Suetonius the Ventriloquist
Arts and Humanities
This chapter surveys Suetonius’ prose style, particularly his tendency to include the emperors’ own words in verbatim quotation. The metaphor of the ‘ventriloquist’ is apt for Suetonius, who frequently uses his biographical subject’s own language to display their character. This method is in direct contrast with the custom of Roman historians, especially Tacitus, who rewrites the original material in his sources, including speeches, to fit with the overall tone and texture of his own history. Suetonius permits the diction and rhythm of other writers to intrude in his biographies, but he does this for useful effect, and is not devoid of his own signatures of style and authorial voice. Suetonius’ prose is redeemed as more artful than in previous estimations, which have often found it to be plain and monotonous.