THE HISTORIANS: CAESAR, LIVY, TACITUS & SUETONIUS
From Caesar to Suetonius, the Roman historians always put their own spin on the events they recorded.
The original Roman records, with the names of the principal officials for each year, were inscribed on white tablets in the keeping of the pontifex maximus and displayed to public view.
The earliest surviving account of contemporary events is the seven books of Julius Caesar’s own record of his campaigns in Gaul, De Bello Gallico (Gallic War) - an eighth book was written by Aulus Hirtius (d. 43 BC). Objective in that he mentions but does not dwell on his failures, and written in the third person, it is a distinguished general’s account of his actions in war in a clear no-nonsense style. The arts of the orator and politician are more evident in De Bello Civile (Civil War), in which by careful selection of facts and by linguistic legerdemain he attempts to put the blame squarely on his opponents.
Silver denarius of Julius Caesar, 49 - 44 BC, depicting two female captives beneath a military trophy. (VRoma: National Museums, Rome: Barbara McManus)
Titus Livius (59 BC - AD 17) was born and died in Padua, lived most of his life in Rome, had two children, and was a close acquaintance of Augustus and Claudius. That is almost all we know about this great writer and moderately good historian. Livy’s full history of Rome from Aeneas to 9 BC comprised 142 books, of which we have thirty-five, plus synopses of the others.
Painting by Gaspare Landi (1690 - 1743) of Veturia pleading with her son Coriolanus, with his wife and children behind her, to spare Rome in 491 BC. This is one of the many legends which Livy graphically recreates. (VRoma: Pitti Palace, Florence: Barbara McManus)
Livy was a popular historian in that he concentrated on narrative and character, and paid particular attention to the composition of the speeches he put into the mouths of his protagonists. He drew on a wide range of sources and traditions without being particularly concerned about their accuracy, though he makes up for vagueness about geographical and military details with his sense of drama. The truth he sought was that which would in turn reflect gloriously on the Rome of the present.
|(Left) Gold aureus of Tiberius AD 14 - 37. (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus).|
|(Right) Sardonyx cameo of Claudius AD 41 - 50). (VRoma: British Museum: Barbara McManus).|
|(Left) Gold coin with head of Nero AD 54 - 68. (VRoma: National Museums, Rome: Barbara McManus).|
Books of the Annals of Tacitus survive covering the reigns of these three emperors. We have just over four books of the Histories, describing the years AD 69 - 70. Cornelius Tacitus (c. AD 55 - c. 117) was a public figure in his own right as well as being the son-in-law of Agricola. He was a senator, consul in AD 97, and governor of Asia in AD 112. He was an excellent public speaker, and published a book on oratory when he was in his twenties.
He also wrote a short biography of Agricola, and Germania, a report on the land and people of Germany. He was a witty writer as well as an incisive literary stylist, a shrewd observer and commentator, and an upholder of the ancient virtues of his nation.
Ammianus Marcellinus (c. AD 330 - c. 393) wrote a continuation of the histories of Tacitus in thirty-one books, of which we have eighteen, covering just the years AD 353 - 78.
Bust of Sabina, wife of Hadrian; it appears that in AD 122 Suetonius was dismissed from his imperial post for showing her disrespect. (Capitoline Museums, Rome: René Seindal)
The family of Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (c. AD 70 - c. 140) probably came from Algiers. They were of equestrian class, and his father had a distinguished military career. He himself held a succession of posts in the imperial court, becoming director of imperial libraries and then chief of Hadrian’s personal secretariat, which gave him access to archive material on earlier reigns. His series of biographies of the twelve Caesars is the only one of his many biographical and antiquarian works to have survived intact. He was, with Plutarch, the originator of the modern biography.
It used to be thought that Caesar wrote and published the first seven books of De Bello Gallico in 52/51 BC. Recent scholarship, however, has concluded that they were written as a serial publication from his campaign notes to supplement his dispatches to the senate and to promote his image among Roman citizens in Rome and in the Roman towns and colonies of Italy. It is also probable that they were intended to counter the military fame and political reputation of his rival Pompey the Great, who, though a patron of literature, never wrote a book in his life.
The earliest Roman historian who wrote in Latin was Cato the Elder. Gaius Sallustius Crispus (86 - 35 BC) was a contemporary of Julius Caesar whom in 47 BC Caesar sent as his special negotiator to persuade the veteran legions which were mutinying to accept the promise of an additional bonus. The men replied that they wanted cash, not promises, and Sallust was lucky to get away with his life as they moved off in a body to take their grievances direct to Rome. After having to leave politics on charges of sleaze, he wrote exposés of two incidents in the recent Roman past where corrupt aristocrats had unsuccessfully attempted to control events - Jugurtha, dealing with profiteering in a foreign war, and Catiline, dealing with the failed coup by a disgruntled nobilis in 63 BC.
Tacitus’s biography of his father-in-law Agricola is the only historical source for the Roman campaigns in Scotland in AD 79--84.
In chapter 3 - The Caesars, you'll find Suetonius' wicked descriptions of each of the emperors.
He was born in Syrian Antioch and served in the Roman army in the east, which gives especial authority to the military aspects of his accounts. He wrote in Latin, though his first language was Greek.
Believe it or not:Livy’s reputation in his time was such that it is said that a Spaniard came all the way from Cadiz to Rome just to look at him, and, having done so, went back home satisfied.
The writings of Tacitus were lost until the 15th century. A manuscript copy of the Histories and of books 11--16 of the Annals, written at the Benedictine monastery of Monte Cassino, was seen before 1371 by Giovanni Boccaccio (AD 1313--75), author of the Decameron, and subsequently passed into his possession. It resurfaced in 1437, when it was acquired by the monastery of San Marco in Florence.