Lives of the Caesars

by Suetonius

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First transcribed: c. 120

Type of work: Biography

Time of work: c. 86 B.C.-A.D. 96

Locale: The Roman world

Principal Personages:

Julius Caesar (Caius Julius Caesar), c. 102-44 B.C.

Augustus (Caius Octavius), 63 B.C.-A.D. 14

Tiberius (Tiberius Claudius Nero), 42 B.C.-A.D. 37

Gaius Caligula (Caius Caesar Germanicus), 12-41

Claudius (Tiberius Claudius Drusus), 10 B.C.-A.D. 54

Nero (Nero Claudius Caesar), 37-68

Galba (Servius Sulpicius Galba), 3 B.C.-A.D. 69

Otho (Marcus Salvius Otho), 32-69

Vitellius (Aulus Vitellius), 15-69

Vespasian (Titus Flavius Vespasiasnus, 9-79

Titus (Titus Flavius Sabinus Vespasianus), 41-81

Domitian (Titus Flavius Domitianus), 51-96


Perhaps Suetonius, like other biographers and historians, made mistakes; perhaps he retained ancedotes and bits of gossip that a less lively writer would have discarded; but he made the Caesars mortal men, though some of them carried the title of god, and he showed them in defeat and victory, virtue and vice, as they were or, at least, as some men reputed them to be. So colorful are the details of murders and lustful acts that even the most extravagant of Hollywood representations of ancient Rome are calm and temperate by comparison.

The beginning of the life of Julius Caesar is missing, the account beginning in his sixteenth year, but otherwise the book is complete. Like the other biographies there is more emphasis on Julius the person and on his relationships with the people about him than there is on the great historical moments of his life. But the major events were bound to be reported in great detail in ordinary works; Suetonius performs the service of filling out the cold lines of history with an impartial account of the personal traits of the Caesars.

After the death of his father, Julius married Cornelia, daughter of the consul Cinna, who bore him a daughter, Julia. Since by this act—which allied Julius with the popular party—he irritated the dictator Sulla, he was forced to go into hiding; but Caesar's friends interceded for him and at last he was forgiven. Sulla warned, however, that Caesar would "one day deal the death blow to the cause of the aristocracy."

Brief statements are made about Caesar's campaigns in Asia and about his service in Cilicia under Servilius Isauricus. Julius then returned to Rome and began his political career by bringing a charge of extortion against Cornelius Dolabella. After Dolabella had been acquitted Caesar went to Rhodes to study oratory under Apollonius Molo. On the way he was kidnapped by pirates; after being freed upon payment of ransom, he returned to capture and punish the pirates.

Julius became military tribune and gained an increasing reputation as an orator. After the death of his wife he married Pompeia, but he divorced her on suspicion that she had committed adultery with Publius Clodius.

By his political acts Caesar made himself popular with the masses, an advantage he made secure by arranging gladiatorial shows and stage plays for their amusement. By resorting to bribery, he won the election to the office of pontifex maximus. His efforts to secure mercy for Catiline after the conspiracy was detected almost cost him his life, for the address of Marcus Cato kept the Senate committed to the extreme penalty and Julius was threatened by the Roman knights who stood as guards in the Senate.

After becoming consul in 60 B.C., Caesar made a compact with Gnaeus Pompeius and Marcus Crassus, thus securing power over the Senate.

Suetonius carefully describes the political moves by which Julius continued to increase his own power while battling for the popular party...

(This entire section contains 1879 words.)

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against the Senate. After the nine-year campaign in Gaul, Caesar decided that only civil war could settle the political dissension. Crossing the Rubicon, he marched on Rome. After his victory he rewarded his troops, entertained the masses with shows, and undertook a reform of the Senate and of the calendar. His victory over Pompey, who had led the opposition, made the subsequent defeat of the senatorial party an easier task. As dictator, Caesar began with reforms but ended with such an assumption of power and infallibility, together with complete disdain of the Senate, that a conspiracy was formed against him which included Brutus, Cassius, Cimber, Casca, and other friends of Caesar who had turned against him. He died by their daggers on the Ides of March, after being warned by a series of signs.

Suetonius devotes the bulk of his essay on Julius to an account of Caesar's personal characteristics. Julius is described as having been "tall of stature, with a fair complexion, shapely limbs, a somewhat full face, and keen black eyes. . . . He was somewhat overnice in the care of his person, being not only carefully trimmed and shaved, but even having superfluous hair plucked out. . . ." Lengthy consideration is given to the charge that Julius had been intimate with King Nicomedes. Suetonius writes that he will take no account of various invectives and reproaches made against Caesar on this matter; he then proceeds to quote, with great detail, all gossip he disdains. Julius drank very little wine, according to Suetonius; he seduced many women, had love affairs with queens—including Cleopatra—excelled in the art of war, wrote his memoirs with simplicity and skill, rode a horse that was "almost human," treated his friends with kindness and consideration, and was so merciful that when he captured the pirates who had kidnapped him, he cut their throats before crucifying them. Suetonius declares that Julius Caesar "was numbered among the gods, not only by a formal decree, but also in the conviction of the common people."

The life of Augustus, like that of Julius, is first summarized by Suetonius, who then proceeds to tell of Augustus the man. Born Caius Octavius, he inherited power from Julius, although he had to join with Antony and Lepidus and fight a series of battles in order to become undisputed ruler of the Empire. The name "Augustus" was a title conferred by the Senate to honor him.

Suetonius mentions some of the acts Augustus committed while triumvir, deeds by which he incurred "general detestation." He ordered a Roman knight stabbed to death for taking notes; he so abused Tedius Afer, consul elect, that Afer "hurled himself headlong," committing suicide; he tortured Quintus Gallius because of the suspicion that Gallius had a sword under his cloak, and he tore out the man's eyes with his own hands after ordering his execution.

On the more constructive side, Augustus is credited with having built many public works, revising the wards of the city and the system of night watches, building up a library of Sibylline books after burning prophetic writings of little repute, adding to the public security, revising existing laws, rebuilding roads, and surpassing his predecessors in the magnificence of public shows.

He won the affection of the people and the Senate, and was named "Father of his Country" by the latter. He had few friends, but he was faithful to them. He gambled and made love to other men's wives, although this latter practice is partly excused by Suetonius on the ground that it was pursued not from passion but from a desire for information about the ladies' husbands. In other respects he was temperate, furnishing his house simply and eating simple food. He is described as handsome, although he had teeth that were "wide apart, small, and ill-kept. . . ." Augustus died painlessly and without disturbance, as he had wished, from an illness.

Suetonius' treatment of the lives of the other Caesars is similar to that of Julius and Augustus, although with most of the Caesars, beginning with Tiberius, murders and sexual excesses were so common that most of the accounts are taken up with a recital of monstrous deeds. Although Nero is the most infamous of the Caesars—and probably deserves to be remembered as almost entirely depraved—it would be difficult to decide which of the others was the worst.

After a few years of attention to the duties of emperor, Tiberius openly gave way to his vices, drowning himself in wine, consorting at banquets attended by nude girls, killing those who offended him or who were about when something angered him, and finally arranging matters so that every day was execution day and every crime a capital one. He drove his sister-in-law to suicide by starvation. He devised elaborate systems of torture and, to insure the death of his victims, had them thrown over a cliff to the rocks where guards broke up the bodies with boathooks. When he died there was general rejoicing and cries of "Tiberius to the Tiber!"

After writing of some of Caligula's accomplishments—great public games, the building of public works—Suetonius comments, "So much for Caligula as emperor; we must now tell of his career as a monster." He demanded that he be worshipped as a god; he built temples to himself and invited the moon to his embraces. He lived in incest with his sisters, stole the wives of other men, and had a series of wives. He murdered his friends and those who helped him to power. He matched worthless gladiators against wild beasts, and in random fashion chose prisoners to be devoured by savage animals in the arena. He enjoyed watching executions while eating his lunch, and at a banquet he ordered the hands of a slave cut off and hung about his neck so that the wretched man could be led about the banquet hall as a warning against stealing. These are simply samples of Caligula's deeds. He was stabbed to death when he was twenty-nine years old, after almost four years of rule.

Claudius began his rule in such manner that he won the love and devotion of his subjects, and he accomplished many worthwhile objectives; but he was a cruel and suspicious man, and he died by poison.

Even a summary statement of Nero's crimes is difficult. He was cruel, vain, and lustful. Ordinary entertainment and ordinary modes of sexual intercourse were displaced by extravagant orgies of various sorts. Regarding himself as a musician and singer, he forced great audiences to listen to him for hours on end, forbidding anyone to leave, so that women sometimes gave birth to children while he performed. He enjoyed fires and burned great sections of Rome. He wandered the streets in disguise, indulging in revels and fights. Boys, men, married women, prostitutes, and wives—all fed his lust, sometimes in violent and dramatically contrived ways. He murdered his mother after several attempts, and it was Suetonius' opinion that he had something to do with the poisoning of Claudius. Hundreds of other persons—his family, his companions, and others—died by his hand or by his orders. Suetonius writes that Nero "showed neither discrimination nor moderation in putting to death whomsoever he pleased on any pretext whatsoever." When the Senate finally sent men to capture him for execution, he killed himself by cutting his own throat, but only after considerable wailing and postponement.

Nero was the last Caesar by family connection; the others bore the name "Caesar" as a designation of rank. Suetonius' account of the remaining Caesars—Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian—gives considerably less space to their exploits; but the style continues to be lively and informative.