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C. SUETONIUS TRANQUILLUS
SUETONIUS, in the Golden Age of the Latin classics, would have been counted among the writers of the second order. That he ranks high in his own time is an evidence of the decline of literature. For the modern world his value lies in the immensely interesting information we find in his works.
The place and the year of his birth and of his death are unknown. His father, Suetonius Laetus, was of equestrian rank, a tribune of the Thirteenth Legion, Gemina, who
Meager inforfought on the side of Otho at Bedriacum, in 69 A.D., mation about against the forces of Vitellius.1 The author's his life youth fell in the time of Domitian, as we learn from his mention of certain incidents of that reign.2
Certain letters of Pliny throw light on his later life. The earliest replies to a request of Suetonius, who is engaged as
t3 advocate in a lawsuit, but has been alarmed by a dream, that Pliny would endeavor to have the trial
Pliny postponed. In a second letter Pliny begs a friend to use his influence with a third person, to enable Suetonius, whom he here calls scholasticus and contubernalis, to buy a small estate in the country at a low price. In a third letter 5 Pliny consents to request the transfer of a military tribunate, which he has succeeded in obtaining for Suetonius, to one of the lat
1 Otho 10.
2 Domitian 12. 2; Nero 57.2; De Grammaticis 4. 4 Plin., Epp. I. 24.
5 Plin., Epp. III. 8.
ter's relatives. In a fourth Pliny urges Suetonius to publish a long expected work. A fifth ? asks Suetonius's advice upon a question of literary propriety, but gives no information. A letter to Trajan 3 begs for the childless Suetonius the ius trium liberorum, and the emperor's replygrants the request. The facts thus learned relate to the period from about 96 to about 112 A.D.
We have an important piece of information as to a later period. C. Septicius Clarus, a friend of Pliny, and a friend
and patron of Suetonius, was praetorian prefect Secretary to
in 119-122 A.D. It was probably through his inHadrian
fluence that our author was appointed to a secretaryship (ab epistulis) in the household of Hadrian. While absent in Britain, in 122 A.D., the emperor dismissed a large number of household and public officials, and among them Suetonius. This change was in some way connected with their relations to the empress Sabina. It was, no doubt, during the time of his official employment that Suetonius presented to Hadrian a statuette of Augustus, as he himself tells us.
After his retirement, our author seems to have devoted years of leisure to his learned compilations. Such is his meager
biography, but his is not a case where we greatly
regret the lack of full details. It is not probable that his life or his character was highly interesting.
The date of Suetonius's birth has usually been accepted, on the authority of Mommsen's conjecture in his Life of Pliny the Probably born Younger," as 77 A.D. Macé, in his elaborate Essai earlier than sur Suétone, accepting Mommsen's date, 101 A.D., 77 A.D.
for Pliny's letter III. 8, adduces several arguments for an earlier date for Suetonius's birth. This letter concerns the military tribunate obtained for Suetonius and then
1 Plin., Epp. V. 10. 2 Plin., Epp. IX. 34. 3 Ad Trai. 94. 4 Ad Trai. 95. 5 Spartianus, Hadrian XI. 3. 6 Augustus 7.1. 7 Hermes III, 31-139. 8 Bibliothèque des Écoles Françaises d'Athènes et de Rome. Fascicule 82.
declined by him. It is true that young men of senatorial rank were eligible to the tribunate at twenty-five; but Suetonius was only an eques, and we do not know at what age he was eligible, nor that the post was obtained for him at the earliest possible date.
The allusion in the last sentence of the Life of Nero: Post viginti annos adulescente me, etc., apparently showing that Suetonius was adulescens in 88 A.D., twenty years after Nero's death, implies an earlier date than 77 A.D. for his birth.
Mommsen dates Pliny's letter I. 24, in 97 A.D. The description of the tastes and habits of Suetonius sketched in that letter is unsuitable to a young man of twenty. The word contubernalis used by Pliny in letter I. 24 and elsewhere is inappropriate if Suetonius was fifteen years younger than Pliny. The 94th letter to Trajan, requesting for Suetonius the ius trium liberorum, seems less appropriate as applying to a man of thirtysix than to one several years older. This letter dates from 111-113 A.D.
Pliny's impatience for the long delayed publication of Suetonius's writings, expressed in letter V. 10, in 106 A.D., is more appropriate if Suetonius was older than twenty-nine at that date.
Macé argues for 69 A.D. as the most probable date for Suetonius's birth. His father Suetonius Laetus 1 took part in the campaign of that year as tribunus angusti- 69 A.D. the clavius of the Thirteenth Legion, which had been most probable lately called to Italy after a long service in Pan- date nonia. After the defeat at Bedriacum, this legion was forced by Vitellius to build the amphitheater of Cremona; then its officers were replaced by Vitellians, and it was sent back to Pannonia. It seems rather more probable that Suetonius Laetus would have married at Rome, in his prosperity, in 68 A.D., than somewhere else soon after the battle of Bedriacum.
i The Codex Memmianus, oldest and most reliable MS. of the XII Caesars, reads Laetus in Otho 10. 1.; the other MSS., Lenis.
Our author's friendship for Pliny is insufficient proof that
he was born and brought up in Transpadane Friendship
Gaul. Macé argues, but upon very slight eviwith Pliny
dence, that he was a Roman of Rome. can say is that there is no real evidence to the contrary.
The word contubernalis, more than once applied by Pliny to Suetonius, implies a certain degree of intimacy and affection, though it is clear that Pliny felt towards his humble friend the superiority of a protector and patron. But contubernalis rather implies some approach to equality in their ages than so great a difference as fifteen years.
As to Suetonius's occupation, Pliny calls him scholasticus; Joannes Lydus, in the sixth century, pilóloyos; Suidas,
γραμματικός. Are we to take these words merely His profession
in the sense of “man of learning”, of studious tastes and pursuits, or in the sense of a professional teacher ? If he was a teacher, we should be inclined to judge by the style of his writings, the subjects, character and method of his works, and his evident temperament and point of view, that he was not a rhetor, but a grammaticus in the strict sense of the word. It is true that we learn from Pliny 3 that he was once engaged as an advocate. We know nothing of other cases in which he may have been engaged, and therefore can say nothing of the length or success of his career at the bar.
We have, it is true, the impression of a quiet, and character
modest, studious man, apparently somewhat superstitious, without much courage, decision or self-assertion and not gifted with rhetorical ability. Everywhere we observe his interest in details, in minute correctness, everywhere a sober and precise mode of expression, nowhere the tendency to wax eloquent, to adorn his page with the flowers of rhetoric. He writes much more like a grammarian than a professional
1 De magistr. reipub. Romanae I. 34.