I wrote this elsewhere but I feel like posting it here for the record. It’s good info and I thought I should blog it.
Suetonius – The Lives of The 12 Caesars is the equivalent of the National Enquirer (The Sun for you Brits)
Tacitus – The Annals is the equivalent of The Wall Street Journal (The Guardian for you Brits)
Unfortunately most everything known by the layman on the street about Rome (popularized by the classic literature & theater, then movies and TV) comes from the horrendous libel of Suetonius. Tacitus is too boring for the masses (and quite unfortunately, the great minds who wrote the aforementioned literary classics…)
The conclusion: People love scandal and drama and they will take the lies if the truth is too boring (for the lack of a better word…)
Caligula had commissioned the biggest ships of the world which were colossal marvels of engineering. Their like was not seen again until the middle ages. They had separate hot and cold water piping, advanced pumping systems, even ball bearings. The advanced plumbing technology was lost after the fall of Rome and not discovered again until the middle ages. Not to mention the two huge aqueducts he had built.
But when you utter his name the first thing coming to people’s mind is the outrageous sex scandals (bulk of which were fabricated by Suetonius and Cassius Dio, who are discredited by the modern scholars like Professor John Pollini, a leading expert of ancient Mediterranean/Roman history)
The same for Nero, the same for Augustus. Augustus was deified and hero-worshipped by those scandal mongering chroniclers but he had quite a few flaws and wrongdoings. Nero never burned Rome, the man wasn’t even Rome when it burned. Neither did he fiddle watching it, fiddles didn’t even exist back then. He composed a lament with lyre, after returning to Rome and seeing the devastation there, which was twisted around as ‘Nero burned Rome and fiddled while he watched it’ and it’s now cemented solid in the collective hive memory.
It’s all good to put the scandal and drama in fiction but it’s mighty wrong when this is done to history and it becomes famous enough to replace the facts.