Opening Passage: Strictly speaking, we don't have the opening passage of the work -- the first few paragraphs of the Julius Caesar section have not survived. This is the first bit that we have:
Caesar in the sixteenth year of his age lost his father. in the year following, being elected Flamen Dialis, he cast off Cossutia (of equestrian wealth but very wealthy) affianced to him during his childhood, and espoused Cornelia, the daughter of Cinna, who had been four times consul. She bore unto him soon after his daughter Julia; neither could he by any means be forced by Sulla the dictator to put her away. Thereupon, deprived of his sacerdotal dignity, losing the dowry in the right of his wife, and forfeiting all his heritage descended unto him from his lineage and name, he was reputed on of the contrary faction. Hence he was constrained to hide his head, and (albeit the quartan ague hung sore upon him) to change almost every night the hiding places wherein he lurked, yea, and to redeem himself with a piece of money out of the inquisitors' hands that made search for him.
Summary: The Twelve Caesars are Julius, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian. Having read the whole thing, it seems fairly clear that the point of covering these twelve is actually not found in any of the twelve themselves -- the point is, in part, to contrast with the relatively good emperors after them. After Julius and Augustus, the Julio-Claudian more or less collapses into depravity; we then have the Year of Four Emperors, in which military usurpers follow each other in quick succession; and then we have the Nerva-Flavian dynasty, which is a temporary, if not always perfect, recovery in Vespasian and Titus but a collapse again in Domitian. After Domitian, of course, and beyond the edges of the book, is the massive improvement of the Nerva-Antonine dynasty. We see something of this in the very last passage of the work:
And reported it is that Domitian himself dreamed how he had a golden excrescence rising and bunching behind his neck, and knew for certain that thereby was portended and foresigned unto the commonwealth a happier state after him. And so it fell out, I assure you, shortly after: such was the abstinent and moderate carriage of the emperors next ensuing.
Of course, we do have to keep in mind that Suetonius, despite his reasonable fairmindedness, is not an objective commentator, since Suetonius was favored by Trajan and was writing this book while working for Hadrian. But, on the other hand, Suetonius's assessment is not unique to him.
Suetonius follows a stable pattern: preliminaries (genealogy, birth, omens, if any, of greatness); path to power; character of rule in both good and bad (as he puts it succinctly in his account of Caligula, "Thus far forth as of a prince; now forward, we relate we must as of a monster"); omens of nearing death; death. Despite the formulaic nature, however, Suetonius's account makes each of the Twelve come alive. Reading his account of Caligula, for instance, it is breathtaking how the man managed to come up with so many cruel and terrible deeds in such a short time; reading of Nero, one gets a sense of the mingling of genius, megalomania, and psychopathy; reading of Vespasian, a sense of how balanced and levelheaded he was.
The great weakness of Suetonius is that he seems unwilling to distinguish essential from accidental; he is a historian more interested in the curious and striking than in a thoughtful account. Thus, as Moses Hadas rather bitingly notes in his introduction, we learn that Augustus Caesar liked wearing long underwear; or, to use another example, we learn that Domitian used often to spend an hour by himself skewering flies. This is actually quite emblematic of much of the work. History is often blamed for being all about dates and battles, but no one can blame Suetonius for such an imbalance; we learn almost as much about various equivalents of fly-skewering as we do about battles and matters of governance. The matter affects his reliability as a historian; for while he is certainly careful and balanced, and will often show a critical eye, wild gossip mixes with well documented deed without much more basis than that they are both what people have said.
Reading the work in Philemon Holland's 1606 translation (lightly modernized in spelling, punctuation, and, occasionally, vocabulary by Moses Hadas) was interesting. Holland is excellent reading, although the Elizabethan diction leads to slower reading. One gets the sense that he put a great deal into this work, to a considerable success. There is one humorous point that shows that the travails of the work may have sometimes worn even on so devoted a translator, though. After an extensive recounting of the sexual depravities of Nero -- raping a Vestal Virgin, cutting off a boy's genitals and marrying him as wife, an incestuous relationship with his mother Agrippina, dressing up as an animal and raping men and women tied to stakes -- Holland puts in a note with what can only be the exasperated sigh of the longsuffering translator:
"I wish that both Suetonius and Dio had in this place and such like been altogether silent."
Favorite Passage: Caligula and Nero vie for the wildest stories, being both so wicked that it passes into an almost comically stylish craziness, so here is one from each:
GAIUS CAESAR CALIGULA
Furthermore, he devised a new kind of sight, and such as never was heard of before. For, over the middle space between Baiae and the huge piles or dams at Puteoli containing three miles and 600 paces well near, he made a bridge, having gotten together from all parts ships of burden, and placed them in a course at anchor, with a bank of earth cast thereupon, direct and straight after the fashion of the highway Appia. Upon this bridge he passed to and fro for two days together.... But I remember well that being a boy, I heard my grandfather report and tell the cause of this work, as it was delivered by his own courtiers, who were more inward with him than the rest, namely, that Thrasyllus the great astrologer assured Tiberius when he was troubled in mind about his successor, and more inclined to his lawful grandson, that Gaius should no more become emperor than able to run a course to and fro on horse-back, through the gulf of Baiae.
NERO CLAUDIUS CAESAR
All religions whatsoever he had in contempt, unless it were that only of the Syrian goddess. And yet soon after, he despised her so far, that he polluted her image with urine; by occasion that he was wonderfully addicted to another superstition, wherein he continued and persevered most constantly. For he received in free gift a little puppet representing a young girl, at the hands of a mean commoner and obscure person, as a remedy, forsooth, against all treacheries and secret practices; and thereupon straightways chancing to discover a conspiracy, he held it for the sovereign deity above all, and persisted honoring and worshipping it every day with three sacrifices.