Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.10.31

Donna Hurley (ed.), Suetonius: Divus Claudius.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2001.  Pp. 274.  ISBN 0-521-59325-5.  $59.95.  ISBN 0-521-59676-9.  $21.95.  

Reviewed by Sandra Bingham, University of St Andrews
Word count: 1017 words

When you mention the emperor Claudius, the first picture that comes to many minds is the character in the television series I, Claudius, so brilliantly played by Sir Derek Jacobi: the stumbling, rather foolish man who was the pawn of his wives and freedmen. That this picture is derived for the most part from Suetonius' account of the life of Claudius comes through in Donna Hurley's commentary, but she also goes a long way in correcting some of the misinterpretations that have been perpetuated about this princeps.

It is an unfortunate quirk of fate that Suetonius has had to contend with Tacitus for the attention of scholars throughout the twentieth century. General studies on the biographer are much fewer in number than those on the historian.1 Despite this, however, there are several commentaries in English on the individual Lives of the Julio-Claudian emperors.2 Hurley's work adds to this in a very positive manner.

The commentary maintains the high standards set by the Cambridge Greek and Latin series. The book consists of an Introduction (pp. 1-22), the text in Latin (pp. 29-54), and nearly two hundred pages of commentary (pp. 55-244). The Introduction is an invaluable resource both for those who are new to Suetonius and for those who have some familiarity with the author; it includes a thorough background to Suetonius (his life and career, his works, and his structure and style), as well as discussion on ancient biography as a whole. Hurley also includes a section in the Introduction on the subject of this life, and she very helpfully provides a discussion of what we know about Claudius the man, and then contrasts that picture with the story that is recorded in the ancient authors, with a nod to the difficulties inherent in these depictions. The Introduction concludes with a look at the history of the text itself and a brief examination of its afterlife. A chart showing the major dates in Claudius' life is inserted at this point, prior to the beginning of the text itself, which is useful for quick reference since Suetonius, due to the nature of his work, does not often provide dates.

Hurley has followed the Teubner edition of 1908 with very few changes; in all cases the changes she incorporates make the text more comprehensible. She keeps the apparatus criticus brief, and only includes variations where there is a significant difference in the readings. It is in the commentary that Hurley has made the most significant contribution. Her comments are invariably helpful and well considered, and her division of the Life into its component sections, each with an introduction along the rubrics set by Suetonius, makes it easy to use whether for quick reference or for detailed analysis. The discussion often provides excellent background for those students who come to the text with only a cursory knowledge of Roman imperial history. An example of this is her discourse on judicial matters; in the introduction to Chapters 14-15, she provides a brief but comprehensive background to the manner in which justice was administered in Rome, tying it in closely with the way in which Claudius took an interest in such matters. Throughout the commentary she is careful to place the rubric within its context, be it on spectacles (p. 149) or on administrative posts, such as that of censor (pp. 127-8). Moreover, she is constantly making reference to the other Lives and to other authors such as Tacitus and Dio in her discussion, a useful tool for those who want to follow up on the details in Suetonius. She also provides excellent grammatical aids and frequently translates difficult passages, a great boon to students who often struggle to understand Suetonius' style, especially his fondness for participles.

Hurley provides a thorough bibliography, with only a few obvious omissions.3 There are three indices: Latin words, General, and Persons; these are comprehensive and make the use of the text for quick reference very simple. The book concludes with two stemmata, one showing the familial connections of Claudius himself, the other the relationship between Claudius and Messalina. Julio-Claudian stemmata are tricky at the best of times, but the Claudian family tree was made more difficult to understand by the inclusion not only of marriage connections, but also of adoptions and betrothals.

I have only a few quibbles: a general introduction to the provinces would have been useful since there are references to various provinces throughout; the most logical place would be in 1.2 which looks at Drusus, Claudius' father, in Germany. In the discussion about the accession of Claudius (p.98), it was the vigiles who were involved in the downfall of Sejanus under the command of the praetorian prefect, not the urban cohorts under the urban prefect. On Claudius' request for the prefect to be allowed to enter the Senate with him (p. 108), a reference to Tacitus, Annals 1.7.5 is warranted. There are also a few places where further explanation would have been useful, especially when dealing with technical terms such as septemvir epulonem (p. 77), scribarum decuriis (p. 61), or with such sources as the Tabula Siarensis (pp. 61, 62). Finally, the inclusion of a map would have been helpful, given that there is some discussion about the invasion of Britain, with place names that might be unfamiliar to some. As is the case with the Cambridge series as a whole, the errors in the text are kept to a minimum.4

The reign of Claudius was important for many things; it would be a mistake to think of him as a fool, controlled by those around him, and not to give him credit for the contributions he made to the development of the early Principate. Hurley's commentary brings out the significance of the reign while also considering why Suetonius portrays Claudius as incompetent. She is able, therefore, to achieve a balance between the Claudius of Suetonius and the Claudius of history. This is a fine addition to the Cambridge series, and one can only hope that there will be further commentaries on the other Lives that will match the effort of this author.


1.   There are few recent comprehensive works on the biographer and the Lives as a whole. Of note are A. Wallace-Hadrill, Suetonius: the Scholar and his Caesars (1983), Barry Baldwin, Suetonius (1983), Richard C. Lounsbury, The Arts of Suetonius (1987), and the collection of essays in ANRW II, 33.5 (1991).
2.   Bristol Classical Press has published commentaries on each of the Julio-Claudians. In addition, there are two commentaries on the Life of Gaius: Hurley's previous commentary (An Historical and Historiographical Commentary on Suetonius' Life of C. Caligula (Atlanta, 1993)), and D. Wardle, Suetonius' Life of Caligula: A Commentary (Brussels, 1994). For Nero, we also have K.R. Bradley, Suetonius' Life of Nero: An Historical Commentary (Brussels, 1978).
3.   Omissions include Agrippina by A.A. Barrett (published 1996, and an invaluable resource for the relationship between Claudius and his niece/wife); by the same author, his article on the Claudian victory arch in Rome, especially pertinent for Chapter 17.2 (A.A. Barrett, "Claudius' British victory arch in Rome", Britannia 22 (1991), 1-19); Barry Baldwin's book on Suetonius, published in 1983; T. Benediktson, "A survey of Suetonius scholarship, 1938-1987", Classical World 86.5 (1993), 377-447.
4.   The only errors found by this reviewer were as follows: p. 189, read divortii for divorti; p. 240, under velut, read S. rather than C.; in the Bibliography, the article by Picard is missing the volume number.

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