Nero

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CLH 274 The Roman Empire 2: Central Power and Local Culture

‘Compare and contrast the reigns of the emperors Nero and Vespasian as presented in the imperial biographies of Suetonius.’

Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, born in AD 70 either in Rome, areas of Italy around Rome, or it is even suggested, North Africa. An equestrian in rank as his father had also been, he was educated to a high standard and became a teacher of Literature. These two aspects are reflected in his Twelve Caesars. Completing a short military career as tribune in Britain allowed him to gain some military experience, after this transferring to more administrative roles within the Palace of Hadrian. These roles included charge of imperial libraries and the emperor’s correspondence, both allowing him access to documents regarding the internal workings and history of the ruling class. .

The descriptions set out of the ancestry of the two men by Suetonius create great contrasts. The stories of these ancestors are also intended to be presented as background for the vices and virtues held by each emperor. The Flavii family are described as one, “whose members have never enjoyed high office, at last brought stable government to the empire”. Much less detail of the Vespasian family line is given by Suetonius than that of Nero’s. It is made very clear that he descends from a line of equites and senators although the family status had been invariably increased through marriage. Suetonius also rejects local claims from Reate that Vespasian’s great great grandfather came from the lower rank of foreman. This is possibly an attempt by Suetonius to cement the Flavii as long standing members of the equestrian rank, very similar to his own family line. In addition to this, these ancestors are shown to have elements of industria contributing to the auctoritas inherited by Vespasian.

The Domitian family line, from which Nero descends, is presented from the outset as heavy with vice and this section is also used to outline the vices shown by Nero. The first of these ancestors is accused of, whilst tribune, transferring power from the pontifical colleges to the people. Although difficult to class as a vice directly, it is a removal of power from the priesthood and therefore possibly viewed as impietas, an attack on the religious system as a whole. This man is also accused of excessive celebration in the aftermath of his victories over Gallic tribes. In the descriptions of the next successive male ancestors, Suetonius presents men in opposition to the ruling party, the first having attempted to remove Caesar from command, his son then linked with the treachery of Brutus and Cassius. This being reinforced with the details of further treachery, as he changes allegiances to Augustus, particularly as this is for the love of his mistress. Suetonius states with irony that he is “without any doubt the best member of the family”. Nero’s grandfather is accused of displaying disrespectful behaviour towards equites as well as a lack of restraint in his cruelty to animals in the arena. The combinations of these vices are all portrayed through Nero’s actions and it is most likely that these anecdotes were selected as evidence for Nero’s behaviour.

With regards to the acquisition of power, both men take highly differing routes. The route taken by Vespasian would have most likely been more favourable to Suetonius than that of Nero. Nero’s adoption by Claudius in his early life sets him up as an heir to the throne, superseding Claudius’ other son Britannicus. It is mentioned that it is an oddity for Claudius to adopt an heir when he already has a male son. At the time of his accession, bad omens delay him in presenting himself to the Praetorian Guard. A continuation of the theme of bad omens that surround Nero from birth (his father’s jest at naming him after his uncle Claudius). The accession of Vespasian is, on the other hand, surrounded by positive omens. These include the...
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