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Agamemnon Princeps: Quoting Homer in Suetonius’ Caesars

Keating P.J. McKeon

Harvard University

This paper argues that Homeric quotation in Suetonius’ Caesars constitutes a parallel discourse of leadership within the text, which functions as a discrete index of defective autocratic rule at Rome. In ten instances over the course of the biographies (Suet. Aug. 65.4; Tib. 21.6; Calig. 22.1, 22.4; Claud. 42.1; Ner. 49.3; Galb. 20.2; Vesp. 23.1; Dom. 12.3, 18.2), the Caesars quote Homeric epic at decisive moments of dynastic importance. In so doing, the emperors offer a unique form of engagement with the didactic Homer presented in contemporaneous philosophical treatments. The cumulative effect of these utterances is a warped reflection of the princes’ mirror model of education.

Long recognized as the pinnacle of culture and education in antiquity (e.g. Morgan 1998; Cribiore 2001; Finkelberg 2012; Hunter 2018), recent scholarship has revisited Homeric poetry in light of a “mirror of princes” tradition, reading the epics as a source of guidance on proper conduct for the ruler-in-training (Klooster and van den Berg 2018). At the same time, the use of Greek by Latin speakers has been amply studied (Dubuisson 1992; Swain 2002; Adams 2003), and Suetonius’ singular affinity for reproducing direct speech is well known (Best 1977; Horváth 1996; Damon 2014). The Homeric quotations in Suetonius have been treated specifically as the residue from a miscellaneous Hellenic literary culture (Townend 1960; Dueck 2009); as evidence of an elite performance milieu (Mitchell 2015); or as individual complements to Suetonius’ character sketches (Berthet 1978; Macía Aparicio 2008; Power 2009 and 2011).

My paper locates these bilingual speech acts in relation to the princes’ mirror pedagogy, but displaces the prevailing focus on the ancient classroom to read such quotation as an ironic recasting of a Homeric education in practice. By proposing an embedded Homeric text constructed by quotation in Suetonius, I establish a parallel model of leadership at odds with the imperial institutions depicted. This dissonance is underlined by the explicit break between the two languages of power: Suetonius’ use of an untranslated Greek source text marks out the Caesars’ inability to “translate” Homeric monarchy for a Roman context. Thus Homeric quotation unites a series of autocrats who display the Greek education befitting a leader, but who prove incapable of implementing its precepts. The result is a persistent tension between the perceived leadership lessons of Homeric poetry and their potentially deviant reception beyond the classroom.

My paper culminates in a close reading of the Life of Caligula. Its Homeric quotations signpost a devolution of autocratic rule, which threatens in turn the survival of the Homeric text itself (Suet. Calig. 34.2). The precarious status of the physical corpus functions as a proleptic marker of the principate’s uncertain survival in the wake of Caligula’s tyrannical excesses. A corrupted dependency is revealed at the core of the princes’ mirror pedagogy: far from the mutually advantageous relationship envisioned by a Homeric education, the Caesars are seen to support a faltering autocracy with an ill-suited epic prop.

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