Sunday, 27 March 2011

In Conclusion...

Over this blog, it has been my task to discern the value of three particular verses with Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars. I have assessed the objectivity of the extract, the motives and influences which may have affected what Suetonius wrote and how he wrote, and I have also looked at what we can learn about Ancient Rome from this extract.

In the first section, I used secondary sources to judge whether Suetonius was being objective in the extract, and from looking at his style of writing at other parts of The Twelve Caesars I believe I can say quite confidently that Suetonius is an objective historian.

In the second section, I looked at Suetonius’ place in the class system, and his position as private secretary to the Emperor Hadrian, to see if there was anything which may have influenced his writings. Ultimately I came to the conclusion that Suetonius did not seem to show a bias to his own class, though one motive may have been to appeal to the general Roman populace with scandal and intrigue.

Finally, I assessed the value of the extract. I came to the conclusion that the value does not necessarily lie in the extracts information on Caesar, but how it was written. The style seems to appeal to a population that demands gossip, in that sense they are not so different to modern populations.

In Conclusion, I can say that The Twelve Caesars gives us an insight into the pleb, the regular people in the city, how they enjoyed to hear gossip about the establishment, and the more scandalous the better.


Braund DC (1985) Augustus to Nero: A Sourcebook on Roman History (31 BC – AD 68). Beckenham: Croom Helm Ltd.

Charlesworth MP (1950) ‘Nero: Some Aspects’ in The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 40, Parts 1 and 2. p. 69-76.

Cochran LR (1980) ‘Suetonius' Conception of Imperial Character’ in Biography, Volume 3, Number 3. p. 189-201.

Coulston, J & H Dodge, eds (2000) Ancient Rome: The Archaeology of the Eternal City, Oxford:  Oxford University School of Archaelogy.

Goodman, M (1997) The Roman World: 44BC – AD180, London: Routledge.

Griffin, MT (2001) Nero: the End of a Dynasty, London: Routledge.

Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews XX.8.3.

Martin R.H. (1985) The Classical Review (Volume 35). Oxford: Oxford University Press

Mellor, R (1999) The Roman Historians, London: Routledge.

Potter, DS, eds (2006) A Companion to the Roman Empire, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Pseudo-Seneca, Octavia

Shotter, D (2005) Nero (2nd edition), London: Routledge.

Starr, CG (1982) The Roman Empire: 27 B.C. – A.D. 476, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Suetonius (1979) The Twelve Caesars, London: Penguin Books.

Tacitus (1996) The Annals of Imperial Rome, London: Penguin Books.

Wallace-Hadrill A (1983) Suetonius: The Scholar and his Caesars, London: Duckworth.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

What Value does the source have?

From the previous posts, I have come to the conclusion that the account of Nero’s life in verses 27 to 29 in Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars is an objective account, Suetonius tries to give as balanced a view of the emperor as he can in the circumstances. Suetonius appears to be one of the first historians to take priority in historical accuracy for future generations, rather than purposefully painting the image of the past in a good or bad light to deny the right for the reader to make an objective decision.

Suetonius’ place in the Roman class system helps us understand how equestrians viewed the emperors. Suetonius’ objectivity in The Twelve Caesars suggests that equestrians did not perceive the establishment too negatively. If Suetonius did think negatively on the Caesars, he does well to restrain himself in not berating them.

Much of the description of the lives of the emperors concerns their private lives rather than historical events that they were involved in. This shows Suetonius’ knowledge of the Roman populations’ demands. Much of the information involves the sex lives and scandal of the lives of the emperors. This is present in verse 29 of the biography on Nero when the freedman Doryphorus marries Nero and Doryphorus makes sounds like a woman being deflowered when in bed with Nero. Another example of this is in verse 28 where Nero rapes the Vestal Virgin Rubria.

This information shows that the demand for what can be called gossip was present among the Roman populace and that in this case, the Roman population was not that different as people of the modern day. They still enjoyed hearing scandals about the celebrities of the time.

This shows that verses 27 to 29 of The Twelve Caesars can help with understanding of two different things. Firstly, the extract can give an insight into the personality of the Emperor Nero, his madness, his paranoia, his eccentricities. The extracts’ objectivity enables the reader to feel rather conclusively that Nero was in fact mad, without suspecting that the author has embellished the account to make you feel negatively towards the emperor.

Secondly, the extract gives us an insight into the Roman society. The extract seems to focus on private things about the emperors, rather than events or things of importance. This suggests that the demand for gossip was present in Roman society as well as modern societies.


My aim in this section was to ultimately explain what we can gain from the source. I thought about it for a while and tried to think if there was anything other than the obvious, that Nero was a madman, but could not think of anything. I then did some more research to try and find what other people thought that The Twelve Caesars helped us understand but could not find anything different.

I eventually thought that maybe the attention Suetonius gives is on scandalous information rather than important events the emperors were involved in. This would suggest that the target audience was for a society that demanded gossip and scandal.

I came to the conclusion that this was an accurate statement, and decided that it showed a similarity to the tabloid magazines of the modern day, though I was also sceptical because I doubt much of the population would have read it, I do not know how literate the general population was, if I was to do a more in depth investigation that would be an area to receive attention.

In the final section, I will be concluding the blog. I will look back at the previous posts, summarise them and state definitively the value of verses 27 to 29 of the Life of Nero in The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

The Motives and Influences on Suetonius writing...

To many historians, Suetonius is perceived as one of the most reliable classical historiographers on the lives of the Roman emperors. This is due to how Suetonius rarely states his own opinions and makes little effort to reach decisions about the characters he is writing about. Combined with this, the availability of information which Suetonius had as private secretary to the Emperor Hadrian also helps him to be perceived as a reliable historian.

Suetonius had access to the imperial archives while he worked as private secretary for the Emperor Hadrian, It was during this time that he began writing The Twelve Caesars, though he is likely to have lost access to the archives at some point due to being dismissed by the Emperor Hadrian. Historians believe he was dismissed during or after writing the biography on the Emperor Augustus, so information on the Emperor Nero may be more prone to gossip.

Strangely, as a member of the rank of equestrians, it would be expected that Suetonius would speak against the establishment, but his writings seem fairly complimentary of the establishment, an observation which Ronald Martin observed in his review of Suetonius: The Scholar and his Caesars by Andrew-Wallace Hadrill.

“Suetonius accepts the traditional hierarchy of social graduations and clearly approves of a consensus of omnes ordines. It is this ordinariness that makes what Suetonius says so important for our understanding of his society.”
(Martin R.H. (1985) The Classical Review (Volume 35). Oxford: Oxford University Press)

This possible bias in favour of the emperors may even make the source more reliable. If Suetonius is trying to write in favour of the Emperor Nero, then when he writes negative comments about him, Suetonius is likely being truthful. It may in fact be true that the Emperor Nero was worse than Suetonius portrays him because Suetonius may have left out even more abominable acts but did not want Nero to be portrayed even worse.

From this analysis it seems that the reliability of the account of Nero in The Twelve Caesars is disputable. On the one hand, the lack of Suetonius’ own opinions and his lack of a desire to make a judgement on the Emperors shines favourably upon the reliability of Suetonius’ writings, though the fact that he lost access to the Imperial archives before writing the account of Nero’s life, makes his account prone to gossip and not totally dependable.


It was in this section that I sought to explain why the source may not be reliable, not if it is or is not, yet it is difficult to do that without coming to some sort of conclusion as to whether I believed the source to be reliable or not, yet I did not want to say anything definitive as I was writing in the main section and I wanted to save anything conclusive for the conclusion. It appears to be difficult to maintain a hypothesis sometimes without concluding too ultimately.

For this section I used two main sources other than The Twelve Caesars. I used the review of Suetonius: The Scholar and his Caesars in The Classical Review by Andrew-Wallace Hadrill. This was a useful secondary source in explaining how Suetonius’ place in the Roman class system did not make him biased against the emperors that in fact he appears to have been in favour of the emperors.

I also used the introduction of The Twelve Caesars written by Michael Grant who also explained about Suetonius' position as an equestrian, but also how he lost his position shortly after writing the account of Augustus, which puts the reliability of the biography on Nero into question.

I seek to continue with the point I feel I was leading onto from the quote from the review, that Suetonius’ place in society is useful in assessing how equestrians viewed their emperor and the establishment.

In the next section I will be explaining how the biography on Nero in The Twelve Caesars can help us understand about the emperor and about Roman society.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

How reliable is Suetonius...?

“...some of which have departed from the truth of facts out of favour, as having received benefits from him; while others, out of hatred to him, and the great ill-will which they bare him, have so impudently raved against him with their lies...” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews XX.8.3)

In the Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus states that many historians had lied about the life of Nero. In The Twelve Caesars, Suetonius’ description of the reign of the Emperor Nero is generally negative. Earlier in the biography to the verses I am assessing, Suetonius states “I have separated this catalogue of Nero’s less atrocious acts – some deserving no criticism, some even praiseworthy – from the others; but I must begin to list his follies and crimes” (Suet, Nero 19).

This could suggest two things; Suetonius may genuinely be trying to be objective, but has reached the end of the good things to say about Nero by verse twenty, or Suetonius may be trying to be perceived as being objective, by suggesting that he has tried to be objective but must resign himself to explaining a lot more acts of depravity than acts worthy of praise, he can make his work look more reliable.

In Nero, David Shotter devotes a chapter to discuss whether Nero was a Hellenistic monarch or a Roman megalomaniac.

Nero appears to have suffered from an immature and inadequate personality: the frantic striving for attention and the childlike frustration when he was disappointed suggest this.” (Shotter, D (2005) Nero (2nd edition), London: Routledge. p 56)

There may be evidence for Nero wanting to be a Hellenistic monarch from his freeing the Greeks and granting them immunity from taxation. To the Roman, the Greek civilisation was associated with art, something it appears Nero was greatly fond of. It may be possible that others saw this as un-Roman, so they gradually turned against him. This is turn may affect how historians have written about Nero’s life. It may be possible that eccentricity has been confused with madness.

Shotter also describes in Appendix IV (Shotter, Nero. p 96-98) of the same book, that the accounts of Nero by Tacitus, Cassius Dio and Suetonius have enough similarities to indicate the use of common source material.

To try to verify this comment, I will find similarities in Tacitus' The Annals of Imperial Rome. In The Annals of Imperial Rome, Tacitus mentions Doryphorus as an ex-slave who was poisoned for opposing the emperor's marriage with Poppaea, yet that is all that is said about him. In The Twelve Caesars, Doryphorus was Nero's freedman whom he married. In this there are similarities and differences. The names being the same suggests that the historians got information from the same place, though the differences in what is said about Doryphorus makes both sources disputable. The accounts do not contradict each other, but it seems strange that one source should leave out the other fact if they knew about it.

This makes the risk of Suetonius’ work being unreliable more difficult to tell, so looking at other sources is fundamental to answer the question as to whether Suetonius is being objective in The Twelve Caesars.

SENECA: It’s wrong to decide rashly against relatives.

NERO: The man without fear may easily be just.

SENECA: A great cure for fear is clemency.

NERO: To wipe out the enemy is the general’s greatest virtue.

SENECA: To save citizens is a greater virtue for the father of his country.
(Pseudo-Seneca, Octavia, 438-44)

In this extract from Octavia, Nero seems to be a paranoid individual. In Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars Nero can be seen to be a paranoid figure, in the frequent assassination attempts on his mother for fear of her power. This suggests that Suetonius’ account of Nero may be accurate in describing the reasons for his madness, if he was in fact mad.


I have found this section challenging. It is difficult to analyse the reliability of a source from ancient times. The process for analysing a piece of evidence from a crime in the modern day, can involve in depth forensics, DNA and fingerprints, to determine whether someone was at a certain location and participating in crime at that time, yet assessing whether someone was mad around two thousand years ago is an incredibly difficult process. My immediate thought when asked to determine whether something is reliable is to look for something that we can be certain is reliable, yet that is very rare when assessing a historical source from two thousand years ago, it is impossible to say whether anything is reliable from that time.

To find sources to compare Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars with I looked in the book Augustus to Nero: A Sourcebook on Roman History: 31 BC – AD 68 by David C. Braund. This book has a section on sources about the emperors. There are numerous descriptions of coins and busts, which I tried to figure how they could be used to compare with Suetonius’ account of Nero’s life, but in this I failed as I did not see anything particularly unique about them compared to those of other Roman Emperors. What was useful was a speech made to the Greeks in which they were granted freedom and immunity from taxation.

 In the next section I am going to write about the influences and motives upon Suetonius’ writing. I am wondering whether there is a lot to say about this, and am wondering whether I will need to compensate by adding more to another section if I cannot write so much in this section.

Monday, 21 March 2011


Suetonius’ 'The Twelve Caesars' is a biographical work on the twelve Caesars from Julius Caesar to Domitian. Suetonius wrote the work whilst working as private secretary to the Emperor Hadrian, which gained him access to the imperial archives. With this source of information he produced The Twelve Caesars.

The Emperor Nero is an interesting character to read about in The Twelve Caesars. Suetonius portrays the emperor as a mad and eccentric tyrant. In this blog I will show how Suetonius is portraying the Emperor Nero, and explain whether he is likely be being objective and if he is not, why he is not. To do this, I will be using three verses from Suetonius’ biography on Nero, from verse 27 to verse 29.

In the verses I will be looking at, Suetonius describes a number of obscenities Nero commits, such as committing incest with his mother and castrating a boy to try and turn him into a girl, followed by then marrying him. The questions which need to be asked are, ‘Is Suetonius being objective in his writing?’, ‘why might he not be?’ and ‘what value does the source have?’.