Augustus and Suetonius

Historians?

 

After reading Augustus' Res Gestae Divi Augusti (The Achievements of the Divine Augustus), it seems that Augustus actually is a god. His actions are all perfect, flawless. Then, upon reading Suetonius' aptly-titled Life of Gaius Caligula, we encounter the exact opposite: the devil. These two documents both are listed under the heading "The Historians of Ancient Rome" and both describe the life and career of a Roman ruler. But they are so incredibly different. What makes them different, and what historical insights can be gained from comparing the two?

The biggest difference between Augustus' work and Suetonius' work is the point of view. Augustus wrote about himself, Suetonius wrote about someone other than himself. Suetonius wrote a biography, Augustus an autobiography. Something would be amiss, of course, if no mention was made of the fact that Res Gestae is not Augustus' official autobiography. That document "did not survive." Which brings up another related key difference: the authors had completely different motives for writing their respective documents. The source describes Res Gestae as a "rose-colored glorification of the reign from the perspective of his 77th (and final) year." Caligula, on the other hand, is described as a "particularly valuable biography." But what about a history makes it "valuable"? What makes a history useful to historians? The differences in Augustus' and Suetonius' writings illustrate by example what makes a successful history.

In Res Gestae, Augustus writes about himself, and consequently includes nothing that would reflect negatively on him or his reign. He somehow manages to fill up eight small-print pages by rambling on and on about his humility, his generosity, his honors and positions, and his excellent improvement of Rome. After all, he has no reason to point out that he stole chariot hubcaps as a child (not that he did); his point in writing Res Gestae was to commemorate his most excellent reign, as a sort of honor to himself.

He mentions his tremendous humility many times. He turned down honors right and left throughout the paper. He declined many of the positions offered him, either because they were already filled or because it was not honorable according to his family's customs. He takes great pains to point out that many of his honorable exploits, particularly buildings and donations, were not done in his name alone. He "rebuilt the Capitol and the theater of Pompey -- both at great expense -- without inscribing [his] own name"! Other buildings he built in the names of his sons. He conquered Greater Armenia but "preferred...to give that province to Tigranes." When people put up some eighty-odd statues of him, he took them down and used the profit to honor the gods.

Augustus also calls attention to his generosity. Over the course of his lengthy reign, he gave bonuses to "the Roman plebs" rather frequently. First, it was from his father's will, but after that, it was entirely from his own pockets, which were fortunately quite deep. He "gave them 400 [sesterces] each." Twice. In 5 B.C. he "gave 240 sesterces apiece to 320,000 members of the urban plebs." To every colonist drawn from his soldiers he gave 1000 sesterces. Then another 240 sesterces per man. He also gave huge sums to the treasury, and spent 400 million on cash bonuses for settling soldiers in their home towns. All this cost him a whopping 2.4 billion sesterces, and he didn't have to spend any of it. His listed improvements to Rome are almost too many to mention, but he did spend other huge, inestimable amounts on buildings.

The Roman people certainly must have loved dear Augustus. According to Augustus, the people offered him a consulship, then a dictatorship, then another consulship, then the custom-made position of "sole guardian of laws and morals with supreme power," then the High Priesthood. Of all these positions he mentions, he refused all of them initially except the first one. Augustus points out the honors the people bestow on him: they name a day after him, stuck his name in the Salian hymn, named him Augustus, and finally even named him "Father of the Country."

We come away from this work under the distinct impression that Augustus is a divine creature with an innate nature to do perfect, good, and excellent things. Unless we have brains. That's only the picture he shows us. No one is perfect. Did he steal chariot hubcaps as a child? He does not address that issue. He may very well have, but he was still popular -- in his own eyes. That's exactly the problem with an autobiography, particularly one such as this in which the author is commemorating himself: it will always be biased. No man would care to have his flaws proclaimed in public, and certainly not engraved in columns.

The very idea of someone honoring his own humility reminds one of the story about a man who received a pin for being humble. But when he wore the pin, it was taken away.

Suetonius' history is much less biased. Although we are not sure whether it is true, Suetonius frequently refers to the general opinion, beginning sentences and paragraphs with catch phrases like "Now the belief was that...", "It is the general opinion that...", and "The public thinks that..." This adds authority to his paper. He needs to add authority, because he is not the source personally as is Augustus. He is not writing about himself, and he probably wouldn't care if someone else's flaws were proclaimed in public, engraved in columns, or even written in the clouds. Although there is a definite similarity between his and Augustus' during the first section. They both describe their subject's rise to power, popularity, and good deeds. But then, with a "So much for Caligula as emperor," he charges into describing Caligula's "career as a monster."

Caligula was apparently well-suited to the task of being a monster. Suetonius presents him as a psychological mystery -- an incestuous, murderous, irrational spoiled brat. He sold his sisters out as whores to make money, except for Drusilla, whom he eventually married. The scores of stories of murder are too numerous to list here. Let us suffice it to say that Caligula had absolutely no respect for human life, and would readily end one or more of them with the slightest provocation, no matter how innocent. Looking at him from above, for example, was a capital offense, as was mentioning goats.

The reader comes away with a distinct sense of gratitude that he did not live under the reign of Caligula. One would be constantly worried that one might accidentally meet him. Two knights happened to be passing as Caligula wanted money, and he had all their possessions taken from them. The history of Caligula portrays acute injustice.

Suetonius is not extremely biased in the opposite way, however. He does not portray an evil man as the devil himself, just as an evil man. He uses argumentative rhetoric like "Pliny has erred in his chronology." He brings other scholars' ideas and claims into his paper and agrees with them or refutes them, much like the modern research paper. Basically, Suetonius is much more analytical, presenting an objective view complete with the many views of others. Sometimes he will introduce the idea to shoot it down, other times he just states, "So-and so says this."

What historical insights can we learn from the comparison of these histories? To answer that question, we should answer this one: Which is better? Suetonius' history is the superior one, because it gives us a more complete picture.

Really the only stark facts a historian has when he discovers a document are the author and what they said. It may not be true; a historian must first take his source at face value. Then, if it seems for a certain reason the author was being sarcastic, or had no clue what he was talking about, or conflicts with other sources, the paper may be reevaluated. The problem with Augustus' history is that it does not seem to present a complete picture. It states one viewpoint (namely "I am a god") with no arguments, simply a matter-of-fact declaration of things. At face value, yes, Augustus is a god. But then one notices the incongruencies: if he really is so humble, why is he taking such great measures to show us he is? Also, regardless of the veracity of his statements, the paper seems so heavily biased that it must be leaving out half of the truth, the side it didn't want us to see.

Suetonius, safe in his third-person point of view, makes an effort to avoid bias. His use of other sources really helps verify what he is saying, showing that his conclusions are not just products of a wandering mind, but they are agreed upon by others. The notes describe him as seeming "a modern researcher with a card index," and that is exactly what he seems. He pulls ideas and arguments from a variety of places.

Further evidence can be found in Suetonius' structure. Up until the "So much for..." phrase, the reader sees Caligula in much the same way they saw Augustus. Ah, the reader thinks. Another excellent Roman ruler doing beneficent things for all. If one were reading only this portion, one would possibly claim that it is biased favorably toward him, regardless of whether they knew about the second portion or not.

But then the second half seems biased the other way. Is this the same person? Suetonius separates the formative years during which Caligula was a popular, law-abiding good-doer and the "mad" years of murder and chicanery. It's almost as though, had he written Res Gestae, he would have included a second part, the part that seemed to be missing from the history. Adding such a second part, while it would definitely add scholarly authority to the paper and make it more beneficial to historians, would certainly not serve Augustus' purpose, however.

Looking beyond the face value is what makes history at all substantive. For example, archaeology is a form of history. If archaeologists were merely unearthing fossils and saying "There was a fernlike plant here" or "This is a leg bone" then it is highly improbable any archaeologists would remain today. The fun about archaeology is in looking beyond face value, estimating the age of the plant, or what specific animal the bone belonged to.The Compendium

© 1998-2017 Zach Bardon
Last modified 4.2.2013
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