Suetonius’ Organizational Craft

Wesley Joseph Hanson, University of Pennsylvania


Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, a Roman civil servant in the first and second centuries CE, was the author of a biographical collection of Rome’s first twelve imperial rulers. My dissertation focuses on this collection, the Caesars, and in it I describe Suetonius’ organizational and structural methods and show how Suetonius employs them to teach his readers how to analyze Roman autocracy. Suetonius uses the serial biographical form to conduct political analysis and to prompt his readers to do so as well. This dissertation argues that Suetonius’ political insight is an articulation of the nature of Roman autocratic power. Autocracy, as Suetonius depicts it, is a collection of discrete political, social, and cultural powers that cohere into an imperial institution embodied by one man. In order to evoke this political structure and in order to teach his readers how to conceptualize it, Suetonius uses serial biography organized by topics as his literary form: it mirrors the form that power takes in the principate and, therefore, constitutes a reading of the principate itself. Suetonius organizes his biographies around investigations into these discrete topics that pertain to the office of the princeps. Topical organization and topical analysis are central, conceptually and literally, to his literary project. Suetonius’ form is the implicit argument for how power works. In this respect, Suetonius’ articulation of Roman autocracy is inclusive. He includes aspects of Roman politics that might otherwise be overlooked; as important as the civic powers that an emperor holds are, so too are the social and cultural sources of his authority. This dissertation has three chapters. In the first, I analyze Suetonius’ topical organization. The second chapter examines Suetonius’ antithetical thinking and structures. My final chapter argues that Suetonius prompts his readers to read the Caesars recursively in order to understand the institution of the principate that lies behind the individual subjects of his biographical collection.