Suetonius - Crystalinks


Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, commonly known as Suetonius (c. 69 - c. 122), was a Roman historian belonging to the equestrian order in the early Imperial era.

He is most famous for his biographies of the Julio-Claudian and Flavian emperors and other notable historical figures. He was born around 70 to an equestrian family. Living during the times of the Emperor Trajan and having a connection to Pliny the Younger, Suetonius was able to begin a rise in rank in the imperial administration. In circa 102, he was appointed to a military tribune position in Britain, which he did not actually accept. He was, though, among the staff for PlinyÕs command in Bithynia. During the late period of TrajanÕs rule and under Hadrian, he held various positions, until he was discharged. He had a close proximity to the government as well as access to the imperial archives, which can be seen in his historical biographies.

Suetonius wrote a large number of biographies on important literary figures of the past (De Viris Illustribus). Included in the collection were notable poets, grammarians, orators, historians, and philosophers. This collection, like his other works, was not organized chronologically. Not all of it has survived to the present day, but there are a number of references in other sources to attribute fragments to this collection.

His most famous work, though, is the De Vita Caesarum. This collection of twelve biographies tells the lives of the Julio-Claudian and Flavian Emperors, spanning from Julius Caesar to Domitian. Other than an introduction genealogy and a short summary of the subjectÕs youth and death, the biographies do not follow a chronological pattern. Rather than chronicling events as they happened in time, Suetonius presents them thematically. This style allowed him to compare the achievements and downfalls of each emperor using various examples of imperial responsibilities, such as building projects and public entertainment. However, it makes dating aspects of each emperorÕs life and the events of the early Roman Empire difficult. It also completely removes the ability to extrapolate a causal sequence from the works. SuetoniusÕs purpose was not a historical recount of events, though, but rather an evaluation of the emperors themselves.

SuetoniusÕs style is simple; he often quotes directly from sources that were used, and artistic organization and language does not seem to exist. He addresses points directly, without flowery or misleading language, and quotes from his sources often. However, he is often criticized that he was more interested in the interesting stories about the emperors and not about the actual occurrences of their reigns. The style, with which he writes, primarily stems from his overarching purpose, to catalogue the lives of his subjects. He was not writing an annalistic history, nor was he even trying to create a narrative. His goal was the evaluation of the emperors, portraying the events and actions of the person while they were in office. He focuses on the fulfillment of duties, criticizing those that did not live up to expectations, and praising bad emperors for times when they did fulfill their duties.

There are a variety of other lost or incomplete works by Suetonius, many of which describe areas of culture and society, like the Roman Year or the names of seas. However, what we know about these is only through references outside the works themselves.


Suetonius was probably born in Rome at about 69 AD, a date deduced from his remarks describing himself as a "young man" twenty years after Nero's death. It is certain that Suetonius came from a family of moderate social position, that his father was a tribune of equestrian rank (tribunus angusticlavius) in the Thirteenth Legion, and that Suetonius was educated when schools of rhetoric flourished in Rome.

Suetonius was a close friend of senator and letter-writer Pliny the Younger. Pliny describes him as "quiet and studious, a man dedicated to writing." Pliny helped him buy a small property and interceded with the Emperor Trajan to grant Suetonius immunities usually granted to a father of three, the ius trium liberorum, because his marriage was childless. Through Pliny, Suetonius came into favor with Trajan and Hadrian. Suetonius may have served on PlinyÕs staff when Pliny was Proconsul of Bithynia Pontus (northern Asia Minor) between 110 and 112. Under Trajan he served as secretary of studies (precise functions are uncertain) and director of Imperial archives. Under Hadrian, he became the Emperor's secretary. But, in 119, Hadrian dismissed Suetonius for an affair he had with the Empress Vibia Sabina.

The Twelve Caesars

Suetonius is mainly remembered as the author of De Vita Caesarum, best known in English as The Twelve Caesars, his only extant work except for the brief lives and other fragments noted below. The Twelve Caesars, probably written in Hadrian's time, is a collective biography of the Roman Empire's first leaders, Julius Caesar (the first few chapters are missing), Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus and Domitian. The book was dedicated to a friend Gaius Septicius Clarus, a prefect of the Praetorian Guard in 119.

De vita Caesarum (Latin, literal translation: On the Life of the Caesars) commonly known as The Twelve Caesars, is a set of twelve biographies of Julius Caesar and the first 11 emperors of the Roman Empire written by Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus.

The work, written in AD 121 during the reign of the emperor Hadrian, was the most popular work of Suetonius, at that time Hadrian's personal secretary, and is the largest among his surviving writings. It was dedicated to a friend, the Praetorian prefect Gaius Septicius Clarus.

The Twelve Caesars is considered very significant in antiquity and remains a primary source on Roman history. The book discusses the significant and critical period of the Principate from the end of the Republic to the reign of Domitian; comparisons are often made with Tacitus whose surviving works document a similar period.

The work tells the tale of each Caesar's life according to a set formula: the descriptions of appearance, omens, family history, quotes, and then a history are given in a consistent order for each Caesar.

Suetonius used the imperial archives to research eyewitness accounts, information, and other evidence to produce the book; however, critics say the book is founded on gossip and citations of historians who had lived in the time of the early emperors, rather than on primary sources of that time. The book can be described as racy, packed with gossip, dramatic and sometimes amusing. There are times the author subjectively expresses his opinion and knowledge.

Though he was never a senator, Suetonius took the side of the Senate in most conflicts with the princeps, as well as the senators' views of the emperor. This resulted in biases, both conscious and unconscious. Suetonius lost access to the official archives shortly after beginning his work. He was forced to rely on second-hand accounts when it came to Claudius (with the exception of Augustus' letters which had been gathered earlier) and does not quote the emperor.

Despite this, it provides valuable information on the heritage, personal habits, physical appearance, lives and political careers of the first Roman Emperors. It mentions details that other sources do not. For example, Suetonius is the main source on the life of Caligula, his uncle Claudius, and the heritage of Vespasian (the relevant sections of the Annals by his contemporary Tacitus being lost). Suetonius made a reference in this work to "Chrestus", which may refer to "Christ". During the book on Nero, Suetonius mentions a sect known as the Christians. Like many of his contemporaries, Suetonius took omens seriously and carefully includes reports of omens portending Imperial births, accessions and deaths.

The first few chapters of this section are missing. Suetonius begins this section by describing Caesar's conquests, especially in Gaul and his Civil War against Pompey the Great. Several times Suetonius quotes Caesar. Suetonius includes Caesar's famous decree, "Veni, vidi, vici" (I came, I saw, I conquered). In discussing Caesar's war against Pompey the Great, Suetonius quotes Caesar during a battle that Caesar nearly lost, "That man (Pompey) does not know how to win a war."

Suetonius describes an incident that would become one of the most memorable of the entire book. Caesar was captured by pirates in the Mediterranean Sea. Caesar engaged in debate and in philosophical discussion with the pirates while in captivity. He also promised that one day he would find them and crucify them (this was the standard punishment for piracy during this time). When told by the pirates that he would be held for a ransom of 20 talents of gold, Caesar laughed, and said that he must be worth at least 50 talents. Just as he had promised, after being released, Caesar captured the pirates and crucified them.

It is from Suetonius that we first learn of another incident during the life of Julius Caesar. While serving as governor in Hispania, Caesar once visited a statue of Alexander the Great. Upon viewing this statue, Suetonius reports that Caesar fell to his knees, weeping. When asked what was wrong, Caesar sighed, and said that by the time Alexander was his (Caesar's) age, Alexander had conquered the whole world.

Suetonius describes Caesar's gift at winning the loyalty and admiration of his soldiers. Suetonius mentions Caesar commonly referring to them as "comrades" instead of "soldiers." When one of Caesar's legions took heavy losses in a battle, Caesar vowed not to trim his beard or hair until he had avenged the deaths of his soldiers. Suetonius describes an incident during a naval battle. One of Caesar's soldiers had his hand cut off. Despite the injury, this soldier still managed to board an enemy ship and subdue its crew. Suetonius mentions Caesar's famous crossing of the Rubicon River, (the border between Italy and Cisalpine Gaul), on his way to Rome to start a Civil War against Pompey and ultimately seize power.

Suetonius later describes Caesar's major reforms upon defeating Pompey and seizing power. One such reform was the modification of the Roman calendar. The calendar at the time had already used the same system of solar years and lunar months that our current calendar uses. Caesar updated the calendar so as to minimize the number of lost days due to the prior calendarÕs imprecision regarding the exact amount of time in a solar year. Caesar also renamed the fifth month (also the month of his birth) in the Roman calendar July, in his honor (Roman years started in March, not January as they do under the current calendar). Suetonius says that Caesar had planned on invading and conquering the Parthian Empire. These plans were not carried out due to Caesar's assassination.

Suetonius then includes a description of Caesar's appearance and personality. Suetonius says that Caesar was semi-bald. Due to embarrassment regarding his premature baldness, Caesar combed his hair over and forward so as to hide this baldness. Caesar wore a senator's tunic with an orange belt. Caesar is described as routinely wearing loose clothes. Suetonius quotes the Roman dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla as saying, "Beware the boy with the loose clothes, for one day he will mean the ruin of the Republic." This quote referred to Caesar, as Caesar had been a young man during Sulla's Social War and subsequent dictatorship. Suetonius describes Caesar as taking steps so that others would not refer to him as king. Political enemies at the time had claimed that Caesar wanted to bring back the much reviled monarchy.

Finally, Suetonius describes Caesar's assassination. Shortly before his assassination, Caesar told a friend that he wanted to die a sudden and spectacular death. Suetonius believes that several omens predicted the assassination. One such omen was a vivid dream Caesar had the night before his assassination.

The day of the assassination, Suetonius claims that Caesar was given a document describing the entire plot. Caesar took the document, but did not have a chance to read it before he was assassinated.

Suetonius says that others have claimed that Caesar reproached the conspirator Brutus, asking "You too, my child?" This specific wording varies slightly from the more famous quote, "Even you, Brutus?" (et tu, Brute) from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.

However, Suetonius himself asserts that Caesar said nothing, apart from a single groan, as he was being stabbed. Instead Suetonius reports that Caesar exclaimed, "Why, this is violence!" as the attack began.

Before he died, Julius Caesar had designated his great nephew, Gaius Octavius (who would be named Augustus by the Roman Senate after becoming emperor) as his adopted son and heir. Octavius' mother, Atia, was the daughter of Caesar's sister, Julia Caesaris.

Octavian (not yet renamed Augustus) finished the civil wars started by his great-uncle, Julius Caesar. One by one, Augustus defeated the legions of the other generals who wanted to succeed Julius Caesar as the master of the Roman world. Suetonius includes descriptions of these civil wars, including the final one against Mark Antony that ended with the Battle of Actium.

Antony had been Octavian's last surviving rival, but committed suicide after his defeat at Actium. It was after this victory in 31 BC that Octavian became master of the Roman world and imperator (or emperor). His declaration of the end of the Civil Wars that had started under Julius Caesar marked the historic beginning of the Roman Empire, and the Pax Romana. Octavian at this point was given the title "Augustus" (meaning "the venerable") by the Roman Senate.

After describing the military campaigns of Augustus, Suetonius describes his personal life. A large section of the entire book is devoted to this. This is partly because after Actium, the reign of Augustus was mostly peaceful. It has also been noted by several sources that the entire work of The Twelve Caesars delves more deeply into personal details and gossip relative to other contemporary Roman histories.

Suetonius describes a strained relationship between Augustus and his daughter Julia. Augustus had originally wanted Julia, his only child, to provide for him a male heir. Due to difficulties regarding an heir, and Julia's promiscuity, Augustus banished Julia to the island of Pandateria and considered having her executed. Suetonius quotes Augustus as repeatedly cursing his enemies by saying that they should have "a wife and children like mine."

According to Suetonius, Augustus lived a modest life, with few luxuries. Augustus lived in an ordinary Roman house, ate ordinary Roman meals, and slept in an ordinary Roman bed.

Suetonius describes certain omens and dreams that predicted the birth of Augustus. One dream described in the book suggested that his mother, Atia, was a virgin impregnated by a Roman God. In 63 BC, during the Consulship of Cicero, several Roman Senators dreamt that a king would be born, and would rescue the Republic. 63 BC was also the year Augustus was born. One other omen described by Suetonius suggests that Julius Caesar decided to make Augustus his heir after seeing an omen while serving as the Roman Governor of Hispania Ulterior.

Suetonius includes a section regarding the only two military defeats Rome suffered under Augustus. Both of these defeats occurred in Germany. The first defeat was inconsequential. During the second, the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, three Roman Legions (Legio XVII, Legio XVIII, and Legio XIX) were defeated by the West-Germanic resistance to Roman imperialism, led by Arminius. Much of what is known about this battle was written in this book. According to Suetonius, this battle "almost wrecked the empire."

It is from Suetonius where we get the reaction of Augustus upon learning of the defeat. Suetonius writes that Augustus hit his head against a wall in despair, repeating, Quintili Vare, legiones redde! ('Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!') This defeat was one of the worst Rome suffered during the entire Principate. The result was the establishment of the rivers Rhine and Danube as the natural northern border of the Roman Empire. Rome would never again push its territory deeper into Germany. Suetonius suggests that Augustus never fully got over this defeat.

Augustus died on August 19, AD 14, a little over a month before his 76th birthday.