Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus

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Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus

Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (ca. 70-ca. 135) was a Roman administrator and writer. In a life which covered the reigns of five emperors, he held various public offices and in his spare time wrote biographies of literary men and emperors.

Born probably at Hippo Regius (Bone) in North Africa, Suetonius belonged to a wealthy family of Italian origin and equestrian status. At an early age he went to Rome, where he received most of his education, and as a young man he started a career as a barrister, though before long he changed to teaching. By 98 he had become friendly with the younger Pliny, who encouraged him to publish some of his early writings.

In 102 or 103 Pliny obtained for him a commission as a military tribune in one of the legions stationed in Britain, but Suetonius declined the offer. When Pliny was sent to Bithynia as governor (109-111), Suetonius probably went with him. After Pliny's death he was helped by another friend, Septicius Clarus, who obtained various posts for him from the emperor Trajan, including appointments as a studiis, which put Suetonius in charge of the Emperor's personal library, and as a bibliothecis, which involved control of the public libraries of Rome.

In 119 Septicius became praetorian prefect, and at about the same time Suetonius was promoted by Hadrian to the important post of ab epistulis, which headed the secretariat that dealt with most of the Emperor's official correspondence. But he did not hold the post long: in 122 he and Septicius were both dismissed from their posts by Hadrian. Thereafter Suetonius lived quietly either at Rome or possibly at Hippo Regius until he died.

His Writings

A considerable number of short works, mostly on literary subjects, are ascribed to Suetonius, but these have all been lost. His first major work was the De viris illustribus, published between 106 and 113, which was a series of biographies of literary men. The original text has not survived, but the section on grammarians and several of the lives of the poets are extant in abridged editions.

This work was followed by the extant De vita Caesarum, of which the first six books, covering the Julio-Claudian emperors from Julius Caesar to Nero, were published between 119 and 122. Later, perhaps as late as 130, Suetonius added two further books, which dealt, much more briefly, with the three short-lived emperors of 69 and the Flavian dynasty.

These imperial biographies are not very profound works. Suetonius made some use, though certainly not enough, of the opportunities for access to the imperial archives which his official appointments gave him, but most of his material came from earlier writers, and he showed little critical sense in his assessment of their reliability.

Suetonius's Lives are collections of facts mixed with gossip, scandal, and sheer fiction, strung loosely together on a rough chronological thread. They provide the modern historian with much information and are particularly valuable for the details they record of the physical appearance of the emperors, together with some of their obiter dicta and other minor matters which at that time were regarded as beneath the dignity of regular history.

Further Reading

There is a complete translation of Suetonius's works, including what remains of De viris illustribus, by J. C. Rolfe in the Loeb Classical Library (2 vols., 1914). A good version of the imperial biographies is Robert Graves, The Twelve Caesars (1957). The best account of Suetonius and his work is G. B. Townend and T. A. Dorey, eds., Latin Biography (1967). There are brief accounts in most books on Latin literature, such as John Wight Duff, A Literary History of Rome in the Silver Age (1935; 3d ed. by A. M. Duff, 1964), and Moses Hadas, A History of Latin Literature (1952). The history of the emperors whose lives Suetonius recorded and of the period in which he himself lived is covered in Edward T. Salmon, A History of the Roman World from 30 B.C. to A.D. 138 (1944; 6th ed. 1968). The best account of the period of Julius Caesar and the Julio-Claudian emperors is in Howard H. Scullard, From the Gracchi to Nero (1959). □