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indianasmith

How reliable do you think Seutonius is as a historian?

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Most of my research and writing (admittedly fiction, but I want to try and be as accurate as I can) focuses on the First Century BC and the first half of the First Century AD.  One of the critical primary sources for this era is Seutonius - I've read his sections on Augustus and Tiberius and skimmed the others.  Seutonius strikes me as a bit of a tabloid journalist, but I wonder - how much of his stuff is accurate and how much did he make up to sell books?

 

My opinion is that all the stories of the depravities old Tiberius got up to on the Isle of Capri may well be fabricated.  The Emperor was notoriously reclusive and tolerated only a small circle of companions on Capri.  So how could Seutonius have known, seventy years later, all the lurid details of debauchery and pedophilia?

 

On the other hand, the misdeeds of Caligula and Nero happened in Rome itself, under the eyes of many witnesses.  I think it would have been harder to invent details and get away with it - although the stories could have been very selectively chosen to make them look worse than they really were.

 

 

What do you guys think?

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Suetonius was very much a tabloid journalist and if an anecdote made interesting reading, he wasn't usually too discriminating, sometimes adding that "it was said that" or something similar to distance himself. Some of his anecdotes are there to illustrate the influence of divine favour, such as Julius Caesars horse, said to have stranhe hooves. Whether such a horse actually existed is irrelevant - what matters is that such a creature was unusual, perhaps an omen, something that marked out the owner for special events to come.

 

Sometimes the reader is so bound up in shocking revelations that occaisional sentences that carry interesting information (at least to us - the Romans might not have seen it so revealing) can get overlooked. I would never dismiss Suetonius as some do, but then, other sources are not necessarily entirely truthful either, with the Historia Augusta as an exampke of something far more suspicious and potentially full of fiction or propaganda than Suetonius was.

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One of my professors used to say that "There are no unbiased historians."  That is true now and it was true then.

But bias does not necessarily negate accuracy.

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He had access to the imperial archives whilst writing his lives of Augustus and Tiberius which he makes good use of when discussing the relationship between the two. His gossipy details I think are great because they show what people were gossiping about at the time, what bizarre rumours were circulating. Whether they were true or not (and in the case of Tiberius on Capri I think definitely not) is not do important when they give such an insight onto the roman mind.

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I don't think it's true regarding Tiberius... made threads here about that, but it's not impossible, and in regards to the Life of Augustus which I recently scrutinized with newly translated text that parallels it.... he seems to of been rather factual.... facts are facts true or false, he merely collected and collegiate them.

 

I would feel quite comfortable using Seutonius, the only shame comes from not critically analyzing him and cross referencing.... and remember the audience he expected to read this isn't the current one.... they had different needs and expectations than we do.

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