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He certainly drew on a range of material, including various documentary sources: he made use of the public records for information about the birthplaces of Tiberius and Caligula Tib. He also cites personal documents of the emperors, from which he often, contrary to the normal practice of ancient historians, quotes passages verbatim. Among the most interesting are letters of Augustus, which he quotes extensively for example, Aug. In addition, he made use of Julius Caesar's will Jul.

He also drew on other primary sources like the letters of Mark Antony for example, Aug. All in all, then, The Twelve Caesars gives every sign of being a careful and substantial piece of work by a serious and established scholar; to the extent that Suetonius included gossip and scandal and even a cursory reading shows that much of what he included is not scandalous at all , he presumably did so for some larger purpose.

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But if it is not simply gossip, it is not formal history either. In the Graeco—Roman tradition, history was a recognized literary genre with well established features: it was a dramatic prose narrative with a focus on military and political events and an elevated style. In none of these respects does The Twelve Caesars fit the bill.

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Although most of the lives do contain a certain amount of narrative, the arrangement is more often topical than chronological, and even when it is chronological it rarely constitutes a dramatic narrative. As for subject matter, Suetonius often alludes to major military and political events, but omits a great deal that we would expect to find in a proper history.

We would know little of Caesar's wars in Gaul, for example, if we had only The Twelve Caesars , and would be completely unaware of major figures like Cn. Domitius Corbulo, the greatest Roman general of the mid first century ad, whose name Suetonius never even mentions. When Suetonius is our only source for a significant historical event, as he is, for example, for the Vinician conspiracy against Nero Nero 36 , it becomes frustratingly obvious how little information he actually provides.

The Twelve Caesars abounds in the sort of technical vocabulary and everyday expressions that Livy and Tacitus avoided; Suetonius likewise does not hesitate to introduce Greek words and phrases as needed something regarded as inappropriate in formal Latin: see Tib. Many of these features can be explained by the fact that Suetonius wrote The Twelve Caesars as a work of scholarly biography, and not history at all.

Suetonius rigorously excludes everything that does not directly pertain to the person on whom he is focusing, and includes everything that does: hence the absence of major historical events and figures, and hence the presence of so much personal and domestic detail.


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Yet the simple fact that he was writing biography does not fully account for the distinctive format that he employed. A person's life, after all, consists in large part of a chronological series of events, and an obvious way to recount that life is by means of a dramatic narrative. The other great biographer of antiquity, the Greek writer Plutarch, an older contemporary of Suetonius, did precisely that; as a result, although he too maintains a tight focus on the individual, his biographies often read very much like history.

Suetonius, by contrast, seems deliberately to have made his biographies as unlike history as possible. All the lives share the same basic format: an initial chronological section recounting the emperor's birth and life up to his accession, preceded by a section on ancestry and parentage; then an account of his reign, organized topically; then another chronological section describing his death. Within this basic framework there is considerable variation.

Some lives contain a high proportion of narrative: that of Caesar, for example, who never really reigned at all, and those of Galba, Otho and Vitellius, about whose short reigns there was much less to say than about their rise and fall. There are also several different arrangements of topics within the section on the reign.

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But, in virtually all the lives, the topical sections tend to dominate. The longest life, that of Augustus, has very little real narrative at all. This sort of prospective summary is very common in The Twelve Caesars , although it is not always immediately obvious.

The Twelve Caesars

Suetonius duly includes this story, as an example of Nero's cruelty towards the people of Rome Nero 38 , and also records some events that, as we know from other sources, were linked to the fire: Nero's persecution of Christians, his new regulations on urban construction both in Nero 16 and the construction of his massive Golden House Nero The latter fact was simply not relevant to his topic of extravagance, and so is omitted. Why did Suetonius choose this non—historical, even antihistorical, format for his biographies, especially when the example of Plutarch shows that a very different format was possible?

Teubner, , holds that Suetonius and Plutarch represent two fundamentally different traditions of ancient biography: the quasi—historical sort employed by Plutarch was developed by political philosophers to tell the lives of statesmen, whereas the topical sort employed by Suetonius was developed by grammatici to provide concise biographical information about poets and writers. Leo argued that Suetonius, who was himself a grammaticus , had first used this format appropriately in On Illustrious Men , but had then automatically employed it in The Twelve Caesars as well, even though it was not at all suitable for the biographies of rulers.

We may illustrate this by two paragraphs from the section in the life of Julius Caesar that deals with his clemency Jul. Nevertheless, Leo's general thesis about two distinct types of ancient biography is now generally rejected. This is the observation that, far from being unsuited to the biographies of rulers and statesmen, the topical arrangement employed by Suetonius was both traditional and widely familiar.

We find it, for example, in the encomium, a speech in praise of a notable figure, particularly a ruler or political leader.

The Romans, for their part, had a tradition of commemorating the achievements of eminent men in a type of inscription known as an elogium , a summary of accomplishments. He captured many forts from the Samnites; he routed the army of the Sabines and Tuscans; he forbade peace from being concluded with King Pyrrhus. The tradition of elogia was taken to its furthest extreme by Augustus, in the monumental account of his achievements that he composed at the end of his life and had erected outside his tomb see Aug.

Despite its considerable length it runs to some nine pages in modern editions , the main categories that it employs are much the same as those of earlier elogia : public offices and honours sections 4—14 ; benefactions to the Roman people, including distributions of money 15—18 , building projects 19—21 and public entertainments 22—23 ; and military accomplishments 25— Science Fiction. War in Fiction. Other Publishers. Featured Titles. A Game of Thrones. Illustrated by Jonathan Burton.

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