Suetonius Essay - Critical Essays

Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus


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.

Principal Works

De Viris Illustribus [On Illustrious Men] (biography) c. 105

De Vita Caesarum [Lives of the Caesars] (biography) c. 117-27

Suetonius. 2 vols. (translated by John C. Rolfe) 1914

The Twelve Caesars (translated by Robert Graves with Michael Grant) 1991

Lives of the Caesars (translated by Catharine Edwards) 2001


K. R. Bradley (essay date fall 1976)

SOURCE: Bradley, K. R. “Imperial Virtues in Suetonius's Caesares.” Journal of Indo-European Studies 4, no. 3 (fall 1976): 245-53.

[In the following essay, Bradley examines Suetonius's use of “virtue-terms.”]

A noticeable feature of Suetonius' Caesares is the frequent use and illustration of virtue-terms to demonstrate aspects of character. This is not altogether surprising given that virtue-terms were deeply connected with the traditionally moralistic nature of Roman historiography and that, in an increasingly political sense, even under the Republic associations had begun to develop between powerful individuals and certain isolated virtues: Sulla and felicitas, Caesar and clementia provide two well known instances of this. It is worthwhile, however, to examine some of these usages in Suetonius, not least because the possibility of contemporary allusiveness is thereby introduced; any historical work is naturally subject to the influence of developments or tastes prevalent at the time of writing, and when Hadrianic allusions have been detected in Tacitus' Annales1 the same might be anticipated for the Caesares. An approach of this kind must of necessity be subjective especially since the literary tradition for Hadrian is not above reproach.2 Nonetheless, the minimal appearance in the Caesares of words which served as predominant Hadrianic coin legends (annona, felicitas, liberalitas, providentia, clementia, concordia, iustitia, pietas, salus Augusti, securitas,) and their association in the main with mali principes has formed part of an argument that Suetonius and Hadrian felt a mutual, deep antipathy; Hadrianic propaganda as seen from the coinage provided Suetonius with a means of indirect criticism of the emperor.3 Given the fact of Suetonius' dismissal from the government service under Hadrian (HA Hadr. 11.3) that notion is not in itself unpleasing. In what follows, however, attention will be paid to showing that Hadrianic propaganda in this narrow sense had little or no effect on Suetonius and that the extensive use of virtue-terms must be fitted into a wider perspective.

A statistical survey of word usages in Suetonius can be misleading because it fails to give sufficient attention to matters of literary technique. Even though the sum total of appearances of a given word (e.g. clementia) may be few, this is of little consequence if illustrations of the concept are catalogued; there is then no need for pure verbal repetition.4 It should be emphasised too that coin legends may be used to characterise a reign or to refer to a specific event during a reign; this means that comparison between terms on coins and in an author is valid only if the usages are consistent (which is difficult to determine), while in literary works a further distinction is required between cases where terms are used with direct reference to a reign (whether general or specific) and cases where terms are used neutrally, simply to communicate. At the commencement of a reign most virtues advertised on the coinage would be symbolic of the aspirations of the new dispensation,5 though with such a legend as liberalitas a commemmorative purpose might also quickly appear. Commemmorative issues, however, might refer to such a variety of situations, dependent upon the political climate of the day, that if indeed Suetonius, especially in the early years of Hadrian, were influenced by propaganda slogans, that influence should be expected in all probability to derive from the characterising aspect of the coinage. Thus, usages in the Caesares of virtues related to specific episodes must essentially be judged in terms of historical accuracy. To believe that Suetonius wrote some or all of the biographies with the conscious aim in mind of making allusions to Hadrian would seem to undermine the accuracy of his historical accounts. Yet if the terms are needed for purposes of historical biography then the virtues cannot be claimed of necessity as retrojections of contemporary prevailing motifs. What is required, therefore, is not so much a count of the terms themselves as an examination of the contexts in Suetonius to see precisely how slogans are used.

First a certain amount of pruning is appropriate due to the irrelevance to the problem of a large number of Suetonian passages, either because the reference antedates the reign of the biographical subject or else because the reference is to some person other than the emperor.6 For instance, the use of annona at Galba 7.2 can have no implicit connection with Hadrian since Suetonius is here discussing Galba's governorship of Africa. Likewise the use of felicitas at Iul. [Iulius] 35.2, where the term is not applied to Caesar at all but to Pompey. On this basis a whole string of passages can simply be eliminated from consideration,7 which is important because it means that some emperors altogether lose association with various virtue-terms.8

There are other types of irrelevance. A latinised quotation from Euripides at Iul. 30.5 leaves no more than a tenuous association between Caesar and pietas. The use of annona at Aug. [Augustus] 42.3 is subordinate to a more important idea, the illustration of Augustus as salubris princeps; so also with Aug. 41.2, the illustration of Augustus' liberalitas; Aug. 25.2, the use of servile troops at a time of shortage; and Nero 45.1, the arrival of a ship from Egypt with a disappointing cargo at a similar time of scarcity. Association between annona and Augustus does still exist (Aug. 18.2), but not in the case of Nero; nor, further, in the case of Tiberius, since at Tib. [Tiberius] 34.1 annona is used not with reference to grain in particular but to the high cost of food in general. Neutral usages of salus occur at Aug. 14.1, Calig. [Caligula] 14.2, 15.4, 27.2, Claud. 37.2 [Claudius], Vit. 15.2. The use of securitas at Iul. 23.2 is purely personal with no application to the Caesarian regime at large. The majority of the uses of felicitas in Suetonius do not describe the general felicity of any reign but relate instead to the personal good fortune of the emperor. Thus, at Aug. 94.1 omens are recorded which predicted Augustus' felicitas and at Vesp. [Vespasian] 5.5 it is stated that during Nero's hellenic tour Vespasian dreamed initium sibi suisque felicitatis futurum. Comparable passages here are Nero 40.3 and Vesp. 5.2. Certain usages of liberalitas are neutral or too personalised to contain any political significance, Iul. 38.2, Calig. 46, Claud. 29.1, Galba 15.1, while with clementia Suetonius at times verges on the ironic, as at Tib. [Tiberius] 53.2, Vit. [Vitellius] 14.2, Domit. [Domitan] 11.2, so that such pieces should be dismissed for the reason that literary effect suspersedes any political connotation.

Once these results of contextual examination are all taken into account the number of strictly relevant passages in Suetonius is diminished and the possibilities of deliberate allusiveness substantially curtailed. It remains to see what can be made of the texts which survive the tests of irrelevance.

Given the perennial problem of famine in antiquity all emperors needed to be attentive to ensuring the Roman grain supply. The actions of Augustus and Claudius to safeguard the annona are well known from sources other than Suetonius,9 so there is basically little reason to believe other than that Suetonius concerns himself with historical reality at Aug. 18.2 and Claud. 18.1. Moreover, it can be noted that Suetonius' attitude to Augustus is...

(The entire section is 3298 words.)

G. W. Bowersock (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Bowersock, G. W. “Suetonius in the Eighteenth Century.” In Biography in the 18th Century, edited by J. D. Browning, pp. 28-42. New York: Garland Publishing, 1980.

[In the following essay, Bowersock presents a survey of works that attest to eighteenth-century scholarly and literary interest in Suetonian-styled biography.]

When Boswell appealed to authority in introducing his Life of Johnson, he invoked Plutarch, “the prince,” he declared, “of ancient biographers.” There followed a quotation, first (ostentatiously) in Greek and then in translation, of the familiar lines from Plutarch's Alexander the Great on the value of apparent trifles...

(The entire section is 5724 words.)

Andrew Wallace-Hadrill (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Wallace-Hadrill, Andrew. “The Man and the Style,” “The Scholar and Society,” and “The Scholarly Biographer.” In Suetonius: The Scholar and His Caesars, pp. 1-72 New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983.

[In the following excerpt from his book-length study of Suetonius, Wallace-Hadrill discusses authorial choices made by Suetonius that account for his literary style, examines educational practices and scholarship in Suetonius's time, and summarizes what is known of Suetonius's lost work, The Lives of Illustrious Men.]


Suetonius' De vita Caesarum appeared within a decade or so of the accession...

(The entire section is 31385 words.)

Further Reading


Cassel, J. David. “Defending the Cannibals.” Christian History 17, no. 1 (1998): 12-17.

Examines responses of Christians to charges levelled against them by Suetonius.

Hurley, Donna W. An Historical and Historiographical Commentary on Suetonius's Life of C. Caligula. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1993, 230 p.

Furnishes the historical context and tradition of Suetonius's biography of Caligula.

Jones, Brian W. Introduction to Suetonius: Vespasian, edited by Brian W. Jones, pp. viii-xvii. Bristol, England: Bristol Classical Press, 2000.

Comments on Suetonius's...

(The entire section is 170 words.)