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Suetonius

(c. 69 - after 122 CE)

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Suetonius in the illustration from the Nuremberg Chronicle.

Suetonius (Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus) was probably born around 69 CE in Italy. Roman writer and historian, creator of the biography of Roman emperors. He wrote in both Latin and Greek.

He was from the equite status. The date of his birth is drawn from his texts, in which he mentions himself as a “young man” twenty years after Nero’s death. His father, Suetonius Laetus, was a military tribune (tribunus angusticlavius ​​) to the Thirteenth Legion, where he fought at Bedriakum in the Otho troops, of which Suetonius informs Otho in his life.

Suetonius was educated in Rome, where schools of rhetoric were established en masse at that time. He was friends with Tacitus and was in close contact with Senator Pliny the Younger. Most of the information we have about Suetonius comes from the correspondence of Pliny. Pliny describes Suetonius as a quiet and intellectual man devoted to writing. Moreover, we know that Pliny helped him buy a small property, and in one of his letters he interceded for Suetonius with Emperor Trajan. The point was that Suetonius lived in a childless marriage, which was against the law ius trium liberorum (“the law of three children”). This law was introduced in 18 BCE. and 9 CE, with the aim of increasing the population of the upper classes. A man who had at least three children was exempt from participating in the so-called munera – construction work for the Roman people (populus Romanus), performed by the upper classes. Moreover, thanks to Pliny the Younger, Suetonius became a writer favoured by Trajan, and then by Hadrian. It is possible that Suetonius between 110 and 112 CE belonged to the administration of Pliny, who held the office of proconsul in Bithynia (northern Asia Minor). Under Trajan, he was a secretary and managed the archives.

About 120 CE he became secretary of the chancellery of imperial Hadrian. As a secretary, he had access to the archives, manuscripts and private correspondence of the emperors. However, he was released soon, because in the opinion of the emperor Suetonius got into a too-close relationship with the empress Sabina. It was then that he devoted himself to literary work.

Literary activity

Suetonius’ main work is the famous Lives of the Caesars (De Vita Caesarum), probably written during the reign of Hadrian. They contain biographies of the twelve Romans: Julius Caesar (the first few chapters are lost), Octavian Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus and Domitian. They are an important source, supplementing Tacitus’s account (which, for example, does not include Caligula, because the relevant books of Annals of Tacitus have not survived). The work was dedicated to his friend Gaius Septicius Clarus, Prefect of the Praetorian Guard. The special value of the biography lies in the description of the imperial customs. Each biography, to a greater or lesser extent, maintains a triple division. In the beginning, a part discussing the events in the life of the emperor (not always respecting the chronology), his origin, office held; then describes the features of the character and appearance of the ruler (species), and in the final parts death, always preceded by oracles.

Apart from the Lives of Caesars (De vita Caesarum), a fragment of the work About famous speakers and teachers (De grammaticis et rhetoribus), which are part of a larger whole About famous husbands (De viris illustribus). There we can also find biographies of Terentius, Lucan and Horace. Some of his lost works are quoted by later authors and by Book of Suda. Other works concerning everyday life in ancient Rome, politics, oratory, ancient science and even prostitutes, have not survived to our times.

In the biography of Claudius Suetonius mentions an undefined figure Chrestos: Iudaeos impulsore Chresto assidue tumultuantes Roma expulit (“he expelled the Jews from Rome for being constantly uprooted by some Chrestos”)1.

He died after 122 CE.

Footnotes
  1. Suetonius, Claudius, 25
Sources
  • Cytowska Maria, Literatura rzymska. Okres cesarstwa, Warszawa 1992
  • Grant Michael, Greek and Roman Historians. Information and Misinformation
  • Lewandowskiego Ignacy, Historiografia rzymska
  • Pliny the Younger, Letters
  • Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars
  • Wipszycka Ewa, Vademecum historyka starożytnej Grecji i Rzymu, Warszawa 1982

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