Ancient History & Civilisation


An awareness of Suetonius’ life and career should make it clear that his The Twelve Caesars is not simply the ancient equivalent of a scandal sheet. Suetonius was a serious scholar, who had already made his reputation with several major works. Serious scholars are of course perfectly capable of writing scandalous exposés: the early Byzantine writer Procopius, for example, a major historian and government official of the sixth century ad, did exactly that in his Secret History, a scurrilous account of the emperor Justinian and his consort Theodora. But a comparison with Procopius’ other writings, notably the eightvolume History of the Wars of Justinian, makes it immediately obvious that Secret History was little more than a diversion. The Twelve Caesars, in contrast, was apparently by far the most substantial of Suetonius’ works: it filled eight volumes, whereas On Illustrious Men extended perhaps to five, and the others only to one or two.

Not only is The Twelve Caesars Suetonius’ longest work, but it also clearly involved extensive and careful research. For example, Suetonius argues that, contrary to received opinion, Augustus had a favourable view of Tiberius, and quotes in support several extracts from Augustus’ letters (Tib. 21); he has a detailed discussion about the birthplace of the emperor Gaius, drawing on a letter of Augustus as well as public records to refute the views of two earlier writers (Calig. 8); he insists that ‘my own careful researches have turned up no evidence whatsoever’ to substantiate allegations about the low origins of Vespasian's family (Vesp. 1). He certainly drew on a range of material, including various documentary sources: he made use of the public records for information about the birthplaces of Tiberius and Caligula (Tib. 5, Calig. 8) and of The Achievements of the Divine Augustus, Augustus’ official account of his reign, for the number of Augustus’ spectacles (Aug. 43). He also cites personal documents of the emperors, from which he often, contrary to the normal practice of ancient historians, quotes passages verbatim. Among the most interesting are letters of Augustus, which he quotes extensively (for example, Aug. 51, 64, 71, 76, 86; Tib. 21; Calig. 8; Claud. 4); he saw the originals, since he comments on Augustus’ handwriting and spelling (Aug. 87–8). In addition, he made use of Julius Caesar's will (Jul. 83), Augustus’ autobiography and will (Aug. 2,101), Tiberius’ autobiography and will (Tib. 61,76), Claudius’ memoirs (Claud. 41), Nero's poems in the original working manuscripts (Nero 52) and Domitian's essay on the care of hair (Dom. 18). He also drew on other primary sources like the letters of Mark Antony (for example, Aug. 7, 16, 69) and, intriguingly, anonymous lampoons and popular songs, which he often records verbatim (for example, Aug. 70, Tib. 59, Calig. 6 and 8, Nero 39, Galba 6, Otho 3, Dom. 14). All in all, then, The Twelve Caesars gives every sign of being a careful and substantial piece of work by a serious and established scholar; to the extent that Suetonius included gossip and scandal (and even a cursory reading shows that much of what he included is not scandalous at all), he presumably did so for some larger purpose.

But if it is not simply gossip, it is not formal history either. In the Graeco–Roman tradition, history was a recognized literary genre with well established features: it was a dramatic prose narrative with a focus on military and political events and an elevated style. In none of these respects does The Twelve Caesars fit the bill. Although most of the lives do contain a certain amount of narrative, the arrangement is more often topical than chronological, and even when it is chronological it rarely constitutes a dramatic narrative. As for subject matter, Suetonius often alludes to major military and political events, but omits a great deal that we would expect to find in a proper history. We would know little of Caesar's wars in Gaul, for example, if we had only The Twelve Caesars, and would be completely unaware of major figures like Cn. Domitius Corbulo, the greatest Roman general of the mid first century ad, whose name Suetonius never even mentions. When Suetonius is our only source for a significant historical event, as he is, for example, for the Vinician conspiracy against Nero (Nero 36), it becomes frustratingly obvious how little information he actually provides. Lastly, Suetonius’ style of writing is a far cry from that of Latin historians like Livy and Tacitus: although generally efficient and at times quite effective, it by no means observes the normal conventions of literary prose. The Twelve Caesars abounds in the sort of technical vocabulary and everyday expressions that Livy and Tacitus avoided; Suetonius likewise does not hesitate to introduce Greek words and phrases as needed (something regarded as inappropriate in formal Latin: see Tib. 71), and at times is so keen to pack in data that his writing becomes overly compressed and difficult to understand.

Many of these features can be explained by the fact that Suetonius wrote The Twelve Caesars as a work of scholarly biography, and not history at all. Suetonius rigorously excludes everything that does not directly pertain to the person on whom he is focusing, and includes everything that does: hence the absence of major historical events and figures, and hence the presence of so much personal and domestic detail. Yet the simple fact that he was writing biography does not fully account for the distinctive format that he employed. A person's life, after all, consists in large part of a chronological series of events, and an obvious way to recount that life is by means of a dramatic narrative. The other great biographer of antiquity, the Greek writer Plutarch, an older contemporary of Suetonius, did precisely that; as a result, although he too maintains a tight focus on the individual, his biographies often read very much like history. Suetonius, by contrast, seems deliberately to have made his biographies as unlike history as possible.

All the lives share the same basic format: an initial chronological section recounting the emperor's birth and life up to his accession, preceded by a section on ancestry and parentage; then an account of his reign, organized topically; then another chronological section describing his death. Within this basic framework there is considerable variation. Some lives contain a high proportion of narrative: that of Caesar, for example, who never really reigned at all, and those of Galba, Otho and Vitellius, about whose short reigns there was much less to say than about their rise and fall. There are also several different arrangements of topics within the section on the reign. In the life of Augustus, for example, Suetonius divides his material into two main blocks dealing respectively with his public and private life; the same basic pattern occurs in the life of Claudius, although there Suetonius includes in the section on private life a lengthy discussion of Claudius’ vices and failings. In contrast, the arrangement in the central sections of the lives of Tiberius, Caligula, Nero and Domitian is fundamentally different: in the lives of these ‘bad’ emperors Suetonius first deals with the positive or neutral aspects of their reigns, and then goes on to discuss at greater length the negative aspects. Following this introduction I have provided analyses of the individual lives so that readers can see at a glance Suetonius’ various principles of organization.

But, in virtually all the lives, the topical sections tend to dominate. The longest life, that of Augustus, has very little real narrative at all. Suetonius reports the main events of Augustus’ life up to his first position of power in a single short paragraph (Aug. 8), and then announces that ‘the story will be more readable and understandable if, instead of keeping chronological order, I use a topical arrangement’ (Aug. 9). As it happens, there is a sort of narrative in the next section, which deals with Augustus’ civil wars in more or less chronological order. But Suetonius, by prefacing this section with a preliminary summary, makes it explicit that the underlying principle of organization is in fact topical: ‘[Augustus] fought five civil wars, associated respectively with the geographical names Mutina, Philippi, Perusia, Sicily and Actium’ (Aug. 9). This sort of prospective summary is very common in The Twelve Caesars, although it is not always immediately obvious. For example, after describing Nero's tour of Greece and triumphant return to Italy, Suetonius says that ‘his insolence, lust, extravagance, greed and cruelty he at first revealed only gradually and secretly’ (Nero 26). To the unwary, this might appear simply as a general observation about Nero's character; those familiar with Suetonius’ method, however, will suspect that such a list is in fact serving as a summary of what is to come, and rightly so: in the thirteen chapters that follow, Suetonius goes on to provide examples of each vice, following the precise order that he indicates in his initial comment.

Suetonius’ use of a topical arrangement is in certain respects not only non–historical but even anti–historical, since it obliges him to pull apart individual episodes and file their various component parts under separate headings. We may take as an example one of the most famous events from the reign of Nero, the Great Fire of AD 64, during which the emperor is proverbially said to have ‘fiddled’ (‘played the lyre’ would be more historically accurate). Suetonius duly includes this story, as an example of Nero's cruelty towards the people of Rome (Nero 38), and also records some events that, as we know from other sources, were linked to the fire: Nero's persecution of Christians, his new regulations on urban construction (both in Nero 16) and the construction of his massive Golden House (Nero 31). But Suetonius’ presentation completely obscures the historical connection between these events: he lists the first two among Nero's useful acts of public policy, with no mention of their relation to the fire, and discusses the Golden House in connection with his extravagance; in the latter case, even though he notes that Nero began construction after his first palace had burned down, he completely fails to mention that it did so in the Great Fire. The latter fact was simply not relevant to his topic of extravagance, and so is omitted.

Why did Suetonius choose this non–historical, even antihistorical, format for his biographies, especially when the example of Plutarch shows that a very different format was possible? One influential theory, first propounded by the German scholar Friedrich Leo (Die griechisch–römische Biographie nach ihrer literarischen Form (Leipzig: B. G. Teubner, 1901)), holds that Suetonius and Plutarch represent two fundamentally different traditions of ancient biography: the quasi–historical sort employed by Plutarch was developed by political philosophers to tell the lives of statesmen, whereas the topical sort employed by Suetonius was developed by grammatici to provide concise biographical information about poets and writers. Leo argued that Suetonius, who was himself agrammaticus, had first used this format appropriately in On Illustrious Men, but had then automatically employed it in The Twelve Caesars as well, even though it was not at all suitable for the biographies of rulers.

Leo was certainly right to stress the links between The Twelve Caesars and the traditions of ‘grammatical’ scholarship. The topical arrangement of material in The Twelve Caesars is very similar to the format of Suetonius’ more strictly grammatical works likeOn Insults; much of the work can be analysed as a series of headings and subheadings, each illustrated by a number of examples. We may illustrate this by two paragraphs from the section in the life of Julius Caesar that deals with his clemency (Jul. 73–4). The first begins with the statement that ‘when given the chance, he would always cheerfully come to terms with his bitterest enemies’, a virtual subheading that is duly illustrated by three examples (Gaius Memmius, Gaius Calvus, Valerius Catullus); the effect of a list is even stronger in the original Latin, in which each sentence begins with the name of the person. The second paragraph opens with another subheading (‘even when he did take action, it was his nature to show restraint’), followed this time by four examples, each again beginning with a name (the pirates, Cornelius Phagites, Philemon, Publius Clodius). The organization here is almost identical to that which we find in On Insults, and occurs throughout The Twelve Caesars: the reader is constantly being confronted with what Andrew Wallace–Hadrill has called ‘the unremitting tidiness of the scholar's mind’ (Suetonius: The Scholar and His Caesars (1983; reprinted Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 1995), p. 201).

Nevertheless, Leo's general thesis about two distinct types of ancient biography is now generally rejected. Many of the reasons have to do with the details of ancient literary history, but one is of importance for any reader of Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars. This is the observation that, far from being unsuited to the biographies of rulers and statesmen, the topical arrangement employed by Suetonius was both traditional and widely familiar. We find it, for example, in the encomium, a speech in praise of a notable figure, particularly a ruler or political leader. Thus the Greek writer Xenophon, in the encomium of the Spartan king Agesilaus that he wrote about 360 BC, divides his material into two main parts: first, a chronological narrative of Agesilaus’ accomplishments, and then an account of his virtues arranged by category (piety, justice, temperance and so forth). Whether or not this work constitutes an actual biography, in organization it is clearly not far removed from, say, Suetonius’ life of Julius Caesar.

The Romans, for their part, had a tradition of commemorating the achievements of eminent men in a type of inscription known as an elogium, a summary of accomplishments. One of the earliest extant elogia is the following, which dates to the third century BC: ‘Lucius Cornelius Scipio Barbatus, the child of his father Gnaeus, a brave and wise man, whose appearance matched his abilities perfectly, who was consul, censor and aedile among you; he took Taurasia and Cisauna in Samnium; he subdued all Lucania and took hostages’ (Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae no. 1). Later examples are more elaborate, such as this one honouring one of the emperor Tiberius’ most illustrious ancestors: ‘Appius Claudius Caecus, son of Gaius, censor, twice consul, dictator, three timesinterrex, twice praetor, twice curule aedile, quaestor, three times military tribune. He captured many forts from the Samnites; he routed the army of the Sabines and Tuscans; he forbade peace from being concluded with King Pyrrhus. In his censorship he built the Appian Way and constructed an aqueduct into Rome; he built the Temple of Bellona’ (Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae no. 54). The tradition of elogia was taken to its furthest extreme by Augustus, in the monumental account of his achievements that he composed at the end of his life and had erected outside his tomb (see Aug. 101). Despite its considerable length (it runs to some nine pages in modern editions), the main categories that it employs are much the same as those of earlier elogia: public offices and honours (sections 4–14); benefactions to the Roman people, including distributions of money (15–18), building projects (19–21) and public entertainments (22–23); and military accomplishments (25–33). As a comparison with the analyses of Suetonius’ lives will reveal, many of these categories regularly feature in The Twelve Caesars.

Even Suetonius’ practice of discussing the emperors’ personal qualities and private lives has its parallel in this tradition; the elogium of Scipio Barbatus, we may note, mentions not only his bravery and wisdom, but also his imposing appearance. Similarly, Suetonius’ friend and benefactor Pliny the Younger, in the encomium of the emperor Trajan that he delivered in AD 100, covers not only the expected topics, such as Trajan's military achievements (Panegyricus 12–19), financial generosity (25–9), public entertainments (33), policy reforms (34–43) and building projects (51), but also his hospitality and behaviour at dinner (49. 4–8), his pastimes of hunting and sailing (81), and the virtue and modesty of his wife and sister (83–4). These aspects of the emperor's private life, Pliny insists, have significance for his public role: the way an emperor lives his life serves as a model for others (46. 6), and the way he spends his leisure time is the best guide to his true character – ‘For who is so dissolute that he does not maintain some appearance of sobriety in his public affairs? It is by the activities of our leisure time that we are betrayed. Is it not the case that many previous emperors spent this part of their lives on gambling, fornication and extravagance, thereby substituting the strain of pursuing vice for true relaxation?’ (82. 9).

If The Twelve Caesars is biography, then, it is biography of a very distinctive sort. Whereas Plutarch came close to writing history, Suetonius, building on the traditions of the Greek encomium and the Latin elogium, was aiming at providing something very different: a sort of balance sheet, an analytical framework that would allow for a clear assessment of each emperor's relative success or failure. We should remember that, in his career as imperial secretary, Suetonius would have had ample occasion to evaluate the successes and failuresof emperors at first hand, and this personal experience no doubt played a part in his choice of format for The Twelve Caesars. Contrary to the arguments of Leo, it was a format particularly well suited to accounts of Roman emperors. It was also, perhaps coincidently, one particularly well suited to Suetonius’ distinctive talents as a grammaticus.

Although Suetonius wrote his lives as a series, they vary not only in format but also in substance. We can identify three distinct groups. The lives of Caesar and Augustus are by far the longest and most detailed. Suetonius uses numerous specific examples to illustrate his topics, supplies an abundance of names and circumstantial details, and regularly cites his sources by name. It is also in these lives that we most clearly observe him assessing his sources critically and forming his own judgements; as an example we may note his balanced discussion of the charges of vice brought against Augustus, in which he draws on a variety of evidence both pro and con (Aug. 68–71). The next four lives, in contrast, Tiberius to Nero, are noticeably less rich. References to specific sources are fewer and largely limited to the Augustan period, and, although anecdotes are duly supplied to illustrate the various subtopics, precise details are often lacking. At times we can catch Suetonius apparently making a broad generalization on the basis of a single known incident (see for example his comment on virgins being raped before being executed at Tib. 61). He also seems to rely more heavily on received opinion and be less concerned with forming an independent judgement. The last six lives, Galba to Domitian, are much shorter and at times almost perfunctory. This is perhaps to be expected in the case of the short–lived emperors of the year AD 69, but it is surprising in the case of such a major figure as Vespasian; as for the life of Titus, it hardly counts as a biography at all. That of Domitian provides something of a return to the standards of the middle lives, but is still far less vivid and detailed than we might expect, especially given that Suetonius is writing about the events of his own lifetime; it is worth noting that he devotes only slightly more space to the fifteen–year reign of Domitian than he does to the seven–month reign of Galba.

This steady decline has provoked considerable discussion. One hypothesis explains it in terms of Suetonius’ own career: Suetonius wrote the first two lives and did incidental research for the next four while he was in charge of the emperor's correspondence and had access to the imperial archives; after his dismissal by Hadrian, he was cut off from this resource but carried on with his project as best he could, even though he understandably lost some of his enthusiasm for it. As attractive as this hypothesis is, it is probably not correct. Close study of Suetonius’ sources shows that most of them would have been readily available in the public libraries of Rome. The documentary source most frequently exploited by Suetonius, the correspondence of Augustus, must not have been difficult to access, since Quintilian also cites it (Institutio Oratoria 1.6. 19,1. 7. 22) and Pliny the Elder implies that documents in Augustus’ own hand were fairly commonplace (Natural History 13.83). In fact it appears that Suetonius was simply more interested in the life and times of Julius Caesar and Augustus. An examination of On Illustrious Men indicates that he included in that work numerous figures from the period of Caesar and Augustus, significantly fewer from the early empire, and fewer still from the Flavian period; for example, the section on poets had entries for very minor writers of the first century BC such as Furius Bibaculus, Cornificius and Quintius Atta, but apparently omitted even such important Flavian poets as Statius, Silius Italicus and Martial. It is therefore likely that the varying quality of the lives of the emperors reflects not so much the availability of material as a bias in Suetonius’ scholarly interests.

How should we assess the overall value of The Twelve Caesars ? Most historians of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, who were chiefly interested in constructing a narrative of major political and military events, tended to dismiss Suetonius’ work with scorn. There is good reason for this. As I discussed above, his particular style of biography led him to ignore much that was relevant to these topics; moreover, such details as he does provide are often wrenched from their context and thus stripped of historical significance. Apart from establishing the emperors’ dates of birth and death, on which he often lavished considerable care, he had little interest in precise chronology, so that his chronological indications are usually vague and sometimes downright misleading. Obscurities and distortions like these, however, are simply the by–products of Suetonius’ chosen approach to his topic. In terms of specific data, Suetonius maintains a fairly high level of accuracy, at least in so far as we can check them against other sources; actualmistakes are surprisingly few. Yet, even taken on its own terms, The Twelve Caesars is not always satisfactory. The problem is not so much that Suetonius can be wrong in his facts as that he can be very partial in his assessments. For example, he presents Tiberius’ alleged miserliness in the worst possible light (Tib. 46–8), even though he incidentally reveals that his economy allowed him to avoid an increase in taxes (Tib. 32), something for which he sharply criticizes Caligula (Calig. 40), Nero (Nero 44) and even Vespasian (Vesp. 16). If Suetonius’ goal in The Twelve Caesars was to provide a balance sheet for weighing the good and bad qualities of each emperor, he was not always as scrupulous as he might have been in ‘laying out both sides of the ledger’ (Wallace–Hadrill,Suetonius, p. 170).

Nevertheless, The Twelve Caesars remains a uniquely valuable resource. Paradoxically, the very partiality of Suetonius’ accounts of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ emperors is useful, because it allows us to see how the received view of a given emperor was shaped by the agenda of that emperor's successors. It is no accident that the two emperors whom Suetonius rates most highly (setting aside his adulatory account of Titus) are Augustus and Vespasian, both founders of dynasties, whose prestige must have constantly been evoked by their successors. Likewise, the legend of Germanicus the ideal prince, as presented in the opening chapters of the life of Gaius, was no doubt carefully tended by his son Gaius and younger brother Claudius, who both clearly capitalized on his popularity when they became emperors (see for example Calig. 13 and Claud. 11). In contrast, emperors exaggerated the failings of unpopular predecessors in order to make themselves look better: thus Gaius would have emphasized the miserliness and cruelty of Tiberius, Claudius the extravagance and insanity of Gaius, Nero the stupidity and subservience of Claudius. We can even speculate on the origins of specific stories. For example, given that Gaius’ grandmother Antonia died only six weeks after he became emperor, it seems highly unlikely that he would have had time to hound her to her grave, as Suetonius suggests he did (Calig. 23), even if he had been so inclined (in fact Suetonius himself notes that at his accession Gaius awarded her many lofty honours: Calig. 15). But Antonia was also the mother of Gaius’ successor Claudius, and represented Claudius’ only blood tie to the family of Augustus. Claudius would thus have wanted to dissociate her as far as possible from his loathed predecessor, and so would have been keen to circulate stories of Gaius’ hostility towards her.

The Twelve Caesars is also uniquely valuable because it contains so much material of a sort not commonly found in other sources. The very fact that Suetonius was not writing history meant that he was not constrained by the normal conventions of ancient historiography. In many respects The Twelve Caesars actually prefigures the historiography of today, especially in its verbatim quotations from documentary sources such as letters, popular songs and anonymous lampoons. For the same reason, The Twelve Caesarsis a goldmine of information on topics that were ignored by the serious historians of the time: public games and spectacles, the pastimes and domestic relations of the emperors, their sexual tastes and manner of dress. Suetonius’ willingness to include material of this sort makes his work a crucial resource for present–day social and cultural historians.

It is also what accounts for the enduring popularity of his work. Although, as I have argued, The Twelve Caesars was by no means the ancient equivalent of a behind–the–scenes celebrity exposé, there is little question that its mixture of personal detail and outrageous scandal has had a steady appeal to readers interested in the private lives of princes – an appeal that we can trace down to our own day.

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