Suetonius’ his credibility as a historian is
Suetonius’ biography of the Roman Emperor Nero, recorded as a chapter in his famous The Twelve Caesars, is useful in understanding the life of the final Julio Claudian emperor. Yet the biography is shrouded in controversy. Although Suetonius is renowned as one of the best historians of his time, his credibility as a historian is questioned by The Life of Nero. The text is suspect in that Suetonius portrays Nero in a negative way that is inconsistent with his other eleven more factual and objective biographies in The Twelve Caesars.
His purpose for writing, complemented by the structure of the text, the sources he uses, and the opinionated non-factual input, all contribute to a lack of historical credibility in an otherwise masterpiece of Roman literature.The first piece of evidence that suggests the historical unreliability in The Life of Nero is Suetonius’ purpose for writing The Twelve Caesars as a whole. The Twelve Caesars is not written as a historical account, but instead as a compilation of biographies. Biographies as a genre are often written in order to tell a story. Although, these stories are not always completely based on factual evidence. Therefore, the genre of this text immediately makes some question the amount of historical evidence present throughout the writing.
This texts’ classification as a biography suggests that Suetonius was attempting to tell a story and stray away from writing a traditionally formatted historical text. The claim that Suetonius did not intend to write this as a historical text can be strengthened by further looking at the structure of Suetonius’ writing. In The Twelve Caesars, Suetonius writes about his subjects lives thematically instead of chronologically. By not writing about the lives of these emperors from start to finish, this shows that Suetonius wanted to diverge from the traditional format of historically sound writings. Another structural oddity that points to unreliability is the length of topics discussed in The Life of Nero. His length of writing about certain events is unproportional to the actual historical importance of the events themselves. For example, Suetonius spends twenty out of the fifty-seven chapters discussing the horror of Nero’s reign in great detail.
He also rarely mentions details on war or politics in this text despite the plethora of activity in that realm at the time. For example, he spends two chapters discussing Nero’s alleged perverted abuses on young boys while throughout the entire text he barely refers to the Boudican revolt once. This is especially surprising considering that Suetonius himself was present during the Boudican revolts and controlled Roman troops that were fighting against Boudicca. One can claim that the Boudican revolt is more historically important than Nero’s perverted abuses on young boys due to that fact that during these revolts an estimated, “…eighty thousand of the Romans and of their allies perished” (Dio.62.
1). This is also just another example of how it seems like Suetonius did not intend to write a factual history based on the importance of historical events at the time. Rather, it seems that he wrote more heavily about the events that personally interested him.
The idea that Suetonius wrote about his personal interests does not mean his information is unreliable, it means that his information reflects bias. Overall, the idea that Suetonius did not intend for The Life of Nero to be interpreted as a stout factual history leaves much room for vagueness and suspicion throughout his text. Although, nothing in his text is more suspicious than his use of sources. Any historian is only as reliable as his sources. In The Life of Nero, Suetonius seldom names the sources that he uses. In rare instances, the sources that he does mention can still be considered questionable. Writing about Nero almost a century after his death, Suetonius uses information that is based on word of mouth, senatorial decrees, previous accounts of Nero, but most of all: gossip.
Suetonius lost access to imperial records in 199 AD while he was writing the biography of Emperor Augustus. Therefore, Suetonius had no access to imperial records when writing The Life of Nero which was published in 121 AD. This means that Suetonius had to heavily rely on anecdotes and gossip rather than historical facts and imperial records about Nero. When specifically writing about Nero’s sexual atrocities and horrific actions, most of his claims are based on anecdotes from unnamed sources. An example of this is when Suetonius openly states, “Even before that, so they say, whenever he rode in a litter with his mother, he had incestuous relations with her, which were betrayed by the stains on his clothing” (Suet.8.1).
In this statement, he is basing the idea that Nero had incestuous relations with his mother on the skeptical of an unnamed source that he meekly refers to by saying, “…so they say.
Additionally, Suetonius again uses a vague reference to his sources when he says, “…who was said to..
In both of these examples, Suetonius clearly based his claims on myths instead of factual evidence. Although, this vagueness of sources is almost exclusively used for the negative aspects of Nero. Almost all of the writings about Nero’s scandals are based on anecdotes or popular belief while almost all of the writings about the positive aspects of Nero’s reign are factual. For example, it is factual that Nero deified Claudius at his funeral, performed in many plays, and established a colony for veterans at Antium. The credibility of these events are all based on first-hand sources of people who witnessed the events and historical records. While these facts are undisputed, the negative aspects of Nero that Suetonius writes about raises skepticism due to the non-factuality of their nature.
Although some believe that Suetonius has a lack of sufficient evidence to back his claims about Nero, others believe that truth can still be found in the gossip he uses. The fact that Suetonius uses gossip as a source for his writing does not mean that these writings are false. Although the gossip that he based these claims on is not factual, one can argue that it is representative of what the people of Rome thought of their emperor at the time. By using gossip as a source, Suetonius voices the thoughts and attitudes of the Roman people. Although, the use of gossip as a source still brings Suetonius’ credibility to question as it is impossible to say which claims are based on the gossip of the people, and which claims Suetonius adds in as his personal opinion. It is unattainable for us as readers to tell if what Suetonius says about Nero was actually a well-known belief at the time, or if it was just a belief that Suetonius adopted and added to the biography himself. Along with this, perhaps the biggest reason that leads some to doubt the credibility of The Life of Nero is Suetonius’ opinionated adaptations of events.
There are many things about Nero that Suetonius overemphasizes. The most obvious example of this is Suetonius’ description of the Great Fire of Rome. It is easy to see how he focuses on demonizing Nero when we compare it to Tacitus’ account of the Great Fire of Rome from Annals, Books 38-44. Tacitus focuses heavily on describing the fire itself and the devastation and destruction it caused throughout Rome.
Tacticus states, “The blaze in its fury ran first through the level portions of the city, then rising to the hills, while it again devastated every place below them; it outstripped all preventive measures, so rapid was the mischief and so completely at its mercy the city, with those narrow winding passages and irregular streets which characterized old Rome” (Tac.38.1). Although the validity of Tacitus’ accounts are also considered by many to be dubious, when referring to the speculation that Nero started the fire, he objectively declares, “There followed a disaster, whether due to chance or to the malice of the sovereign is uncertain — for each version has its sponsors” (Tac.35.1). Even though the reliability of Tacitus’ accounts can also be called into question, when referring to the rumor of Nero starting the fire he remains unbiased. On the other hand, when describing Nero’s involvement with the fire Suetonius immediately states, “For under cover of displeasure at the ugliness of the old buildings and the narrow, crooked streets, he set fire to the city…” (Suet.
38.1). Without giving any evidence to back this claim, Suetonius clearly states that he believes Nero set fire to the city. This biased viewpoint is what further causes many scholars to become suspicious of the historical accuracy of The Life of Nero as a whole. Continuing with his description of the Great Fire, Suetonius continues to focus heavily on Nero and how he responded to the fire. Suetonius refers to Nero’s lack of concern with the destruction of Rome as he states, “Viewing the conflagration from the tower of Maecenas and exulting, as he said, in ‘the beauty of the flames,’ he sang the whole of the ‘Sack of Ilium,’ in his regular stage costume” (Suet.38.
2). Although many people agree with Suetonius and believe that Nero started the fire, this commentary about Nero singing on his balcony while the city burns is not backed by any historical evidence. The lack of providing a reliable source to back this claim further prompts many people to believe that Suetonius is biased against Nero. Lastly, Suetonius bashes Nero for his slipshod job of cleaning up the city after the fire. Suetonius states that Nero promised to repair the city with his own money while in reality, he charged the people of Rome. Suetonius exclaims, “Furthermore, to gain from this calamity too all the spoil and booty possible, while promising the removal of the debris and dead bodies free of cost he allowed no one to approach the ruins of his own property; and from the contributions which he not only received, but even demanded, he nearly bankrupted the provinces and exhausted the resources of individuals” (Suet.38.3).
Even though this claim might be factual, Suetonius still fails to provide his source for this assertion. Suetonius’ personal opinion is also present in this statement when he claims that Nero’s motivation for this was to, “…
gain from this calamity too all the spoil and booty possible…” (Suet.38.3). This opinionated commentary with a lack of factual backing even further contributes to the notion that Suetonius’ writing is bias.Suetonius also leaves out certain information regarding the reign of Nero. He fails to mention the Boudican revolt in which he himself was present and had to flee for his life. Although the Boudican revolt is not a major turning point in Roman history or in the reign of Nero, the absence of this factual information makes some believe that Suetonius was not reliable in recording significant historical events at the time.
This claim is especially strengthened when one considers that he spends an entire chapter talking about Nero’s alleged sexual torture of a young boy. He declares, “He castrated the boy Sporus and actually tried to make a woman of him; and he married him with all the usual ceremonies, including a dowry and a bridal veil, took him to his house attended by a great throng, and treated him as his wife” (Suet.28.1).
Again, it is not the absence of the mere mentioning of the Boudican revolt that brings Suetonius’ objectiveness into question, but the unproven negative actions of Nero that are superfluously recorded in his biography instead. This prioritizing of information further hints that Suetonius never wrote The Life of Nero with the intention of describing his life in an impartial light. One must suspect the objectiveness of Suetonius in The Life of Nero due to the fact that he did not intend to write the text as a historical document, his sources are primarily based on gossip and speculation instead of facts, and he overflows the biography with negative aspects of Nero’s life.