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Old June 3rd, 2011, 07:37 AM   #1

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Suetonius - the Imperial Biographer

Suetonius' Lives of the Caesars, also known modernly as The Twelve Caesars is one of our most intimate and colorful sources on the personalities and deeds of Rome's rulers in the 1st Century CE. Like most ancient historians, Suetonius' name is very well known for his literary legacy, but the man himself receives little publicity. With this short post, I will attempt to correct this within the confines of this fair forum.

Caius Suetonius Tranquillus was born, likely in 70 CE, in Hippo Regius, a city in the Roman province of north Africa. His father, Suetonius Laetus, was a legionary tribune who had served in the Thirteenth Gemina Legion under Otho. Laetus appears to have been dismissed from the Legion under mysterious circumstances after the death of Otho. He returned home to the arms of his long-suffering wife, and the future biographer was thus conceived.

Whether the Suetonii were an Italian immigrant family, or Romanized Africans, is unknown. Either way they were a prestigeous family in their area and Suetonius received an excellent education, becoming fluent in both Latin and Greek. From his youth onwards he displayed great potential as a writer. He first traveled to Rome at some point in the late 80s or early 90s, where he began a public career.

In Rome, Suetonius met and befriended Caius Plinius Secundus - known modernly as Pliny the Younger. The two men became tight friends, and Suetonius benefited from the more experienced senator's generous patronage. During the reign of Trajan Pliny attempted to convince Suetonius to accept a military post in Britain, but was refused. Seeing Suetonius as a quiet man, a scholar with an insatiable appetite for learning and teaching, Pliny subsequently helped him publish some of his writings.

Suetonius remained part of Pliny's retinue when the latter was appointed the governor of Bithynia in 109, and apparently continued to hide in Pliny's shadow until the latter's death several years later. Pliny's letters reveal that he had brought Suetonius to the Emperor's attention, and subsequent evidence suggests that the bookish writer did not fail to impress.

Suetonius is mentioned in an inscription in his hometown of Hippo Regius, dating to the last few years of Trajan's reign. From this inscription we can easily infer that in the aftermath of his patron's death, Suetonius had branched out on his own with intoxicating success. The forty-some year-old African scholar had been appointed the Master of Letters - one of the most influential posts in the imperial administration. In addition, he was apparently also appointed the headmaster of all the libraries of Rome, likely including those that Trajan had just built in his Forum.

Suetonius appears to have found a new patron in Caius Septicius Clarus, who served as Praetorian Prefect early in the reign of Hadrian. Both men, however, were spontaneously removed from their posts in 122, Emperor Hadrian claiming that they had become too "informal" in their dealings with Empress Sabina. The relationship between Hadrian and Sabina was a stormy and dramatic one, and likely these two accomplished patricians had done nothing wrong except be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Either way, Suetonius' bright public career was snuffed out in 122, and despite theories to the contrary there is no hard evidence that he was ever recalled. When he died is unknown, but he presumably retired to his country estate in central Italy, or perhaps even home to Africa, and spent the rest of his days reading and writing.

Of all of his many works, only the Lives of the Caesars remains in tact. Suetonius also wrote a collection of trivia, related to Roman law, clothing, culture, and famous men, with a (now lost) chapter on notorious prostitutes. This work was intended as light and entertaining reading, and was titled "The Garden of Many Things", also modernly translated as "The Playground". Only fragments of this work survive.

Suetonius also published at least two books in Greek, one of which - a dictionary of Greek obscenities and insults - must have made deeply amusing reading.

Suetonius' works give a few tantalizing glimpses into early Christianity. In his biography of Claudius, he mentions the Jews of Rome being stirred into violence "on account of one Chrestus". Historians have traditionally assumed that this "Chrestus" was Jesus Christ, posthumously causing rifts between the Messianic and Orthodox elements of the Jewish community.

Suetonius also records that Nero "inflicted punishments" on the Christians. In regards to Nero, Suetonius is most notable for starting the legend that Nero sang about the fall of Troy and played a lyre (a fiddle in modern versions of the myth) while Rome burned.
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Old June 3rd, 2011, 07:34 PM   #2
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Thanks, Salah.

Suetonius was a colorful character, and loved writing about the racy side of life.

To his credit, Suetonius made it a special point to describe how the Caesars looked, which is rare in ancient writings.

But he is biased to a degree. For instance, he said the Emperor Caius had a "grim" forehead, and I don't know what the hell that means.
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Old June 3rd, 2011, 09:46 PM   #3

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Great thread, Salah. Cheers.
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Old September 29th, 2013, 11:23 AM   #4

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Any interest in the most famous Roman biographer?
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Old October 1st, 2013, 01:42 PM   #5

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Having recently purchased his famous Twelve Caesars biographies, I've read that the recent Penguin Classics translation of it makes for a less than average reading experience, so I'm a bit apprehensive to pick it up.

No doubt, I will read it soon, as you can only really judge for yourself.

Last edited by Josephus; October 1st, 2013 at 01:48 PM.
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Old October 1st, 2013, 01:50 PM   #6

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The Twelve Caesars is very entertaining.
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