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.)