Born: Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus in Rome, c. ad 69. Career: Began a military career, then practised law in Rome; secretary at the court of Hadrian: dismissed ad 121-22. Died: ad 160.



[Works], edited by Maximilian Ihm. 1907-08; translated by J.C. Rolfe [Loeb Edition], 2 vols., 1914.


De vita Caesarum, edited by C.L. Roth, 1858; also edited by Giorgio Brugnoli, 1960-; as History of the Twelve Caesars, translated by Philemon Holland, 1606, reprinted 1899; as Caesars—From Galba to Domitian, translated by G.W. Mooney, 1930; as The Twelve Caesars, translated by Robert Graves, 1957, revised by Michael Grant, 1979; as Lives of the Caesars, translated with introduction and notes by Catharine Edwards, 2000; individual lives: Augustus, edited by E.S. Shuckburgh, 1896, M. Adams, 1939, M.A. Levi, 1951, and J.M. Carter, 1982; Caligula, edited by J.A. Maurer, 1949; Claudius, edited by H. Smilda, 1896, and J. Mottershead, 1986; as Divvs Clavdivs, edited by Donna W. Hurley, 2001; Galba, Otho, Vitellius, edited by C.L. Murison, 1992, and edited and translated by David Shotter, 1993; Julius, edited by H.E. Butler and M. Cary, 1927; Nero, edited by G.H. Warmington, 1977; Tiberius, edited by J.H. Rietra, 1927, and M.J. du Four, 1941; Tiberius, edited by Hugh Lindsay, 1995; Titus, edited by H. Price, 1919; Vespasian, edited by A.W. Braithwaite, 1927; Vespasian, edited by Brian W. Jones, 2000; Domitian, edited by B. Jones, 1996. De grammaticis et rhetoribus, edited by R.P. Robinson. 1925; translated and edited by Robert A. Kaster, 1995; as The Grammarians; The Rhetoricians, edited by C.L. Roth, 1871; as Lives of the Grammarians, translated by Alexander Thomson, 1796.

Critical Studies:

Sueton und die antike Biographie by W. Steidle, 1951; Index to Suetonius by A.A. Howard and C.N. Jackson, 1963; The Ancient Historians by M. Grant, 1970; Suetonius: The Scholar and His Caesars by Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, 1983; The Arts of Suetonius by Richard C. Lounsbury, 1987; An Historical and Historiographical Commentary on Suetonius’ Life of C. Caligula by Donna W. Hurley, 1993; Suetonius’ Life of Caligula: A Commentary by D. Wardle, 1994.

”So much for Caligula the Emperor; the rest of this history must needs deal with Caligula the monster.” So writes Suetonius at the start of the 22nd chapter (out of 60) of the book devoted to this particular ruler in his De vita Caesarum (The Twelve Caesars). There can be no doubt that what many readers have looked for in this work is scandalous, even hair-raising detail about the appalling private lives of such as Caligula, Tiberius, and, of course, Nero. If ever proof were needed that the greater the power a man possesses, the more it can corrupt him, it can be found here in abundance in accounts of arbitrary cruelty, unbridled lust, and attempts to revive flagging passions by novel vices. Suetonius does not provide details about such matters simply in passing; there is some evidence that he occasionally preferred the more shocking anecdote to the version of events more flattering to the memory of the emperor about whom he was writing. Like some of his readers, he appears to have relished the seamy side of the imperial image.

Suetonius is, however, not merely of interest to those in search of the sensational. By no means all of his works have come down to posterity, but his biographical writings do contain, inextricably mixed with a good deal of what must be accounted mere apocryphal anecdote, nuggets of information concerning personalities in the 1st century AD about whom we should otherwise know very little indeed. Large sections of his De viris illustribus [Famous Men] have been lost. The section on The Rhetoricians provides, however, not only an account of the rise of rhetoric in Rome, but also, albeit in summary form, facts about some of the practitioners of this highly influential art. The Grammarians likewise offers some account of the literature teachers of the period. Also by Suetonius are a number of brief lives of certain major poets, such as Virgil, Horace, and Terence. The scantiness of these accounts is quite infuriating, and sometimes there is gossip where more substantial information would be welcome. All the same, we should know far less about these writers if we did not have what Suetonius chose to tell us. Much the same point may justly be made about The Twelve Caesars, even if it has to be observed that Suetonius might generally be regarded as a less important source of historical details, were it not for the fact that the Annals by Tacitus, his near contemporary and a more insightful historian, were not available.

Born into a good family but declining to follow his father’s example and embark on a military career, Suetonius soon decided that he was also ill-suited to legal work. Instead he found employment in the imperial household. What his first duties were under Trajan has yet to be explained with precision, but he next became director of the imperial library and was then promoted, significantly, to the important post of correspondence secretary to the demanding and discriminating Hadrian who, however, dismissed him for some slight to the empress. Employment at the very centre of public affairs and ready access to existing records gave Suetonius great advantages when he turned from writing on Roman antiquities and the natural sciences to presenting portraits of the 12 emperors from Julius Caesar onwards. In this fascinating sequence the greatest emphasis naturally falls on Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero, who were the more striking personalities and in any case ruled longer than the next six emperors, but there is also a suspicion that Suetonius was less well-placed to consult written sources about their reigns.

Suetonius had no ambition to write history as such. In Roman times this implied not only a strong chronological pattern but also a high degree of stylistic polish. His The Twelve Caesars stands rather in the biographical tradition, and even within that it is noteworthy that Suetonius has no time for the deeply rooted ancient fashion for eulogy. Starting with his subject’s ancestry and early life, Suetonius moves on rapidly to a survey of his public career. Next comes a description of his physical appearance and finally an account of his private life. Background information is largely taken for granted, but we do, on the other hand, receive a most vivid account of the personality in question. Some of the detail may indeed be scabrous, but Suetonius also possesses the true biographer’s ability for allowing us to share in his subject’s innermost feelings. The account of Nero’s last moments, for instance, has often been admired for its vividness and understanding of human emotions.

As a stylist Suetonius is not generally considered to merit a high place among Latin writers, for he lacks both the elegance of the Ciceronian manner and the lapidary pregnancy of the mordant Tacitus. He does not interlard his biographies with grand speeches any more than he goes out of his way to coin flashing epigrams. His language is, in fact, of a piece with his storytelling: plain, clear, and easily grasped. It comes as something of a surprise to learn from one of the letters of Pliny the Younger that Suetonius fussed over his writings and had to be persuaded to stop revising them and make them available at last to the reading public.

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