Lives of the Caesars Critical Essays



(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

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 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...

(The entire section is 1789 words.)