It will perhaps be gratifying for many people to know that a book written almost 2000 years ago still contains within it the themes that make a more modern book rise to the top of a best seller list. Suetonius’ famous work has within it all the elements that would make an author of today very very rich. We have palace gossip, mixed with murder, sex and incest combined with politics and history to make a juicy read.
What of course makes this work very interesting, is that it isn’t a novel. Rather it’s a work of biography by a man who lived not many decades after the first of the Roman emperors described and who remembers the later ones from his childhood (his father served in the legions of Emperor Otho.
Suetonius describes the twelve emperors who followed the collapse of the Roman Republic towards the end, of what we would call the first millennium. His writing doesn’t criticise too much, he’s “deadpan” (borrowing a word from the introduction by Michael Grant) and lets his description of the events and activities colour your perception of the particular emperor. In fact it’s easy to fall into a sort of “1066 and all that” attitude – Good Emperor, Bad Emperor etc.
The first thing that strikes you – apart from the readability (a mark of an excellent translation) and the similarities to modern writing – is that Roman life was brutal and brutality was part of life. You may be surprised by the readiness with which life was sacrificed, or with which rape, assault and incest became part of ruling class life, but this surely is the reality of a society based on the economy of slavery. When humans are the base commodity of your social system, life becomes very meaningless.
The second thing that I noticed, was the way that religion and “mysticism” where part of every day life.
Note this turn of phrase here:
“At last, after nearly fourteen years of Nero’s misrule, the earth rid herself of him”
or note how, with every emperor described, Suetonius describes the signs and portents that marked their career. Here is his description of the omens predicting Claudius’ death, they
“included the rise of a long-haired star, known as a comet, lightning that struck his father’s tomb and an unusual mortality among magistrates of all ranks.”
Suetonius is never mocking or critical of these omens. He describes them in as much detail, and with as much importance as the description he gives of the physical characteristics of the emperors or the outcome of their battles. For him, such prophecies are part of reality, and not myth. Reports of an eagle landing when a particular child was born may be for us a myth after years of retelling. For Suetonius it was reality.
If you are looking for the day to day realities of Roman life, you won’t find it here. This is history from above. But Suetonius had access, at least for a while, to some of the most important archives of Imperial Rome. He describes powerful leaders, with unlimited powers of life and death, with followers who hung an their every word, who believed that they had a special connection to the Gods. In this context alone, his writings describe a world that has now disappeared, but which bears an uncanny resemblance to our own.