• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Suetonius - Lives Of The Caesars - Preface To Podcast

Updated: Nov 4, 2021

I can think of no other subject more deserving of the historian’s efforts, nor gratifying to the reader’s curiosity, than the Roman empire and the lives of its many Caesars. To say the very least, this is a theme of enduring interest, a timeless topic by which both the academic in his professorial chair, and the layman reclined on his sofa, cannot but be entranced.


Well-established is the old adage that Rome is the one city in the world to which, no matter their distance, all roads will eventually lead—like a hundred rivulets disemboguing into a mighty Latin ocean. We understand this in a physical sense, but it obtains culturally just the same. If we were to dare to retrace our steps, and to seek without bias for the origins of our customs, laws, and life, for our beloved habits, mores, and institutions, we’d sooner find ourselves passing in front of the Pantheon en route to the Basilica of Peter. We’d taste the delicate sweetness of the ancient air by which the Palatine is perfumed, from which we gaze upon the depths of the Colosseum’s dank, subterranean chambers.


In short, that eternal city marks our point of convergence, and we go there hopeful to learn all that we can. Historians and readers alike, we all join in making this most dignified and enriching of journeys, from which great wealth is to be reaped, and luminous wisdom gained.


After a prolonged interregnum, inaugurated by the expulsion of Tarquin the proud by Brutus the mute, royalty had, at long last, returned to Rome. It did so at first in the figure of Julius Caesar, a man for whom, at this point, introductions are hardly needed. In brief, as a commanding general, Caesar’s military genius was undeniable; as a chaser after women—the trait over which, bound in their modesty, our textbooks prefer silently to pass—his amorous appetite was quite near unslakable. One’s left only to wonder—of which of the two, land or the gentler sex, was he the more accomplished conqueror?


I hate to disappoint, but we must reserve a study of his sexual exploits for another day. We focus, rather, on his wonderful achievements as a soldier.


In the theater of war, he subdued Gaul and vanquished that nation’s legendary hero, Vercingetorix—one of the most tenacious barbarians with whom Caesar ever contended. Then, from France, he marched his legion to the banks of the babbling Rubicon, across which, after casting high the mysterious die of fate, he unhesitatingly waded. Proceeding south, he chased his erstwhile colleague, Pompey, across Italy and then eastward toward Greece, along whose undulating coast the two forces came to blows. He then pursued Pompey to the land of the Nile, that ancient world over which the descendants of Ptolemy still presided. To his horror, he was greeted by the news that his elusive enemy was already dead.


Caesar was, upon the completion of his liaison with Cleopatra and his return to Rome, named dictator for life. This unexampled boon was short-lived, for Caesar was stabbed twenty-three times in the Theater of Pompey. At the youthful age of fifty-six, well before he could enjoy the rewards of this new lifetime appointment, he was killed by a conspiring coterie in the senate. Pompey’s Theater: it was a foreboding venue into which, dismissive of all warnings, the newly-minted dictator too carelessly marched. The final wound was the product of another Brutus, a republican martyr and, until Caesar’s very last breath, the dictator’s unacknowledged son.


The one honorific denied him, imperator, or emperor, was reserved for and, later, bestowed upon his adopted son and successor, Octavian. Dissatisfied with the all-too-human sound of his given name, Octavian exchanged it for something grander. Many replacements were suggested to him. Eventually, he narrowed them down to two: Romulus or Augustus. He feared that the former might emphasize a bit too overtly his kingly aspirations. It was the name of Rome’s founder, and brother Remus’s murderer. The latter befit the loftiness of his self-regard, and so he was re-named: Emperor Caesar Augustus.


Thus, began the long succession of the Caesars, a history to which three of Rome’s most important writers dedicated their studies.


The first is Plutarch. Writing in Greek, he sought, more than anything else, the moral improvement of his readers. He composed his Lives for the edification of his countrymen, and for the benefit of a posterity into whom he hoped his lessons would be deeply instilled. He couldn’t extricate himself from the influence of Greece, which led him to pair every noble Roman with a Greek of proportionate merit. Alexander the Great, for example, was depicted as the analogue of Julius Caesar, just as Lycurgus was cast in the role of Numa’s equal.


Tacitus, his contemporary, wrote his Annals and his History in a far less moralizing tone. He wanted, rather, to produce eloquent and concise Latin prose by which the history of Rome and its emperors could be faultlessly conveyed. He was less susceptible to the embellishments of his colleagues, and was unswerving from the straight path of chronological order. He achieved his laudable aim, and still we read him with enjoyment today.


Finally, there’s Suetonius. He is, by any measure, the least distinguished of the three. Neither the date nor the location of this birth are affirmed with any certainty in the historical record. He was probably born around AD 70, coincident with the Roman siege of Jerusalem during the reign of Vespasian, in either northern Africa or Italy. He seems to have risen from obscurity with the help of a few well-placed friends, and found himself happily employed by the imperial court. Under the reign of Hadrian, he was appointed chief librarian of Rome, a job that granted him access to countless archives and personal letters. All of a sudden, this upstart writer had at his disposal many volumes of manuscripts and correspondences, troves of gossip and data to which none but he was privy.


Before his unceremonious dismissal from the imperial court (he’s said to have been “too familiar” with the emperor’s wife, Sabina), he gathered enough information from these sources to write his most famous work, Lives of the Caesars. His project began with a depiction of Julius Caesar—the father and fount of all subsequent Caesars—and ended with one of Domitian. It spanned the Julio-Claudian and the Flavian dynasties, which, combined, lasted around one-hundred and twenty-three years.


When writing about these dozen Caesars, Suetonius is seldom flattering. Of the twelve emperors included, three stand out as the recipients of his unwonted kindness: Julius Caesar, Augustus, and Vespasian. To these three men, he’s noticeably deferential. As to the rest, no similar charity is extended. They are, rather, the victims of what can be, at times, Suetonius’s dagger-sharp pen, and a burning imagination that has, on occasion, the tendency to consume itself. When given the choice between tales of intrigue to scandalize, and parcels of truth to educate his audience, he always opts for the former. Calumny is to be preferred to veracity, and he knew how best to keep his reader’s attention fixed.


When dealing with such grotesque figures as Caligula and Nero, we forgive him this bias. In the stories he tells about these two monsters, no exaggeration is deemed too large. He’s content to stretch the truth if, by so doing, he’s better able to further sully these detestable men.


Is this something for which we ought to deplore Suetonius? Should we exclude him from the ranks of the great historians for this fault? I think not. Do we not itch, after all, to hear every bit of Caligula’s and Nero’s depravity, even if it’s slightly contrived? Suetonius stands ready to satisfy us, and, for this reason, we mustn’t be too harsh in our judgment of him.


Still, we must recognize that we, his readers, are not the beneficiaries of a writer entirely faithful to the facts, but are rather the dupes of a man purveying dubious but entertaining tales. And thus, we proceed to delve into Suetonius, always ballasted with a hefty grain of salt.


The excerpt I’m prepared to read is from Suetonius’s entry on Nero. What an extraordinary subject for our amusement and contemplation! The student of a Stoic, the child of a schemer, Nero is one of the oddest personalities to have graced history’s unpredictable stage. Suetonius, perhaps more than any other writer, is responsible for the image we have of this unusual man.

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