You are here

Suetonius’ mockery of the “Great King” Caligula: The other side of the coin of Plutarch’s Alexander

Giustina Monti


In this paper, I shall try to show how Suetonius played with the concept of Imitatio Alexandri, especially in the Life of Caligula: he did it in different ways which helped him to underline when an emperor was a good ruler or not. Moreover, he used this similarity even to mock – in a very shrewd and subtle way – the emperor he was describing. Thus, I shall highlight how Suetonius utilized the sources at his disposal: he probably was using the same materials as Plutarch, but, especially in the case of the Life of Caligula, it is possible to analyze how an identical tradition was employed in a completely different way. In this respect, I believe that my paper fits well in with the panel’s theme, The Intellectual World of the Early Empire, as it aims at showing that Plutarch and Suetonius made different use of the same material, whilst they employed it in the same literary genre.

It has already been shown that Suetonius made use of the sources Plutarch used and vice versa (Moles 1992) or that, at least, they shared the same sources (de Wet 1990). They also had in common the same kind of humour, and the use they made of it was almost identical (Reekmans 1992). In particular, Beneker 2011, 85-89, has demonstrated that, although Plutarch and Suetonius used the same source, they had “quite different interpretations”.

Alexander the Great represented a strong figure in both the Greek and the Roman imagination, and the attempts at imitating him had not been scarce (Nenci 1992:183). Especially in Roman emperors’ mind, Alexander was a model to follow, since he had been the king, the general and the conqueror par excellence. To this, it should be added that the ‘nickname’ Great was ‘created’ in Roman times, as a form of brachylogy for ‘the Great King Alexander’ (in Latin Alexander Magnus Rex), the title assumed by Alexander after he became the heir of the Great King Darius (Cagnazzi 2005). However, after Caligula and Nero, the idea people had of Alexander was somewhat negative, and he was not seen in a positive light (see, for example, Seneca’s and Lucan’s depictions). Afterwards, Plutarch, chiefly in his Life of Alexander, seems to attempt a reconstruction of a positive image of the young king (see, for example, Cammarota 1992, Placido 1995, Whitmarsh 2002, and Asirvatham 2005). Suetonius, on his part, appears to keep this positive tradition in mind when he reverses Caligula’s image, who was one of Alexander’s first negative ‘imitators’: Caligula is not Alexander, or – even better – he is not Plutarch’s Alexander.

In this paper, I shall start from chapter 19 of the Life of Caligula, a well-constructed passage in a sort of ring composition of references. The mention of the bridge built by Caligula from Baiae to the mole of Puteoli, for example, soon brings to mind Alexander and his foundation of Alexandria on the strip of the land between the swamp Mareotis and a vast gulf bordered on the north by the island of Pharos: indeed, the strip of land was a sort of bridge connecting the island and the mainland. However, I shall demonstrate that here Suetonius associated Caligula with Xerxes and not with Alexander, reversing the image of the emperor who becomes the anti-Alexander and the mad king par excellence. Then, I shall examine the reference to an aurea chlamyde, which again might evoke the foundation of Alexandria, and the image of Caligula on horseback, recalling the battle at Issus, in a reverse situation again. Finally, I shall examine some other relevant pieces of information in chapters 22, 29, and 34, and I aim at demonstrating that Suetonius made use of two kinds of mocking account in his description of Caligula: the subversion of Alexanders’ image and the link with some Alexander’s acts criticized at that time.

Session/Panel Title

The Intellectual World of the Early Empire (organized by the International Plutarch Society)

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy