C. Sueto'nius Tranquillus
The little that is known of Suetonius is derived from his lives of the Caesars and the letters of his friend, the younger Plinius.
He states that he was a young man (adolescens) twenty years after the death of Nero (Nero,
100.57.), and Nero died A. D. 68. Accordingly he may have been born a few years after Nero's death.
In his life of Domitian (100.12) he speaks of being present at a certain affair, as adolescentulus.
It appears from various passages in his work that he might have received oral information about the emperors who lived before he was born, at least Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. His father Suetonius Lenis (Otho,
100.10), a tribune of the thirteenth legion, was in the battle of Bebriacum or Bedriacum, in which Otho was defeated by Vitellius.
The words Lenis and Tranquillus have the same meaning; but there may be some doubt about the reading Lenis, in the passage in the life of Otho.
In the collection of the letters of the younger Plinius there are several to Suetonius Tranquillus, from one of which (1.18) it appears that Suetonius was then a young man and entering on the career of an advocate.
In another letter (1.24) he speaks of his friend Tranquillus wishing to buy a small estate, such as suited a man of studious habits, enough to amuse him, without occupying him too much. Suetonius does not appear to have been desirous of public employment, for he requested Plinius to transfer to a relation, Caesennius Silvanus, a tribuneship, which Plinius had obtained for Suetonius (3.8).
In a letter of uncertain date (5.11) Plinius urges Suetonius to publish his works (scripta), but without giving any intimation what the works were; Plinius says that he had already recommended the works of Suetonius in some hendecasyllabic verses, and jocularly expresses his danger of being called on to produce them by legal process (ne cogantur ad exhibendum formulam accipere).
In a letter to Trajanus (10.95) Plinius commends to the emperor the integrity and learning of Suetonius, who had become his intimate friend, and he says that he liked him the better, the more he knew him : he requested the emperor to grant Suetonius the jus trium liberorum, for though Suetonius was married he had no children, or at least had not the number of three, which was necessary to relieve hint from various legal disabilities.
The emperor granted the privilege to Suetonius.
Suetonius became Magister Epistolarum to Hadrianus, a situation which would give him the opportunity of seeing many important documents relating to the emperors.
In a passage in the life of Augustus (100.7). Suetonius makes mention of his having given to the Princeps a bronze bust which represented Augustus when a boy.
The critics generally assume that the Princeps was Hadrianus ; but it is immaterial whether it was Hadrianus or Trajanus, so far as concerns the biography of Suetonius. Hadrianus. who was apparently of a jealous disposition, deprived of their offices at the same time, Septicius Clarus, who was Praefectas Praetorio, Suetonius Tranquillus, and many others, on the ground of associating with Sabina the emperor's wife, without his permission, and apparently during the emperor's absence in Britain, on terms of more familiarity than was consistent with respect to the imperial household. (Spartian. Hadrian.
Suetonius wrote many works, a list of which is given in Suidas (s. v. Τράγκυλλος
), De Ludis Graecorum, lib. i.; De Spectaculis et Certaminibus Romanorum, libri ii.; De Anno Romano, lib. i. ; De Notis, on the notae or marks used in writing, which may have been a treatise on the Roman short hand; De Ciceronis Republica; De Nominibus propriis et de Generibus Vestium; De Vocibus mali ominis; De Roma ejusque Institutis et Moribus, libri ii.; Historiae Caesarum, libri Octo; Stemma illustrium Romanorum.
He also wrote some other works of which fragments have been discovered : De Regibus, libri iii.; De Institutione Officiorum; De Rebus Variis; and others.
There are still extant, and attributed to Suetonius, Vitae Duodecim Caesarum, or the twelve Imperators, of whom the first is C. Julius Caesar and the last is Domitian; Liber de illustribus Grammaticis; and Liber de claris Rhetoribus; neither of which is contained in the list of Suidas; Vita Terentii, Horatii, Persii, Lucani, Juvenalis, Plinii Majoris, which also are not included in the catalogue of Suidas.
Lives of the Caesars
The chief work of Suetonius is his lives of the Caesars which, as it appears, were sometimes distributed in eight books, as they are in some manuscripts.
The authorities which he followed for the several lives have beer diligently examined by Augustus Krause (De Suetonii Tranquilli Fontibus et Auctoritate,
Berlin, 1841). Krause gives some reasons for supposing that Suetonius consulted the historical writings of Tacitus, and he argues, that as Tacitus did not write his annals before A. D. 117, in which year Hadrian succeeded Trajan, Suetonius did not write the lives of the Caesars before A. D. 120.
This is not very satisfactory, though it must be admitted that there are many expressions in Suetonius, which closely resemble the expressions in Tacitus ; and Suetonius, a grammarian (grammaticus), was likely enough to copy particular phrases. Indeed Suetonius often quotes Senatusconsulta and other documentary evidence in the very words, which Tacitus as a general rule did not.
These lives of Suetonius are not and do not affect to be historical : they are rather anecdotical. and in the nature of Mémoires pour servir. His authorities are the writings of the Roman emperors themselves and those of their freedmen, Epistolae. Orationes, Testaments, and other documents of that kind; public documents, as Senatusconsulta, Fasti, inscriptions, and the Acta of the Senate and the people; also the Greek and Roman writers on Roman history.
He also learned much from conversation with those who were older than himself, and he would know something of Titus and Domitian at least, as he was a young man during their reign. Suetonius does not follow the chronological order in his Lives, but he groups together many things of the same kind, as he says himself (Augustus,
100.9). His language is very brief and precise, sometimes obscure, without any affectation of ornament.
He certainly tells a prodigious number of scandalous anecdotes about the Caesars, but there was plenty to tell about them; and if he did not choose to suppress those anecdotes which he believed to be true, that is no imputation on his veracity.
As a great collection of facts of all kinds, the work on the Caesars is invaluable for the historian of this period. His judgment and his honesty have both been attacked by some modern critics; but we are of the same opinion as Krause that on both grounds a careful study of his work will justify him.
The friendship of the younger Plinius is evidence in favour of the integrity of Suetonius, and Vopiscus, no great authority, it is true, calls him a most accurate and impartial writer (Flav. Vopisc. Firmus,
100.1; compare the Life of Probus, 100.2).
Those who attack the credit of Suetonius must conduct the assault with more ability and judgment than H. Heisen in his absurd essay, entitled " Dissertatio de Imperatoria majestate a primis Historiae Augustae conditoribus indignissime habita." (Symbol. Litt. Bremen.
tom. i. iii.)
The treatise De Illustribus Grammaticis
and that De Claris Rhetoribus
are probably only parts of a larger work, for Hieronymus says in a letter to Desiderius, " I have written a treatise on illustrious men from the time of the Apostles to our own age, imitating therein Tranquillus and the Greek Apollonius." (Casaubon's note on the title of the work De Illustribus Grammaticis.)
These two treatises contain a few biographical and other notices, that are occasionally useful.
It has been conjectured that the few scanty lives of the Latin poets, already enumerated, belonged to a larger work De Poetis. If this conjecture be true, the short notice of the elder Plinius may not be by Suetonius, and Casaubon will not allow it to be his.
But the opinion as to the book De Poetis is merely a conjecture.
A work entitled De Viris Illustribus
, which has been attributed both to Suetonius and the younger Plinius, is now unanimously assigned to Aurelius Victor.
Fragments of Greek works.
The editions of Suetonius are very numerous. Before A. D. 1500, fifteen editions had appeared, a proof that the Lives of the Caesars were favourite reading. The oldest edition with a date is that of Rome, 1470, folio.
The best of the early editions is that of I. Casaubon, Geneva, 1595, and Paris, 1610
A small edition by J. Schild, Leiden, 1647
, contains a selection of useful notes. One of the most useful editions is that by P. Burmann, Amsterdam, 1736, 2 vols. 4to., with a selection of notes from the principal commentators, the fragments of Suetonius, inscriptions relating to the Caesars, tables of the coins of the Caesars, and a copious index
. One of the latest editions is that of Baumgarten-Crusius, Leipzig, 1816, 3 vols. 8vo.
, which was again edited by C. B. Hase, Paris, 1828, 2 vols. 8vo.
There is an English translation of the Twelve Caesars by the industrious translator, Philemon Holland, London, 1606, folio.
Besides these there are four other English translations, the last of which is by A. Thomson, London, 1796, 8vo., " with annotations and a review of the government and literature of the different periods."
There are translations in Italian, French, Spanish, Dutch, German, and Danish.
Bähr's Geschichte der Römischen Literatur
contains the chief references for the literature of Suetonius.