Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus
Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus c. 70-c. 130-40
Suetonius is acclaimed for his biographical portraits of Roman emperors that served as models for later writers. Because he recorded details other historians considered too trivial, too private, or too scandalous to include, Suetonius's sketches have provided modern scholars with a better understanding of the events and imperial personalities of his time. While he was fond of hearsay, Suetonius also made extensive use of official documents in the archives of the Roman Senate and his biographies are valued for their relative objectivity. His most famous work, De Vita Caesarum (c. 117-27; Lives of the Caesars) is a study of the first twelve Roman emperors and their families.
Suetonius was born around the year 70, most likely in Rome. His father, Suetonius Laetus, was of the equestrian class and served as a military tribune. Suetonius was raised and educated in Rome and was employed as a teacher of literature. He became friends with Pliny the Younger, who as his patron helped advance his literary and government careers, which likely overlapped. When Pliny became governor of Bithynia, Suetonius joined his staff, serving in numerous government positions under the emperors Trajan and Hadrian. Suetonius's highest position was that of private secretary to Hadrian. Scholars presume that this role allowed Suetonius to gain access to the government records from which he freely quotes. According to Aelius Spartianus, Hadrian's biographer, Suetonius was discharged in 122 for not paying proper respect to the empress Sabina. Little if anything is known of his later years, and the date of his death is reported in various sources as ranging from 130 to 140.
Suetonius's first work, De Viris Illustribus (c. 105; On Illustrious Men) presents the careers of Roman historians, poets, orators, philosophers, grammarians, and rhetors. Unfortunately, most of it is lost, although a good portion exists of the volume on professors of grammar and rhetoric designated “De Grammaticis et Rhetoribus.” The accounts of the lives of Terence, Horace, Virgil, and Lucan have been somewhat restored from ancient commentaries thought to have copied Suetonius's biographies. However, since these accounts have been altered over time, it is impossible to know their original state. Scholars believe it likely that, in its original form, On Illustrious Men included studies of over one hundred authors. Suetonius's modern reputation rests on his Lives of the Caesars, which is devoted to the first twelve Roman emperors: Julius, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian. In what is generally regarded as his masterwork, Suetonius abandons the annalistic and chronological form of traditional historical writing and instead adopts a thematic structure. Thus, an account of an emperor includes rubrics on his birth, his family, personal habits, appearance, career, and death. Typically, Suetonius simply reports without taking into consideration whether or not his sources are accurate, resulting in sometimes contradictory narratives. Most of the Lives of the Caesars, is extant, although portions are missing from the life of Julius. Scholars have investigated the dates of composition and distribution of the work but are able to reach only the broadest conclusions, such as that much of it was probably written after 117. It is possible that the work was not originally circulated in its complete form but rather in installments that appeared over a period of a decade or more. Suetonius is also known to have written scientific and historical works, but these do not survive.
Critics recognize Suetonius for his influence on his contemporaries and on biographers who followed him. As G. B. Townend explains, Suetonius was a key transitional figure between such authors as Tacitus and Juvenal and “the bookish writers of the Antonine age.” Townend also discusses to what extent Einhard used the Lives of the Caesars as his model for Vita Karoli, a life of Charlemagne, which is often considered the finest biography written during the Middle Ages. G. W. Bowersock surveys eighteenth-century scholarly interest in Suetonius and explores the influence of his biographical method on such literary figures as Samuel Johnson and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Andrew Wallace-Hadrill theorizes that because Suetonius worked in the shadow of the great Roman historian Tacitus, he deliberately chose a style of writing that emphasized biography over history. The critic also stresses that Suetonius was a scholar and praises him for his accurate use of technical vocabulary, inclusion of Greek quotations, and citing of official documents. Regarding Suetonius's style, Wallace-Hadrill writes: “He is mundane: has no poetry, no pathos, no persuasion, no epigram. Stylistically he has no pretensions. … Suetonius is not sloppy or casual; he is clear and concise, but unadorned. His sentences seek to inform, with a minimum of extraneous detail.” Scholars have praised Suetonius for his fair treatment of his imperial subjects, as indicated by the fact that he portrays them as neither heroes nor villains. At the same time, he is largely responsible for the prevalent view that Rome's later rulers were decadent; his accounts of the death and final words of Julius Caesar and of Nero singing while Rome burned rank among the most memorable and celebrated passages in historical writing.
De Viris Illustribus [On Illustrious Men] (biography) c. 105
De Vita Caesarum [Lives of the Caesars] (biography) c. 117-27
Suetonius. 2 vols. (translated by John C. Rolfe) 1914
The Twelve Caesars (translated by Robert Graves with Michael Grant) 1991
Lives of the Caesars (translated by Catharine Edwards) 2001
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SOURCE: Bradley, K. R. “Imperial Virtues in Suetonius's Caesares.” Journal of Indo-European Studies 4, no. 3 (fall 1976): 245-53.
[In the following essay, Bradley examines Suetonius's use of “virtue-terms.”]
A noticeable feature of Suetonius' Caesares is the frequent use and illustration of virtue-terms to demonstrate aspects of character. This is not altogether surprising given that virtue-terms were deeply connected with the traditionally moralistic nature of Roman historiography and that, in an increasingly political sense, even under the Republic associations had begun to develop between powerful individuals and certain isolated virtues: Sulla and felicitas, Caesar and clementia provide two well known instances of this. It is worthwhile, however, to examine some of these usages in Suetonius, not least because the possibility of contemporary allusiveness is thereby introduced; any historical work is naturally subject to the influence of developments or tastes prevalent at the time of writing, and when Hadrianic allusions have been detected in Tacitus' Annales1 the same might be anticipated for the Caesares. An approach of this kind must of necessity be subjective especially since the literary tradition for Hadrian is not above reproach.2 Nonetheless, the minimal appearance in the Caesares of words which served as...
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SOURCE: Bowersock, G. W. “Suetonius in the Eighteenth Century.” In Biography in the 18th Century, edited by J. D. Browning, pp. 28-42. New York: Garland Publishing, 1980.
[In the following essay, Bowersock presents a survey of works that attest to eighteenth-century scholarly and literary interest in Suetonian-styled biography.]
When Boswell appealed to authority in introducing his Life of Johnson, he invoked Plutarch, “the prince,” he declared, “of ancient biographers.” There followed a quotation, first (ostentatiously) in Greek and then in translation, of the familiar lines from Plutarch's Alexander the Great on the value of apparent trifles in a man's action or conversation for the illumination of his character. Earlier in the eighteenth century the Abbé de la Bletterie in France had similarly invoked the name of Plutarch to sanctify his biography of Julian the Apostate, and he had similarly seen fit to cite exactly the same passage from the life of Alexander.1 No reader with any knowledge of Plutarch's Lives could have taken the invocations of that ancient master seriously. Neither Boswell nor the Abbé de la Bletterie wrote biographies in the Plutarchean manner. The sole point of contact was the celebrated passage they both quoted to justify the inclusion of superficially insignificant details.
As a result of the famous and often reprinted...
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SOURCE: Wallace-Hadrill, Andrew. “The Man and the Style,” “The Scholar and Society,” and “The Scholarly Biographer.” In Suetonius: The Scholar and His Caesars, pp. 1-72 New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983.
[In the following excerpt from his book-length study of Suetonius, Wallace-Hadrill discusses authorial choices made by Suetonius that account for his literary style, examines educational practices and scholarship in Suetonius's time, and summarizes what is known of Suetonius's lost work, The Lives of Illustrious Men.]
THE MAN AND THE STYLE
Suetonius' De vita Caesarum appeared within a decade or so of the accession of the emperor Hadrian in ad 117. No exact publication date can be fixed. The preface bore a dedication to one of Hadrian's current praetorian prefects, Septicius Clarus, and the author must still at the time have held office in the imperial secretariat as ab epistulis. Both officials were to lose their posts in an incident dated (though not on unimpeachable authority) to 122. But the eight volumes that contained the collection may well have appeared serially over the decade. Nor can we tell when composition commenced; and it should be remembered that the prevalent fashion of literary recitations may have allowed the Roman public a foretaste of the Caesars before publication.1
Given the time of...
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Cassel, J. David. “Defending the Cannibals.” Christian History 17, no. 1 (1998): 12-17.
Examines responses of Christians to charges levelled against them by Suetonius.
Hurley, Donna W. An Historical and Historiographical Commentary on Suetonius's Life of C. Caligula. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1993, 230 p.
Furnishes the historical context and tradition of Suetonius's biography of Caligula.
Jones, Brian W. Introduction to Suetonius: Vespasian, edited by Brian W. Jones, pp. viii-xvii. Bristol, England: Bristol Classical Press, 2000.
Comments on Suetonius's sources and use of tradition in his biography of the Emperor Vespasian.
Reekmans, T. “Verbal Humor in Plutarch and Suetonius' Lives.” Ancient Society 23 (1992): 189-232.
Analyzes instances of playful humor in the writings of Plutarch and Suetonius.
Townend, G. B. “Suetonius and His Influence.” In Latin Biography, edited by T. A. Dorey, pp. 79-111. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1967.
Provides a general critique of Suetonius's work.
Additional coverage of Suetonius's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Ancient Writers, Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol....
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