from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Bust in the Capitoline Museum , Rome

Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (German mostly Suetonius ; * probably around 70, † after 122) was a Roman writer and civil servant. Sueton's most important works are the imperial servants ( Latin De vita Caesarum libri VIII = eight books on the life of the emperors ), in which he describes the life of Caesar and the Roman emperors from Augustus to Domitian . For modern historians, his writings provide a valuable source of information about the life of Roman scholars and the first Roman emperors, although some of his information must be treated with caution, as Suetonius took much of his sources too uncritically.



There is no contemporary biography of Suetonius itself. Even the dates of his life can only be inferred roughly from his own, only partly surviving works. Important information can be found in several letters from the younger Pliny , who was Sueton's patron.


Suetonius was born around the year 70, which can be deduced from the fact that he experienced Domitian's time as a “young man”, adulescens or adulescentulus , according to his own description . He probably came from Hippo Regius , an originally Phoenician port city west of Carthage , which had belonged to the Roman Empire since the Third Punic War (149–146 BC). This is indicated by fragments of an inscription that appeared in Hippo Regius in 1951 and the content of which apparently applies to Suetonius. But also various cities in Italy ( Pisaurum , Lanuvium and Ostia ) were assumed to be hometowns on the basis of circumstantial evidence.

The family evidently had relationships with the imperial family for several generations. Suetonius quotes his grandfather as the source for an anecdote about Caligula . His father Suetonius Laetus belonged to the knighthood (equester ordo) and took part in the civil war in the four-emperor year 69 as a military tribune (tribunus angusticlavius) of the Legio XIII Gemina on the side of Otho . Other stations of his chivalric career, which could have included other officer and administrative posts, are not known.


Suetonius is likely to have received a proper education in the so-called artes optimae . This higher Roman education covered politics, law, rhetoric, philosophy, poetry, music, mathematics, astronomy and medicine. The subjects of this universal education, however, did not stand side by side on an equal footing. The greatest weight was given to rhetoric. Suetonius gives the name of one of his teachers, Princeps.


After completing his training, the young Suetonius worked as a court speaker in Rome, as shown by two letters from Pliny that belonged to Nerva's reign or the early years of Trajan . Later, in the first years of the 2nd century, he apparently gave up this activity in favor of writing.

The influential Pliny became Sueton's patron: he helped him buy a small estate near Rome. Pliny also ensured that Suetonius was granted the privilege of three children ( ius trium liberorum ) with Emperor Trajan . This right was actually a tax break for family fathers or mothers with at least three children. It exempted Suetonius from the marriage obligation that existed in the Roman Empire and made it easier for him to gain access to public office. For a member of the equestrian order, this usually began with military service. Pliny also supported Suetonius in this and helped to a military tribunate under Trajan. Suetonius did not take up the position at his own request, but had it transferred to a relative. Nevertheless, he was able to rise in the higher imperial administration. The inscription found in Hippo names a local priesthood ( flamen ) and the appointment of judge ( iudex selectus ) by Trajan as other functions . Pliny himself was appointed governor of the province of Bithynia et Pontus by the emperor Trajan around 111 . Suetonius, who is ten years his junior, was probably part of his retinue for about two years. Pliny died in Bithynia or shortly after his return and with that Suetonius had lost his patron. Despite this, Suetonius began a career at the emperor's court in the following years. At first he took over the office a studiis , which could not be precisely determined and which was perhaps concerned with archival tasks , then the supervision of Rome's public libraries ( a bybliothecis ); perhaps the two offices were also united. Suetonius was probably promoted by his new patron, the Praetorian prefect Septicius Clarus , who in turn had already been the patron of Sueton's old patron, Pliny.

In 117 Hadrian succeeded Trajan. Through his patron Septicius Clarus, Suetonius took over the post of epistulis , the management of the emperor's chancellery, around 121 . In this role he had significant political and administrative influence. High-ranking private individuals, but mostly civil servants or corporations, could ask the emperor questions about legal problems. The latter then had his office answer them in a polite letter ( epistula ). In the empire this expression of opinion had the force of law; this makes the influence of Sueton's office from epistulis clear. The other tasks of the office included the sending of imperial orders, correspondence with the provincial governors, the announcement of appointments and promotions and occasionally correspondence with foreign countries.

It was probably in 122 that Suetonius was involved in court intrigue (at least this is what the often unreliable Historia Augusta says ): His patron Septicius Clarus, himself and other members of the court were accused of violating the etiquette of the Empress Vibia Sabina and removed her from the court . The aim of the action was not Suetonius, but rather the removal of an old clique of officials who had already served under Trajan.

End of life

Since Suetonius had now fallen out of favor with Hadrian, he withdrew and devoted his rest of life exclusively to studies. Perhaps he lived until the fourth decade of the 2nd century, but no information has been passed on about this last phase of his life and only the large number of his writings suggests a longer lifetime.

Suetonius as a writer

Writing was less socially recognized in Rome than political or military activity. For members of the upper class, it usually remained a leisure activity, which is likely to have been the case for Suetonius for most of his life. Pliny the Younger characterizes Suetonius:

For parlor scholars like this one, as much land is sufficient as they need to take a nap.

Suetonius wrote a large number of works with historical, grammatical and scientific content, the majority of them in Latin, but some also in Greek. Most of these writings are lost. For example, only fragments of a large collection of writings De viris illustribus ( From the famous men ) from around 110 are still available: in their complete form it probably contained short biographies of celebrities in Roman literature; it had the chapters of poets, orators, historians, philosophers, as well as grammarians and rhetoricians. A little more than half of this last section, grammarians / rhetoricians, has survived; there are also two other biographies from other departments. Otherwise, De viris illustribus is only known from quotations from the following authors.

At least fourteen other works by Suetons are known from such quotations, e. B. About the games of the Greeks , of which nothing has been handed down in the original. Some attempts have been made to reconstruct some works from the quotations found.

De vita Caesarum

The most famous work Sueton, which appeared after 120: De vita Caesarum , the emperor's biographies , is almost completely preserved . Suetonius dedicated this eight-book publication to his patron Septicius Clarus. It contains twelve biographies of Roman monarchs: that of Gaius Iulius Caesar (until 44 BC) and the emperor Augustus (27 BC – 14 AD), Tiberius (14–37), Caligula (37–41 ), Claudius (41-54), Nero (54-68), Galba (68-69), Otho (69), Vitellius (69), Vespasian (69-79), Titus (79-81) and Domitian (81 -96).

Each biography stands for itself, the proportions are rather unequal: the first six biographies of the rulers from the Julian-Claudian dynasty are three to four times as extensive as those of the later emperors. The later biographies may only originate after Sueton's discharge from imperial service (122); Access to the imperial archives would therefore no longer have been open to him and his material base would have been correspondingly thinner. To what extent Suetonius made use of the imperial archives at all is more than questionable. Another explanation therefore tends to the fact that Sueton's other works (the surviving scholarly biographies and the lost Pratum ) deal largely with figures from the outgoing republic; the disproportionate length of Caesar's and Augustus' vitae can therefore be traced back to the fact that Suetonius already knew this period from his other works and had a correspondingly great knowledge of the material. The later biographies would only be an "appendage" to complete the series.

His work does not attempt to depict these twelve rulers in a common chain of history. Instead, he examines his objects individually and in detail in chapters, each devoted to different aspects: origin, public career, private life and sexuality, appearance and health, education and interests, religiosity, death.

Portraits and busts based on the emperor's biographies served to represent their rule at European royal courts.

Sueton's way of working

Like other ancient writers, Suetonius relied mainly on older literary works and only carried out source work to a limited extent, as is usual with modern historians. In some cases he also used inscriptions. He devoted particular care to the family and birth of the people portrayed, where he obviously tried to use all available sources. Suetonius quotes passages from other works such as wills or letters in numerous places, which in most cases were not archival finds, but came from contemporary writings. The extent of the use of oral reports remains unclear; Suetonius apparently only followed them when they came from someone he trusted (such as his father and grandfather).

Suetonius chose the form of biography, a relatively young literary genre at the time. In the biography there were several different currents, as far as the structure was concerned: Suetonius chose a biography , as it was usual for literary personalities. This form came from Alexandria and proceeded partly chronologically, partly thematically: the Roman reader was primarily interested in the person's cursus honorum and details from their life. Suetonius dealt with dreams, omens, miracles and anecdotes . An example of this can be mentioned again from the biography of Tiberius: Here the infant Tiberius almost betrays the flight of the parents.

In order to provide a better overview, the biography selected individual rubrics and followed a certain scheme: 1. Origin, 2. Youth and education; up to this point Suetonius continues chronologically, 3. military and political activity, 4. private life, 5. accidentals at birth and death, 6. death, burial and testament.

In this scheme, there is no uniform band that holds the bundle of information together: Suetonius fills out the scheme so consistently that the reader can easily find his way around. The chronology has been canceled in the “military and political activity” section. There are systematic categories here such as acts of war, buildings, lifestyle, etc. Finally, the chronological thread is taken up again at the end.

Sueton's systematization goes down to bizarre details: Caesar's lovers are classified geographically according to a) from Rome, b) from the provinces, c) from foreign royal courts. Otherwise the categories are sensibly chosen; there are e.g. B. a division into private life and public services, the character of the respective ruler is described by virtues and mistakes.

It is important to emphasize that the biography Suetonius chose was actually common for artists. Sueton's achievement was to have applied it to political figures after he had already applied the scheme to his biographies of literary celebrities, De viris illustribus .


Suetonius arranged everything under his rubric scheme, even his style: he often begins the chapters or paragraphs with the word that indicates the subject and subject of the entire chapter. His language is simple and clear, he uses introductory et , sed and autem (“and”, “but”, “against”); He is on guard against the bombastic expressions that were fashionable as one of the great styles of his time. But Suetonius cannot be attributed to the second major style, archaism , which tried to use old Latin forms. Rather, Suetonius stayed in the middle of these fashionable trends, his style is called classic. Of course, it has been criticized that he often looks inelegant.


Antiquity, Middle Ages and Renaissance

The beginning of De vita Caesarum in the London manuscript, British Library , Egerton 3055, fol. 2r (late 12th century)
Suetonius, De vita Caesarum in the manuscript Berlin, Staatsbibliothek written in 1477, Ms. lat. Fol. 28, fol. 73v

Suetonius exerted a great influence on later historiography with his works. Its traces can be traced back to late antiquity and the Middle Ages : the biographer Marius Maximus imitated Suetonius in style in the 3rd century, although he proceeded more verbose and even more anecdotal. His (now lost) biographies were a source of the Historia Augusta . In the opinion of most scholars, this was written at the end of the 4th / beginning of the 5th century, with the anonymous author also taking Suetonius as a model (cf. the allusions in the Viten des Pupienus and Balbinus [4, 5] as well as the Probus [ 2, 7]). Aurelius Victor continued Sueton's emperor biographies in a coarsened form in the 4th century; An important source for him was Enmann's imperial story , which was probably also designed in biographical form.

Sueton's biographies were also the model for two much-read Christian works: the church father Jerome wrote a literary history in the fifth century with the name De viris illustribus . In the ninth century, the biographer of Charlemagne , Einhard , based his Vita Karoli Magni on Sueton's idea of ​​rubrics, without, however, blindly following his model. Finally, during the Renaissance, Francesco Petrarca was inspired by Suetonius (De viris illustribus) .

Modern reviews

As Suetonius was suppressed as a model for biographies, so did the negative criticism of him. A view developed, especially in the 19th century, according to which Suetonius was not a real historian. On the one hand, Sueton's rubric scheme was often criticized because Suetonius transferred the usual form of representation for literary celebrities to political rulers. The division of life into categories is too mechanical; it prevents a classification in the historical development. Suetonius even listed related events in separate headings.

The second allegation concerns Sueton's narration of minor details. The critics say that a patchwork of anecdotes, for example, rules out a real analysis of the character of Tiberius and that there is no psychologically coherent overall picture. Suetonius simply put together his collection of material without criticism, so that what is irrelevant is equivalent to what is important. An example: Suetonius describes the forest fire in Tiberius' childhood just as extensively as his campaigns. Historically significant events lose weight considerably and the historical perspective is distorted. This point of criticism was also formulated as follows: Suetonius had the "perspective of a valet", his narrow perspective of the representation contradicted the size of the personalities portrayed.

In addition to criticizing the literary quality, it is also advisable to be skeptical about the content when reading Sueton's biographies. Suetonius often accepted the claims of his sources without criticism. Many anecdotes are based on some wild rumors and lack any neutrality. Especially as far as the many horror stories about numerous emperors are concerned, Suetonius should be understood more as a kind of ancient gossip reporter and not so much as a historically always reliable source, who in his writings often wanted to satisfy the sensation of his readers instead of giving facts.

In this criticism, however, the intention of Suetonius with his works is ignored: Tacitus and Suetonius are often compared side by side. Suetonius did not want to compete with Tacitus, his aim was not to give posterity an exact description of the epoch.

Rather, Sueton's intention was to write for his contemporaries. The historical connections were largely known to them, which is why Suetonius wrote an entertaining addition to the descriptions of Tacitus. Sueton's interest was in many areas, so it was convenient for him to organize the multitude of his details into categories. With his anecdotes, gossip, and all too human features, Suetonius suited the tastes of his readers: Interest in details was a typically Roman quality. His imperial servants are regarded by modern research as an important source for the early imperial era, in which he also conveyed important information.

Suetonius was in the tradition of the Roman laudation funebris , the funeral oration. These speeches at the funeral of the deceased, which were later recorded, were very similar to Sueton's biographies, aimed at entertaining or even satisfying curiosity. This intention also explains why Suetonius hardly wants to influence the reader politically or morally: He chose the rulers of Rome as acting characters because they were of the greatest importance for all inhabitants of the Roman Empire. He attached great importance to a description of the character, because he saw the life of the emperors less determined by their historical role than by their personality.


  • Maximilian Ihm (Ed.): C. Suetoni Tranquilli opera . Vol. 1. De vita Caesarum libri VIII. Editio minor, Leipzig 1908 (ND Stuttgart 1993).
  • Robert A. Kaster (Ed.): C. Svetoni Tranqvilli De vita Caesarvm libros VIII. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2016, ISBN 978-0-19-871379-1 .


  • Max Heinemann (translator): Life of Caesars. Kröner, Leipzig-Stuttgart 1936, 8th edition 2001, ISBN 3-520-13008-4 .
  • André Lambert (ed. And translator): Life of the Caesars. Artemis-Verlag, Zurich 1955 (numerous reprints).
  • Hans Martinet (transl.): The life of the Roman emperors. Patmos, Düsseldorf 2001, ISBN 3-491-96032-0 .
  • Hans Martinet (publisher and translator): De vita caesarum / Die Kaiserviten , Lat.-dt., Düsseldorf 1997, ISBN 3-7608-1698-3 .
  • Adolf Stahr (translator): Sueton's Kaiserbiographien. Stuttgart 1857; online at Google Books (classic German translation).


  • Michael von Albrecht : History of Roman literature from Andronicus to Boethius and its continued effect. Volume 2. 3rd, improved and expanded edition. De Gruyter, Berlin 2012, ISBN 978-3-11-026525-5 , pp. 1192-1209
  • Klaus Sallmann , Peter Lebrecht Schmidt : C. Suetonius Tranquillus. In: Klaus Sallmann (ed.): The literature of upheaval. From Roman to Christian literature, 117 to 284 AD (= Handbook of the Latin Literature of Antiquity. Volume 4). CH Beck, Munich 1997, ISBN 3-406-39020-X , pp. 14-53
  • Barry Baldwin : Suetonius. The biographer of Caesars. Hakkert, Amsterdam 1983, ISBN 90-256-0846-9 .
  • Michael Grant : Classics of Ancient History. Beck, Munich 1973, ISBN 3-406-02647-8 , pp. 276-287.
  • Helmut Gugel : Studies on the biographical technique Suetons (= Viennese studies. Journal for classical philology and patristic. Volume 7). Böhlau, Vienna 1977, ISBN 3-205-07025-9 .
  • Tristan Power, Roy K. Gibson (Eds.): Suetonius the Biographer. Studies in Roman Lives. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2014, ISBN 978-0-19-969710-6 .
  • Andrew Wallace-Hadrill: Suetonius. 2nd Edition. Bristol Classical Press, London 1995, ISBN 1-85399-451-0 .

Web links

Commons : Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus  - Collection of images, videos and audio files
Wikisource: Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus  - Sources and full texts (Latin)


  1. ^ Nero 57, 2.
  2. Domitian 12, 2.
  3. a b AE 1953, 73 .
  4. Caligula 19, 3.
  5. Otho 10.
  6. De grammaticis 4.9.
  7. Pliny, epistulae 1, 18 and 1, 24.
  8. ^ Pliny, epistulae 1, 24.
  9. Pliny, epistulae 10, 94; Trajan's reply letter 10:95.
  10. Pliny, epistulae 3, 8.
  11. Historia Augusta, Hadrian 11, 3.
  12. Pliny, epistulae , 1, 24.
  13. See Luc De Coninck: Suetonius en de Archivalia , Brussels 1983, especially pp. 74–85.
  14. Reinhard Stupperich: The twelve Caesars Suetons. On the use of imperial portrait galleries in modern times. Mannheim Historical Research 6, 1995 ( online )
  15. Luc De Coninck: Suetonius en de Archivalia , Brussels 1983; Jacques Gascou: Suètone historien . Rome, 1984.