Suetonius A Roman Historian in Latin Literature

Suetonius: A Roman Historian in Latin Literature

Suetonius A Roman Historian in Latin Literature : The literary poverty of this age in Latin writing is most strikingly indicated by merely naming its principal author. At any previous period the name of Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus would have been low down in the second rank: here it rises to the first; nor is there any other name which fairly equals his, either in importance or in interest.

Suetonius A Roman Historian in Latin Literature

The son of an officer of the thirteenth legion, Suetonius practised in early life as an advocate, subsequently became one of Hadrian’s private secretaries, and devoted his later years to literary research and compilation, somewhat in the manner, though without the encyclopedic scope, of Varro. In his youth he had been an intimate friend of the younger Pliny, who speaks in high terms of his learning and integrity.

The greater part of his voluminous writings are lost; they included many works on grammar, rhetoric, and archaeology, and several on natural history and physical science. Fragments survive of his elaborate treatise De Viris Illustribus, an exhaustive history of Latin literature up to his own day: excerpts made from it by St. Jerome in his Chronicle are the source from which much of our information as to Latin authors is derived, and several complete lives have been prefixed to manuscripts of the works of the respective authors, and thus independently preserved. But his most interesting, and probably his most valuable work, the Lives of the Twelve Caesars, has made him one of the most widely known of the later classical writers.

It was published under Hadrian in the year 120, and dedicated to his praetorian prefect, Septicius Clarus. Tacitus (perhaps because he was still alive) is never mentioned, and not certainly made use of. Both authors had access, in the main, to the same materials; but the confidential position of Suetonius as Hadrian’s secretary no doubt increased his natural tendency to collect stories and preserve all sorts of trivial or scandalous gossip, rather than make any attempt to write serious history.

It is just this, however, which gives unique interest and value to the Lives of the Caesars. We can spare political insight or consecutive arrangement in an author who is so lavish in the personal detail that makes much of the life of history; who tells us the colour of Caesar’s eyes, who quotes from a dozen private letters of Augustus, who shows us Caligula shouting to the moon from his palace roof, and Nero lecturing on the construction of the organ. There perhaps never was a series of biographies so crammed with anecdote. Nor is the style without a certain sort of merit, from its entire and unaffected simplicity.

After all the fine writing of the previous century it is, for a little while, almost a relief to come on an author who is frankly without style, and says what he has to say straightforwardly. But it is only the absorbing interest of the matter which makes this kind of writing long endurable. It is, in truth, the beginning of barbarism; and Suetonius measures more than half the distance from the fine familiar prose of the Golden Age to the base jargon of the authors of the Augustan History a century and a half later, under Diocletian.

Amid the decay of imagination and of the higher qualities of style, the tradition of industry and accuracy to some degree survived. The biographies of Suetonius show considerable research and complete honesty; and the same qualities, though united with a feebler judgment, appear in the interesting miscellanies of his younger contemporary, Aulus Gellius. This work, published under the fanciful title of Noctes Atticae, is valuable at once as a collection of extracts from older writers and as a source of information regarding the knowledge and studies of his own age. Few authors are more scrupulously accurate in quotation; and by this conscientiousness, as well as by his real admiration for the great writers, he shows the pedantry of the time on its most pleasing side.

The twenty books of the Noctes Atticae were the compilation of many years; but the title was chosen from the fact of the work having been begun during a winter spent by the author at Athens, when about thirty years of age. He was only one among a number of his countrymen, old as well as young, who found the atmosphere of that university town more congenial to study than the noisy, unhealthy, and crowded capital, or than the quiet, but ill-equipped, provincial towns of Italy. Athens once more became, for a short time, the chief centre of European culture.

Herodes Atticus, that remarkable figure who traced his descent to the very beginnings of Athenian history and the semi-mythical Aeacidae of Aegina, and who was consul of Rome under Antoninus Pius, had taken up his permanent residence in his native town, and devoted his vast wealth to the architectural embellishment of Athens, and to a munificent patronage of letters. Plutarch and Arrian, the two most eminent authors of the age, both spent much of their time there; and the Emperor Hadrian, by his repeated and protracted visits—he once lived at Athens for three years together—established the reputation of the city as a fashionable resort, and superintended the building of an entirely new quarter to accommodate the great influx of permanent residents. The accident of imperial patronage doubtless added force to the other causes which made Greek take fresh growth, and become for a time almost the dominant language of the Empire. Though two centuries were still to pass before the foundation of Constantinople, the centre of gravity of the huge fabric of government was already passing from Italy to the Balkan peninsula, and Italy itself was becoming slowly but surely one of the Western provinces.

Nature herself seemed to have fixed the Eastern limit of the Latin language at the Adriatic, and even in Italy Greek was equally familiar with Latin to the educated classes. Suetonius, Fronto, Hadrian himself, wrote in Latin and Greek indifferently. Marcus Aurelius used Greek by preference, even when writing of his predecessors and the events of Roman history. From Plutarch to Lucian the Greek authors completely predominate over the Latin. In the sombre century which followed, both Greek and Latin literature were all but extinguished; the partial revival of the latter in the fourth century was artificial and short-lived; and though the tradition of the classical manner took long to die away, the classical writers themselves completely cease with Suetonius. A new Latin, that of the Middle Ages, was already rising to take the place of the speech handed down by the Republic to the Empire.

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