Suetonius’ reported invective of Nero: context and modern relevance: Part I

Invective is reported as Suetonius, having attended the court of Hadrian, possessed no direct experience of Nero; thus relied on legitimate documents.  The Suda illustrated Suetonius as a Roman Grammarian (Professor of Literature); though, there is no evidence that Suetonius retained students; however, it may be supposed that his intended addressees were those undertaking study.  Graves maintains The Twelve Caesars, “is a work of scholarly biography and not history at all.”

That observation by Graves is precisely why I have always embraced this one, by you-know-who:

“There is properly no history, only biography.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, History, 1841

Upon what sources did Suetonius extract: “Nero was now so universally loathed that no abuse could be found bad enough…;” what verification did he hold that Nero was unanimously detested, apart from his being an ostensibly frightful Emperor; indeed, upon what facts…when conveying this assertion of apparent condemnation?  For all the lives?  With hesitation and cynicism, I measured this question; however, upon closer analysis of the life of Nero, one uncovers Suetonius cited tangible references and records which corroborated his contentions, in an equitable style; for example, Suetonius’ refutation of accusations against Nero on the subject of allegations of plagiarism, having referred to poetry both scribed and amended in Nero’s hand; see here a balanced work, with impartiality demonstrated in that he conveyed both virtue and vice throughout all the lives.


The Twelve Caesars

Wallace-Hadrill depicts Suetonius’ text as “businesslike,” and further, affirms Suetonius was innocent of such devices as “grandeur, elaborate artistry and sweeping his reader along…;” an observation which further supports the position of his impartiality; Suetonius sought simply to enlighten.  The merits of the legitimacy of biography.

Not much is known of his falling from favour with Hadrian; nevertheless, some aspects of Suetonius’ life may be derived from supplementary exploration of the life of Hadrian; there exists no reference of Suetonius’ dismissal in his writing: further advancing contention of his impartiality; and little else, apart from an honourific public inscription in Hippo Regius and the Byzantine encyclopaedia, The Suda.

Other historical texts are less nonaligned, such as Thucydides text on Pericles’ successors; the narrative is an unmistakable instance of encomium for Pericles, whilst employing invective for Kleon, et al.

The relevance of Suetonius’ work to modern scholars lies in discerning the perspective of biography as an applicable genre; ancient historiography and biography diverge infinitely; Historians, such as Tacitus, are said to have manipulated reality to render the writing and events more extraordinary; furthermore, Cicero recognised rhetoric as incorporating what could or might have happened; and works rendered thusly should be received with scepticism.  Suetonius expounded factual information sans predisposition or embellishment; therefore, his work is of considerable worth when seeking certainty or fact.

Ancient source texts

Graves, R. (trans.) (2007) Suetonius: The Twelve Caesars, revised edn, London, Penguin Books Ltd.

Warner, R. (trans) (1972) Thucydides: History of the Peloponnesian War, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd

Modern scholarship

Wallace-Hadrill, A.W. (1983), Suetonius, 2nd edn, London: Bristol Classical Press

Woodman, A.J. (1988) Rhetoric in Classical Historiography: Four Studies, London and Sydney: Croom Helm. Portland: Areopagitica Press

4 thoughts on “Suetonius’ reported invective of Nero: context and modern relevance: Part I

  1. The cool thing is that studying classical Rome and Greece was mandatory back then; as sad as it is that studying them now is almost superfluous; when asked what my Masters is and I tell the enquirers, they are always stunned.

    You like Catullus! I love you, Doreen!


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