Taking Suetonius seriously
When I was a student, and a lot later to be honest, I was taught to be a bit sniffy about Suetonius, biographer of the Twelve Caesars. This was the gossip of the Roman empire. Suetonius may have had good access to the stories of the imperial court behind the scenes (he had worked in the proto-civil service in the Roman palace, and so had privileged access to the imperial filing cabinets, and quoted a few choice documents in his biographies). But he was a 'biographer' rather than a 'historian', and so a lot lower down the intellectual pecking order. And we looked askance at the stories of what Tiberius got up to in his swimming pool (little boys nibbling his genitals, according to Suetonius), or Caligula's plans (only plans, remember) to make his horse a consul.
It took me a good few decades to see that there was a lot more in Suetonius. And that came when I decided to read not just individual lives amongst the Twelve (according to which emperor happened to interest me at the time), but to read the Twelve Ceasrs, sequentially, cover to cover -- as I imagine they were originally intended to be read. When you do that, you see that Suetonius offers more than you might have thought. He isn't giving you just twelve individual biographies, but a story of dynastic succession and the transmission of power.
Hence all the stuff that Renaissance artists were smarter at picking up than we are about omens of rise to the throne, about the complexities of the transmission of power. It may be that we have got preoccupied by the anecdotes of transgression, but that's partly because we have skipped over all those portents and omens about imperial succession (the eagle landing on Claudius' shoulder, the dead man's hand presented to Vespasian, and so on).
But there are also some individual passages of Suetonius which hit home much harder than we often acknowledge.
My review of the Nero exhibitions in Trier is in the TLS this week (subscribers only ... go on it's worth it). And I am hugely pleased that it is illustrated by the late nineteenth-century painting by Vasily Smirnov, on show in Trier and at the top of this post. It wonderfully evokes Suetonius' description of the last hours of Nero's reign. There is rebellion on the frontiers and support for Nero is fading. How did the emperor know? Well, according to the biography, he was abandoned in the palace itself, his servants no longer listened to him, and the emptiness of his power was revealed within what had been its heart:
"Having therefore put off further consideration to the following day, he awoke about midnight and finding that the guard of soldiers had left, he sprang from his bed and sent for all his friends. Since no reply came back from anyone, he went himself to their rooms with a few followers. But finding that all the doors were closed and that no one replied to him, he returned to his own chamber . . ."
It's a deceptivel simple passage, as smart as many penned by Tacitus in capturing what the loss of the throne actually means.
Smirnov picks that up, with his dead emperor lying alone on the floor, and about to be taken out for burial by a handful of faithful women (again echoing Suetonius). But neatly he adds a famous ancient sculpture at the left hand side, a small boy playing with/strangling a goose. It isn't the most tasteful of ancient works of art, but it is a pointed comment on Nero and his reign. How good a symbol for the reign of teen-aged emperor Nero was that image of a toddler grappling (murderously?) with a pet bird?