Ancient History & Civilisation

4. READING SUETONIUS

Despite the great interest that The Twelve Caesars has held for readers over the centuries, it is not necessarily an easy work to read: Suetonius assumes a great deal of knowledge on the part of his readers. In part this was simply because he was writing for his contemporaries, who could be expected to be familiar with all the details of everyday life in Rome that so often crop up in his text. But the same thing was true of Tacitus, for example, and Tacitus’ works by and large present fewer difficulties for modern readers. The difference is that Tacitus was explicitly writing history, and so presents complete narratives that provide most of the necessary background information. Suetonius, in contrast, who was writing biography rather than history, and moreover biography of a particular sort, takes it for granted that the reader already knows all the events and people to which he alludes, and so gets on with the business of slotting the data into the appropriate categories without bringing in unnecessary explanations. As a result, the casual reader with little or no knowledge of Roman history and culture can quickly become baffled by the steady barrage of unfamiliar names and unexplained references.

Graves was well aware of this problem, and tried to circumvent it by recourse to two tactics. First, he replaced a number of Roman terms with whathe regarded as suitable contemporary equivalents. Thus the Roman toga became a ‘gown’, all senatorialbusiness was transacted in ‘the House’, the people (populus or plebs ) became “the commons”, military tribunes became ‘colonels’, sums of money were expressed in terms of ‘gold pieces’ (deliberately meant to evoke the old British ‘sovereigns’), and so forth. Secondly, whenever the Suetonian original included a reference that Graves felt required more detailed explanation, he simply introduced additional information into his translation. For example, where Suetonius says merely that Thermus awarded Caesar the civic crown, Graves translated, ‘Thermus awarded him the civic crown of oak–leaves… for saving a fellow–soldier's life’ (Jul. 2); and where Suetonius mentions the rumour that Publius Clodius disguised himself as a woman and seduced Julius Caesar's wife at a public religious ceremony, Graves noted that this was ‘the Feast of the Good Goddess, from which all men are excluded’ (Jul. 6). Through these two devices, the substitution of contemporary terms for ancient ones and the incorporation of supplementary information, Graves dispensed with introductory essays and notes, and sought instead to provide the modern reader with the same sort of unmediated experience of the text that Suetonius’ original readers would have had.

In my revision of the translation, I have deliberately undone much of what Graves did along these lines. My reasons are twofold: both practical and methodological. The practical reason is that the contemporary equivalents that Graves used for translating Roman terms are no longer contemporary. He had originally developed these for his Claudius novels of the 1930s, and they tend in fact to reflect the world of the latenineteenth–and early–twentieth–century British empire; some of them, I imagine, must have seemed rather old–fashioned to many readers even in 1957. Certainly for most readers today, ‘colonels’ and ‘gold pieces’ are every bit as remote as ‘military tribunes’ and ‘sesterces’, and a reference to Caesar's ‘gown’ is more likely to require explanation than one to his ‘toga’. It would of course be possible to retain Graves's strategy in updated form by devising equivalents taken from the early twenty–first century, but here the methodological reason comes into play. The world of the Roman empire was simply not the same as our own world, and to translate The Twelve Caesars as if it were is to give a very misleading impression of what Suetonius was saying. Moreover, I suspect that for many people one of the things that makes the Roman world so interesting is the very fact that it was indeed very different from our own. It thus seems useful, in order not to gloss over that difference, to allow the original terms and references to remain in the translation and, when needed, to provide explanations and clarifications elsewhere.

In my revision, therefore, I have tried to alter the spirit of Graves's approach while retaining the texture of his translation. That is, I have avoided merely pedantic changes that would dampen its lively quality, for which it has been widely and deservedly praised. I have instead limited changes to four categories, listed here in decreasing order of frequency: (1) streamlining and updating the punctuation and spelling; (2) substituting the original Latin terms for Graves's equivalents; (3) removing from the translation explanatory material not found in the original text; (4) modifying the translation in the few places where it seemed to me seriously misleading about substantive issues. These changes, I hope, will render Graves's now classic translation both more accessible and more useful to current and future generations of readers.

To compensate for the removal of Graves's updated terminology and inserted explanations, I have supplied a range of supplementary material, and have here followed the lead of Michael Grant, my predecessor in revising Graves's translation. The Glossary of Terms provides brief definitions of most of the Roman customs and institutions mentioned in the text, including short discussions of Roman names and time–reckoning. The lossary of Place Names in Rome, which is keyed to the map of central Rome, identifies the various buildings and areas mentioned in the text; the remaining maps of Italy and the Roman empire have a separate Key to Maps that will allow readers to locate cities, provinces and peoples. I have provided four family trees (three for the Julio–Claudians and one for the Flavians) in order to clarify relationships that Suetonius mentions only in passing or not at all. In the Notes, I have provided supplementary information on a range of issues not covered elsewhere, although I have made no attempt to cover every detail. In particular, I have identified the sources of all Suetonius’ quotations from extant texts; where a source is not identified, this is because the text in question has not survived. Lastly, the Index of Historical Persons also functions as a glossary, providing the full names and brief identifications of all the persons mentioned in the text about whom anything is known.

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