1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Suetonius Tranquillus, Gaius
SUETONIUS TRANQUILLUS, GAIUS, Roman historian, lived during the end of the 1st and the first half of the 2nd century A.D. He was the contemporary of Tacitus and the younger Pliny, and his literary work seems to have been chiefly done in the reigns of Trajan and Hadrian (A.D. 98-138). His father was military tribune in the XIIIth legion, and he himself began life as a teacher of rhetoric and an advocate. To us he is known as the biographer of the twelve Caesars (including Julius) down to Domitian. The lives are valuable as covering a good deal of ground where we are without the guidance of Tacitus. As Suetonius was the emperor Hadrian's private secretary (magister epistolarum), he must have had access to many important documents in the Imperial archives, e.g. the decrees and transactions of the senate. In addition to written and official documents, he picked up in society a mass of information and anecdotes, which, though of doubtful authenticity, need not be regarded as mere inventions of his own. They give a very good idea of the kind of court gossip prevalent in Rome at the time. He was a friend and correspondent of the younger Pliny, who when appointed governor of Bithynia took Suetonius with him. Pliny also recommended him to the favourable notice of the emperor Trajan, “as a most upright, honourable, and learned man, whom persons often remember in their wills because of his merits,” and he begs that he may be made legally capable of inheriting these bequests, for which under a special enactment Suetonius was, as a childless married man, disqualified. Hadrian's biographer, Aelius Spartianus, tells us that Suetonius was deprived of his private secretaryship because he had not been sufficiently observant of court etiquette towards the emperor's wife during Hadrian's absence in Britain.
The Lives of the Caesars has always been a popular work. It is rather a chronicle than a history. It gives no picture of the society of the time, no hints as to the general character and tendencies of the period. It is the emperor who is always before us, and yet the portrait is drawn without any real historical judgment or insight. It is the personal anecdotes, several of which are very amusing, that give the lives their chief interest; but the author panders rather too much to a taste for scandal and gossip. None the less he throws considerable light on an important period, and next to Tacitus and Dio Cassius is the chief (sometimes the only) authority. The language is clear and simple. The work was continued by Marius Maximus (3rd century), who wrote a history of the emperors from Nerva to Elagabalus (now lost). Suetonius was a voluminous writer. Of his De viris illustribus, the lives of Terence and Horace, fragments of those of Lucan and the elder Pliny and the greater part of the chapter on grammarians and rhetoricians, are extant. Other works by him (now lost) were: Prata ( = λειμῶνες patchwork), in ten books, a kind of encyclopaedia; the Roman Year, Roman Institutions and Customs, Children's Games among the Greeks, Roman Public Spectacles, On the Kings, On Cicero's Republic.
Editio princeps, 1470; editions by great scholars: Erasmus, Isaac Casaubon, J. G. Graevius, P. Burmann; the best complete annotated edition Is still that of C. G. Baumgarten-Crusius (1816); recent editions by H. T. Peck (New York, 1889); Leo Preud'homme (1906); M. Ihm (1907). Editions of separate lives: Augustus, by E. S. Shuckburgh (with useful introduction, 1896); Claudius, by H. Smilda (1896), with notes and parallel passages from other authorities. The best editions of the text are by C. L. Roth (1886), and A. Reifferscheid (not including the Lives, 1860). On the De viris illustrious, see G. Körtge in Dissert. philolog. halenses (1900), vol. xiv.; and, above all, A. Mace, Essai sur Suitone (1900), with an exhaustive bibliography. There are English translations by Philemon Holland (reprinted in the Tudor Translations, 1900), and by Thomson and Forester (in Bohn's Classical Library).