Suetonius and the ‘Mad' Emperors

Topics: Nero, The Dinner Party, Suetonius Pages: 5 (2027 words) Published: November 28, 2006
Suetonius and the ‘Mad' Emperors

It is easy for most people to remember the terrible things a person has done than it is to remember the good; Suetonius plays on this flaw of human nature brilliantly. His take on the lives of Nero and Caligula are accurate sometimes, but for the most part he just published rumors and boldly criticized emperors without fear. Taking Suetonius too seriously now would be like people two thousand years from now taking the tabloids seriously. Yes, it is possible Barbra Bush gave birth to a mutant child, but it is entirely unlikely. The same goes for Nero and Caligula. Like other emperors before him, Caligula was brutally murdered at the hands of the senate. Suetonius even goes so far as to say, "Some even applied the sword to his private parts." (pg 166) And if one were to take Suetonius seriously, they would think he deserved such treatment. Some things that were said were probably true, like manipulating the birth of his daughter as a way to get more money, but others, such as sleeping with married women and then bragging about it in front of their husbands, were most likely exaggerations and intended to damage his reputation. The only way to distinguish the two would be to use our best discretion. Caligula was given a bad reputation; however he did do some good things for the empire. He attempted to bring back the practice of elections, thus giving the right to vote back to the people. He also compensated people who had been victims of fires. He rewarded those who were faithful with money and positions. Suetonius was clever when he introduced all of Caligula's positive attributes; he combined them all together in the beginning and listed them as if he had to. There is definitely a change in his tone when he starts talking about the scandalous aspects of his life. He cleverly transitions from the good to bad by saying, "The story so far has been of Caligula the Emperor, the rest must be of Caligula the monster." (pg 146) When he is talking about Caligula's dinner parties, first he blandly states that Caligula "hosted a most plentiful banquet for the senatorial and equestrian orders, even including their wives and children." Here he makes the dinner parties sound like a wonderful thing for the wealthy, and then later he tells us that the dinner parties were really just a way for him to take the wives away from the husbands and then flaunt it in front of the other guests. "Then, as often as he felt like it, he would leave the dinning room, having called to him whichever woman he found most attractive…not long afterwards he would return, making no attempt to conceal the signs of his recent sexual activity, and would offer criticism and praise of his partner…"(pg 155) Here we get a whole different picture of the dinner party. First we only get a sentence mentioning a dinner party, and then when the juicy stuff comes up, Suetonius goes on for several paragraphs describing every disturbing detail. This most likely had a huge effect on the selected elite who were invited to these dinner parties. No man would want his wife to sleep with another man, even if it were the emperor. This form of propaganda has a powerful effect on people now, and most likely it did centuries ago. It would have instilled fear in the elite class that their wives and daughters were never safe in his presence. Suetonius even goes so far as to claim that not even his sisters were safe from his promiscuity. "He habitually indulged in incestuous relations with all his sisters and at a crowded banquet he would make them take turns lying beneath him, while his wife lay above." (pg 148) Claiming that an emperor violates his sisters is a serious accusation, but not for Suetonius. This accusation falls into the category of slander and rumor. He was probably just as promiscuous as any other powerful man in Rome, maybe a little more, but accusing Caligula of incest is a bit much and shouldn't be taken seriously.

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