BMCR 2011.08.50

Suetonius: The Caesars

, Suetonius: The Caesars. Indianapolis/London: Hackett Publishing Company, 2011. liii, 370. ISBN 9781603843133. $14.95 (pb).


Donna Hurley has long been an advocate for the oft-ridiculed biographer Suetonius,1 but to her credit she has not tried to swing opinion completely to the other side of the scholarly pendulum: “Not every word that Suetonius wrote is golden” (p. vii). In this new translation of Suetonius, she set a goal and achieved it. She wanted to make Suetonius more accessible to beginners and non-specialists, and her Introduction, translation, and notes do just that. Hurley also has several sections, such as a chronological table, maps, family trees, a glossary, and a basic outline of Roman institutions, which all give the newcomer a footing in the world of Suetonius by providing “the barest minimum” (p. xxxii) of information.

aHurley’s Introduction is good. She relies heavily on Pliny to give a basic outline of Suetonius the man before delving into the Caesars themselves. She sets Suetonius clearly in his chosen genre of biography, distinguished from history and epic. As she notes, “there is a difference between biographical elements embedded in history and epic and the recognition of biography as a separate genre with its own limitations and possibilities” (p. xiii). She also spends a few pages discussing the organization and style of Suetonius’ work, which was very welcome to this reviewer since so few scholars even admit that Suetonius has a style. Hurley’s comments and insights in the Introduction make the reading of the Caesars all the more enjoyable. She lays emphasis on the idea that Suetonius saw the personal lives of his subjects as windows into their behavior as emperors, both good and bad. This is why Suetonius spends so much time discussing personal issues such as greed, sexuality, and diet and thus brings to light the fundamental character of each emperor as he saw it. “The Caesars inspire comparison with cubist painting. Virtues and vices stick out at odd angles, a bit like arms and legs in a Picasso” (p. xxiv).

The mention of virtue and vice, however, brings up an issue with the Introduction: the absence of Plutarch. Perhaps Hurley thought that delving into Plutarch would open up a can of worms in a book intended for novices, but her thoughts and ideas on Suetonius’ intentions when writing the Caesars align quite nicely with what many have argued are the intentions of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. Suetonius’ portrayal of the cruelty and licentiousness of Tiberius mirrors the image of Antony, for example, in Plutarch’s Life of Antony. A discussion of these near contemporaries could have added some substance and variety to Hurley’s overall argument. A section dedicated solely to the almost ubiquitous appearance of omens and portents in the Caesars would have been useful as well. Suetonius relies on these heavily to get across his arguments of virtue and vice, and without explanation they can become mundane and tedious.

The translation itself follows Suetonius’ Latin very closely, with minimal embellishment by Hurley. As she notes, “This translation has not attempted to impose more style on the text than the Latin has but to offer a readable and serviceable text in contemporary American English” (p. xxx). Hurley understands that Suetonius is not a flashy, smooth author. Thus her translation can, at times, require a second reading, but this is the fault of Suetonius and not of Hurley. Her respect for Suetonius’ text is revealed when her translation is compared to the common one of Robert Graves, which was later edited by Michael Grant because Graves “did not aim at producing a precise translation.”2 For example, Graves changed sesterces to “gold pieces”, toga virilis to “coming of age”, and optimates to “the senatorial party”. Hurley keeps sesterces and optimates, translates toga virilis as “toga of manhood”, and explains all three terms in the Glossary. This may not seem like much, but terms such as these can spark quality discussions in the classroom and should not be anglicized. In terms of respecting Suetonius’ style, a key sentence from the Augustus demonstrates Hurley’s precision. Chapter Nine of the Life begins, Proposita vitae eius velut summa, partes singillatim neque per tempora sed per species exsequar, quo distinctius demonstrari cognoscique possint. Graves translates this, “After this brief outline of Augustus’ life, I shall fill in its various phases; but the story will be more readable and understandable if, instead of keeping chronological order, I use subject headings.” Hurley’s translation adds no extra phrasing and stays truer to the word order. “Having set forth, as it were, this summary of his life, I shall go through the details of it, not according to chronology but by topic, so that they can be more clearly brought to light and understood” (p. 54).

Next to the introduction, the most valuable part of this book is the footnotes throughout the translation. Hurley never lost sight of her intended audience, and so the footnotes go a long way towards allowing the reader to read continuously without getting bogged down in names, dates, or turns of phrase. Hurley is constantly identifying people whom Suetonius assumes the reader would know, and, since Suetonius does not write each life straight forward from birth till death, Hurley’s dates kept even this reviewer, a diligent student of Roman history, from becoming lost and confused. Especially useful are her explanations of jokes, puns, and insults. For example, in Nero, while Suetonius is discussing Nero’s involvement in the death of his uncle Claudius, Suetonius says, “He would joke that Claudius had stopped “lingering” among his fellow men, lengthening the first syllable of the verb.” This would mean absolutely nothing to a non-Classicist and probably many Classicists would not get the joke either, but Hurley’s note explains it. “The Latin word for “linger” differs in sound from the Greek word for “play the fool” only in the length of its first vowel” (p. 249).

All in all, Hurley’s new edition of Suetonius is a must-have for anyone who wants easy access to a biographer whose work spans the most critical years of Roman history.


1. See Hurley, D. W., ed. An Historical and Historiographical Commentary on Suetonius’ “Life of C. Caligula.” American Classical Studies 32. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1993, and Hurley, D. W., ed. Suetonius: Divus Claudius. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

2. Graves, R., trans. Lives Of The Twelve Caesars: Suetonius (New York: Welcome Rain Publishers, 2000) pp. 8-9.