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Twelve Caesars - Suetonius

Book Review by Ursus

Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus was born around that fateful year of 69 CE. It was then that the Julio-Claudian dynasty finally collapsed without a direct heir. Senatorial commanders of provincial armies took to the battlefields to decide the issue of succession. Suetonius' own father, a military tribune, had fought at the battle of Betriacum in the Year of the Four Emperors. When it was all over, the Flavian dynasty stood victorious as the new masters of Rome, and the empire of the Caesars crawled out from under its cradle into a maturing adolescence. Perhaps it was for personal reasons - a sense of having one's own fate entwined with larger events - that Suetonius decided to write a history of the empire and the personalities who presided over its birth. Whatever his motivations, Suetonius became the leading witness for Rome's early empire.

Suetonius was born to an equestrian family in what was then Romanized Africa. Many equestrians pursued a life of commerce, others like his father saw service as military officers. Suetonius himself seems to have become a man of letters, taking up literature and law. Suetonius then held a variety of posts in the imperial government's increasingly professional bureaucracy. He seems to have served on the staff of Pliny, one of Trajan's governors in the East. From there, under Trajan and Hadrian, Suetonius placed his literary and legal training to good use in three different secretarial positions at the imperial palace. In a curious incident still not fully understood, Hadrian later dismissed Suetonius and a commander of the imperial guard for improper behavior toward the empress Sabina (one wonders exactly what the three of them were doing...).

In any event, before his dismissal Suetonius had accumulated firsthand experience of the inner workings of the empire. He also had access to the imperial archives and the extensive correspondence of various important personages therein. He had, in short, the experience and the education to become a leading member of Rome's new breed of professional scholars.

Suetonius had several works of note, but what concerns history chiefly is his biographies of imperial personalities, usually called The Twelve Caesars. His penmanship begins with Julius Caesar and ends with Domitian. While the first few chapters of Caesar's history are lost, the study is nonetheless an extraordinary overview of these dozen pseudo-monarchs.

We laymen usually let professional scholars dissect primary sources for us, packaging them into endless rehashings and retellings of general history, told in the what these authors hope will be the next Book of the Month sensation. And we laymen let them do it for good reason, I might add: Many of the primary writers of history were boring, bombastic and bitchy. Who wants to read all of that when you can have a hired Ph.D. summarize it for you? But the beauty of Suetonius is that his style is simple and straightforward. Incredulous at times, perhaps, but never too grandiloquent, and certainly never boring. Suetonius is one ancient writer that should be read in his own voice.

For example, let us contrast Suetonius favorably to that other leading witness of the early empire: Tacitus. Greek histories often presented history as a moral scheme, and Tacitus seems to have followed that model. Tacitus' study of the empire is filled with moralizing and invented speeches. A member of the Senatorial order, Tacitus did not think highly of the recent invention of the imperial pseudo-monarchy. His history was and is a diatribe of the supposed degeneracy of Rome from its austere Republican heritage.

Suetonius does not whitewash any crimes of the Roman emperors, but neither does he present his biographies as moralism in action. Instead he reports the facts as they were known to him. He rarely offers his own opinions and lets the story speak for itself. Suetonius breaks with established convention and does not follow a strictly chronological format; he adheres to a more thematic structuring of history. In his early chapters he quotes at length passages from private correspondence, giving us unprecedented access to the private thoughts of the men that made history.

There has been some debate recently as to the veracity of many of his anecdotes. While having access to relevant sources of information, some of his history nonetheless comes across as hearsay. When one reads Suetonius' biographies, one gets the sense that Roman history was little better than the crude gossip of what we moderns might call the tabloid press. Tiberius, Caligula and Nero are in particular unsympathetic characters, whose exploits are filled with incredible cruelties and follies. Thus, ironically, by letting so-called history speak for itself, Suetonius damns the legacy of the early empire more effectively than Tacitus' moralizing! But some recent scholars have asked us to cast a critical eye to these accounts and discern what might be vicious lies. The point, though, is that Suetonius lets us the reader make up our own minds, whereas Tacitus never gives us the chance. That is what deservedly makes Suetonius a student's first serious inquiry into Roman history.

The Penguin Classics edition of Suetonius was translated by none other than Robert Graves. Graves was a man of letters and one of his generation's leading classicists; he went on to write a best-selling fictitious history of the Julio-Claudian dynasty called I, Claudius. Grave's prose renders the original Latin into readable and engaging English. The updated edition includes an introduction by Michael Grant (a later generation's leading classical scholar) as well as maps, chronologies and a glossary.

Our knowledge of Roman events would have been infinitely poorer without Suetonius. Few people of the ancient world let history speak for itself in such a simple yet provocative manner. Born on the very crux of fateful transitions in the world's greatest empire, Suetonius became the vehicle by which that unforgettable march of history was paraded before posterity.

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Book Review of Twelve Caesar's - Related Topic: Roman Writers


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