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The Art of Suetonius’ Nero: Focus, (In)Consistency and Character

Molly Pryzwansky

It is well-established that Plutarch presents different perspectives on historical events in his Parallel Lives depending on what suits his purposes for the given biographical subject (e.g., Pelling 1980; Stadter 2007; Hägg 2012). Suetonius employs a similar technique in his Caesares. His treatment of Nero across multiple Lives illustrates how he refocuses material, even with contradictory results, to underscore the character traits of the subject and highlight certain themes.
The narration of Nero’s adoption, which positioned him for the principate and could be told in his own Life, is placed in Claudius (27, 39, 43) because Suetonius uses it to stress Claudius’ malleability and poor administration, the emperor’s defining characteristics in this biography. The anecdote regarding Claudius’ regret of the decision belongs in Claudius (43) because it both accentuates his inconstancy, illustrated elsewhere in the Life (e.g., 15-16, 26), and supplies motive for Agrippina to assassinate him (44). Although Agrippina leads the assassination in Claudius (44), Nero’s complicity is reported in Nero (33), a divergence that serves to undermine Nero’s pietas and paint him as murderous in his Life (Hägg 2012, 222-223). Once Nero’s adoption is told in Claudius Suetonius does not repeat it in Nero, instead merely reporting its occurrence (7, 8-9). In Nero’s opening, rather, Suetonius highlights the vitia of the Domitii, Nero’s natural father’s family, to illustrate how Nero reproduced the family’s legacy of vice (1). Suetonius’ handling of Nero’s youth elucidates how the placement of historical material aided the characterization of his subjects.
One of Suetonius’ favorite themes at the end of Nero is that the emperor was abandoned and universally hated (e.g., 40, 47-49). Wallace-Hadrill has rightly identified the emphasis on unanimous opinion, positive or negative, as a favored rhetorical technique of the author (1995, 113-115), and Sansone has seen the influence of Plato’s “Myth of Er” in Suetonius’ narration of Nero’s demise (1993). Building on their work, I emphasize internal similarities between Nero’s death (47-50) and Domitian’s (14-17), another tyrant guilty of similar vices: clear portents are followed by the principes dying unanimously hated, fearful and abandoned, left to be buried in the family tomb by a loyal nurse. Suetonius arguably shaped these accounts to create parallelism in the ends of the Julio-Claudian and Flavian lines. My findings are significant because historians often depend on Suetonius’ narrative of Nero’s death (e.g., Champlin 2003; Warmington 1969), given that Tacitus’ Annals breaks off in 66 CE, while his Histories begin with Galba; Dio’s History survives only in epitomes for Nero’s principate; and Nero is mentioned indirectly in Plutarch’s surviving Lives (e.g., Gal. 7; Otho 18). Given this literary styling (on which also Townend 1967; Baldwin 1983; Lounsbury 1991; Hägg 2012), however, it is problematic to take Nero 46- 50 as a straightforward historical account.
Although Suetonius emphasizes that Nero was hated and abandoned, the public rejoicing at his downfall (57), he obliquely admits that some (et tamen non defuerunt qui, 57) continued to decorate his tomb long after. We later learn that Otho (7) was hailed “Nero” by the plebs, adopted the cognomen Nero, restored Nero’s statues and reinstated some of his procurators and freedmen. Similarly, Vitellius (11) made public funeral offerings to Nero with state priests present, and applauded when a lyre-player performed Nero’s compositions. Such anecdotes undercut Suetonius’ earlier emphasis on the universal hatred of Nero; appealing to Nero’s memory clearly had a place in public discourse. Despite the inconsistency, Suetonius wished to use what he considered misguided devotion to Nero to disparage Otho’s and Vitellius’ priorities. As he says of Vitellius, his offerings to Nero left no doubt who his imperial model was (11). Character elucidation, then, overrides consistency and historicity.
Suetonius’ varying treatment of Nero and his memory illustrates how he shaped historical material to suit his literary needs. Nero’s rejection in Nero underscores his bad conduct, while the championing of him in Otho and Vitellius exemplifies their flawed leadership.
Session/Panel Title:

Between Fact and Fiction in Ancient Biographical Writing

Session/Paper Number

81.3

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