(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus c. 70-c. 130-40

Roman biographer.

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.