Suetonius was born in Africa c.ad70 into a wealthy equestrian family. He trained as an orator (the usual education for an aspiring politician) and was an expert in rhetoric. He became a close friend and client of the Senator Pliny the Younger, who described him as ‘quiet and studious, a man dedicated to writing’, and ‘a man of the highest honesty and achievement’.
State Librarian – which would have given him control over Rome’s 7 great libraries
Secretary of Studies – whose job it was to organise and supply the emperor with documents from the imperial archives (with which he must have become intimately familiar)
Under Hadrian, he was made the Emperor's Secretary, but was dismissed in ad119 – ostensibly for behaving ‘with greater familiarity than the etiquette of the court required’ in his relations with the Empress Sabina, but perhaps because his biography of Augustus overstepped the mark.
Suetonius clearly not only knew about government, he had become embroiled in its workings and machinations. He was also a priest, and so would have understood matters pertaining to religion.
The Twelve Caesars was written in the reign of the Emperor Hadrian, probably c.119-122; most historians think that Suetonius wrote Julius Caesar and Augustus before his dismissal, and the other volumes later, because it is obvious that he did NOT have access to the imperial archives for the later volumes of his Lives.
Although often accused of being mere gossip and invention – John D Clare (2013) comments: ‘Suetonius never omits an unlikely piece of juicy gossip unless he can find an even-more-crazy allegation to top it’ – the Lives are vibrant and compelling biographies. They formed – almost verbatim – the backbone for the presentation of the Roman emperors in the book and TV series
I Claudius. And it is from Suetonius that we have our most powerful images of the Roman emperors – Caligula’s insane design to make his horse a consul; Claudius’s awkward walk, loud guffaw and stammer,; Nero fiddling while Rome burned etc.
Suetonius did not write a biography of Agrippina, and we only find out things about her when he chances to mention her in his biography of the emperors.
Suetonius, of course, was wholly a secondary historian, who drew his content from available primary sources. Unlike Tacitus, Suetonius rarely names his sources, but he does sometimes includes different versions of a story. Sources available to him included:
the daily record of Senate meetings (Acta Senatus)
until his dismissal Suetonius had access to archive material as Hadrian’s Secretary/Librarian
writers from the times – notably Fabius Rusticus (a friend of Seneca the Younger and a well-respected historian) and Cluvius (who served every emperor from Caligula to Vitellius). Both were loyal servants of Nero and Barratt thinks they will have been hostile to Agrippina
Aims and intentions
It is vital to realise that Suetonius was writing biographies, not histories. Each biography tells the tale of each emperor’s life more-or-less according to a formula: it starts with the emperor’s appearance, his family and birth, youth and early career; then a thematic analysis of the emperor as a ruler (including, for example, his private life and sexual conduct, his behaviour, achievements and political activity) follows; and generally it finishes with an account of the emperor’s death and funeral. Suetonius treats his subjects in a thematic, rather than a chronological way because he was more concerned to provide an account of his subject’s character than to ‘tell a story’.
Like Plutarch, Suetonius believed that a good anecdote was far more illuminating than pages of factual narrative. And the emperor is always centre-stage – other events are glossed over (which may present a completely imbalanced view of the events of the reign).
Until the early 20th century Suetonius was portrayed as ‘a mechanical collector of gossip’ who copied malicious facts from his sources in an indiscriminating way. In 1951, however, the German historian W Steidle argued decided that Suetonius did have an opinion about his subjects, whom he then portrayed in a fairly consistent way – Augustus the greatest of all Romans, Tiberius weak, Caligula a deranged monster, Claudius a bureaucrat, Nero foolish and criminal etc..
Most modern historians think that Steidle went too far, but they DO accept that Suetonius was more than ‘merely a compiler’. Livius.org sees two themes running through Suetonius’s books – firstly, that the quality of the imperial rule depended upon the personality of the man in charge, and secondly the corrupting effect of power on people of weak character. Wallace-Hadrill (1983) saw the Lives as a manifesto addressed to Hadrian, suggesting how a good emperor ought to behave (maybe this was the presumption which got Suetonius sacked?)
However, you need to note that Suetonius did not make many explicit judgements, but left the facts to speak for themselves. Also, he did not try to explain WHY an emperor behaved in a certain way – he merely presented each emperor’s conduct as an exemplar of good or bad behaviour.
Moreover, whereas Tacitus clearly disapproved of the emperors, RH Martin (1955) suggested that Suetonius – having been born under the Empire – was generally pro-establishment (although he did criticise emperors who attacked the Senate).
The great Ronald Syme (1986) declared all imperial biographies: ‘a menace and impediment to the understanding of history’.
Anthony Barratt (1996): ‘Suetonius shows no evidence of a broad sense of history or of great political questions… [Although] there is no evidence that he fabricated material … Suetonius’s picture of Agrippina is inconsistent and probably reflects his sources or even his use of anecdotes to create effect’.
Catherine Edwards (2000) believes that, whilst ‘it would be rash to rely on the factual accuracy of the stories he tells us’, nevertheless Suetonius’s work gives ‘valuable insight’ into the emperors, and into ancient Roman debates about how imperial power should be exercised.
The I Claudius Project of St Anselm College, New Hampshire (1999-2001) declared Suetonius’s ‘reliability quotient’ as ‘High’, citing the Scriptores Augustae: ‘Suetonius wrote truthfully’.
By contrast, the Oxford Companion to Classical Literature (2011) states: ‘It is clear Suetonius followed whatever source attracted him, without caring much whether it was reliable or not.’
What would you list as Suetonius’s STRENGTHS and WEAKNESSES as an historian?
Make a list of Suetonius’s METHODS and PRINCIPLES in writing his biographies
Read the following passages from Suetonius, and answer the questions which follow:
Claudius 29.3 – the ‘marriage’ of Messalina and Silius
Surely it is too much to believe that he himself signed the contract for the dowry in the marriage of Messalina and Silius just because the freedmen persuaded him that the marriage was really a fake, arranged so that they could transfer to another a certain danger which the omens said was threatening the emperor himself.
Claudius 44.2 – the death of Claudius
There is general agreement that Claudius was poisoned, but a lot of argument about when it happened and who poisoned him. One version is that it was his food-taster, the eunuch Halotus, during a feast with the priests in the Citadel. Another view is that Agrippina herself did it at a family dinner when she gave him poisoned mushrooms, his favourite food. There are differences in the stories of what happened afterwards.
Nero 28.2 – Nero’s incest with Agrippina
No one doubted that he even wanted sexual relations with his own mother, and was prevented by her enemies, afraid that this ruthless and powerful woman would become too strong with this sort of special favour. What added to this opinion was that he included among his mistresses a certain prostitute who they said looked very like Agrippina. They also say that, whenever he rode in a litter with his mother, the stains on his clothes afterwards proved that he had indulged in incest with her.
Nero 34.4 – Nero after Agrippina’s murder
Credible writers provide horrible facts: he could not wait to see the dead body; he held her limbs; he criticised some and praised others; being thirsty during all this he had drinks.