You might call Suetonius the Perez Hilton of ancient Rome. His Twelve Caesars has dirt on every Caesar from Julius Caesar to Domitian: Tiberius’ pedophilia, Nero’s sexual perversion, Caligula’s incest … the list goes on!
This makes Suetonius really fun to read, which probably explains why we read so much of it in my Roman Empire class. I decided to read the rest of it to get an insider’s elite view of the politics of Rome.
We know little about Suetonius himself. He was born in 70 CE, and Pliny the Younger served as his patron. He wrote many works of historical and literary scholarship, but The Twelve Caesars is his only complete extant work.
What did I get out of Suetonius?
- The Twelve Caesars is not a work of history the way we think of it. In his introduction to this edition, J. B. Rives writes:
If The Twelve Caesars is biography, then, it is biography of a very distinctive sort. Whereas Plutarch came close to writing history, Suetonius … 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. (xxxi)
Each chapter centers on one caesar, and each chapter is itself organized thematically rather than chronologically. Suetonius follows a pattern: description of the family of the caesar, his birth and childhood, his accession to the throne, how he dealt with the military, the Senate, and the people, various omens leading up to his death, and then his actual death. Suetonius spends more time on some emperors than others: Augustus and Tiberius merit long chapters, but Otho and Vitellius do not. He does not pretend to objectivity, but has some nuance: while he portrays Augustus as uniformly good and Nero as 300% bad, emperors like Tiberius seem to fall into more of a gray area. Overall, it seems he wanted to understand the genius of each emperor through analyzing their life and character closely.
- Suetonius lets us see just how much stock Roman emperors put into divination, magic, oracles, and omens. Frequently he mentions emperors changing their minds because of an omen, or ignoring the omen and falling into trouble. It’s easy for us moderns to see these methods of discerning the gods’ will cynically. We forget that the Romans did take them seriously, even if they had some discernment in which oracles and divinations were accurate predictions and which weren’t. Suetonius criticizes Nero for not doing so.
- Suetonius has some useful references on Jews and Christians in Rome. He mentions, for example, that Augustus scorned the Jewish religion (2.93), and that Tiberius banned the Jews from Rome along with other foreign cults (3.36). From Suetonius we also hear of Nero’s persecution of the Christians, “a sect professing a new and mischievous superstition” (6.16). And of course, Suetonius tells us of Vespasian and Titus’ roles in the Jewish Revolt (10.4-5, 10.8, 11.4-5). Vespasian’s military leadership in crushing the revolt was part of his claim to legitimation of his throne, since he did not come from a ruling dynasty. We hear about Josephus (10.8). And he mentions Domitian’s cruelty and diligence in collecting the temple tax imposed on the Jews, which post-temple went to the Roman state instead (12.12).
Suetonius was a fun read, and a welcome procrastination from finals. Next up I will be finishing Arcana Mundi!