Part One (b): Who was Suetonius?

Now that we’ve gotten to know Plutarch, let’s ask: Who was Suetonius?

Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus was born ca. 70 AD, at the ascendancy of the Flavian dynasty (emperors Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian). Unlike Plutarch, Suetonius was born a Roman citizen into an equestrian family. His father initially served as tribune in the short-lived faction of emperor Otho before defecting with his legion to Vespasian in 69 AD. Having grown up in Rome, Suetonius relied on the patronage of Pliny the Younger throughout his career and in support of his efforts as an author.

hadrian
Trajan and his successor Hadrian (pictured here) were considered two of the “Five Good Emperors” under whom the Roman Empire saw the height of its territorial expansion and a new era of stability.

Suetonius held three positions in the service of the courts of emperors Trajan and Hadrian (98-138 AD): he oversaw research, the imperial library, and managing imperial correspondence. He maintained these roles until his dismissal from the imperial court after falling to disfavor, allegedly for some breach in propriety with the emperor’s wife. Nevertheless, his career gave him unparalleled access to the source materials needed to create a credible account of his subjects’ lives in the Lives of the Twelve Caesars.

Beyond writing biographies of the emperors, Suetonius also wrote about the lives of famous authors and famous “courtesans.” While his hallmark may have been his commitment  to the biographical genre, like his peers, he wrote about a similar spectrum of diverse topics including geography.

It is difficult to disentangle any  personal perspective Suetonius may have held towards the imperial system. The author’s style was powerfully objective and laser focused, insomuch as any author of the period was. In contrast from his peers in historical literature, Suetonius’ commentary is strictly concerned with his subjects, their personalities, the choices they made, and the sum total of their lives. He frames these aspects within the socio-culturally conditioned vocabulary of virtue (and vice). He leaves the task of forming an opinion of how these factors might have affected history for the reader using their own knowledge of historical events.

We might interpret Suetonius’ stylistic commitment to a focused and objective narrative (a conscious choice in itself) as a neutral assent to the socio-political fact of the imperial system, complete with advantages and flaws alike. It is almost as if he means to portray the strengths and weaknesses of his subjects as parallels to the strengths and weaknesses of the contemporary reality.

Despite Suetonius’ obscuring style, we get a tiny clue from his account of Augustus’ consideration for retirement from public affairs in Augustus 28 and its mildly positive tone. He might have viewed the role of emperor and its supporting organizational structure as, at the very least, necessary. A career spent serving in the imperial court might also support the notion, although this idea stemming from this evidence alone is tenuous.

Because of the apparent neutrality of Suetonius’ own perspective, it will be necessary to explore the sources that Suetonius might have used in researching his own work. The surviving perspectives of those authors will have inevitably shaped the narrative of our author in question. But before we start diving into the sources of our sources, we should explore the genre of classical biography and learn a little bit more about why our authors wrote and who they were writing for.

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