BMCR 2000.06.19

Suetonius: Nero

, Suetonius: Nero. London: Bristol Classical Press, 1999. 88.

B.H. Warmington (W.) published his commentary on the Nero in 1977. A year later the commentary by Bradley appeared, followed in 1992 by the edition with commentary on the lives of Claudius and Nero by Kierdorf.1 Since 1977, many books and articles have been written on Suetonius including the three major studies by Wallace-Hadrill, Baldwin and Gascou.2 The emperor Nero himself has been the object of monographs by M.T. Griffin and Levi, not to mention the highly idiosyncratic collection of papers edited by Elsner & Masters.3 In the Preface to the 1999 edition W. mentions Bradley, Wallace-Hadrill, Baldwin and Griffin. Their books are the only publications in the Bibliography that date from after 1977. The influence of the important study of Wallace-Hadrill, with its emphasis on Suetonius as the ‘scholarly biographer’, is noticeable in the new Introduction and in the remarks throughout the commentary on Suetonius’ working method. For that reason it is surprising that on p. ix W. has only perfunctorily adapted the passage in the Introduction to the first edition concerning Suetonius’ motives for adopting the biographical form in writing about the Roman emperors. One of the great merits of Wallace-Hadrill’s monograph was that it showed clearly the continuity in Suetonius’ scholarly production, which led him to conclude that: “He did not transform himself from scholar to historian, but set about his new task in his old way.”4

In the Preface to the first edition W. had stated that this edition is designed for students in schools and universities and that the notes in the commentary are “almost all devoted to the explanation of historical points in the text, the elucidation of Suetonius’ approach to the principate of Nero, and a comparison of his version of events with those found in the other authors.” Where these matters are concerned the reader will not be disappointed. W.’s notes are short, factual and clear. He aims at providing the historical background that is required to understand the information given by Suetonius and he generally succeeds in doing so. W. does not show any interest in the linguistic and literary aspects of the Nero. This may or may not be deplored; it is, however, in keeping with his declared intention in writing the commentary. W. should, however, in my opinion, have offered much more assistance to the students for whom this commentary is intended. By far the most practical way to alleviate some of the numerous difficulties in Suetonius’ Latin text would have been to provide a translation. As it is, even advanced students will have to consult their Loeb-edition or dictionary constantly, if only for lexical oddities like aurum ad obrussam or argentum pustulatum (44.2), to name but two of the many technical expressions in this Life that W. leaves unexplained. If W. is counting on his readers to work with a translation, as seems to be the case, why bother with the Latin at all? It must be added that even a translation would probably not be enough to understand the meaning of e.g. the obscenities in 29 conficeretur a Doryphoro liberto or conspurcasset in 35.4, where the reader needs the help of Adams’ book on the Latin Sexual Vocabulary in order to understand the text. On these particular issues Kierdorf’s edition of 1992 is also of little help, but generally, I think, that edition is much to be preferred, since it offers detailed information where the Latin is difficult. The same applies to the textual problems in the Life. The enigmatical promise made by Nero to the public in the theatre of Naples: si paulum subbibisset, aliquid se sufferi tinniturum (20.2, as is is printed in the Teubner-edition and by W.) is not commented upon at all, as if the Latin held no secrets. I think this is a grave shortcoming of the commentary. If we present such texts in the original, we should try to make them accessible for students.

As for the text, it seems to be based on Ihm’s Teubnerana, though this is nowhere stated. In 20.2, quoted above, the highly ingenious conjecture proposed by Borthwick in CR 15 (1965), 252-6: se suffritinniturum, as the rendering of ὑποτερετίζειν‘hum the keynote while tuning the κιθάρα‘ should at least have been mentioned (and explained). In 32.3 W. would have done better to accept Bentley’s praemia coronarum, quas, or else he should have explained exactly how he interprets the reading of the manuscripts quae. In 33.2 W. prints venenariorum indice, referring to Lucusta, without any explanation and without mentioning any of the emendations put forward, such as Roscher’s venenorum artifice, which is so attractive in view of Tac. Ann. 12.66.2 artifex talium, vocabulo Locusta. In 40.2 διαθρέψει is clearly preferable to διατρέφει in view of διατρεσφει in some of the manuscripts and Cassius Dio 63.27.2, who quotes the same phrase in the future tense (the subject of the verb, by the way, is τέχνιον, not τέχνον). In 49.1 read frusta instead of frustra.

In his commentary on 1.2, where Suetonius mentions seven consulates in the family of the Domitii Ahenobarbi, whereas nine consulships before Nero are on record, W. suggests that Suetonius counts only the consulships held before Actium. So do Bradley and Kierdorf. In the sequel of the sentence, however, Suetonius tells us that the Domitii Ahenobarbi were given patrician status by Octavian, but stuck to the same cognomen. It seems more in keeping with this context to suppose that Suetonius counted only the consulships held by the family while it was plebeian. On 6.2 eiusdem futurae infelicitatis signum W. comments: ” eiusdem refers to Nero, and the infelicitas is caused, not suffered by him.” Nero, however, does not figure in the preceding sentence, and moreover I cannot believe that eiusdem infelicitatis could mean ‘the unhappiness caused by the same man’. It seems much more plausible to connect the phrase with the remark made by Nero’s father immediately before that ‘nothing that was not detestable could have been born from him and Agrippina’, and more specifically to the words malo publico. A similar use of idem is found in the next chapter, where apud eundem consulem picks up the preceding patri gratias in senatu egit (7.2).

All in all, this edition will be useful to those readers who are looking exclusively for factual information about Nero’s reign and the ways in which it is described in Suetonius, Tacitus and Cassius Dio. Those, however, who wish to study the text as a whole and as a literary document in its own right, will do better to use the richer commentary by Kierdorf.


1. K.R. Bradley, Suetonius’ Life of Nero. An Historical Commentary. Bruxelles: Collection Latomus 157, 1978; W. Kierdorf, Sueton: Leben des Claudius und Nero. Textausgabe mit Einleitung, kritischem Apparat und Kommentar, Paderborn-München-Wien-Zürich: Schöningh, 1992.

2. A. Wallace-Hadrill, Suetonius. The Scholar and his Caesars, London: Duckworth 1983; B. Baldwin, Suetonius, Amsterdam: Hakkert, 1983; J. Gascou, Suétone Historien, Rome: B.E.F.A.R. 255, 1984.

3. M.T. Griffin, Nero. The End of a Dynasty, London: Batsford 1984; J. Elsner & J. Masters eds., Reflections of Nero. Culture, History and Representation, London: Duckworth 1994, M.A. Levi, Nerone e i suoi tempi, Milano, 1995.

4. Wallace-Hadrill, p. 62.