Illustration from the Nuremberg Chronicle
|Born||Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus
Rome, Roman Empire
|Subjects||History, biography, oratory|
|Literary movement||Silver Age of Latin|
His most important surviving work is a set of biographies of twelve successive Roman rulers, from Julius Caesar to Domitian, entitled De Vita Caesarum. He recorded the earliest accounts of Julius Caesar's epileptic seizures. Other works by Suetonius concern the daily life of Rome, politics, oratory, and the lives of famous writers, including poets, historians, and grammarians. A few of these books have partially survived, but many have been lost.
Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus was probably born in Italy1 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.2 Through Pliny, Suetonius came into favour with Trajan and Hadrian. Suetonius may have served on Pliny’s 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.
He 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 119.3 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.
- De Viris Illustribus ("On Famous Men" — in the field of literature), to which belong:
- De Illustribus Grammaticis ("Lives Of The Grammarians"; 20 brief lives, apparently complete)
- De Claris Rhetoribus ("Lives Of The Rhetoricians"; 5 brief lives out of an original 16 survive)
- De Poetis ("Lives Of The Poets"; the life of Virgil, as well as fragments from the lives of Terence, Horace and Lucan, survive)
- De historicis ("Lives of the historians"; a brief life of Pliny the Elder is attributed to this work)
- Peri ton par' Hellesi paidion ("Greek Games")
- Peri blasphemion ("Greek Terms of Abuse")
The two last works were written in Greek. They apparently survive in part in the form of extracts in later Greek glossaries.
- Royal Biographies
- Lives of Famous Whores
- Roman Manners and Customs
- The Roman Year
- The Roman Festivals
- Roman Dress
- Offices of State
- On Cicero’s Republic
- Physical Defects of Mankind
- Methods of Reckoning Time
- An Essay on Nature
- Grammatical Problems
- Critical Signs Used in Books
In 64 AD, a great fire broke out in Rome, destroying portions of the city and economically devastating the Roman population. Suetonius cast blame on the Emperor Nero himself as the arsonist,5 claiming he played the lyre and sang the Sack of Ilium during the fires. Tacitus says that Nero attempted to shift the blame to the Chrestiani, usually taken to mean "Christians", setting off the earliest documented Imperial persecution of what was regarded by the Romans at the time as still a Jewish sect and as a superstitio ("superstition," or illegitimate form of religious belief).6 While Suetonius makes no connection to the Christians in his account of the Great Fire, he mentions Chrestus7 elsewhere as an example of Nero's harshness, saying that punishments were inflicted on them.8 In his Life of Claudius, Suetonius says that Jews instigated by Chrestus were expelled from the city for causing disturbances.9 Suetonius' mentions of Chrestus and Christiani, taken with that of Tacitus, is an important piece of evidence in scholarly discussions of the historicity of Jesus.10
- Donna W. Hurley (trans.), Suetonius: The Caesars (Indianapolis/London: Hackett Publishing Company, 2011).
- J.C. Rolfe (trans.), Lives of the Caesars, Volume I (Loeb Classical Library 31, Harvard University Press, 1997).
- J.C. Rolfe (trans.), Lives of the Caesars, Volume II (Loeb Classical Library 38, Harvard University Press, 1998).
- "Suetonius". Encyclopædia Britannica, 2012. Web. 18 Jun. 2012.
- Pliny the Younger, Letters 10.95
- L.D.Reynolds, Texts and Transmissions: a survey of the Latin classics, Oxford, 1980. The dedication, in the lost preface, is recorded by a sixth-century source when the text was still complete.
- According to the flyleaf of the Penguin edition of The Twelve Caesars
- Life of Nero, Ch 38
- Both Tacitus (Annales 15.44) and Suetonius (Life of Nero 16.2) refer to the superstitio of the Christians.
- Although the form Chrestus appears in Suetonius, he uses Christiani for the followers of Christ; see Francis Watson, Paul, Judaism, and the Gentiles: Beyond the New Perspective (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2007), p. 168 online.
- Life of Nero 16.2.
- Iudaeos impulsore Chresto assidue tumultuantis Roma expulit: Life of Claudius 25.4; discussed by C. Adrian Thomas, A Case for Mixed-Audience With Reference to the Warning Passages in the Book of Hebrews, Peter Lang Pub, 2008, p 116.
- Drews Arthur, The Witnesses to the Historicity of Jesus, BiblioBazaar, LLC, 2009. p 18-20
- Barry Baldwin, Suetonius: Biographer of the Caesars. Amsterdam: A. M. Hakkert, 1983.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Suetonius.|
- The Lives of the Twelve Caesars at LacusCurtius (Latin original, English translation)
- Suetonius' works at Latin Library (Latin)
- Works by Suetonius at Project Gutenberg
- Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus public domain audiobooks from LibriVox
- Gai Suetoni Tranquilli De vita Caesarum libri III-VI Cornell University Library Historical Monographs Collection.