ca. A.D. 69-after 122
Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus wrote many biographies of famous ancient Romans. The best known are the biographies of Julius Caesar and the first 11 emperors of the Roman Empire, which comprise his Lives of the Twelve Caesars. Suetonius’s biographies became a model for those written during the Middle Ages, and they are still read today.
Born on the north coast of Africa, Suetonius was the son of a Roman army officer. When Suetonius was still a child, his family moved to Rome, where he spent most of his life. After practicing briefly as a lawyer, he devoted his life to scholarship and to the personal service of the emperors Trajan and Hadrian. His first imperial* position was as a research assistant to Trajan. He provided the emperor with the information that he needed to govern the empire. Suetonius also read aloud to the emperor for his enjoyment. Suetonius was later placed in charge of the imperial libraries. His last position was as chief secretary to Hadrian. In this job, he was responsible for the emperor’s official correspondence.
While serving the emperors, Suetonius took advantage of his easy access to the imperial libraries, archives, and similar resources to do research for his biographies. Following his dismissal by Hadrian in A.D. 122, he wrote until his death. Because he no longer had access to the wealth of material in the imperial libraries and archives, however, his later works were much less detailed.
Suetonius was a scholar of wide-ranging interests. In addition to biographies, he wrote other works on a variety of subjects, including manners, customs, festivals, and games. He also wrote several catalogs of names, such as the names of places and of illnesses. These works have not survived, and only fragments survive of On Famous Men, his collection of about 100 brief biographies of famous Roman poets, orators*, philosophers*, and historians. Lives of the Twelve Caesars, however, has survived in almost complete form.
* imperial pertaining to an emperor or empire
* orator public speaker of great skill
In Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Suetonius recorded virtually everything he could find about Julius Caesar and each of the emperors from Augustus to Domitian. Suetonius organized the material by topic rather than the usual chronological* order of Roman historical writing. Although Lives of the Twelve Caesars has been criticized for providing little historical context and dwelling too much on the scandals in the personal lives of the emperors, the work is also regarded as a noteworthy historical source. Suetonius carefully documented his writing and often included lengthy quotations from material not available elsewhere, such as the private letters of the emperors.
Suetonius did not moralize or attempt to write fine literature, as did most of the other historians of ancient Rome. His aim was to present the facts clearly and simply. One author later said that Suetonius’s “aim was accuracy rather than style.” Nonetheless, Suetonius’s biographies vividly convey the character of his subjects, and they make for lively reading. (See also Plutarch; Tacitus.)
* philosopher scholar or thinker concerned with the study of ideas, including science
* chronological referring to the order in which events occurred