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Suetonius (c70-c140 CE) - his full name was Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus - was a Roman biographer and historian. The English pronunciation of Suetonius is sway-TONE-iers or swee-TONE-iers, IPA: /sweɪ 'təʊn ɪ əs/ or IPA: /swiː 'təʊn ɪ əs/. The adjective from Suetonius is Suetonian.

Suetonius was born, probably in Rome, into a family which belonged to the minor nobility. He practised for some years as a lawyer, was a friend of the letter-writer Pliny the Younger (?62-?114 CE), and in his late forties held a very senior position in the imperial civil service - he was secretary ab epistulis ('for correspondence') to the emperor Hadrian (who reigned 117-138). Suetonius' tenure of this position was short-lived, however: he was dismissed after a couple of years in 121 or 122 for having in some way given offence to the emperor, and spent the final decades of his life in retirement.

Of the many works Suetonius wrote in his retirement none has survived. His reputation as an historian and more particularly as a biographer rests on two works written earlier in his life.

  • De viris illustribus (On Famous Men) - written between 106 and 113 - is a series of biographies of well-known literary figures - poets, orators, grammarians, and historians. Only a small fraction of the biographies are extant.
  • De vita Caesarum (On the Lives of the Caesars) - published in 121 - is a set of biographies of the rulers of Rome, beginning with Julius Caesar and ending with the emperor Domitian (who reigned 81-96). All of the twelve biographies which compose the set are extant, apart from the first few chapters of the Life of Julius Caesar.

De vita Caesarum, like the Histories and Annals of Suetonius' older contemporary Tacitus, do not present the emperors in a favourable light but are generally accurate with regard to matters of fact. The biographies are of interest in themselves, are a valuable source of material for historians of the period, and exercised a great influence on later biographical writing by Roman authors.

De vita Caesarum also exercised a significant influence on the way their subjects were portrayed in western art during and after the Renaissance. Suetonius’ descriptions of the physical appearance of each of the rulers helped to determine the details of the way in which each was represented, while the Suetonian ‘set of twelve' encouraged painters and sculptors to produce sets of the twelve in their own medium. On all this – and much more – see Mary Beard, Twelve Caesars, Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern, Princeton University Press, 2021.