Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (c.71-c.135): Roman scholar and official, best-known as the author of the Lives of the Twelve Caesars.


Roman official, first quarter of the second centuryGaius Suetonius Tranquillus was born in the province of Africa, in Hippo Regius, near modern 'Annaba in northeast Algeria. His father Suetonius Laetus was a rich man and belonged to the equestrian order, the second rank of the Roman elite (after the senators). In 69, the year of the civil war that is known as the "year of the four emperors", Laetus was serving as a military tribune in the Thirteenth Legion Gemina. The author of the Lives of the Twelve Caesars tells this in his Life of Otho, and adds that his father had been present when Otho decided to commit suicide after his army had been defeated at Cremona by the legions of his rival Vitellius (text).

From this simple piece of information, we can deduce a couple of things. In the first place, that Laetus was probably born in 49 or 50, because a military tribune was usually nineteen or twenty years old. Under normal circumstances, the tribuneship marked the beginning of a career, but for Laetus, it was the end: as an officer of the defeated Otho, the only thing he could do was retire, grateful to the gods that he had survived. Other officers were less fortunate: they were executed. Assuming that Laetus came from Hippo Regius and returned in the summer of 69, his son Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus can not have been conceived before the winter of 69/70 and can not have been born before the autumn of 70. If he was Laetus' second child, he was born even later - although a date after, say, 73 is unlikely.

Julius CaesarDuring the reign of Vespasian's son Domitian (81-96), Suetonius was sent to Rome to be educated as an orator. This was a normal way to start a career. He was lucky to meet Pliny the Younger, a Roman senatorial careerist, who was praetor in 93, prefect of the military treasury in 94-96, and consul in 100. The two men sincerely liked each other and the senator, who claimed to be a connoisseur of literary talent, was to help Suetonius' career. Pliny's letters, which survive, show how he cared about his protégé. For example, he arranged that Suetonius could buy a farm at a reasonable price.

There is much about this property to whet Tranquillus' appetite if only the price suits him: easy access to Rome, good communications, a modest house, and sufficient land for him to enjoy without taking up too much of his time.note

On another occasion, Pliny gave Suetonius advice about the interpretation of a dream, and in 103, he arranged that the man from Africa could serve as military tribune in Britain. Suetonius, however, declined. This suggests that his heart was not at it: he was already 30 years old, which was rather late for this position. At about the same time, Pliny invited Suetonius to publish one of his books:

AugustusPlease let me see your name published and hear that my friend's books are being copied, read and sold. In view of our warm friendship, it is only fair that you should let me have the same pleasure from you as you enjoy in me.note

This last line may refer to the fact that Pliny had already published three books of letters (in 103) or some poetry. In 109-111, Pliny was governor of Bitynia-Pontus and Suetonius accompanied his protector. In an exchange of letters with the emperor Trajan, Pliny obtained a legal privilege for his friend, who was now about forty years old, and is called "a fine scholar" and "a man of the highest integrity and distinction".note

Pliny seems to have died shortly after his return from Bithynia (if in not in this province), and without his letters, we would not know much about Suetonius' career. Fortunately, we have an inscription that was discovered in his hometown Hippo Regius in 1952. It informs us that the man who had been portrayed by Pliny as a slightly unworldly scholar, occupied very important offices: he had been a bybliothecis, an a studiis, and an ab epistulis. This last office gave Suetonius more power than Pliny could ever have dreamt of.

TiberiusThe office of a bybliothecis implied that Suetonius was responsible for the libraries in Rome. There were at least seven of them, usually consisting of two reading rooms, one for Latin and one for Greek literature - the two languages of the Roman empire. It is possible that Suetonius was involved in the organization of the new libraries at the Forum of Trajan, which were opened to the public in 112 but probably not finished until the end of the reign of Trajan (in 117).

The a studiis was a documentalist. When an embassy approached the emperor to ask for something, the a studiis had to find the texts of replies to similar requests. This was not an easy job, if we are to believe letters that the emperor Trajan had written to Pliny only a couple of years before. On one occasion, the emperor had to admit that the text of an ordinance was lost, and on another occasion he had to explain that the book with copies of imperial letters was incomplete.note It is easy to understand that Suetonius, as a former a studiis, in his Lives of the Twelve Caesars shows intimate knowledge of the imperial archives:

CaligulaVespasian undertook to restore the 3,000 bronze tablets which were destroyed with the [Capitoline] temple, making a thorough search for copies: priceless and most ancient records of the empire, containing the decrees of the Senate and the acts of the commons almost from the foundation of the city, regarding alliances, treaties, and special privileges granted to individuals.note

The ab epistulis was one of the most important men in the civil administration of the Roman empire. We can translate this title as "minister of letters", "general secretary" or "director of the chancery". Suetonius was responsible for the imperial correspondence. Every Latin letter written by the emperor Hadrian in the first five years of his reign (117-122) must have passed through the hands of Suetonius, who was probably also a member of the consilium principis, the emperor's board of advisers. Suetonius must have accompanied the emperor on his first tour through the provinces: along the Rhine to Germania Inferior, and across the North Sea to Britain, where Suetonius must have witnessed the laying of the foundation stone of Hadrian's wall.

ClaudiusNor was this everything. In Ostia, the port of Rome, Suetonius occupied two priestly functions (flamen sacerdotalis and pontifex Volcanalis). They did not involve a lot of work, but were very prestigious. It is not known how the unworldly scholar could become one of the most powerful men in Rome, but it is tempting to believe that he had found a new protector. This must have been Septicius Clarus, the praetorian prefect. The two men are mentioned in the same breath by the anonymous author of the Historia Augusta:

Hadrian replaced Septicius Clarus, prefect of the guard, and Suetonius Tranquillus, director of the chancery, and many others, because they had at that time, in their relations with his wife Sabina, behaved with greater familiarity than the etiquette of the court required. He would have dismissed his wife too, as he himself used to say, for being moody and difficult, if he had been a private person.note

We do not know exactly what happened, but it seems that Hadrian was not really angry with Septicius and Suetonius, and removed them to isolate the empress Sabina. Hadrian's marriage was a disaster - he preferred boys -, and it seems that she replied to her husband's move by saying that she had taken steps to make sure that she did not become pregnant and give birth to a son of Hadrian's, another man that would harm mankind.

NeroIn the meantime, Suetonius had continued to write books, and although we do not know which one had already been published, we can assume that after his downfall, it was not difficult to return to his life as a scholar, living on his country estate. Suetonius died after 126.

The Playground

We know many titles of publications by Suetonius, including an intriguing book on the Physical Defects of Men, a biography of Cicero, the Greek Children's Games, and a dictionary that contained only terms of abuse. Unfortunately, these books are lost.

We know a bit more about a work that was called the Pratum de rebus variis, which can be translated as "the garden of several things", or, to accentuate the light-natured character of this work, the Playground. In this book, Suetonius collected useful, interesting, and entertaining facts, which might amuse the reader. It was not the first in its genre: Suetonius had copied a Greek model, the Playground of Names and Languages by the Alexandrine scholar Pamphilus. In turn, Suetonius' encyclopedia was to become a model for other authors, like Aulus Gellius and Isidore of Seville.

Much of the Playground is now lost, but twentieth-century scholars have been able to reconstruct the contents of the twenty book scrolls. It must be noted that their reconstruction is a bit speculative, although a part of Book 18 survives:

 1 Roman laws and customs
 2 Roman laws and customs
 3 Roman dress
 4 Roman offices
 5 Roman games
 6 Roman games
 7 Roman children's games
 8 Roman calendar
 9 Lifeless nature
10 Living nature
11 Lives of Roman kings
12 Lives of Roman kings
13 Lives of Roman kings
14 Lives of famous prostitutes
15 Lives of lyrical poets
16 Lives of tragic, comic, and satirical poets
17 Lives of orators
18 Lives of grammarians and rhetoricians
19 Lives of historians and philosophers
20 Textual criticism and shorthand writing

Some of these subjects could also be included in a monography (Lives of famous prostitutes and a Handbook textual criticism), others can be regarded as independent books (Roman antiquities, Lives of famous authors, Lives of Roman kings, On nature). Perhaps, the Playground can best be seen as the Collected works of Suetonius. There are indications that books 11-19 were once published independently as Famous people (De viris illustribus).

The Lives of the Twelve Caesars

The eight books of the Lives of the Twelve Caesars have almost completely come down to us. Only the first pages, which must have contained a preface, a dedication to Septicius Clarus, and an account of the youth of Julius Caesar are missing.

1 Julius Caesar
Latin / English
2 Augustus
Latin / English
3 Tiberius
Latin / English
4 Caligula
Latin / English
5 Claudius
Latin / English
6 Nero
Latin / English
7 Galba
Latin / English
Latin / English
Latin / English
8 Vespasian
Latin / English
Latin / English
Latin / English

VespasianThe Lives are extremely entertaining and have always been very popular. At the beginning of the third century, an official named Marius Maximus wrote another collection of twelve biographies, imitating Suetonius. This work is now lost but was used as a source by the anonymous autor of the Historia Augusta, a fourth-century collection of imperial biographies. Much later, in the ninth century, a courtier of Charlemagne named Einhard wrote a biography of his emperor, closely following the model of Suetonius.

Every biography by Suetonius has more or less the same structure. The first part is chronological. After describing the origins of the emperor's family, his youth and education, Suetonius describes his early career. Then comes a twist:

Having given as it were a summary of his life, I shall now take up its various phases one by one, not in chronological order, but by classes, to make the account clearer and more intelligible.note

Other biographies contain similar turns in the narrative. Next comes a thematical description of the emperor's character, his private life (including sexual habits that have always caught much attention), behavior as a citizen, military successes, and some remarks about the emperor's political life. After this, Suetonius - returning to a chronological account of the man's life - describes the portents and circumstances of the emperor's death, the number of years of his reign, and a description of his funeral.

TitusSuetonius was not the first to use this structure. He probably borrowed it from the Alexandrine scholars who had, in the third and second centuries BCE, written biographies of the "classical" Greek authors. The advantage of their model is that the thematical approach of the subject in the central part of the biography gives the reader the impression he knows the subject intimately. (In Suetonius' age, other models were available. For example, his Greek contemporary Plutarch of Chaeronea preferred a strictly chronological approach in which he mingled a series of anecdotes with a set of brief digressions.)

It has often been said that Suetonius, a former archivist, used sources from the Roman state archive. This is probably not true. Suetonius' sources are authors like Cluvius Rufus, Pliny the Elder, and a collection of letters by the emperor Augustus. As far as we can see, he treats his subject matter more or less objectively. His biographies contain much gossip, but Suetonius does not ignore or misrepresent information from his sources. This is more than we can say about his contemporary Tacitus.

DomitianAt least two themes can be distinguished in the Lives of the Twelve Caesars. In the first place, there is the idea that an imperial dynasty is founded by a morally strong man, who proved his strength and virtue by fighting for his position. After describing how Julius Caesar destroyed the Roman republic in a civil war, Suetonius dwells at great length on the greatest of all Romans, Augustus, the founder of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. His successor Tiberius is presented as a weaker man: his reign is essentially an egotistical usurpation - something that becomes obvious after reading about his sexual behavior. His successor Caligula is a cynical monster, Claudius a bureaucrat, Nero incompetent.

After this dynasty, a new civil war breaks out (book 7: Galba, Otho, Vitellius), whereas book 8 describes Vespasian, Titus, Domitian - a repetition of the earlier story about the strong founder of a weak dynasty. The story of the Flavian dynasty is essentially an appendix to show that history is repeating itself. It can be read as an attack on Hadrian, who was also the successor of a "founding emperor", Trajan.

Suetonius' attention for private lives has earned him a reputation as a slanderer - someone who loves scandals. This is beside the point. His second theme is a simple but important question: how do you cope with power? If you have absolute power, you can do whatever you want, and only a very strong man (Augustus, Vespasian), is able to remain morally correct. People of lesser stature (the rest, except Titus) will abuse their power. This is more or less the same message as taught by modern gossip magazines, and alhough it is a simple philosophy, it runs deep.

This page was created in 2003; last modified on 25 July 2015.