Caesars and Sopranos: the Shadow of Suetonius

Tom Holland

Some time in the early 9th century, a Frankish scholar named Einhard (pictured above) sat down to write a biography. His theme was a worthy one. Charlemagne, the greatest king of his age, had died in 814, after a reign of almost fifty years. During that time he had won many wars, sponsored numerous reforms, and served as the patron of a golden age of learning. The surest measure of his achievements was that in 800, in Rome itself, he had been crowned as emperor: the heir of the Caesars. Centuries might have passed since the collapse of Roman rule in western Europe, but the allure, the charisma, the prestige of the vanished empire still haunted Frankish scholars. This was why, when Einhard sought a model for his biography of Charlemagne, he turned not to a recent source, not to the life of a saint or a Christian ruler, but to an older text by far.

Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (AD 69–122) had lived some seven centuries previously, during the heyday of Roman power, and a single copy of his most famous work, a series of biographies of the Caesars, had been preserved in a Frankish monastery. This text – a survivor by the skin of its teeth into the age of Charlemagne – constituted a great compendium of riches: details, many of them startlingly personal and intimate, of the first Roman emperors. No wonder that Einhard should have treasured it. He knew what fortune had preserved for him: the very template of how to write about a Caesar.

Twelve lives in all featured in Suetonius’ collection. The first was that of Julius Caesar (100–44 BC), the dictator whose name had become synonymous with imperial rule; the last that of Domitian (AD 51–96), an emperor who had come to power eighty-one years after the birth of Christ. The biography that most interested Einhard, however, was the second: the longest and most detailed in Suetonius’ collection. Augustus (63 BC–AD 14), the adopted son of Julius Caesar, had been commemorated by the Romans as the first and greatest of their emperors: a ruler who had laid the vast edifice of Roman power on such solid and splendid foundations that still, long after its collapse in western Europe, it served the Franks as the great examplar of an empire. To Einhard (775–840), the comparison with Charlemagne appeared obvious. Accordingly, when he wrote his biography, the Frankish scholar modelled it on Suetonius’ portrait of the first Roman emperor. Just as Charlemagne had done, Augustus had fought wars, passed laws, and presided over a golden age. Suetonius, however, had not rested content with detailing the emperor’s achievements:

Now, having provided a summary of his life, I will go through it detail by detail, not chronologically but ordered by theme, so that each topic can be rendered more clearly and intelligibly. (The Deified Augustus, 9)

He had been as good as his word. Barely an aspect of Augustus’ character had been regarded by Suetonius as too trivial to merit his attention. The emperor’s physical appearance, his tastes in food and drink, his sex life: all had received scrupulous attention. Einhard, studying Suetonius’ method closely, had absorbed the lesson. In his own biography, narratives of Charlemagne’s conquests were combined with the most personal details. The value of Suetonius to Christian scholars was decisively demonstrated. His reputation as the model of how to write the biography of a great ruler was ensured. In a similar manner, the twelve Caesars whose lives constituted the theme of his collection were enshrined as the very archetypes of emperors.

Gold aurei of the twelve Caesars (credit: Museum of Metropolitan Art, New York).

So they remain to this day. That Rome tends to live more vividly in people’s imaginings than other ancient empires owes an inordinate amount to Suetonius. Pharaohs and Shahs may have presided over civilisations quite as brilliant and influential, but no one ever wrote about them as Suetonius wrote about the Caesars. His subjects seem familiar to us as do few other rulers from antiquity. They wrestle with funding shortfalls, foreign policy crises and sex scandals. We are shown their tastes, their foibles, their eccentricities. We see them eat, drink, marry, divorce, get angry, make jokes, take exercise, urinate, listen to people break wind, tie up their sandals. The chilly marble of their portrait busts is transfigured into flesh and blood.

Yet just as they can seem something familiar, political figures we might almost imagine being dissected on social media, so at the same time is it a potent part of their fascination that, like long-extinct apex predators, the Caesars portrayed in Suetonius’ great collection of biographies are alien, terrifying, strange. Even Augustus, the emperor who served Einhard as the model for his portrayal of Charlemagne, is described, during his rise to power, as committing acts of chilling cruelty: gouging out the eyes of a suspected spy with his thumbs, butchering three hundred human victims in sacrifice.

The portrait of the imperial court that we gain from Suetonius’ collection of biographies is one repeatedly blotted by perversities and crimes. If Einhard located in the life of Augustus a model that might serve a Christian king, then others have found in the lives of Caligula or Nero altogether more sinister examples. Gilles de Rais, a French knight who was hanged in 1440 for the murder of hundreds of children, was alleged to have been seduced into committing his monstrous crimes by the experience of reading Suetonius. The Marquis de Sade kept a copy in his library. Many was the translation published in the Victorian period that would replace entire paragraphs with a discrete line of asterisks. Even today, in a far more permissive age, there are passages in Suetonius’ lives that retain their power to shock. The court of the Caesars remains an unnerving place.

Suetonius’ Life of Tiberius after a prim trim (Philadelphia, 1883)

Yet to regard Suetonius merely as a purveyor of scandal and sensation, the Roman equivalent of clickbait, would be to miss entirely what Einhard had found in his extraordinary work: a portrait of power. That each of the twelve lives contains a great treasure trove of detail and anecdote does not render them any the less valuable as an analysis of what it meant to rule as an emperor over the Roman world. If Suetonius entertains, then so also does he educate. A remarkably well-informed scholar, whose curiosity and learning embraced an immense range of subjects, he was as fascinated by genealogy, or jury reform, or regulation of the corn supply, or military institutions, or Greek literature, or graphology as he was by more obviously lurid themes.

Suetonius’ supreme achievement as a biographer was to demonstrate that a portrait might be drawn of a ruler in which personality and policy were so interfused as in effect to be indistinguishable. What happened at a Caesar’s table or in his bedroom, he sought to demonstrate, was bound to inform what happened across the vast expanse of the empire. The measure of Suetonius’ success is that still, to this day, nothing so dominates the public perception of the period covered by his biographies as the characters of those who ruled the Roman world. He did not just stamp forever the way that posterity would remember Caligula or Nero; he also played a key role in ensuring that posterity would remember them in the first place.

Yet indelibly though the various emperors are drawn, the Lives of the Caesars ranks as much more than a collection of individual biographies. Read in its entirety, it furnishes a sweeping analysis of how, over the course of a century and a half, autocracy came to bed itself down in the Roman state, evolve and replicate itself. Not just a great dynastic drama, one in which the shadows of dead Caesars – Julius Caesar himself, Augustus, Nero – fall dark over their successors, it is a drama shaped as well by its interplay with a further dimension: that of the supernatural. So rooted in the diurnal realities of political life are Suetonius’ biographies that the intrusions of the otherworldly, no matter how repeatedly they occur, invariably serve to deliver a jolt. Ghosts are glimpsed on lonely roads, phantoms on the banks of distant rivers, and portents everywhere.

Suetonius, when he gives us the lives of the Caesars, conveys the eerie sense that many of the events he is relating had been scripted well before they occurred. To rule as the master of the world is rarely, in his biographies, to rule as the master of one’s own fate. Omens of future success – altars blazing of their own accord with fire, a dog straying into a dining room with a human hand in its mouth – alternate with prophecies of ruin. When Nero, consulting an oracle, is warned to beware the seventy-third year, he jumps to the conclusion “not just that he would be enjoying many more years of life, but that these would be blessed by remarkable and unbroken good fortune.” (Life of Nero, 40). Yet he finds himself doomed all the same, overthrown by a general – Galba – who, when he launches his coup, is in his seventy-third year. Galba’s downfall in turn is presaged by an earthquake and an ominous dream. And so it continues. Far from constituting merely an amalgam of lurid anecdotes, the Lives of the Caesars possesses the grandeur of a great cycle of tragedies.

Vespasian (Emperor AD 69-79), one of the Aldobrandini Tazze (late 16th century; credit: Museum of Metropolitan Art, New York).

This is the quality that has rendered it, over the course of the past century, perhaps the most influential of all classical texts on the evolution of popular culture. When Robert Graves, writing in the early 1930s, set to fictionalising the first half of the Lives of the Caesars in his novel I, Claudius, he opened the way for Suetonius to become a presiding genius over an entire new way of producing and consuming drama. Television, it turned out, was ideally suited to portraying the kind of dynastic feuding that the Roman biographer had portrayed in such scrupulous and scabrous detail. In 1976, forty years after the publication of Graves’ novel, the BBC’s adaptation of I, Claudius scored a brilliant success by exploiting to the full everything that was most sensational in Suetonius.

In the United States, TV drama was quick to absorb the lesson. Dynasty, a lip-glossed and lacquered soap-opera featuring oil magnates, über-bitches and a 48-room Denver mansion, was consciously modelled on I, Claudius. Missing, though, was any sense of menace. Then, in 1999, a decade after Dynasty had finally been cancelled, a new re-drafting of Roman dynastic history was commissioned by the American cable network HBO that did not hesitate to stare into the heart of its darkness. “It was the longest time of peace in Rome’s history. He was a fair leader and all his people loved him for that.” Such was the praise lavished on Augustus by Tony Soprano, family man and mobster, in ‘Pax Soprana’, an episode in the first season of The Sopranos. Tony himself, the resentful son of a nightmarish mother named Livia, more closely resembled Augustus’ successor, Tiberius, than Augustus himself; yet for all that, he demonstrated, just as Einhard’s biography of Charlemagne had done a millennium and more before, the enduring influence of Suetonius’ portrait of the first Roman emperor. Where the Frankish scholar had seen the model of a Christian king, however, the writer of ‘Pax Soprana’ saw something very different: the extremes of intimidation and violence that had underlain the original Augustan peace. To rule is to kill; to kill is to court death. Such was the lesson that the Lives of the Caesars had to teach. The theme, refracted through I, Claudius and The Sopranos, joined the television of the 21st century to the great exemplar of dynastic biography. Poison, incest, prophecy: all were staple moves in a game of thrones.

When Augustus lay on his deathbed, he asked for a mirror, “ordered his hair combed and his lolling jaw set straight, and then, after admitting his friends into his presence, and asking them whether they thought that he had played his part well in the comedy of life, quoted these lines:

If the play has been a good one, then please clap your hands

And let me leave the stage to the sound of your applause.” (The Deified Augustus, 99)

To rule as a Caesar was to stand as an actor upon the great stage of the world. Each of the emperors portrayed by Suetonius, in varying ways and to varying effect, understood this. The fascination that Suetonius himself, throughout the Lives of the Caesars, displays for theatre, spectacle, the staging of beast hunts and gladiatorial games, reflects his appreciation of Rome itself as the supreme arena, one in which an emperor has no choice but to fight, to thrill, to dazzle. The result is as influential a collection of lives as has ever been written: lives which even today continue to inform how we understand the drama of power.

Tom Holland is the author of Rubicon and Dynasty. His new translation of Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars for Penguin Classics will be published next year.

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