A New Volume on Suetonius in English

As part of my blog series on ancient biography, I thought that it would be fitting to discuss a new volume that was published just earlier this summer (July 3, 2014) on the Roman biographer Suetonius Tranquillus.

SuetoniusThe new volume Suetonius the Biographer: Studies in the Roman Lives provides a much needed collection of  essays on Suetonius in English. I say that these essays are “much needed” in light of the fact that there as been a dearth of studies on Suetonius in English over the last several decades. The most recent English monographs on the author Andrew Wallace-Hadrill’s Suetonius: the Scholar and His Caesars and Barry Baldwin’s Suetonius — were both published in 1983. In addition to those, Richard Lounsbury published a short work on Suetonius — The Arts of Suetonius: An Introduction — back in 1987. But, aside from those, Suetonius has largely been neglected in English scholarship for about the last three decades. Even in foreign scholarship Suetonius has been neglected. Jacques Gascou’s Suétone historien is the largest study on Suetonius’ style in French (or any language for that matter), but even this monograph was published back in 1984. In German, Helmut Gugel’s Studien zur biographischen Technik Suetons has many good structural observations about Suetonius’ organization of material, but was published way back in in 1977. Clearly, Suetonius has needed some fresh scholarship, so I am really glad to see this new volume in English.

The volume is edited by Tristan Power and Roy Gibson. I have been following Power’s scholarship for some time in my graduate studies. Over the last several years, Power has published a number of articles on different aspects of Suetonius’ works, which have been very helpful for my own research. I received my M.A. in Classics at the University of Arizona in 2012 after completing a master’s thesis on Suetonius’ biographical structure. This new Suetonius volume discusses a number of topics similar with my recent graduate work, which I will discuss below.

Donna Hurley has an essay in the volume, titled “Suetonius’ Rubric Sandwich,” which discusses how Suetonius organizes the material in his biography. Hurley (pg. 25) compares Suetonius’ “rubric sandwich” to ring composition, which was the very subject of my master’s thesis! Hurley has previously published commentaries on Suetonius  Divus Claudius and An historical and historiographical commentary on Suetonius’ Life of C. Caligula  both of which I used extensively when doing research on the author.

In “Suetonius’ Rubric Sandwich,” Hurley (pg. 21) discusses how Suetonius encloses categorical rubrics within chronological end points, situated primarily around the birth and death of the subject:

“Suetonius’ biographies of the Caesars are acknowledged to follow a pattern in which rubrics, facts ordered by topic, are sandwiched into the chronologically obvious boundaries of an emperor’s birth and death. Furthermore, the pattern reaches back to ancestry and moves forward from birth with a description of his pre-imperial life. Accession prefaces events of his reign arranged by rubric.”

This chronological progression that Hurley notes from birth, to pre-imperial career, to the emperor’s accession, followed by categorical rubrics that are then bracketed by the narrative of the emperor’s death, is exactly what I have written about in some of my recent graduate work. In fact, just last academic quarter I completed a seminar paper — “Narration Per Tempora and Per Species in Suetonius’ De Vita Caesarumthat formalizes, with structural analysis of Suetonius’ Latin, the boundaries between Suetonius’ use of chronological and thematic narration.

Hurley also discusses how Suetonius uses divisiones (i.e. thematic divisions) at the center of the imperial biographies to separate the “public” from the “private” aspects of an emperor’s reign, particularly in the biographies of Julius Caesar and Augustus:

 “Suetonius separates the public emperor from the private man and makes this distinction as important an organizing feature as the separation of Augustus’ career from the surrounding frame. It is a second segment of the biography enclosed within the boundaries of birth and death and organized per species.”

Scholars have likewise long noted similar divisions of material in the biographies of the two of the most unpopular emperors, Caligula and Nero. In Suetonius’ Caligula (22.1), the biographer draws a distinction between Caligula “the emperor” and Caligula “the monster”:

“So much for Caligula as emperor; we must now tell of his career as a monster.”

A similar statement is made in Suetonius’ Nero (19.3):

“I have brought together these acts of his, some of which are beyond criticism, while others are even deserving of no slight praise, to separate them from his shameful and criminal deeds, of which I shall proceed now to give an account.”

A number of previous commentators have interpreted these statements to indicate a division between the “positive” and “negative” aspects of an emperor’s reign. However, I argue that structural analysis with some of the other imperial Lives shows that it is actually division between the “public” and “private” aspect an emperor’s reign [1]. This, I argue, can be demonstrated through the similar structural divisions in Julius (44.4):

“All these enterprises and plans were cut short by his death. But before I speak of that, it will not be amiss to describe briefly his personal appearance, his dress, his mode of life, and his character, as well as his conduct in civil and military life.”

As well as in Suetonius’ Augustus (61.1):

“Now that I have shown how he conducted himself in civil and military positions, and in ruling the State in all parts of the world in peace and in war, I shall next give an account of his private and domestic life, describing his character and his fortune at home and in his household from his youth until the last day of his life.”

In my seminar paper I argue that these divisiones have important exegetical implications. It is true that much of the second half of the biographies of Caligula and Nero focus on negative material, but this is not necessarily because the biographies are divided between “positive” and “negative” aspects of an emperor’s reign. Rather, I argue that, since the divisions are really between the “public” and “private” aspects of an emperor’s reign, the divisions suggest that all of the negative things Suetonius says about Caligula and Nero belong to the private aspects of their character. In other words, when tyrannical emperors abuse their power, Suetonius organizes his material so that it reflects badly on their personal character, rather than include it in the public aspects of their administration.

My seminar paper (pp. 27-40) identifies and formalizes divisiones in all twelve of Suetonius’ imperial biographies as important features of Suetonius’ biographical structure. Tristan Power (pg. 4) in another essay in the volume, titled “What is a Suetonian Life?,” also argues that Suetonius’ habitual use of the divisio is something that distinguishes him from “any known biographer in antiquity before him.”

The structural analysis of Suetonius’ De Vita Caesarum makes up part I of this volume, including, in addition to Hurley’s essay, two other essays Cynthia Damon’s “Suetonius the Ventriloquist” and Tristan Power’s “The Endings of Suetonius’ Caesars,” which likewise includes discussion of ring composition in Suetonius on pp. 73-76. Part II deals with the reading and exegesis of Suetonius’ biographies and part III deals with biographical thresholds.

With Tomas Hägg’s The Art of Biography in Antiquity also being published recently in 2012 (which likewise has many original insights about the ancient genre), it would seem that ancient biography is starting to gain some renewed interest in the field of Classics. My only regret is that Power and Gibson’s new monograph was not published before last quarter, since I was doing a seminar paper on Suetonius then. However, since my research shared many of the same observations as the essays in this volume, I am glad to know that I am not the only one to have made them! I look forward to more academic publications on the subject of ancient biography in the future.

-Matthew Ferguson

[1] Notably, I do have a disagreement with Hurley on this point. Hurley (pg. 28) argues that the central divisiones dividing “public” from “private” rubrics only occur in the biographies of Julius Caesar and Augustus: “The transition from the public to the private sphere that Suetonius points to so emphatically as a central divide in his Lives of Augustus and Caesar is not broadcast in the Life of Caligula or, indeed, in any of the Lives, except for the first two.” Here, I disagree with Hurley. In my seminar paper, Narration Per Tempora and Per Species in Suetonius’ De Vita Caesarum,” I argue that divisiones between “private” and “public” aspects of an emperor’s reign can also identified in Tiberius and Claudius (pp. 31-33), as well as in Caligula and Nero (pp. 29-31). For the Flavian Lives, the use of divisiones is more obscure and complicated, but I also identify similar patters in Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian (pp. 36-40). The only Lives to not follow the pattern, I argue, are those of Galba, Otho, and Vitellius (pp. 33-36). This is due to the short nature of their reigns during the civil war of 69 CE. Instead, these Lives are divided more between the rise and fall of each pretend emperor during the war. 

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4 Responses to A New Volume on Suetonius in English

  1. Shannon says:

    How affirming it must be to see other scholarly works parallel and shed light to your own research!

  2. Jack S-B says:

    Reblogged this on The HistoryJack Blog and commented:
    An excellent discussion of the dearth of Suetonius scholarship and a welcome reversal of this trend with new collections of papers on the great Roman biographer-historian.

  3. Michael Pusateri says:

    I would like to know if Suetonius’ account was the mullet a gift from a Christian who gave him
    the mullet?

    • Celsus says:

      There is absolutely nothing to suggest that. Suetonius makes no mention of the man being a Christian. He doesn’t even mention Christians until his Life of Nero.

      Tiberius retired to the island of Capri in 26 CE, before Jesus even died, meaning that this alleged episode could have even happened before Christianity began.

      Why would you think the fisherman was a Christian?

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