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Vespasian and the Uses of Humor in Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars

Michael Konieczny

The depiction of the emperor as both author and object of humor is a significant feature of Suetonius’ Lives that as yet has received only limited scholarly attention. It is the aim of the present study to argue that humor, beyond providing flashes of color to individual episodes of the Lives, is one of the categories that Suetonius uses to assess the reigns of the various principes. In particular, I wish to use contextual evidence from throughout the Lives to argue that the emperor Vespasian is depicted as a “master of humor,” whose skillful manipulation of the humorous enables him to maintain control of public discourse and thus secure the legitimacy of his own position.

Two recent studies (Milns 2010; Luke 2010) have made some valuable observations about the role of humor in the Life of Vespasian—indeed, Milns (p. 117) even suggests that wit and humor could be considered a separate “rubric” within the biography. Neither scholar, however, seriously explores the possibility of understanding Vespasian’s humor in the context of the Lives overall. As for more general approaches to humor in Suetonius, T. Reekmans (1992) compiled and classified nearly all the instances of jokes and witticisms in the Lives, but his own article does little beyond gathering the data. Other studies of Suetonius, including the recent collection of articles edited by Power and Gibson (2014), generally advert to humor only in passing, if they mention it at all.

By interpreting humor in the Life of Vespasian in the context of the Lives more broadly, my own project seeks to take the first steps toward a more synoptic appreciation of the role of humor in Suetonius. I begin with the importance that Suetonius attaches throughout the Lives to the emperor’s public presence, whether in person, as in the context of amphitheatrical spectacles, or as the subject of public discourse, such as the anonymous pamphlets and verses that Suetonius refers to so frequently. I then go on to demonstrate the role that humor plays in the development of the emperor’s public image. My main focus will be on those instances in which Suetonius depicts an emperor either succeeding or failing to maintain control of a humorous situation, where I will explore the implications of such scenarios for our understanding of Suetonius’ views on imperial legitimation.

My paper will examine episodes from throughout the Lives, but two examples in particular may serve to illustrate the potential of my approach. In Vesp. 22, a certain Mestrius Florus reproves Vespasian for his incorrect pronunciation of the word for “wagon”: plostra rather than the educated Latin plaustra. As Milns (2010, 122) points out, the criticism of Vespasian’s accent may be understood as impugning his status by drawing attention to his un-aristocratic origins. The next day, however, Vespasian turns the joke back on Florus, addressing him instead as Flaurus. By acknowledging the slight and using it as the occasion for a riposte of his own, Vespasian cleverly defuses the tension introduced by Florus’ remark and shows himself to be fully in control of the dialogue concerning his family background. Contrast this successful use of humor with the disastrous episode reported in Cl. 21: after the participants in the naumachia on the Fucine Lake greet Claudius with the formula ave imperator, morituri te salutant!, Claudius replies cheekily, aut non, with the result that the contestants, thinking they had been pardoned, initially refuse to fight. The inept use of humor is thus shown to undermine Claudius’ authority as princeps in a very public venue.

Suetonius’ Lives are an invaluable document for understanding the negotiation of imperial legitimacy during the first century of the Principate. As I hope to demonstrate, Suetonius recognized the critical role that humor played in this process, and his Lives, particularly the Life of Vespasian, exhibit a correspondingly strong interest in this droll but also very serious aspect of imperial society.

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Roman Imperial Ideology and Authority

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