BMCR 2001.02.09

Suetonius: Vespasian

, , Vespasian. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2000. xviii, 142 pages ; 21 cm. ISBN 1853995843 L11.99.

This commentary on Vita diui Vespasiani by Brian W. Jones [J.] joins a growing list of Suetonian Lives published by Bristol Classical Press. The series is useful. Not only does it make the biographies available but the texts are of a length that can be taken on whole in undergraduate courses. J. writes in his preface, “…my aim has been to examine the political, social, and to a lesser extent, the literary, textual and grammatical questions posed by the Life” (p. vi). There is more Flavian history here than there is Suetonius, and these lesser aims are not much in evidence. J. deals better with one half of the burden that falls on the author of a commentary on a text of this sort, explaning the history, than he does with author-related issues. His contribution is substantial, and it is only fair to evaluate his work in terms of his intentions. Nonetheless, the broader purpose of a commentary must be considered.

J. has adopted the standard Teubner text (Maximilian Ihm, editio minor, Leipzig, 1908) with a minimum of changes. He follows Ihm’s punctuation and his practice of setting off both reported speech and direct speech without distinction between them. There is no apparatus, but J. discusses his seven emendations and a few other points in the course of explicating the text. The introduction presents Suetonius’ life and times appropriately; covered are his social status, his career in the imperial secretariat, his access to source material for the Lives and the tradition of ancient biography. J.’s survey of Suetonian scholarship is comprehensive and current. Also included in the introduction is a list of correspondences with and divergences from Tacitus and Dio; missing, however, is speculation about the reasons for the latter.

When J. hopes that his edition will be of use “to those historians interested in the Flavian period” (p. vi), his own particular focus of study,1 he need have no concern, for his detailed discussions provide an entry into the age, and the extensive bibliography opens up a range of secondary sources. A by-product of so full an historical commentary is the evidence it gives of Suetonius’ value as a historical source, a virtue that has not always been appreciated. Suetonius introduces—or rather sideswipes—numerous knotty legal and administrative issues, and his glancing blows open many questions, chronological and other. J.’s commentary provides context and detail. A note on Uitellianorum…exauctorauit plurimos (8.2) makes specific and more accurate Suetonius’ vague generalization about disbanding Vitellius’ legions and other military units after the second battle of Bedriacum. The first salutations that Vespasian received as emperor are fleshed out ( Tiberius Alexander and primus…legiones adegit, 6.3). J. does make one very remarkable error. The body of Tiberius was not thrown into the Tiber (on 19.2).2

Although it might seem ungrateful to complain of too thorough a job, there is a downside to so comprehensive an explication. The temptation is ever present in a commentary on an historical text (Suetonius qualifies) for the editor to tell all she or he knows about a subject and to let explanations evolve into short essays on the issue at hand. J. has not resisted as well as he should have. When explaining inter comites Neronis (4.4), he lists those of Nero’s companions whose names are known; what the reader really needs to know in order to read the text intelligently is the function of the emperor’s entourage and the status of its members, not the primary data from which this information can be drawn. The doors of the Mausoleum of Augustus allegedly swung open to herald Vespasian’s death (23.4). This interesting anecdote makes evident the perceived continuity between the gens Iulia and the Flavian principate. But do we need to know the dimensions of the structure? The focus is lost when tendrils of information trail off from the center, and this excess can overwhelm J.’s perceptive comments. Also distracting are the Latin quotations in the commentary where language is not an issue. The temptation to include them is understandable, of course; Tacitus always does say it better.

Suetonius drew on a tradition, almost certainly the responsibility of Flavian historians, that looked with favor on Vespasian and emphasized his (relatively) obscure origin, his simple life style and his “civil” behavior. J. points out that these biased sources, in keeping with their intention to separate him from the last of the Julio-Claudians, probably exaggerated the offense of Vespasian’s nap during Nero’s vocal recital (on 4.4). The same rationale dictated that the story about Gaius throwing “mud” on the toga of the emperor be included in any authorized version of his life, that “…loss of status or reputation before 68…be emphasized or exaggerated” (on 5.3) in order to get rid of possible charges of sycophancy during the reigns of Gaius and Nero. The emperor’s generosity and clemency are made important virtues (14). The adjective pair scurrilis et sordidus (22) intentionally cultivates an image of low origin and simplicity. His reputation as a wit accounts for the large number of clever sayings in the Life. And the numerous omens that presaged his reign (5) were necessary because he was not a Julio-Claudian. Although J. notes along the way that Suetonius captured these themes from the underlying tradition, it would have been helpful if he had summarized them, plausibly in his introduction, or at least brought them more center front in the pertinent lemmata. As it stands, the reader must extract them from the factual information. More guidance would have been appreciated.

J. can be very helpful with Suetonius’ language, especially technical language. He explains the military origin of in ordinem redactus (15), the medical use of interpono (20) and points the reader to the correct meaning for instrumentum, plebiscitum (8.5) and figura (13; OLD 11)—although with this last he again provides so much information that the reader is sidetracked. The implications of ciuilis in the principate are explained well. J. is less interested, however, in noting unexpected word choices. He does not tell us that the Greek pallaca (concubine), is almost unique in classical Latin. And although he chooses plebecula over Ihm’s plebicula and accordingly focuses on it, he fails to remark that it too is a rare word, with particular reference to low life (18; Cic. Att. 1.16.11; Hor. Epist. 2.1.186). nato (23.1) is glossed as a corruption of a possible adjective, uenatus (= “endowed with a penis”). It seems simpler to read it as a participle, “endowed with” ( OLD nascor 12), qualified both by the adverb improbius and the genitive phrase procerae staturae, Suetonian uariatio.

Since J. has limited his objective largely to historical exegesis, it is not quite fair to criticize him for what he has not included. Everyone, it seems, expects something different in a commentary. Still, he lays himself open to charges of omission when he himself complains about Suetonius’ failure to include important events that took place during Vespasian’s rise and reign (p. xv). There is nothing, J. notes, about the Batavian Revolt of 69-70 (on 8.2). But Suetonius had his own objective, and it was not the writing of history; he routinely avoided all that did not immediately touch his subject. Like the ancient biographer, J. misses some interesting opportunities. When Suetonius reports Vespasian’s nostalgia for his childhood home (2.1), it would be of value to hear about the general reverence for birthplaces in the early Empire (Suet. Aug. 5). Was uulpem pilum mutare, non mores (16.3) a proverb? Apparently not, but were foxes frequent visitors to the Italian imagination? At 8.3 J. offers Italian and French derivatives for alium. One might prefer to know what currency the smell of garlic had in the lexicon of insults.

Related to the omission of material is J.’s rush to secondary resources. Although references to secondary works assist further study, they should not substitute for the information that the reader needs at the moment. On acto…triumpho (8.1), J. details the circumstances of the joint triumph of Vespasian and his son Titus in 71 but dismisses particulars with, “The Roman triumph is examined in detail by Versnal (1970); see also Hammond, 1959…; Maxfield…; and Scullard, 1981…”. The reader would probably prefer a brief outline of the triumphal parade. This practice is especially conspicuous with the emendations of Ihm’s text. J. often refers the reader to Mooney (G. W. Mooney, C. Suetonii Tranquilli de Vita Caesarum. Libri VII-VIII. London (1930)). Mooney’s commentary is solid and readily available in college and university libraries, and J.’s reliance on his thinking about textual problems is not unreasonable, but the reader deserves better than “Ihm’s et de is unsatisfactory; the sense requires ut et de : see Mooney, 1930: 457.”

But what would be most helpful is a translation of Suetonius’ Greek. The Bristol Classical Press commentaries on Suetonius all seem to avoid providing this; perhaps it is a policy of the series. But the absence seriously limits the commentary’s readership. In chapter 23, there are two Greek passages, one a line from Homer, the second a modified Menander fragment.3 Vespasian cited these cleverly and turned them into jokes, which depend on the Greek. A Greekless but sufficiently curious reader could presumably seek out a translation of Homer or the Menander fragments (references are provided), but a commentary is a service and here the reader is not served well.


1. Domitian and the Senatorial Order. Philadelphia (1979). The Emperor Titus. London (1984). The Emperor Domitian. London (1992).

2. The unpopular princeps had, in fact, a state funeral (Suet. Calig. 13.3; Dio 58.28.5). Tiberium in Tiberim was allegedly noised in the streets of Rome after he died (Suet. Tib. 75. 3).

3. Unfortunately a typist or typesetter has made a hash of the Greek spelling.