Life and relevant background
Suetonius was born in Africa c.ad70 into a wealthy equestrian family. He trained as an orator (the usual education for an aspiring politician) and was an expert in rhetoric. He became a close friend and client of the Senator Pliny the Younger, who described him as ‘quiet and studious, a man dedicated to writing’, and ‘a man of the highest honesty and achievement’. Pliny introduced him to the Emperor Trajan, and Suetonius got jobs in the government as: • State Librarian – which would have given him control over Rome’s 7 great libraries • Secretary of Studies – whose job it was to organise and supply the emperor with documents from the imperial archives (with which he must have become intimately familiar) • Under Hadrian, he was made the Emperor's Secretary, but was dismissed in ad119 – ostensibly for behaving ‘with greater familiarity than the etiquette of the court required’ in his relations with the Empress Sabina, but perhaps because his biography of Augustus overstepped the mark. Suetonius clearly not only knew about government, he had become embroiled in its workings and machinations. He was also a priest, and so would have understood matters pertaining to religion.
The Twelve Caesars was written in the reign of the Emperor Hadrian, probably c.119-122; most historians think that Suetonius wrote Julius Caesar and Augustus before his dismissal, and the other volumes later, because it is obvious that he did NOT have access to the imperial archives for the later volumes of his Lives.
Although often accused of being mere gossip and invention – John D Clare (2013) comments: ‘Suetonius never omits an unlikely piece of juicy gossip unless he can find an even-more-crazy allegation to top it’ – the Lives are vibrant and compelling biographies. They formed – almost verbatim – the backbone for the presentation of the Roman emperors in the book and TV series I Claudius. And it is from Suetonius...