If anyone is looking for some odd information about Augustus, or other early Roman emperors, look no further than The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius (c. 70-130+). That quirky book has long been a paradoxical blessing and annoyance to historians. On the negative side, Suetonius did not follow chronology, and often only briefly summarized military campaigns, or even ignored such matters altogether. On the other hand, he frequently documented his sources, sometimes quoting almost word-for-word from wills, letters and songs, lampoons and other texts. Just as important, Suetonius viewed the past from a different angle than other scholars. He let other historians focus on military campaigns and politics, and instead wrote details about society and the personalities that lived there. As such, Suetonius may not be the best source for somebody wanting a narrated timeline of Augustus’ reign (Cassius Dio would be a much better option in that regard), but his work is definitely an invaluable source of complementary information, such as public opinion in Rome, physical descriptions of important figures, and social events funded by the emperors.
With such an approach, Suetonius was one of the few ancient commentators to write not only about what Augustus did, but also what Augustus personally liked. When it came to entertainment, Suetonius portrayed Augustus as being in a healthy middle ground. He was more visibly interested in enjoying sports and games than Julius Caesar, but he was also much better behaved at public functions than some of his wilder successors, such as Caligula and Nero.
When it came to public sports, Augustus apparently loved watching boxing. He liked all kinds of fist fights, from pro matches between trained fighters from Greek and Italian boxing schools, to less-organized brawls in the streets of Rome. Augustus was not alone in his love for boxing—it was one of humanity’s earliest sports. The brutality of the fights could vary, with the boxers (or patrons) apparently able to pick from a variety of boxing gloves. Archaeologists remarkably found two intact boxing hand straps, from about 120 CE, located underneath the fort of Vindolanda, near Hadrian’s Wall. While these straps look more like knuckle pads, there were reportedly other types of gloves that were much more devastating, such as the caestus, which was outfitted with metal studs.
If, however, Augustus was in a more laidback mood, his favorite game was supposedly dice. Suetonius recorded several letters between Augustus and his heir, Tiberius, where the emperor wrote about his enjoyment and love for playing dice. If the letters that Suetonius read were authentic, then Augustus would sometimes gamble all day long, even playing dice with guests while meals were being served. For the people who were hesitant to gamble at dice with Augustus, the emperor had an interesting solution. Suetonius wrote that Augustus would include money in his guest invitations, so that they could use his own coin during the dice games.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Image of boxers from page 224 of “Outlines of ancient and modern history, on a new plan” (1839), [Public Domain] via Flickr and Creative Commons).
- The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, translated by Robert Graves and edited by James B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007.