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Analyzing the Principate through Antithesis in Suetonius’ De Vita Caesarum

Wesley J Hanson

University of Pennsylvania

Studies on the literary elements of the Caesars have increasingly argued for the importance of Suetonius’ use of form (Lounsbury 1987, Murphy 1991, Damon 2014, Dunsch 2015, Ash 2016). Nevertheless, skepticism persists about the capacity of Suetonius’ formal devices to facilitate political analysis of the principate (Mouchová 1968, Wallace-Hadrill 1983, Hurley 2014). This paper builds on the former scholarship to show how Suetonius employs one important formal device, that of antithesis, as a prompt for his readers to analyze Roman autocracy across the Lives. While this paper comes from a larger project that examines different types of antithetical structures in the Caesars, I focus here on an antithesis between two passages drawn from two Lives: Julius and Domitian. Through this antithesis, Suetonius traces the development of the principate as a political institution as his collection progresses.

Suetonius mentions only two attempts by third-party actors to establish a ruler’s legacy after his death using inscriptions. These inscriptions appear in Julius and Domitian, the first and last of Suetonius’ twelve Lives. Through his description of these attempts, Suetonius creates an antithesis for his reader. In Julius, Suetonius narrates how the populace in Rome erected a monolith to honor Caesar after his assassination (Jul. 85) (Sumi 2011). They established it as a ritual site and inscribed the title parens patriae on it (Weinstock 1971). In Domitian, Suetonius presents the Senate’s exuberant response to Domitian’s assassination (Dom. 23.2): in addition to tearing down statues of Domitian in the Senate house, they decreed that inscriptions of his name, and memory, be erased everywhere (ubique) (Flower 2006, Mooney 1979 [1930]).

In these two responses to a ruler’s death, Suetonius establishes an antithesis that reaches from the beginning to the end of his serial biographical collection – and back. This antithesis prompts the reader to reflect on how autocracy functions in Rome: a ruler’s murder starts a political battle to shape his legacy. The Julius passage, when read in conjunction with its antithetical counterpart, depicts a localized political battle. The erection and inscription of a monolith in the forum is decidedly parochial; the Roman forum is the site where Caesar’s legacy is contested. By contrast, the Senate’s decree that Domitian’s name be erased throughout the empire (ubique) denotes–when compared with the Julius–the expanded nature of the principate. After the Julio-Claudians, an emperor could be made outside of Italy–it was the Senate’s hope that one could be unmade outside of it too. Suetonius’ presentation demonstrates the innovative steps that the Senate took to undermine a hated emperor. Empire-wide memory sanctions (Flower 2006) became one tool for the Senate to maintain its political status.

Suetonius’ use of the serial biographical form articulates an understanding of leadership in which assassination creates a considerable political vacuum. How different political classes handled this vacuum changed as autocratic structures changed. Suetonius’ provision of internal comparative prompts, such as antithesis, models a mode of reading that looks beyond the individual Life to the structure of his Caesars as a whole.

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