Suetonius, Nero’s Dreams, and Biographical Memory

Several years ago, back in Spring 2011, I took a graduate course taught by prominent Classics scholar Marilyn Skinner on ancient biography and Suetonius’ Life of Nero. One of the most interesting sections of the biography is a series of Nero’s dreams that Suetonius describes (chapter 46), prior to his downfall as a Roman emperor:

“Although he had never before been in the habit of dreaming, after he had killed his mother it seemed to him that he was steering a ship in his sleep and that the helm was wrenched from his hands; that he was dragged by his wife Octavia into thickest darkness, and that he was now covered with a swarm of winged ants, and now was surrounded by the statues of the nations which had been dedicated in Pompey’s theatre and stopped in his tracks. A Spanish steed of which he was very fond was changed into the form of an ape in the hinder parts of its body, and its head, which alone remained unaltered, gave forth tuneful neighs.”

There is a lot to unpack here, and I think the process of doing so will reveal how the preservation of memory was not always such a reliable process, even in historiographical biographies. For historical-critical purposes, I will also be drawing some comparisons between Nero’s dreams and those of Jesus’ father Joseph in Matthew 2:13 and 2:19-20, in which he is warned to take Jesus and flee to Egypt.

Suetonius was an author who had a rather uncanny interest in dreams. Not only does he describe a number of dreams attributed to Roman emperors, but we even have an outside source that (vaguely) describes one of Suetonius’ own dreams. In Pliny the Younger’s Epistles (1.18), he writes to Suetonius about a dream that Suetonius had previously corresponded with him about:

“You say in your letter that you have been troubled by a dream, and are afraid lest your suit should go against you. So you ask me to try and get it postponed, and that I will have to put it off for a few days, or at least for one day. It is not an easy matter, but I will do my best, for, as Homer says, ‘A dream comes from Zeus.'”

What’s remarkable here is that Suetonius apparently took dreams so seriously, that he even tried to make changes to a court case he was involved in, out of fear of what he had experienced (and what it could perhaps foretell). We do not know the details of Suetonius’ dream, but Pliny advises him to try and reinterpret the dream “to a prosperous issue,” implying that the dream must not have been very good.

All of this is very interesting to consider, when analyzing Suetonius’ description of Nero’s nightmares above. Nero is given many signs of dark things to come, and the question that came before the class I took under Dr. Skinner was: How the heck did Suetonius know what Nero’s dreams were?

Here we had a fruitful classroom discussion. Dr. Skinner pointed out how Suetonius describes awareness of certain documents belonging to Nero, such as a written speech that was later found in his desk (Life of Nero 47.2), and likewise describes personally examining the documents of other Roman emperors. For example, Suetonius mentions multiple letters belonging to Augustus, and even describes the peculiarities of his handwriting (Life of Augustus 87.3). Could Suetonius have known of letters, or perhaps a diary, in which Nero wrote about his dreams?

I proposed an alternative explanation: I think almost every detail in these dreams serves a rhetorical function that provides ample context for invention. 

First, let’s lay out all of these somnial moments in order:

  1. Nero loses control of a ship at the helm.
  2. Nero’s former wife Octavia (whom he killed) drags him into a dark place.
  3. Nero is swarmed by winged ants.
  4. Statues surround and close in on Nero in Pompey’s Theatre.
  5. A Spanish horse is transformed into a chimera with the rear-end of an ape.

Dreams #1 and #4 are the most obvious in what they symbolize. Let’s start with the fourth dream:

“[Nero] now was surrounded by the statues of the nations which had been dedicated in Pompey’s theatre and stopped in his tracks…”

Nero was the last emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Julius Caesar, although he was not really an emperor, had been credited with creating this dynasty, and indeed, Suetonius writes his first biography about him in his Twelve Caesars. How did Julius Caesar die? Why, he was assassinated by a group of Roman senators surrounding him in, you guessed it, Pompey’s theatre.

Julius Caesar was said to collapse before a statue of Pompey Magnus when he died, perhaps implying a form of revenge after Caesar’s defeat of Pompey. Could these statues, by surrounding Nero during his dream, perhaps symbolize that the Roman Senate would take vengeance on him? I think this is the likely interpretation we are supposed to draw.

Now let’s take a look at at dream #1:

“Although he had never before been in the habit of dreaming, after he had killed his mother it seemed to him that he was steering a ship in his sleep and that the helm was wrenched from his hands…”

I don’t think you even need to be a Classicist to catch much of what this means: Nero has lost control over the ship of state. But there are also some other subtleties going on here. Suetonius states that Nero had this dream some time after killing his mother (Agrippina the Younger), which is a significant detail.

Suetonius writes that Nero hatched a number of plots against Agrippina, before eventually being able to carry out her execution (chapter 34). One of them, which is rather bizarre and elaborate, is that he had supposedly made a collapsible boat, which he then tricked Agrippina into boarding, only to afterward have it sunk while she was aboard. But, the plan failed when Agrippina managed to escape by swimming.

The fact that Nero loses control over a ship likely alludes to this incident, and it’s noteworthy that it involves retribution for something he had done to a family member. Thematically, it also leads smoothly into dream #2:

“[Nero] was dragged by his wife Octavia into thickest darkness…”

Claudia Octavia was Nero’s first wife, whom he likewise had put to death in 62 CE (a few years after killing his mother). The fact that two family members pop up here, and the nature of the dreams themselves, clearly point toward the vengeance of family.

Dream #3 about the winged ants presented the class with some confusion. What could this possibly mean?

“[Nero] was now covered with a swarm of winged ants…”

But here I was able, by drawing on my knowledge of Suetonius, to offer a parallel passage. In his Life of Tiberius (72.2), Suetonius describes a strange portent that Tiberius receives, when making preparations to re-enter Rome after a decade of retirement on the island of Capri (the very island featured at the top of this blog!). Tiberius had not once visited Rome during all those years away, and he was anxious at how the Roman people might receive him. It is at this moment when Tiberius receives his portent:

“He had among his pets a serpent, and when he was going to feed it from his own hand, as his custom was, and discovered that it had been devoured by ants, he was warned to beware of the power of the multitude.”

Tiberius heeds the warning and cancels his plans of returning to Rome. But what’s interesting here is that it sheds light on Nero’s dream #3. The example with Tiberius’ pet snake shows that ants can be used to represent the common people. Through being swarmed by ants, therefore, I think the implication is that the Roman people would take vengeance upon Nero.

Dream #5 is by far the most bizarre, and the one I am the least certain how to interpret:

“A Spanish steed of which he was very fond was changed into the form of an ape in the hinder parts of its body, and its head, which alone remained unaltered, gave forth tuneful neighs.”

Let’s start with one of the easier parts of this. It is very noteworthy that Suetonius describes the horse as being of Spanish origin. As it turned out, the Roman emperor Galba, who successfully overthrew and then replaced Nero, began his revolt against him in Spain, where he was a governor at the time. The Spanish origin of the horse is very likely alluding to this, and so that part is thus easier to interpret.

It is also noteworthy that the horse is giving forth “tuneful neighs” (hinnitus canori). Nero was known for fancying himself as a performing artist. He played the lyre and would give performances of his singing. So the fact that this chimera horse is singing likewise seems to indicate that it is a reflection upon Nero himself.

But why have the horse transformed into a chimera, specifically with the body of an ape in its hindquarters? Here I’m just not sure what the ape symbolizes. I mean, I think we can all grasp that it is an insult to call someone a monkey’s ass. But I don’t know why an ape, in particular, is the animal of choice. Almost every other detail of the dreams, however, I was able to describe in terms of the symbolism above.

So here is how I think we should interpret the sequence of dreams:

  1. The loss of control over the state.
  2. The vengeance of family.
  3. The vengeance of the Roman people.
  4. The vengeance of the Roman Senate.
  5. The reflection of Nero’s true nature.

Now, these dreams are of course meant to be prophetic, so shouldn’t they symbolize such things? Well, sure, but it’s also easy to see how such stories could have been invented, after Nero had died, to elucidate on various aspects of his life. And we certainly have little historical grasp on knowing the content of what Nero’s actual dreams were, when we have no writing about them from him, and only hear stories about them from a later author.

Now, it need not necessarily have been Suetonius himself who invented these dreams. As the The Encyclopedia Britannica (Volume 26, pg. 21) observes:

“In addition to written and official documents, [Suetonius] picked up in society a mass of information and anecdotes, which, though of doubtful authenticity, need not be regarded as mere inventions of his own.”

There was a lot of political gossip in Rome about the lives of its various emperors, and stories like this often take shape around common archetypes, themes, and tropes. We see Nero being compared to Julius Caesar, for example, references to Nero’s past misdeeds, and prophecies of past wars.

Now, how does this all relate to the Gospel of Matthew and the dreams of Jesus’ father Joseph? Well, as seen above, I do not trust Suetonius’ description of Nero’s dreams to be historically reliable. So why should I think that Joseph’s dreams historically occurred?

First off, Suetonius is probably writing chronologically closer to Nero’s dreams than the author of Matthew is writing to Joseph’s. Suetonius states that Nero began to have these dreams after he murdered his mother Agrippina (59 CE). Suetonius is thought to have written his Twelve Caesars around 121 CE. That places us about sixty years between the supposed event and its description in literature.

The Gospel of Matthew (2:13) places Joseph’s first dream prior to the death of Herod the Great, which took place in 4 BCE. Joseph’s second dream (2:19-20) takes place shortly after Herod’s death. As I discussed in my radio debate with Christian scholar Craig Evans, the dating of the canonical Gospels can be a rather murky affair, but I think it is reasonable to place the Gospel of Matthew sometime between 70-90 CE. Let’s just say it was composed c. 80 CE, to keep things simple. That would put a distance of roughly eighty years between Joseph’s alleged dreams and when they are narrated in the Gospel of Matthew.

Second, as I discuss in my article “Ancient Historical Writing Compared to the Gospels of the New Testament,” Suetonius is a far more fastidious historian when it comes to citing evidence and his sources: throughout his Twelve Caesars he cites an array of letters, inscriptions, personal artifacts, public records, etc. Even still, The Encyclopedia Britannica notes above how Suetonius “picked up in society a mass of information and anecdotes … of doubtful authenticity.”

Now, the Gospel of Matthew cites virtually no historical sources that the author used. We can tell, from a very large number of parallel passages (often verbatim), that the author must have used the Gospel of Mark as a source. And the author probably also had access to a Q (“source”) text of Jesus’ sayings, based on sayings that are found in both Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark. But other than that, we really are much more in the dark about the author’s sources.

Christian apologists will of course say that the Gospel authors nevertheless had access to oral traditions. But if Suetonius “picked up in society a mass of information and anecdotes … of doubtful authenticity,” it’s very likely that the author of Matthew did the same.

But there is one set of sources that the author of Matthew does cite very frequently, and it is a very early group of sources, far earlier than the sources used by Suetonius, and even earlier than the life of Jesus himself: the Old Testament. These are not historical sources, but rather literary sources, and they are called upon frequently to cite alleged fulfillments of prophecy. As biblical scholar Bart Ehrman (“Matthew’s Fulfillment of Scripture Citations”) explains:

“What is perhaps most striking about Matthew’s account is that it all happens according to divine plan. The Holy Spirit is responsible for Mary’s pregnancy and an angel from heaven allays Joseph’s fears. All this happens to fulfill a prophecy of the Hebrew Scriptures (1:23). Indeed, so does everything else in the narrative: Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem (2:6), the family’s flight to Egypt (2:14) Herod’s slaughter of the innocent children of Bethlehem (2:18), and the family’s decision to relocate in Nazareth (2:23). These are stories that occur only in Matthew, and they are all said to be fulfillments of prophecy.”

As noted above, the whole affair about Joseph fleeing to Egypt is wrapped up in how the author of Matthew uses the Old Testament as a source. It is also rife with comparisons between Jesus and Moses.

Following the account of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Matthew, King Herod learns, after being visited by a group of traveling Magi, that the king of the Jews has been born in Bethlehem (Mt. 2:1-7). Herod then sends the Magi to Bethlehem in order to locate the child (Mt. 2:8), but when they do not return, he then orders for all of the male children in Bethlehem under two years of age to be killed (Mt. 2:16). Before Jesus can be killed with them, however, his father Joseph is warned in a dream to flee to Egypt (Mt. 2:13), and so baby Jesus escapes the slaughter.

In the Book of Exodus (1:22-2:1-8), the Pharaoh of Egypt gives an order for every newborn Hebrew male to be thrown into the river Nile and drowned. Baby Moses narrowly escapes this fate, when he is put in a basket, sent down the river, and later rescued. To draw an allusion to the Old Testament, the author of Matthew very likely used the story of Herod’s slaughter, so that baby Jesus could also escape a similar fate. The fact that Jesus’ father Joseph even flees into Egypt (Mt. 2:13) makes the allusion to Exodus all the more clear.

The two dreams in Matthew are used chiastically to frame the flight to Egypt, and set up part of this parallel to Moses. They aren’t as interesting as Suetonius’ dreams. The first one (2:13) gets Jesus there:

“When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. ‘Get up,’ he said, ‘take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.'”

The second dream gets him back (Mt. 2:19-20):

“After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.'”

But between these two slices of plain white bread, it’s the meat at the center that matters (Mt. 2:14-18):

“So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

 ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.'”

Now, I noted above how I think that one of Nero’s dreams was possibly invented (though not necessarily by Suetonius himself), to draw a parallel with Julius Caesar. Here in the Gospel of Matthew, the whole affair with Herod slaughtering the infants and Joseph fleeing to Egypt, I also think, could have been invented to draw parallels with Moses (notably, no other canonical gospel refers to this incident).

But it didn’t even need to be invented by the author of Matthew himself. If the dreams served as a framing device for a pericope about Jesus being taken to Egypt, and then being called out of Egypt, it could have been part of an oral tradition or even possibly a written source. But, if the early Christians thought of Jesus as a second Moses, and thought that he would do things like him, it’s easy to see how such a story could gradually take shape over the years, without actually being a veridical event in Jesus’ life (probably few people knew the details of Jesus’ childhood, even during his lifetime).

Regardless, if I can doubt Nero’s dreams in Suetonius, I see no reason why I cannot exercise equal skepticism toward Joseph’s dreams in Matthew. And that has nothing to do with a “bias against the supernatural/miracles” or “having a naturalist worldview.” Read what I said above again carefully. I never once appealed to such philosophical arguments. What I did do was apply the same kind of literary and historical-critical analysis to the Gospel of Matthew, as I would for another ancient text. And that permits one to doubt this particular story in Matthew on the grounds of history alone.

-Matthew Ferguson

This entry was posted in Ancient Biography, Classics, Dissertation, Exegesis, Historical Jesus, History, Literary Theory, Religious Studies, Weird Stuff from Antiquity and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Suetonius, Nero’s Dreams, and Biographical Memory

  1. Arkenaten says:

    Excellent, Matthew! I’ll bet you get invited to all the coolest Christian Apologist parties.
    To paraphrase Life of Brian: ”He’s (gMatthew) making it up as he goes along”.


  2. busterggi says:

    Made things up?? Next you’ll say that there was Secretary present to take dictation from Jesus for the bibke.

  3. Mike says:

    Thank you for posting about this topic. I didn’t previously recognize the Jesus-Moses parallels in Matthew until you pointed them out. Thomas Paine summed up the topic of Joseph’s dream quite more simply: “So wonderful and irrational is the faculty of the mind in dream, that it acts the part of all the characters its imagination creates, and what it thinks it hears from any of them is no other than what the roving rapidity of its own imagination invents. It is therefore nothing to me what Joseph dreamed of; whether of the fidelity or infidelity of his wife. I pay no regard to my own dreams, and I should be weak indeed to put faith in the dreams of another.”
    Even if Jesus did perform miracles, the question of what agent (a devil, an angel, a god, God) caused it is entirely open to speculation and especially so if they’re trying to identify a particular agent (Yahweh, Allah, Vishnu, Zeus, Athena, Beelzebub etc.).
    Finally, I have little respect for doomsday preachers and fire and brimstone preachers as they seek only to agitate hope and fear in men about the most speculative of matters. And who do you think these fear-mongering preachers get their inspiration from? Jesus as depicted in the New Testament of course! Jesus (according to the New Testament) loved preaching about hell and the end times. If I don’t trust these kind of preachers today, why on earth would I trust one from a whole 2,000 years ago?

  4. Leigh Sutherland says:

    Nice to have you back blogging Matthew, the memory thing is the topic of the moment for a number of scholars, it doesn’t seem to be as reliable as once thought.

  5. O'Brien says:

    It’s good to see you blogging again, Matthew. I have reservations about the skeptical approach you take to Suetonius’s description of Nero’s dream, however. Is there any positive reason for thinking that the description was invented? Suetonius seems to be a pretty reliable historian, after all, and one would expect evidence that he was inventing things or using obviously unreliable sources like rumors. You mention the details of the dream as being ripe for invention, but why couldn’t Nero’s dream have reflected fears that he had (e.g. Nero fears vengeance from the people, so he has dreams of being swarmed by ants)? The psychology of dreams seems to allow for this, so why couldn’t it have happened here?

  6. Celsus says:

    Hi O’Brien, I think it is important to take a comparative literary approach, when analyzing dreams in ancient literature like this. They appear a lot less reliable, when one remembers that ancient literature was rife with highly-symbolic dreams, often attributed to emperors, which just seem too convenient. Take, for example, a couple of dreams that Herodotus attributes to the Median king Astyages:

    “Astyages had a daughter, whom he called Mandane: he dreamed that she urinated so much that she filled his city and flooded all of Asia” (1.107.2).

    “Astyages saw a second vision. He dreamed that a vine grew out of the genitals of this daughter, and that the vine covered the whole of Asia” (1.108.1).

    Both of these dreams are meant to foretell the rise of king Cyrus, who later overthrows Astyages. And yet how would Herodotus know that these dreams veridically occurred? Astyages died over a century before Herodotus was composing his Histories. They seem to function more as narrative devices, foreshadowing future events, than actual psychological phenomena.

    In the case of Nero, we first have to ask, did Nero even remember his own dreams accurately, in this vivid of detail? And if so, did he write them down quickly? And was that writing preserved? And did Suetonius have access to it? And even then, did Suetonius not play with the material at all? Did he write about the dreams in the exact order of sequence, or did he arrange them rhetorically? (The dreams do seem to become more dramatic and vivid one by one). And did Suetonius not add any details to the dream?

    Or, was Suetonius picking up anecdotes in society about a controversial emperor, and perhaps adding his own imagination at points, while fashioning a dramatic narrative, at a time when historiographical practices were considerable more flexible?

    At the very least, this passage is not one which invokes a great deal of confidence.

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