6
The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #6
The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #5
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The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #5
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The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #7
The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, Limited Editions Club, Colophon
The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, Limited Editions Club, Colophon

3 thoughts on “The Lives Of The Twelve Caesars, by Suetonius, Limited Editions Club (1963)

  1. Sean:

    “For example the illustrations for me are key, especially with these classic works, ……….” And therein lies the rub.

    The Stamperia Valdonega is the “Little Sister” of the more famous Officina Bodoni (OB) and the most sought after of the Officina Bodoni titles – they routinely sell for thousands of dollars – are notable for the simplicity and elegance of their book design and the flawless letterpress printing (usually done on a hand press) and the Italian hand made papers, amongst the finest of 20th century private press books. In a few instances, the OB books contain medieval wood-engravings that were original to the work they are printing and these wood-engravings are recarved anew by a master Italian wood-engraver. This is why the OB books are highly prized and sought after.

    As you have stated, if you are looking for splashy, colorful illustrations – look elsewhere 🙂 .

  2. Chris,
    This has never been a favorite of mine. I find the design boring and the illustrations uninspired. It just doesn’t work for me (though I’m not selling my copy!). In general, I often wonder about all the praise heaped on the Mardersteig productions. It seems nearly universal so I guess I am always left wondering, WTF am I missing? Their books just never seem that special to me or merit all the glory. I guess I emphasize other points in production that I find more appealing or important. For example, the illustrations for me are key, especially with these classic works, because the text can be had in so many other editions that without compelling illustrations, I am not sure what the point of another copy would be.

    As just one point of contrast, I recently read the LEC edition of The Sir Roger de Coverley Papers from 1945. Perhaps others will object to the “old lady binding” but I found it unique, creative and enhancing to the overall reading experience. The illustrations were wonderful, appropriate to the period, the text was crisp, deeply impressed on the very luxurious paper, and in every way I find this production preferable to anything that came from Mardersteig. To be clear, I don’t hate the work of the latter, I just don’t understand what all the fuss is about!

    1. Sean, I am with you concerning The Roger de Coverley Papers. Brilliant edition, IMO. Mardersteig’s work always screams competence to me; very strongly done. Certainly not explorative or overly creative, instead very conservative and within that, masterly done. Wonder what others think???

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