Suetonius

Suetonius

Life

For a man who chronicled much of Roman history, the life of Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus is actually for the most part shrouded in mystery. His date of birth and death are both unknown, though from his interactions with others we can make educated guesses.

His family must not have been very wealthy, but patronage by a Septicius Clarus and Pliny the Younger introduced him to the imperial court, becoming the chief librarian under Trajan and then the keeper of the imperial archives under Hadrian.

He was later dismissed, along with his patron Septicius Clarus, from the imperial court, for “improper behavior” toward Empress Sabina, though the source for this detail, the Historia Augusta, is notorious for fabricating history.

Works

Suetonius was prolific author, but only two works have come down to us. The first is the De Vita Caesarum, a series of biographies on the “twelve Caesars” from Julius Caesar to Domitian. These are not chronological histories per se, but rather character sketches that highlight the virtues and vices, much like those in Nepos‘ vitae.

Having access to the imperial archives meant that Suetonius drew on a wealth of records normally inaccessible to the average Roman. However, Suetonius was not above citing rumors, making it difficult to separate the historical from the suspicious, though the additions added color and made it more entertaining to read.

Suetonius was also the author of the De Viris Illustribus, a huge collection of vitae on various prominent Greek and Roman figures. Of the massive work, only the section on poets (De Poetis) and the section on teachers (De Grammaticis et Rhetoribus) survive. The Suidas also lists other works of Suetonius, all now lost:

On Games among the Greeks (in Greek); On Spectacles and Games among the Romans; On the Roman Year; On (critical) Signs in Writings; On Cicero’s Republic (a book in answer to six books by the grammarian Didymus against Cicero); On Proper Names, Dress and Shoes (probably a history rather than a philosophy of clothes); On Abusive Terms and their Origin (in Greek, and grouped by their application to the vicious, to busybodies, fools, slaves, etc.); On Manners and Customs of Rome (two books which we can imagine to have been full of interest); and the Συγγενικόν, of which nothing is known.

Texts Online

Latin: PHI Latin Texts
English: Lives of the Twelve Caesars (Lacus Curtius)

Further Reading

  1. Townend, Gavin B. 1959. “The date of composition of Suetonius’ Caesares.” Classical Quarterly 9: 285–293.
  2. Lounsbury, Richard C. 1987. The arts of Suetonius: An introduction. Frankfurt: Lang.