SUETONIUS: LIFE OF AUGUSTUS

Translated and with Introduction and Historical Commentary

By D. Wardle

OUP (2014) p/b 603pp £100 (ISBN 9780199686469)

 If you want all the lies and smears about the early Roman emperors, and a lot more mildly random information, Suetonius is your man. I, Claudius was based on Robert Graves’s novel, and he translated Suetonius for Penguin. But Suetonius was no fool. A serious historian, he worked in the imperial civil service under the emperor Trajan as director of archives AD 114-5 and director of the imperial library 116-7, and finally (under Hadrian) chief secretary i/c correspondence 118-122 (he was dismissed for an offence related to Hadrian’s wife). So the whole of the imperial archives was open to him, together with the works of large numbers of Roman historians otherwise unknown to us, as Suetonius reveals by quoting them. His major work, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, was published, presumably in different chunks, in the course of Hadrian’s reign between AD 117-138; his Life of Augustus, who died in AD 14, appeared, W. suggests, between AD 119 and 122.

Unlike Plutarch’s slightly earlier chronological Lives, Suetonius’ was thematic. W. divides up Suetonius’ Life of Augustus as follows: ancestry, early life; public life (military, civilian, administrative, behaviour towards citizens and feelings towards him); personal life (family, disgraceful behaviour, restraint, physical aspects, intellectual aspects, personal beliefs); signs of greatness; death and posthumous divinity. W. argues that the result is a carefully constructed, well-rounded picture of a man who underwent various transformations throughout his imperial career, leaving an ‘overwhelmingly positive’ picture of the emperor, for all his faults.

The translation of Suetonius’ Latin text occupies 37 pages. It stays close to the Latin. The commentary takes up 486 pages. It is a superb achievement: a masterpiece of clarity and detail, shirking no problem and casting light on Augustus and the Roman world on page after page. Three examples will give a flavour (the translation is quoted in bold).

The first comments on Augustus’ legislation to encourage marriage and the production of children among the upper classes by giving them privileges:

‘When he realized that the force of the law was being evaded by betrothal with immature girls…, he shortened the period allowed for betrothals.’ Cf. Dio 54.16.7: ‘so, because certain men were betrothing themselves to infant girls and enjoying the privileges of married men, but without performing the duties ex­pected of them, he ordered that no betrothal should be valid if the man did not marry within two years, that is, the girl must in every case be at least ten years old at her betrothal if the man was to profit from it, since, as I have said, girls are held to have reached the marriageable age on the completion of twelve full years’ … If the testimony of post-classical jurists is relevant, the absolute minimum age for betrothals was seven (Dig. 23.1.14). Aug.’s own example of betrothing Julia to M. Antonius Antyllus when she was only two and Vipsania’s betrothal to Tiberius when she was one (Treggiari 1991: 153-4) reveal the traditional practice of the Roman elite in securing advantageous unions, but the legislation was aimed primarily at those men who wanted to avoid marriage by contracting betrothals with very young girls or extending betrothals beyond the age when it was normal for girls to marry.

Here, Suetonius is commenting on his fascination with language:

‘vapide se habere (to be flat) for male se habere (to be ill).’ Aug. substitutes a colourful adverb taken from ‘stale wine that has gone sour’ (vappa) for the bland ‘ill’ or ‘poorly’, presumably to describe listlessness (Billerbeck 1990: 195).

‘betizare (be limp like a beet) for languere (be weak), the vulgar term for which is lachanizare (to be limp like a vegetable).’ Aug. makes a humorous coinage of a hybrid word in which a Greek root (lakhanon ‘vegetable’) is replaced by a similar Latin root (beta ‘beet’) … It is likely that the popular term lachanizare (‘to be put out to pasture’) pre-existed Aug.’s coinage, which plausibly has a sexual connotation (used of ‘a limp dick’: Cat. 67.21) …

 And here, Suetonius discusses Augustus’ dinner-parties:

‘He gave dinner parties frequently, but they were always formal and showed great regard for social status and the individuals concerned.’ Suet.’s words reveal a sociable Aug., one who fulfilled the social obligation of entertainment, but who preferred the traditional kind of dinner and paid great respect to the compatibility and social status of his guests. The giving of dinner parties was one aspect of an emperor’s generosity (liberalitas) and illuminating as to his treatment of friends and clients, as it was part of the relationship of exchange for which the shorthand of ‘patronage’ is often used. The dinner party was a gathering at which ‘status distinctions, and power relations are established, con­firmed or challenged’ (Roller 2001: 135); indeed Suet.’s formulation here makes explicit that the social status (ordo) of the guests was important. Aug.’s preference for the formal dinner (cena recta), at which up to nine guests were arranged on three couches in a small triclinium (cf. Dunbabin 1991: 122-8) indicates a context in which the place occupied by each guest revealed his position in the hierarchy with respect to the host. Nonetheless, the context encouraged and expected some expression of equality from the guests (D’Arms 1990: 311-17). See Vossing 2004, esp. 290-1.

This fat book comes at a fat price: but in terms of content, it absolutely invaluable for anyone interested in a major source for the life of the first Roman emperor, and at 16.5p a page, when you consider the vast amount of thoughtful research that has gone into every page, a bargain.

Peter Jones

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