Concerning Illustrious Men Critical Essays


Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

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,...

(The entire section is 1230 words.)