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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Suetonius (c. 69–c. 122 A.D.)

CAIUS SUETONIUS TRANQUILLUS passed his manhood under Trajan and Hadrian, and so was contemporary with the younger Pliny and with Tacitus. As private secretary to the Emperor Hadrian, he probably had access to State archives if he chose to consult them; and heard the traditional stories of court life, which, though mostly inaccurate, indicated vividly the character and life of the early Cæsars. Where Tacitus is lost, Suetonius becomes our chief authority for the ‘Lives of the Cæsars,’ from Julius to Domitian. The first six are much the more fully treated; whether because as he approached his own time he wearied of his task, found less alien material ready to be appropriated, or felt the ground less secure beneath him.

Suetonius is a writer quite devoid of earnest purpose, dignity, or literary charm. He is usually clear and straightforward enough in style. His warmest interest is excited by a scandalous bit of gossip. He makes little effort at chronological treatment of public events. Altogether, he is an author whom historians must know and use, and whom even the general reader will find sufficiently interesting; but we can take no pride in our enjoyment of his ignoble recitals, and must hope that the rather vivid general picture he draws is essentially untrue. Modern recorders of life in royal palaces would at least feel impelled to use the darker tints less constantly.

In meager and fragmentary form we have also from Suetonius several lives of literary men, notably those of Horace and Terence. The biography of Pliny the Younger is pronounced spurious: a pity, because our pleasantest glimpses of the man Suetonius are obtained from the courtly letter-writer. In particular, Pliny writes Trajan that his friend is “an upright and learned gentleman, whom folk often desire to remember in their wills.” As a childless married man, Suetonius cannot legally receive such legacies, unless a special dispensation shall accord him the rights properly reserved for the fathers of three children. This favor the Emperor, it appears, readily granted.

The best literary edition of Suetonius is that with Latin notes in the Lemaire collection (Paris, 1828). The lives of Julius and Augustus are edited with full commentary by Professor H. T. Peck (New York, 2d ed., 1893). The most recent translations are by Thomson and Forester (London, 1881) and J. C. Rolffe (New York, 1914).