Ancient History & Civilisation


Modern readers with an interest in Roman history are apt to think of Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars either as a major historical work, comparable to the histories of Tacitus, or as the ancient equivalent of an exposé, filled with titillating titbits about the imperial families. Both perceptions are understandable, although both are misleading. The Twelve Caesars is neither history nor exposé, but instead biography, and rather unusual biography at that. In order to appreciate it for what it is, it is helpful to know something about Suetonius’ background and to understand the distinctive format that he employs in The Twelve Caesars.


Our information about the life and works of Suetonius is relatively meagre, even though we have more and better sources for him than for many ancient authors. Three of these are contemporary with Suetonius himself: a few personal comments in his own writings, several letters of the younger Pliny, and a fragmentary inscription discovered in 1950 in the city of Hippo Regius, on the coast of what is now eastern Algeria. In addition, there are three brief notices about his career in later writers, as well as numerous references to his writings.

Suetonius himself reveals something of his family background. He reports that his grandfather knew the story that those close to Caligula told about one of that emperor's more extravagant displays (Calig. 19), which suggests that he had some connections with the court. He provides more specific information about his father, Suetonius Laetus: since he served as a military tribune in the army of the emperor Otho in the spring of AD 69 (Otho 10), he must have belonged to the equestrian order, the second tier of the Roman elite, and had a public career.

Suetonius’ full name was Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus. Although we do not know the year of his birth, he tells us that he was a young man in the year AD 88 (Nero 57), and it is generally thought that he was born around AD 70; one scholar has suggested that his cognomen Tranquillus, ‘Peaceful’, would have been very appropriate to a child born after the civil wars of AD 68–9. The place of his birth is uncertain. One possibility is Hippo Regius: the inscription found there, an honorific dedication to Suetonius erected at public expense in one of the main squares of the city, suggests that he may have been a native of the city who achieved notable success in the wider world. Wherever he was born, he was in Rome by the 90s, since he records an incident from the reign of Domitian that he himself witnessed (Dom. 12). It was presumably in Rome that he embarked on the scholarly studies that became one of his chief occupations. It was also surely in Rome that he acquired as his patron and benefactor Gaius Plinius Secundus, conventionally known as Pliny the Younger. Pliny was one of the leading figures of his day, a noted orator and writer who had a very successful public career, and who is now known chiefly through a surviving collection of his letters. Suetonius makes his first appearance in this collection in two letters written around the year AD 97, when he was probably in his late twenties. From one of these (Epistles 1.18), it appears that he was practising as an advocate, that is, a professional speaker who represented people in court cases; in the other (Epistles 1.24), Pliny writes to a friend about a small property outside Rome that Suetonius was hoping to buy as a country retreat.

Pliny continued to act as Suetonius’ benefactor for some fifteen years, as we can tell from the four further letters that refer to him. From Pliny's letters we can deduce two things. First, Suetonius had an interest in pursuing a public career. At some point in the period AD 101–103 Pliny in fact obtained for him a position as military tribune, the same sort of position his father had held, with a legion in Britain (Epistles 3.8); unlike his father, however, Suetonius did not take up this post, but asked for it to be transferred to a cousin. Whatever his reasons for making this request, Pliny was apparently not offended by it, and continued to act as his patron. Suetonius may in fact have been on Pliny's staff when Pliny served as governor of the province of Pontus and Bithynia on a special appointment by the emperor Trajan. It was from here that Pliny wrote to Trajan asking him to grant Suetonius the privileges granted to fathers of three children, a favour that Trajan granted (Epistles 10.94–5; see further ‘Papian–Poppaean Law’ in the Glossary of Terms). This exchange of letters dates to the second year of Pliny's governorship, AD 110–11; since Pliny then disappears from the historical record, it is usually assumed that he died shortly thereafter. Suetonius would accordingly have needed to find another patron if he wished to continue advancing in his public career, and he seems to have found one in Pliny's circle: C. Septicius Clarus, the dedicatee of the first volume of Pliny's collected letters (Epistles 1.1).

The second fact about Suetonius that emerges from Pliny's letters is his interest in scholarly and literary pursuits. In one of the earliest letters to mention him, Pliny describes him as scholasticus, ‘scholarly’ (Epistles 1.24. 4). Somewhat later, probably aroundAD105 or 106, Pliny writes to encourage Suetonius to publish some work that he has completed but not yet made public (Epistles 5.10). A year or so after that, he writes to get Suetonius’ opinion about a public reading of some of his own verse (Epistles 9.34), and in his letter to Trajan he describes Suetonius as not only highly respectable and honourable, but also as eruditissimus, ‘extremely learned’ (Epistles 10.94. 1). For Pliny, a public career and literary pursuits went hand in hand, as his letters attest. He was not alone in this: his uncle, Pliny the Elder, had combined a very successful career as an equestrian official with extensive literary activity, of which theyoungerPlinyproudlyprovidedadetailedcatalogue(Epistles 3.5). The esteem for literary and scholarly pursuits that Plinydisplays seems in fact to have been widespread among the men of his set, which included among others the historian Tacitus.

We have the fullest account of the scholarly side of Suetonius’ career from a work entitled Suda, a Byzantine encyclopedia dating to the late tenth century ad. The entry on Suetonius (under ‘Tranquillus’, T 895 in the standard edition of Eve Adler), reads as follows:

Tranquillus, called Suetonius, Roman grammaticus. He wrote On Greek Pastimes, one volume; On Roman Spectacles and Contests, two volumes; On the Roman Year, one volume; On Critical Marks in Books, one volume; On Cicero's Republic, one volume, in response to Didymus; On the Correct Names and Form of Clothes and Sandals and Other Things that People Wear; On Abusive Words or Insults and their Derivation; On Rome and its Customs and Usages, two volumes; Family Tree of the Caesars, which covers their lives and successions from Julius to Domitian, eight volumes; On Illustrious Roman Men.

Other sources preserve additional titles: On Notable Prostitutes, On Bodily Defects, On the Institution of Offices, On Kings, On Varied Topics and The Meadow (Pratum or Prata, a miscellany). Almost all these works are lost, although they were much used by later scholars, to whose references and citations we owe most of our information about them.

What can we deduce from this material about Suetonius’ activities as a scholar? The Suda entry describes him as a grammaticus, a teacher of literature, one who specialized in the meaning and usage of particular words and the explication of obscure names and references. This approach to literary studies had developed in the Greek world in the last few centuries BC, and by the first century BC had become established in Rome as well. It is unlikely, however, that Suetonius was a professional teacher, since as an eques he would not have needed to earn a living in this way; he was no doubt instead what we would now call an independent scholar. In describing Suetonius as a grammaticus, therefore, the Suda was merely indicating his field of accomplishment.

The tradition of ‘grammatical’ scholarship was what underlay and united Suetonius’ varied writings. Some of his works focused precisely on the meaning and usage of words, such as those on insults and clothes. Others were apparently antiquarian in nature, such as those on Greek games, Roman spectacles, the Roman year and the institution of offices. Lastly, some were biographical, such as those on notable prostitutes, illustrious Roman men and, of course, the Caesars. Apart from The Twelve Caesars, only parts of the work on illustrious Roman men survive intact; for most of the rest we have only scattered and brief citations. Of two works, however, those on insults and on Greek games, we have brief summaries produced in the Byzantine period. These are very helpful in giving us some sense of what Suetonius’ lexicographical and antiquarian works were like. Suetonius composed both works in Greek, a useful reminder of his close familiarity with the Greek literary and intellectual tradition. That on insults, at least in its current form, consists of a historical preface followed by fourteen chapters that group the insults in various categories (terms for boasters, gossips, dimwits and so forth; insults derived from the names of cities or numbers); within the chapters, each word is given a definition and an etymology, and illustrated by citations from various authors. The overall impression is of a work that Pliny would no doubt have described as “extremely learned”, organized almost as a series of index cards.

The only writings of Suetonius to which we can assign even approximate dates are his two major biographical works, On Illustrious Men and The Twelve Caesars. The former probably appeared sometime between AD 107 and 118, and was a major work comprising brief lives of probably well over 100 Latin men of letters. Its format was much like the one Suetonius used in his work on insults: the biographies were grouped into separate sections according to the field for which the subject was known (poets, orators, historians, philosophers, grammatici and rhetors, teachers of rhetoric); each section consisted of a preface, discussing the origin, history and nature of the genre in question, and then a series of entries on the individual writers in chronological order. A range of evidence gives us a fairly good idea of its scope and nature: the section on grammatici and rhetors has survived largely intact; a few other lives preserved in various sources derive from it (certainly those of Terence, Horace, Lucan, Pliny the Elder and Crispus Passienus; probably those of Virgil, Tibullus and Persius); and the Chronicle of St Jerome, who mined it for data, provides a reasonable guide to its remaining contents. These lives were on a much smaller scale than those of the Caesars; the lives ofgrammatici and rhetors rarely exceed 200 words, and the life of Terence, the longest of the surviving lives of poets, is barely more than a third as long as the shortest of the lives of the Caesars. Even so, On Illustrious Men must when complete have been a major work of scholarship, and it clearly served as an authoritative reference for centuries afterwards.

Although Suetonius’ scholarly productions may seem remote from his public career, it would be a mistake to see these as sharply distinct spheres of his life. As I noted above, the leading men of the day often combined literary interests and scholarly pursuits with public careers. Even the soldierly Trajan valued this sort of learning, or so at least Pliny asserts in his encomium of that emperor: ‘How you honour the teachers of rhetoric and the professors of philosophy! Under you scholarly pursuits have regained their breath and lifeblood and native country’ (Panegyric 47.1). Although Pliny's praise may well reflect an ideal rather than reality, the ideal itself is significant: since elite Romans like Pliny placed a high value on literature and learning, it was important that the emperor be seen to patronize these pursuits. It was in fact Trajan who probably appointed Suetonius to the first of his major offices in the imperial bureaucracy, as secretary ‘for studies’ (a studiis) and ‘for libraries’ (a bibliothecis). Although the duties of these two positions are not entirely certain, the latter presumably included oversight of the public libraries in Rome, while the former perhaps involved acting as a sort of combined research assistant and cultural adviser to the emperor. Certainly Suetonius, as we have seen, would have been eminently qualified for all these roles.

Since it is only from the Hippo inscription that we know about these two posts, the chronology is not clear; it is possible that Suetonius held them not under Trajan, but early in the reign of Trajan's successor Hadrian. At any rate, it was certainly under Hadrian that Suetonius held his most important position, that of secretary in charge of the emperor's correspondence (ab epistulis). And it was in the same period that he embarked on his magnum opus, The Twelve Caesars (this is the title that has become conventional in English; a more literal translation of the Latin title, De vita Caesarum, is On the Life of the Caesars). Although its preface has perished, the sixth–century Byzantine writer John the Lydian (On Magistracies 2.6) reports that Suetonius dedicated it to his new patron, C. Septicius Clarus, whom Hadrian appointed praetorian prefect around the year AD 119 (Augustan History, Hadrian 9.5). Suetonius was thus at the peak of his public career as well as his scholarly achievement, working in close proximity to the emperor at the very centre of power. But it was not to last for very long. According to the Augustan History, which dates probably from the late fourth century ad, Hadrian ‘assigned successors to Septicius Clarus, the praetorian prefect, and Suetonius Tranquillus, the minister for correspondence, and many others, because they had without permission been conducting themselves before his wife Sabina in a more familiar fashion than court etiquette required’ (Augustan History, Hadrian 11.3). What actually happened remains a mystery. Even the date is uncertain: the Augustan History mentions the dismissal immediately after Hadrian's visit to Britain, which can be securely dated to AD 122, but its accuracy in details like this is by no means unimpeachable.

Thereafter, we have no further evidence for Suetonius, as either a public official or a learned writer. At the end of his life of Titus he refers to Domitian's wife Domitia Longina in the past tense, as if she were dead (Tit. 10); since she seems to have been still alive at the end of the 120s, Suetonius may have continued to work on The Twelve Caesars for a number of years after his dismissal.

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