Introduction: Researching Roman Biographical Literature

As mentioned before, one of the primary focuses of my research is to conduct a critical reading of classical  literature to address the question: “How did the Ancient Romans perceive the sociopolitical changes of the last century BC and first century AD, summarized by the end of the Republic and beginning of the Empire?”

For those not familiar with the changes of the period in question, simply put, they culminate in the transition from the limited democracy of the Roman Republic to the somewhat autocratic Roman imperial system. This is an important period for ancient Rome. The changes defined the course of history for Roman civilization into Late Antiquity and influenced the the social, cultural, political, and religious landscape of Europe through the Middle Ages. Not only is this topic important for understanding post-Roman history, but it is incredibly relevant for understanding the mechanics of our present day society. Our periods of interest, commonly referred to as the Late Republic and the Early Empire, saw a major change in the reality that was Roman society. These changes were largely due to the military and political successes of the Romans abroad, especially the repeated victories over the Carthaginians in the second century BC. Wealth and land had begun to accumulate under select patrician aristocrats and a few upstart commoners. Veterans returning home from war found themselves poor and homeless. Conversely, privileged Romans had unprecedented access to luxurious goods, slaves, and the decadent lifestyle that came with them from all across the Mediterranean. These factors created pressure on Roman social organization. A few individuals from the ruling classes seized the opportunity to catapult themselves to supreme power, while others fought vehemently to bring about a revival of traditional Roman customs.

Sound a little familiar? We know all of these things because of the myriad authors who lived and participated in the events of the period. Further, Roman historians in the centuries following these changes continued to be transfixed on these events in their writing, and from this, we can surmise that these were changes that augmented the fundamental sense of identity for the ancient Romans.

The corpus of historical literature that comes from and addresses this period is huge, so I must pare down this research to utilize a few works intensively. To that end, I have chosen to focus on the biographical literature of Plutarch and Suetonius. These authors  are unique because of their chosen writing style. They wrote a series of biographies with the subjects being the biggest participants in the events of this crucial period. The advantage to choosing these authors in terms of the research question at hand lies in their specific focus on the individuals who were credited with affecting the changes that happened. We can probably surmise that some of the sentiment of the Romans towards their changing society was the same sentiment that carried for the leaders involved, and the source material that Plutarch and Suetonius used to build their biographies would have encapsulated some of that feeling.

While Plutarch has written many biographies in a collection called the Lives, Penguin Classics has compiled selections relevant to our period of interest in a volume called Fall of the Roman Republic
Suetonius wrote biographies of the lives of the first 12 emperors of Rome. Versions of the works of both of these authors can be found cheaply if not for free in ebook format, even on Amazon.














One challenge I must face reading any source left from the ancient world is that they record the perspective of one individual (i.e. the author). If they participated in the events they write about, they would often report those events from a partisan perspective (we are talking about a time of civil war, afterall). If they didn’t participate, or are decades if not centuries removed from those events, the authors are writing based on information drawn from a list of their own historical sources. In other words, we are hard pressed to not chalk up their work to hear say.

Fortunately, modern historical scholarship provides us with some lines of questioning that can be used to decode primary sources and frame research questions that are within the power of our sources to answer. These questions revolve around contextualizing both the author and the literature they wrote. For instance, the author did not exist in a vacuum; instead, they were writing in a world where important events unfolded daily and they lived with the effects of important past events.

The author also did not simply come out of the womb with a stylus and tabula in hand, ready to write about their subject. They had to learn to write and develop a distinct style. Thus, understanding who their influences were gives us power in approaching what they wrote and how they chose to write it.

Similarly, it is valuable to consider what the author’s source of information was. Even if the author was alive for the events they chose to write about, it serves to confirm details and establish multiple viewpoints through dialogue with other witnesses. In the more likely scenario that the author wasn’t present, the author will almost certainly be corresponding to witnesses who were. In the case of historical literature as a whole, authors often weren’t even alive for what they chose to write about. Instead, they learned about events from their own readings or had some interaction with witnesses. In time, this lineage of information will shed details and embellish others. Knowing an author’s sources and comparing accounts within them helps to get modern readers a little closer to the “truth.”

Lastly, we must consider the audience the author was intending to write for. Authors tend to take on a voice and a mode of presentation depending on the message they are trying to convey and who they are conveying it to. Sometimes, authors are very overt in expressing this detail. Other times, we have to dissect the language and themes of the presentation itself in order to consider who the work is intended for.

In the upcoming posts, we will subject Plutarch and Suetonius and their works to these approaches. After we’ve done so, we can establish some grounds from which we can begin to answer our initial question: “How did the Ancient Romans perceive the sociopolitical changes of the last century BC and first century AD, summarized by the end of the Republic and beginning of the Empire?”


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