Concerning Illustrious Men Critical Evaluation
by Suetonius

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Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

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Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus was a friend of Pliny the Younger, many of whose letters were addressed to him. He was an attorney of note, and he served for a time (117-138) as private secretary to the Emperor Hadrian. It was in this position that he found available to him much information denied to other Roman historians and biographers. Suetonius was considered one of the most learned men of his age, and he wrote a number of books. Among them were such volumes as FAMOUS COURTESANS, THE KINGS, PUBLIC OFFICES, ROME, GREEK GAMES, CICERO’S ’DE REPUBLICA,’ GREEK ABUSIVE TERMS. None of these works has survived. In fact, only two of his works have come down to us: the virtually complete LIVES OF THE TWELVE CAESARS (DE VITA CAESARUM) and the fragmentary and far less famous CONCERNING ILLUSTRIOUS MEN (DE VIRIS ILLUSTRIBUS), which was probably Suetonius’ first published work.

CONCERNING ILLUSTRIOUS MEN, in its original and complete form, was a biographical study of Romans who had been important in literature and literary and language studies down to the reign of the Emperor Domitian. It was made up of five sections devoted respectively to Poets, Orators, Historians, Philosophers, and Grammarians and Rhetoricians—by “grammarians” was meant teachers of literature; “rhetoricians” meant teachers of oratory. The parts of CONCERNING ILLUSTRIOUS MEN that have survived did not come down to us in a group; this circumstance has contributed to the corrupt and fragmentary condition of the texts. What remains of the section on “Grammarians and Rhetoricians” (our most extensive fragment) was found in the mid-fifteenth century in a manuscript of some of the works of the historian Tacitus. The other parts of CONCERNING ILLUSTRIOUS MEN that survived were abstracted from unrelated manuscripts and works in which Suetonius is quoted. The section on “Poets,” which we know from references in an ancient writer’s work, originally contained at least thirty-three lives. Parts of six of these remain. Suetonius’ LIFE OF TERENCE was preserved in the COMMENTARY of the fourth century grammarian, Aelius Donatus, as were the “Lives” of Horace, Lucan, Vergil, Tibullus, and Persius. Some of these “Lives” have obviously been drastically abridged, and we have no way of knowing how much of what we have was actually written by Suetonius, or, in fact, if all of them actually were written by him in the first place.

The section on “Orators” is represented in modern editions of Suetonius only by a brief abstract of the Life of Passienus Crispus (fl. A.D. 50). We know that at least fourteen other orators were treated in the original publication. From the section on “Historians,” only the life of Pliny the Elder remains; we know the names of five other men who were also Suetonius’ subjects. From the section on “Philosophers,” we have only a list of three of the men whom Suetonius wrote about: Marcus Terentius Varro, Publius Nigidius Figulus, and Lucius Annaeus Seneca.

CONCERNING ILLUSTRIOUS MEN begins with the section on “Grammarians and Rhetoricians.” The section opens with a brief history of the study of grammar, that is, literary studies, in Rome up to the middle of the second century B.C. At first, grammar was not studied at all and was little esteemed. The earliest teachers, who were both poets and Italian Greeks, interpreted only Greek poetry or gave readings from their own Latin writings. The real beginning of grammatical studies in Rome is attributed, by Suetonius, to an accident that occured to a Greek ambassador visiting Rome between the second and third Punic wars, about 168 B.C. This was close to the time of the death of Ennius, the first important Roman poet. Crates of Mallos, in Rome to confer with the Senate, broke his leg by falling into an open sewer. During his convalescence, as before his accident, the Greek organized many gatherings at which poetry was read and was considered critically. These sessions set a fashion and an example for the Roman literary set, and soon the works of Roman poets, who had circulated their poems privately, were made known in many public readings. Literary conversation and study grew in popularity and soon became established in Rome and the provinces.

It should be noticed, says Suetonius, that although “grammarian,” the Greek term for teacher of literature, was to become prevalent, the Latin term “literati” was at first the most widely used. Also, in the early days, grammarians taught both literature and rhetoric; but this practice soon faded out as scholars began to specialize, grammarians being concerned with language and literary culture and rhetoricians being concerned with the training of effective speakers and, thus, lawyers and politicians. Suetonius, after his general introduction, goes on to give brief and deft anecdotal biographical sketches of Rome’s nineteen most distinguished teachers of literature.

On turning to his consideration of Roman rhetoricians, Suetonius again gives a brief historical survey of the fiend. Rhetorical studies were begun in Rome in about the same way and about the same time as grammatical studies. At first the Senate was actively opposed to this Greek innovation and passed laws forbiding philosophers and rhetoricians to live in Rome. Resolutions were passed condemning Latin rhetoricians and the young men who spend “whole days in idleness” at their schools. But little by little rhetoric became visibly useful and thus honorable. Then, after describing the several methods of instruction current among the rhetoricians, Suetonius gives biographical sketches of eight notable rhetoricians. The other “Lives” originally attached to this section are lost.

Of the six “Lives” remaining to us from the section on the “Poets,” those of Terence and Vergil are relatively long and seem reasonably complete. The “Lives” of Horace and Persius are substantial enough, but are evidently somewhat abridged; the “Lives” of Tibullus and Lucan are mere fragments. The “Life” of Terence is interesting for its own sake and for the insight it gives into the early development of the Roman theater and the brilliant circle of Scipio Africanus and Gaius Laelius. Also, it is interesting to note that Terence’s plays were thought too good to be written by a slave and that a controversy arose in which it was claimed by some that Terence’s aristocratic friends actually wrote the comedies.

The “Life” of Vergil, however, is the premier selection in CONCERNING ILLUSTRIOUS MEN. Suetonius, apparently, had a great deal of material to draw from (his access to the Imperial archives undoubtedly helped him a great deal), and he furnishes us with both a good psychological portrait of Vergil and much intimate detail concerning the poet’s relationship with the Imperial court of Augustus. Vergil, it seems, was a gentle, virtuous, precise, and much venerated man. His long struggle to write the AENEID and his literary life in general are commented upon at length.

The “Life” of Horace presents the man much as his poetry does: a modest, quietly epicurean personality who judiciously sought the pleasant life and a certain practical wisdom. The “Life” of Persius emphasizes that prematurely dead young poet’s great purity and disinterested virtue, and the fragment on Lucan gives us a good insight into that not entirely wise young poet’s personality. The paragraph on Tibullus is merely a short notice of the poet’s birth, activity, and death. CONCERNING ILLUSTRIOUS MEN concludes with long paragraphs on the historian Pliny the Elder and the orator Passienus Crispus.