Suetonius (Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Suetonius (Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus)

Suetonius (Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus) (ca. A.D. 69-after 130) Roman historian, biographer, and essayist

Writing toward the end of Rome’s silver age of literature, the chronicler known simply as Suetonius reviewed the lives of emperors up to the accomplishments of Hadrian, the 14th emperor. Born in North Africa, Suetonius was the son of a soldier and lived a boyhood of some privilege, including a superior education. His father, a war hero from Hippo Regius (present-day Annaba, Algeria), set him an example of civic duty. After purchasing a modest estate in Italy, Suetonius observed Roman customs and politics as a civil servant during the reigns of Trajan and Hadrian. In his early 40s, he took a moderate stance by siding with the Roman senate in matters of principle and choice. He joined the government entourage of PLINY THE YOUNGER to the Black Sea at Pontus (present-day eastern Turkey), where both observed the workings of imperial rule in a remote territory. At age 53, Suetonius lost his position as imperial clerk because of an alleged discourtesy to Hadrian's wife, Empress Vibia Sabina. In retirement, the author wrote on biography, history, customs, politics, Greek linguistics, grammar, Pliny's letters, and the verses of HORACE, LUCAN, and VIRGIL. The date of his death is not known.

Like theGreek biographer PLUTARCH, Suetonius obsessed over personal details of great leaders. His list ranged from Julius Caesar, Rome's first dictator for life, to the first 11 emperors—Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian. In Divus Augustus (The divine Augustus), book 2 of his famous De vita Caesarum (Lives of the Caesars, ca. A.D. 121), the historian characterizes the first emperor as an idealist who established the empire in 27 B.C. as the best solution to the turmoil left by Julius Caesar's assassination in 44 B.C. and the ensuing 17 years of civil war. With obvious favoritism, the author lauds Augustus for reviving senatorial prestige and for initiating the Pax Romana, two centuries of territorial growth and prosperity. The narrative reprises Rome's humiliation under Germanic forces on September 11, A.D. 9, in the Teutoburg Forest (present-day Saxony), where local tribes slew 20,000 members of the 17th, 18th, and 19th legions. Suetonius reveals the emperor in a frenzy, banging his head against palace walls and wailing for his soldiers' return. As a result of the loss, the Roman military those three legion numbers retired.

Imperial Contrasts

More damning than his account of an emperor's despair at a signal defeat for the Roman army are Suetonius's explicit judgments of Augustus's successors. The narrative reveals disgrace and degradation succinctly and impartially. Book 4 examines the basis of Caligula's faults and charges him with innate hostility, viciousness, and resultant mental degeneracy. Book 6 condemns Nero as a grandiloquent exhibitionist, a sexual deviant, and a despoiler of the innocent. The narrative asserts that Nero molested freeborn boys, sullied married women, and raped Rubria, a vestal virgin. As his sanity deteriorated, his vices worsened: “He castrated the boy Sporus and actually tried to make a woman of him; and he married him with all the usual ceremonies, including a dowry and a bridal veil … and treated him as his wife” (Suetonius 1920, 131). The final book also impugns Domitian for cunning and spur-of-the-moment executions of people who displeased him. Suetonius asserts that “the penalty which Domitian paid for his avarice and cruelty was fully merited” (281).

In contrast to the worst of the Julio-Claudian line, Emperor Vespasian, a general who rose from the ranks, stands out among Suetonius's more positive histories. Because of the rubble left by a devastating fire and public rioting, Vespasian led a clean-up crew and began restoring records dating to the city's foundation. He broke ground for a temple of peace adjacent to the Forum and another to the memory of the Emperor Claudius. Of public altercations, Vespasian commanded, “Unseemly language should not be used towards senators, but to return their insults in kind is proper and lawful,” a gesture toward freedom of speech (303).

In Scorpiace (Antidote for the scorpion's sting, ca. A.D. 211), the Carthaginian polemist TERTULLIAN used Suetonius as a source by quoting Lives of the Caesars as proof that Nero was the first Roman emperor to murder Christians. The dignified style of Suetonius's literary biography influenced Einhard's Vita Caroli (The Life of Charlemagne, ca. 840), a personal memoir of CHARLEMAGNE, and Robert Graves's palace tell-all I, Claudius (1934), the subject of an award-winning 1976 television series starring Derek Jacobi in the title role.


Griffin, Miriam T. Nero: The End of a Dynasty. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Kelly, Christopher. The Roman Empire. Oxford: Oxford

University Press, 2006.

Suetonius. Suetonius. Translated by J. C. Rolfe. London:

William Heinemann, 1920.