De vita Caesarum - The Twelve Caesars

© Copyright Peter Crawford 2016

'De vita Caesarum' (About the Life of the Caesars) commonly known as 'The Twelve Caesars', is a set of twelve biographies of Julius Caesar and the first 11 emperors of the Roman Empire written by Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus.
The work, written in AD 121 during the reign of the emperor Hadrian, was the most popular work of Suetonius, at that time Hadrian's personal secretary, and is the largest among his surviving writings. 
It was dedicated to a friend, the Praetorian prefect Gaius Septicius Clarus.
The Twelve Caesars is considered very significant in antiquity, and remains a primary source on Roman history.
The book discusses the significant and critical period of the Principate from the end of the Republic to the reign of Domitian; comparisons are often made with Tacitus whose surviving works document a similar period.

Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus

Gaius Suetonius
Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus commonly known as Suetonius (c. 69 – after 122 AD), was a Roman historian belonging to the equestrian order who wrote during the early Imperial era of the Roman Empire.
His most important surviving work is a set of biographies of twelve successive Roman rulers, from Julius Caesar to Domitian, entitled 'De Vita Caesarum'.
He recorded the earliest accounts of Julius Caesar's epileptic seizures.
Other works by Suetonius concern the daily life of Rome, politics, oratory, and the lives of famous writers, including poets, historians, and grammarians.
A few of these books have partially survived, but many have been lost.
Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus was probably born in Italy at about 69 AD, a date deduced from his remarks describing himself as a "young man" twenty years after Nero's death.
It is certain that Suetonius came from a family of moderate social position, that his father, Suetonius Laetus, was a tribune of equestrian rank (tribunus angusticlavius) in the Thirteenth Legion, and that Suetonius was educated when schools of rhetoric flourished in Rome.
Suetonius was a close friend of senator and letter-writer Pliny the Younger. Pliny describes him as "quiet and studious, a man dedicated to writing."
Pliny helped him buy a small property, and interceded with the Emperor Trajan to grant Suetonius immunities usually granted to a father of three, the ius trium liberorum, because his marriage was childless.
Through Pliny, Suetonius came into favor with Trajan and Hadrian.
Suetonius may have served on Pliny’s staff when Pliny was Proconsul of Bithynia Pontus (northern Asia Minor) between 110 and 112.
Under Trajan he served as secretary of studies and director of Imperial archives.
Under Hadrian, he became the Emperor's secretary.
But, in 119, Hadrian dismissed Suetonius for the latter's allegedly excessive intimacy with the empress Sabina.
He is mainly remembered as the author of 'De Vita Caesarum' - translated as 'The Life of the Caesars' although a more common English title is 'The Lives of the Twelve Caesars', or simply 'The Twelve Caesars' (see below)

Other Works
  • De Viris Illustribus ("On Famous Men" — in the field of literature), to which belong:
  • De Illustribus Grammaticis ("Lives Of The Grammarians"; 20 brief lives, apparently complete)
  • De Claris Rhetoribus ("Lives Of The Rhetoricians"; 5 brief lives out of an original 16 survive)
  • De Poetis ("Lives Of The Poets"; the life of Virgil, as well as fragments from the lives of Terence, Horace and Lucan, survive)
  • De Historicis ("Lives of the historians"; a brief life of Pliny the Elder is attributed to this work)
  • Peri ton par' Hellesi paidion ("Greek Games")
  • Peri blasphemion ("Greek Terms of Abuse")
The two last works were written in Greek. They apparently survive in part in the form of extracts in later Greek glossaries.

Reliability of 'De vita Caesarum' 

The book can be described as racy, packed with gossip, dramatic and sometimes amusing. There are times the author subjectively expresses his opinion and knowledge.
Though he was never a senator, Suetonius took the side of the Senate in most conflicts with the princeps, as well as the senators' views of the emperor.
This resulted in biases, both conscious and unconscious.
Suetonius lost access to the official archives shortly after beginning his work.
He was forced to rely on second-hand accounts when it came to Claudius (with the exception of Augustus' letters which had been gathered earlier) and does not quote the emperor.
Despite this, it provides valuable information on the heritage, personal habits, physical appearance, lives and political careers of the first Roman Emperors.
It mentions details that other sources do not.
For example, Suetonius is the main source on the life of Caligula, his uncle Claudius, and the heritage of Vespasian (the relevant sections of the Annals by his contemporary Tacitus being lost).
Like many of his contemporaries, Suetonius took omens seriously and carefully includes reports of omens portending Imperial births, accessions and deaths.


Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar
The first few chapters of this section are missing.
Suetonius begins this section by describing Caesar's conquests, especially in Gaul and his Civil War against Pompey the Great. Several times Suetonius quotes Caesar.
Suetonius includes Caesar's famous decree, "Veni, vidi, vici" (I came, I saw, I conquered).
In discussing Caesar's war against Pompey the Great, Suetonius quotes Caesar during a battle that Caesar nearly lost, "That man [Pompey] does not know how to win a war."
Suetonius describes an incident that would become one of the most memorable of the entire book. Caesar was captured by pirates in the Mediterranean Sea.
Caesar engaged in debate, and in philosophical discussion with the pirates while in captivity.
He also promised that one day he would find them and crucify them (this was the standard punishment for piracy during this time).
When told by the pirates that he would be held for a ransom of 20 talents of gold, Caesar laughed, and said that he must be worth at least 50 talents.
Just as he had promised, after being released, Caesar captured the pirates and crucified them.
It is from Suetonius that we first learn of another incident during the life of Julius Caesar.
While serving as quaestor in Hispania, Caesar once visited a statue of Alexander the Great.
Upon viewing this statue, Suetonius reports that Caesar fell to his knees, weeping.
When asked what was wrong, Caesar sighed, and said that by the time Alexander was his (Caesar's) age, Alexander had conquered the whole world.
Suetonius describes Caesar's gift at winning the loyalty and admiration of his soldiers.
Suetonius mentions Caesar commonly referring to them as "comrades" instead of "soldiers."
When one of Caesar's legions took heavy losses in a battle, Caesar vowed not to trim his beard or hair until he had avenged the deaths of his soldiers.
Suetonius describes an incident during a naval battle.
One of Caesar's soldiers had his hand cut off.
Despite the injury, this soldier still managed to board an enemy ship and subdue its crew.
Suetonius mentions Caesar's famous crossing of the Rubicon River, (the border between Italy and Cisalpine Gaul), on his way to Rome to start a Civil War against Pompey and ultimately seize power.
Suetonius later describes Caesar's major reforms upon defeating Pompey and seizing power.
One such reform was the modification of the Roman calendar.
The calendar at the time had already used the same system of solar years and lunar months that our current calendar uses.
Caesar updated the calendar so as to minimize the number of lost days due to the prior calendar’s imprecision regarding the exact amount of time in a solar year.
Caesar also renamed the fifth month (also the month of his birth) in the Roman calendar July, in his honor (Roman years started in March, not January as they do under the current calendar).
Suetonius says that Caesar had planned on invading and conquering the Parthian Empire.
These plans were not carried out due to Caesar's assassination.
Suetonius then includes a description of Caesar's appearance and personality.
Suetonius says that Caesar was semi-bald.
Due to embarrassment regarding his premature baldness, Caesar combed his hair over and forward so as to hide this baldness.
Caesar wore a senator's tunic with an orange belt.
Caesar is described as routinely wearing loose clothes.
Suetonius quotes the Roman dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla as saying, "Beware the boy with the loose clothes, for one day he will mean the ruin of the Republic."
This quote referred to Caesar, as Caesar had been a young man during Sulla's Social War and subsequent dictatorship.
Suetonius describes Caesar as taking steps so that others would not refer to him as king.
Political enemies at the time had claimed that Caesar wanted to bring back the much reviled monarchy.
Finally, Suetonius describes Caesar's assassination.
Shortly before his assassination, Caesar told a friend that he wanted to die a sudden and spectacular death.
Suetonius believes that several omens predicted the assassination.
One such omen was a vivid dream Caesar had the night before his assassination.
The day of the assassination, Suetonius claims that Caesar was given a document describing the entire plot. Caesar took the document, but did not have a chance to read it before he was assassinated.
Suetonius says that others have claimed that Caesar reproached the conspirator Brutus, asking "You too, my child ?" (καὶ σὺ τέκνον).
This specific wording varies slightly from the more famous quote, "Even you, Brutus ?" (et tu, Brute) from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, however, Suetonius himself asserts that Caesar said nothing, apart from a single groan, as he was being stabbed.
Instead Suetonius reports that Caesar exclaimed, "Why, this is violence !" as the attack began.


Gaius Octavius Augustus
Before he died, Julius Caesar had designated his great nephew, Gaius Octavius (who would be named Augustus by the Roman Senate after becoming emperor) as his adopted son and heir.
Octavius' mother, Atia, was the daughter of Caesar's sister, Julia Caesaris.
Octavian (not yet renamed Augustus) finished the civil wars started by his great-uncle, Julius Caesar.
One by one, Augustus defeated the legions of the other generals who wanted to succeed Julius Caesar as the master of the Roman world.
Suetonius includes descriptions of these civil wars, including the final one against Mark Antony that ended with the Battle of Actium.
Antony had been Octavian's last surviving rival, but committed suicide after his defeat at Actium.
It was after this victory in 31 BC that Octavian became master of the Roman world and Imperator.
His declaration of the end of the Civil Wars that had started under Julius Caesar marked the historic beginning of the Roman Empire, and the Pax Romana.
Octavian at this point was given the title "Augustus" (meaning "the venerable") by the Roman Senate.
After describing the military campaigns of Augustus, Suetonius describes his personal life.
A large section of the entire book is devoted to this.
This is partly because after Actium, the reign of Augustus was mostly peaceful.
It has also been noted by several sources that the entire work of 'The Twelve Caesars' delves more deeply into personal details and gossip relative to other contemporary Roman histories.
Suetonius describes a strained relationship between Augustus and his daughter Julia.
Augustus had originally wanted Julia, his only child, to provide for him a male heir.
Due to difficulties regarding an heir, and Julia's promiscuity, Augustus banished Julia to the island of Pandateria and considered having her executed.
Suetonius quotes Augustus as repeatedly cursing his enemies by saying that they should have "a wife and children like mine."
According to Suetonius, Augustus lived a modest life, with few luxuries.
Augustus lived in an ordinary Roman house, ate ordinary Roman meals, and slept in an ordinary Roman bed.
Suetonius describes certain omens and dreams that predicted the birth of Augustus.
One dream described in the book suggested that his mother, Atia, was a virgin impregnated by a Roman God.
In 63 BC, during the Consulship of Cicero, several Roman Senators dreamt that a king would be born, and would rescue the Republic.
63 BC was also the year Augustus was born.
One other omen described by Suetonius suggests that Julius Caesar decided to make Augustus his heir after seeing an omen while serving as the Roman Governor of Hispania Ulterior.
Suetonius includes a section regarding the only two military defeats Rome suffered under Augustus.
Both of these defeats occurred in Germany.
The first defeat was inconsequential.
During the second, the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, three Roman Legions (Legio XVII, Legio XVIII, and Legio XIX) were defeated by the West-Germanic resistance to Roman imperialism, led by Arminius.
Much of what is known about this battle was written in this book.
According to Suetonius, this battle "almost wrecked the empire."
It is from Suetonius where we get the reaction of Augustus upon learning of the defeat.
Suetonius writes that Augustus hit his head against a wall in despair, repeating, 'Quintili Vare, legiones redde !' ('Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!')
This defeat was one of the worst Rome suffered during the entire Principate.
The result was the establishment of the rivers Rhine and Danube as the natural northern border of the Roman Empire.
Rome would never again push its territory deeper into Germany.
Suetonius suggests that Augustus never fully got over this defeat.
Augustus died on August 19, AD 14, a little over a month before his 76th birthday.


Suetonius describes the early career of Tiberius, which included his command of several Roman armies in Germany.
It was his leadership in these German campaigns that convinced Augustus to adopt Tiberius and to make him his heir.
According to Suetonius, Tiberius retired at a young age to Rhodes, before returning to Rome some time before the death of Augustus.
The ascendancy of Tiberius to the throne was possible because the two grandsons that Augustus had died before Augustus, and the last grandson, Postumus Agrippa, although originally designated co-rule with Tiberius was later deemed morally unsound by Augustus.
Augustus began a long (and at times successful) tradition of adopting an heir, rather than allowing a son to succeed an emperor.
Suetonius quotes from the will Augustus left.
Suetonius suggests that not only was Tiberius not thought of highly by Augustus, but Augustus expected Tiberius to fail.
After briefly mentioning military and administrative successes, Suetonius tells of Tiberius' perversion, brutality and vice, and goes into depth to describe depravities he attributes to the Emperor while Tiberius was ensconced on the island of Capri.

for more information and images regarding Tiberius at the Villa Jovis on the island of Capri go to:

© Copyright Peter Crawford 2016

Despite the these aspects of Tiberius' character, (which are not entirely out of place in the behavior of a wealthy male citizen of the Roman Empire), modern history looks upon Tiberius as a successful and competent Emperor who, at his death, left the state treasury much richer than when his reign began.
Tiberius apparently died of natural causes.
Suetonius describes widespread joy in Rome upon his death.
There was a desire to have his body thrown down the Gemonian stairs and into the Tiber River, as this he had done many times previously to others.
Tiberius had no living children when he died, although his (probable) natural grandson, Tiberius Julius Caesar Nero (Gemellus), and his adopted grandson, Gaius Caesar Caligula, both survived him.
Tiberius designated both as his joint heirs, but seems to have favored Caligula over Gemellus, due to Gemellus' youth.


Most of what is known about the reign of Caligula comes from Suetonius.
Other contemporary Roman works, such as those of Tacitus, contain little, if anything, about Caligula.
Presumably most of what existed regarding his reign was lost long ago.
Suetonius refers to Caligula as Gaius during most of the work, his true name, Caligula -'little boots' - being the name given to him by his father's soldiers, because as a boy he would often dress in miniature battle gear, and 'drill' the troops (without knowing the commands, but the troops loved him all the same and pretended to understand him).
Caligula's father, Germanicus, was loved throughout Rome as a brilliant military commander and example of Roman pietas.
Tiberius had adopted Germanicus as his heir, with the hope that Germanicus would succeed him. Germanicus died before he could succeed Tiberius in 19 AD.
Upon the death of Tiberius, Caligula became emperor.
Initially the Romans loved Caligula due to their memory of his father, but most of what Suetonius says of Caligula is negative, and describes him as having an affliction that caused him to suddenly fall unconscious (epilepsy ?)
Suetonius believed that Caligula knew that something was wrong with him.
He reports that Caligula 'married' his sister, threatened to make his horse consul, and that he sent an army to the northern coast of Gaul and as they prepared to invade Britain, one rumour had it that he had them pick sea shells on the shore (evidence shows that this could be a fabrication as the word for shell in Latin doubles as the word that the legionaries of the time used to call the 'huts' that the soldiers erected during the night while on campaign).
He once built a walkway from his palace to a Temple, so that he could be closer to his "brother," the Roman god Jupiter, as Caligula believed himself to be a living deity.
He would also have busts of his head replace those on statues of different gods.
He would call people to his palace in the middle of the night.
When they arrived, he would hide and make strange noises.
At other times, he would have people assassinated, and then call for them.
When they did not show up, he would remark that they must have committed suicide.
Suetonius describes several omens that predicted the assassination of Caligula.
He mentions a bolt of lightning that struck Rome on the Ides of March, which was when Julius Caesar was assassinated.
Lightning was an event of immense superstition in the ancient world.
The day of the assassination, Caligula sacrificed a flamingo.
During the sacrifice, blood splattered on his clothes.
Suetonius also describes a comet that was seen shortly before the assassination.
In the ancient world, comets were believed to foretell the death or assassination of important people.
Suetonius even suggested that Caligula's name itself was a predictor of his assassination, noting that every Caesar named Gaius, such as the dictator Gaius Julius Caesar, had been assassinated (a statement which is not entirely accurate; Julius Caesar's father died from natural causes, as did Augustus).
Caligula was an avid fan of Gladiatorial combats, and he was assassinated shortly after leaving a show by a disgruntled Praetorian Guard captain, as well as several senators.

to be continued.......