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By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Empedocles, born c. 490 BCE in Akragas, Sicily, is perhaps one of the more eccentric pre-Socratic philosophers. He himself claimed other-worldly powers, is credited by Aristotle as the inventor of rhetoric, and is thought to have originated the cosmogonic theory of the four elements: fire, air, water, and earth.
Empedocles’ Personal Life
While relatively little is known about Empedocles’ personal life, we do know he was born to a wealthy family who was involved in the overthrow of the Akragas tyrant in 470 BC.
Diogenes relates the ambiguity regarding exactly of whom Empedocles was a student. He offered the following options: that he was a student of Pythagoras himself, that he was a student of the Pythagorean school under the instruction of Huppasus and Brontinus, or that he could have originally been under the influence of Xenophanes and later “fell in with the Pythagoreans.” All of this confusion is due to the fact that Empedocles promoted his poetry at the start and the Pythagorean school had a law to admit no Epic poet. Indeed, he is generally considered the last Greek philosopher to have recorded his ideas in verse.
Empedocles himself had one pupil mentioned, Gorgias, and his travels to the Peloponnese, Attica, and Thurii were mentioned by authors such as Timaeus and Dicaearchus.
Empedocles’ philosophy and teachings are taken from the remaining fragments of his epics ‘On Nature’ and ‘Purifications.’ The core of Empedocles’ philosophy relied on the notion that all things are transformed and manipulated between the four worldly elements of fire, air, water, and earth, and that nothing is destroyed and nothing is created new. He believed that everything in the universe was made of these four root elements and was conscious.
Combined with this attempt to simplify and organize the world, Empedocles’ doctrine promoted the idea that love was the unseen force holding things together, while strife was the force by which things were pulled apart. Love and Strife, then, were the ways in which the four elements were able to interact and mix together.
Empedocles’ philosophy about the universe was in response to the contemporary Eleatic School which was founded by Parmenides in southern Italy. The Eleatic School promoted the idea that “all is one” in the universe and everything existed in a single entity. Empedocles pushed back a little by saying all is composed of the same four elements. While this concept is similar at the root of the argument, it did differ enough to constitute a separate philosophical school.
Even though the line between Empedocles’ philosophy and Empedocles’ science is blurred to say the least, he did undertake what we would even recognize today as “scientific testing.”
Empedocles was (unsurprisingly) not very thorough. He did, though, prove that air was not empty space by using a clepsydra, which is a water clock or any timepiece by which time is measured by the regulated flow of liquid into or out from a vessel, and where the amount is then measured. He did this by filling the clepsydra with water while covering the hole at the top. This allowed for his element of air to be an active ‘ingredient’ in comparison with earth, water, and fire – all tangible and manipulative elements.
Another theory of Empedocles comes down to us through Aristotle in De Sensu. Empedocles thought that the light from the sun passed through intermediary space before being processed by our eyes, moving through space by whatever force. Indeed, Empedocles is credited with the first comprehensive theory of light and vision.
But perhaps one of the more advanced undertakings of Empedocles gives us what is thought to be the earliest extant attempt to discern the origin of species. He introduces zoogony, or generations of animals, in his attempts to explain the origin and development of biological life as a coming together and unfolding of birth. He uses examples of wild animals, humans, and plants as his proofs. This theory is strongly in line with his overarching philosophy of things in strife and things in love. Indeed, we see what Empedocles thought was the practical application of such rules.
Empedocles’ Death and Legacy
Empedocles’ death is the stuff of legends, as he was mythologized by ancient writers. One story of which is where he died by throwing himself into Mount Etna, allowing him to turn into an immortal god. Another includes Empedocles being removed from the earth and his exact age at death is disputed anywhere between age 60 and age 109.
Further descriptions of Empedocles and his ideas are recorded by Aristotle, Diogenes, Pliny, and Horace’s Ars Poetica. Aristotle called him the father of rhetoric and Lucretius speaks of him with enthusiasm, and evidently viewed him as his model. Much later his death is at the center of a 1826 play by Friedrich Holderlin, ‘Tod des Empedokles,’ and Matthew Arnold’s 1852 poem titled ‘Empedocles on Etna.’ While this eccentric philosopher may not be a household name today, he was clearly very influential in the ancient world and thus deserves our attention.
By Mary Naples, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Under Christian rule, Alexandria, once the definitive center of learning throughout the empire, was fast becoming anti-intellectual and inhospitable to Hypatia and the academic circle in which she traveled. In fact, this burgeoning new religion was oftentimes suspicious of learning, equating it to the work of the devil. Faith in Christ replaced scholarship in this brave new world.
An example of this hatred for scholarship was demonstrated in 392 when Theophilus (384 CE-412 CE) Bishop of Alexandria, led a braying mob of Christian zealots in the pummeling of the Serapeum, the city’s premier temple and library complex. Elevated by one-hundred steps on the acropolis of Alexandria, the Serepeum was made of luminous marble and rose above all other structures commanding the city skyscape. Equally impressive, the library within the Serapeum was considered the daughter to the defunct Library of Alexandria housing hundreds of thousands of scrolls. After the extremists razed the Serapeum complex and set fire to the scrolls, the swarm went on a holy mission tearing down other temples, statuary and religious sites, when all was said and done destroying over twenty-five hundred structures in total.
In 414 CE Theophilus died and was succeeded by his nephew, Cyril (378 CE- 444 CE) who made his uncle look conciliatory in comparison. Ruling with an iron-fist from the get-go, he made his wrath known against another enemy of the Christians—the Jews. When some Christians were killed in a skirmish that had broken out between Christians and Jews, Cyril organized an army of thousands called the parabalani. Typically, from the lower rungs of society and oftentimes illiterate, the parabalani were at his call to serve their god, or in this case god’s representative, Cyril. In addition, some in his army were Nitrian monks who traveled to Alexandria from the desert fired up in righteous religious indignation against non-Christians. Both groups had a flagrant reputation for violence.
At Cyril’s behest, they seized the synagogues converting them into churches. But defacing their places of worship was not enough for the iron-fisted bishop, he also exiled the Jews from Alexandria and encouraged his Christian disciples to occupy their now abandoned homes and to seize their possessions.
It is emblematic of the staggering influence wielded by religious authority that Orestes—the governor of Alexandria—could do little but stand by the sidelines in horror and despair at this gross injustice. Though a Christian himself, Orestes was a nonsectarian and like his good friend Hypatia appalled by Cyril’s barbaric actions against the Jews.
Though it did no good, Orestes reported the atrocious events to the emperor in Constantinople, which put him squarely in the crosshairs of Cyril’s band of thugs. One night while out in his chariot, Orestes was confronted by an angry mob of parabalani and Nitrian monks—which soon turned into a physical altercation when one of the monks gashed Orestes’ head open with a stone. If not for the help of nonsectarian bystanders, Orestes would have died.
When the stone-hurling monk was apprehended, Orestes had him publicly tortured and the monk ultimately died. In true form, Cyril used the monk’s death in a propaganda campaign against the governor further fueling the fire between the disparate factions.
Attempts at reconciliation between the two leaders ended in failure. Through it all, the governor sought counsel from the wisest person in the land who stood resolutely by his side. But Cyril’s supporters saw Hypatia’s advocacy on Orestes’ behalf not as uniting but as dividing. Alexandria’s most acclaimed pagan was an easy target who they blamed for the continuing rift between the two men.
Then the rumors began. She has an undue influence on Orestes, they blustered. She’s bewitched him with her sorcery, others moaned. She is teaching idolatry, they shrieked. Calling her a witch, they even used her famed astrolabe against her saying it was an instrument of Satan. The cacophony of outcries against her became deafening. Then it happened. Demonstrating once again how easy it is to harm those who have been dehumanized.
On her daily ride through the city on that bright and sunny day in March of 415, Hypatia had set off for school in her chariot. As was usual for her, her mind was a million miles away. Perhaps she was thinking about her next seminar; about some philosophical dictate or mathematical law she would discuss in class. Being an exemplary teacher, her fortunate students were never far from mind.
But her introspection was savagely broken when she found herself physically confronted by a howling mob under the leadership of Peter, a church magistrate. Because she was not a civil authority, she lacked the security detail that Orestes enjoyed. But up until then, no academic had needed such protection in Alexandria.
From the beginning, it was violent. They ordered her off her chariot, then dragged her through the streets and into a church. She must have tried to reason with them, but her reasoning fell on the deafened ears of the righteous. After all, theirs is the will of god. They tore the clothes off of the “luminous child of reason” and in God’s house they flayed her with the jagged edges of roofing tiles.
As if that were not enough, while still alive and breathing, they gouged out her eyes. Once dead, they further violated her by cutting her body into pieces and parading the pieces throughout the streets of Alexandria. Finding rest, at long last, on a pyre. Violent criminals were treated with more forbearance than Alexandria’s most prominent intellectual.
From the farthest reaches of the empire to close by, both Christian and non-Christian alike were in an uproar about the abhorrent slaying of the greatest mathematician of the day. It was an outrage. Academics were considered inviolable because they enhanced the community with their scholarship and wisdom. But if being an academic was not enough to protect her, Hypatia was also an elite woman. A rank by itself deemed sacrosanct.
How could something of this magnitude happen to one as beloved as she? But the truth is that Hypatia was part of a dying breed, the last champion of a seven-hundred-year academic tradition vanishing under a tidal wave of anti-intellectual religious dogma. After Hypatia’s death, many pagan academics fled Alexandria in search of more tolerant cities. But eventually the tidal wave could be felt throughout the empire with religion replacing philosophy and clergy replacing academics.
Devastated, Orestes soon left public life. But Cyril’s star was still rising. Although never formally charged in Hypatia’s violent end, if not for the anti-pagan fervor he stirred up amongst his minions, such a horror would never have taken place. Following her death, Cyril was given the honorary moniker “the new Theophilus” by his jubilant followers for quashing the “last remnants of idolatry.” Under his continued leadership, Alexandria became an important Christian hub with Cyril eventually canonized as a saint. He is venerated in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches to this day.
By Mary Naples, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
They came to her by land. They came to her by sea. They came to her from the farthest reaches of the Roman Empire and they came to her from close by. Amongst the literati, Hypatia (355-415 CE), acclaimed philosopher and leading mathematician, was a rock star.
She was bold, she was beautiful, but most of all, she was brilliant. Her students, many of them adherents in the burgeoning new religion, Christianity, adored her and flocked to hear her every word. Congregating not only in the classroom but in the public square and even at her home—just to hear her speak. Hers was the school all serious students throughout the empire wished to attend. But students weren’t the only ones who were captivated by her brilliance. Amongst academics from near and from far, she was the one with whom they sought council.
But how did Hypatia, a woman in a deeply misogynist society, earn such high acclaim? By the tender age of thirty, Hypatia had become a legend within academic circles for fusing the two apparently disparate disciples of mathematics and philosophy together in the classroom. Although well-versed in both disciplines, academics tended to be trained as either philosophers or mathematicians and had schools in one discipline or the other but not in both. Hypatia’s school was the exception.
Weaned on mathematics by her father, Theon (335 CE-405 CE), the foremost mathematician in Alexandria, Hypatia would become his best pupil even assisting him in the seminal writings of Euclid and Ptolemy. In fact, Hypatia was so gifted, that her father ceded his school to her—retiring at only fifty-five years of age—when it became apparent that she surpassed him in ability. But for all her mathematical acumen, Hypatia had a strong affinity for philosophy which she believed led to the highest truth. Her robust background in mathematics and philosophy made her school a perfect venue for students who wanted to learn how the two disciplines were unified.
But it’s important to have an understanding of what was meant by mathematics and philosophy in ancient times. Today, what two disciplines are more at odds than mathematics and philosophy? Though one is considered practical and useful, the other is considered metaphysical and without merit in our highly technical world. While both were thought to be sacrosanct by the ancients, a debate ensued between scholars over which of the two disciplines led to the highest truth.
Mathematics, which encompassed arithmetic, geometry, algebra, as well as astronomy, was irrefutable and as such was considered sacred and a path to a higher being or what the ancients termed “the One.” Meanwhile philosophy, a less demonstrable field, was a study employed to instill honor, wisdom and integrity within an individual. The philosophical goal being that this moral code could impart a oneness with the divine. Thus, the goal of both mathematics and philosophy was a transcendent affinity with the sacred, making them both more akin to our notion of religion.
Neoplatonism, the type of speculative philosophy that Hypatia taught, espoused a renunciation of the material world in favor of spirituality. Neoplatonists believed that the materiality of the body and the world in general are things to be overcome. Hypatia herself was exemplar of this creed, choosing to remain celibate so she could focus her energies on scholarship and the satisfaction of the incorporeal world. One famous vignette has her thwarting the unwelcome advances of a student by showing him one of her menstruation rags, quipping “Is this what you love, young man?” Unsurprisingly, his desire for her was quelled.
Hypatia’s severe rejection of his advances illustrates how fundamental repudiation of the material world was to Neoplatonism. In this way, it was a philosophy not inconsistent with the essential tenets of Christianity. On account of this compatibility, many of Hypatia’s students were both Neoplatonists and Christian. Although a pagan, Hypatia was nonpartisan and endowed all her students to honor and respect one another and others in the world, regardless of religious affiliation.
For as much as peaceful coexistence was the order of the day in Hypatia’s school, Alexandria was a tinderbox with disparate factions in conflict with one another; Christian against pagan and Jew, orthodox against heterodox, sectarian against non-sectarian and finally religious authority against civil authority.
To Be Continued….
By Natalia Klimczak
Constantine the Great is known in history as the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity. However, legends and archaeological evidence suggest a different story– it seems that Constantine had a secret about his faith which was hidden for centuries.
Constantine built many churches. He celebrated the faith in one (Christian) God and his son Jesus by creating many of the greatest churches of the world, including: St. Peter’s in Rome, The Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, The Eleona on the Mount of Olives, The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and others.
***Editor’s Note: St. Peter’s Basilica was commissioned by Pope Julius II in the 6th Century, which replaced the original 4th Century structure which had indeed been built by Constantine. This is to say that the current St. Peter’s Basilica is not the one built by Constantine.***
Constantine became emperor in 306 AD, and ruled for 31 years. According to tradition, just before the battle of the Milvian Bridge (Rome) in 312, he experienced a vision of a flaming cross with the inscription ”In his sign conquer”. As the legends say, he understood it as a sign from the Christian God asking him to convert. Constantine believed that he would be awarded with unusual power, the support of a deity, and the greatest kingdom of the world if he followed through with the vision.
By the decree of Constantine, Christianity became the official religion of Rome in 324. However, did he really become a true Christian, or was he just seeking the support of powerful bishops for political purposes?
Constantine – the Christian Emperor of Rome?
In the group of his closest advisers there were bishops such as Hosius, Lactantius, and Eusebius of Caesarea. He appointed the group of converted Christians to high positions in many parts of his empire. The Christian ministers had special privileges. He also extended many benefits to pagan priests who became Christian ministers. For example, they received monetary support from the Empire and didn’t pay taxes.
The bishops were a faithful army for the ruler, but apart from creating some laws, temples, and supporting the growing group of priests, Constantine didn’t appear to be much of a Christian. He agreed with the bishops’ suggestions to legislate against magic and private divination. But if a change in these kinds of laws was not put forth by an influential bishop, Constantine wasn’t interested in making the changes.
With his decree many pagan temples were destroyed. For example, he ordered the damage of the Temple of Aphrodite in Lebanon, but also many other ceremonial pagan places. It seems that he was interested in destroying some of the important places of pre-Christian cults, but at the same time destruction didn’t apply to all of them. In every decision to destroy a pagan temple, it was written that the place could not exist because it was a site of misguided rites and ceremonies – a place of true obstinacy. He never outright banned pagan rituals like sacrifices, but only closed and destroyed important temples when the bishops felt the sites were dangerous to their own faith.
Apart from his political motives to support the growing army of priests, Constantine may have had a secret. What is more interesting, is that it seems that the bishop of Rome knew about it, and supported him in this hidden aspect of his life. The truth was that Constantine outwardly supported the new religion but still worshiped the Sun and pagan symbols.
A Sun-Worshipping Christian?
Constantine grew up in the court of the emperor Constantine Chlorus, who was a Neoplatonist and a devotee of the Unconquered Sun. His mother, Empress Helena, was a Christian who traveled through the Middle East searching for key sites connected to Jesus. According to the ancient texts, she was the one who identified the most important places known in the Bible. Young Constantine didn’t appear as a follower of his mother’s religious interests. He worshiped the Sun, or was devoted to Mithraism.
After his official conversion to Christianity in 312, Constantine built his triumphal arch in Rome. It is interesting that it wasn’t dedicated to the symbols of Christianity, but to the Unconquered Sun. During his reign, he changed many aspects connected with pagan cults, but that doesn’t mean that he stopped the cultivation of old traditions. He often named them differently, but still allowed for pagan practices in many ways. For example, in 321 Constantine legislated that the celebration of the Day of the Sun should be a state holiday – a day off for everybody.
The Confusing Column of Constantine
In 330, Constantine set up a statue which is a key to understanding his private beliefs. After decades of supporting Christianity, he appeared as a statue of the Sun god in the forum. The column became the center of the Forum of Constantine, nowadays known as the Cemberlitas Square in Istanbul. Today, the column is 35 meters (114.8 feet) tall, but in the ancient times it was 15 meters (49.2 feet) taller, and ended with an impressive statue of the emperor. The column was decorated with pagan symbolism supported by some Christian decoration.
The statue on the top of the monument presented Constantine in the figure of Apollo with a Sun crown, the greatest symbol of the kings from the times of Alexander the Great. It is said that he carried a fragment of the True Cross in his hand – a relic of the cross of Jesus. At the foot of the column there was a sacred place which contained relics, including other parts of crosses, a basket from the biblical story of the loaves and fishes miracle, a jar which belonged to Mary Magdalene, and a wooden statue of Pallas Athena from Troy.
The Byzantine emperor Manuel I Komnenos (1143 – 1180) saw this monument as too pagan, and he decided to place a cross in place of the statue on the top of the column. The monument was damaged a few times in history, but the column has survived until modern times. Parts of the statue of Constantine are located in a museum, but the Column of Constantine is still one of the most important examples of Roman Art in Turkey.
True Christian, Secret Pagan, or a God?
After his death in 337, Constantine became one of the pagan gods. An analysis of archaeological sites suggests that Constantine, like previous emperors of Rome, had never stopped seeing himself as a son of the ancient deities. It is hard to believe that Constantine’s Christian beliefs were as strong as his mother Helena’s. He appears more as an intelligent politician than a man who truly wanted to Christianize the world.
By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Alexander III of Macedon is perhaps one of the most notorious figures to come out of the ancient world, for better or worse. Born in Pella in 356 BCE to the King Philip II, it seemed destined that Alexander the Great follow in the family business of military campaigns and kingdom expansion.
Alexander the Great’s Early Life
Because of the status achieved by Alexander and his father, the circumstances of his early life are often mired in legend. His birth was thought to be linked to a bright star over Macedonia. The author Plutarch wrote that he was born on the same night as the destruction of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, and that soothsayers ran about the city saying that something had been brought into the world that one day would lead to the destruction of all of Asia. Alexander himself thought he was the son of Zeus and was related thereupon to Achilles and Herakles.
In his youth, Alexander studied math, philosophy, music, writing, archery, and riding while his father King Philip was at war subduing the rest of Greece. One notable aspect of Alexander’s early life and education is that he was tutored by Aristotle at the request of the king. This tutor-student relationship developed into an earnest friendship, and the two kept up communication with one another throughout Alexander’s later life.
Alexander the Great’s Early Career
It wasn’t long before Alexander began to participate in the family business of battle. At just 18, Alexander helped the Macedonians win at the Battle of Charonea in 338, defeating the opposing Greek city states. Two years later in 336, Alexander was crowned king after Philip II’s assassination. It is at this juncture, with the Greek city states subjugated to Macedonian rule, that Alexander continued east to tackle the Persian Empire. A series of advances into Asia Minor in 334, including the sack of Baalbeck, the liberation of Ephesos, and the successful defeat of Darius III of Persia at the Battle of Issos, all allowed Alexander to gain traction, support, and respect amongst his troops and people. By 332, just four years after he became king, Alexander had conquered Syria and then Egypt a year later in 331.
Alexander the Great and the East
Alexander’s campaigns pushing east are, by any respect, an incredible feat of military prowess. He followed in his father’s footsteps and wanted to overtake the Persian Empire, which was under the rule of Darius III at the time. Like at the battle of Issos, Alexander dealt a decisive blow to the Persian empire in 331 at the Battle of Guagamela. Darius had again retreated, not able to match the massive army of Macedonians. Soon after, Darius was assassinated and Alexander proclaimed himself king of Asia.
Alexander and his army continued on, taking cities like Susa, Persepolis, Bactria, and Sogdianna. Along his routes, Alexander would rename and establish new eponymous cities. In no small part due to his Aristotlean education, Alexander generally allowed conquered cities to carry on their own customs, but he knew that his image had to be held highest amongst their own. Because of this, he adopted the title ShahanSha, meaning King of Kings, originally used by the first rulers of the Persian Empire.
Political propaganda stretched far and wide, and Alexander was increasingly adopting Persian customs. This led to a growing level of distrust amongst the Macedonian troops, while trust within the higher ranks was splintering. Assassination plots, conspiracies, and treason were no strangers to Alexander’s court.
Still, Alexander remained in control and eventually reached India, where the king submitted to Alexander’s rule, not wishing to incur his wrath and destruction in an effort of resistance. However, the Aspasioi and Assakenoi tribes were not as easy, and they launched a resistance against the incoming army.
327 and 326 saw several battles, but the eventual victory went to Alexander. His army was still with him and things still looked promising for a crossing of the Ganges river, but then the troops revolted and refused to go any further. Alexander and his troops made their way back to Macedonia, stopping to reassert control on the way in areas that had become restless. By the time they got home, the army had sustained severe losses, moral was null, and trust was severely waning.
Alexander the Great After the Persian Conquest
After the regions in the east had been conquered, Alexander maintained control by placing satraps in charge as local rulers. Upon his return, though, he learned that many of these local rulers had abused their power and so Alexander had them executed. The Macedonian king made it clear that he did not just want to conquer the Persian Empire, but that he wanted to integrate it into the Macedonian network. Intermarriage between the Macedonian royal family and Persian elites, placing Persians in prominent military roles, and the merging of Persian and Macedonian military units all were attempts by Alexander to merge the two very distinct cultures.
Alexander the Great’s Death and Legacy
Alexander died on June 10th or 11th, 323, at the age of just 32, due to fever. Of course speculation persists as to whether it was fever, poison, or a number of other causes. He was to be succeeded either by “the strongest” or by Perdiccas, the friend of Alexander’s closest companion and confidante, Hephaistion. Nonetheless, Perdiccas was assassinated in 321 and the empire was split into four.
Alexander continues to be considered one of the greatest military generals of all time, accomplishing feats of campaign that hadn’t been seen up to that point. He was talented in his command, but often contradictory, choosing to uphold tradition and honor part of the time, and razing cities to the ground the other part. It should not be disregarded that the campaigns of Alexander the Great were brutal and impressive. He left a strong mark on the ancient world, and we still interact with it intimately today- just think of the half a dozen cities named Alexandria throughout the eastern Mediterranean.
by Ed Whelan, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
He is considered one of the fathers of the genre of biography. He is regarded as one of the most important writers of the Latin Silver Age in literature, and his collection of biographies of Roman emperors has been enormously influential. Yet who was Suetonius? What was the life of the biographer like?
Life of the Biographer
Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus was a member of the Equestrian Order, and was probably born in the Roman Province of Numidia (Algeria). It is likely that Suetonius received a good education in oratory and literature, and early in his career he was a teacher and legal advocate. He was a close friend of the Roman writer and politician Pliny the Younger. Suetonius served on Pliny’s staff when the latter was Governor of Bithynia. He was secretary to the Emperor Trajan, who it appears granted him several privileges. He also served under Emperor Hadrian, but was later dismissed after he was deemed to have been too informal with the Empress Vibia Sabina, and allegedly breached court etiquette. Some have suggested that Suetonius may have had an affair with Hadrian’s wife, but this is unlikely.
The Lives of the Twelve Caesars
Suetonius was a prolific writer in both Latin and Greek but many of his works have been lost. His masterpiece is the work known as the Lives of the Twelve Caesars. The earliest extant manuscript of the work dates from the sixth century AD. Suetonius wrote the work in about 120 AD, during the early ears of the reign of Hadrian. The work was immediately popular. The work consists of the lives of the first eleven Emperors and Julius Caesar. The work begins with the life and career of Julius Caesar. It then concentrates on the reign of Augustus, regarded as the first Emperor. Then there are the Lives of the other members of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty, including Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. Then the work focuses on the lives of those who ruled briefly during the year of the Four Emperors (66 AD), the period of anarchy after the assassination of Nero. These are Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian. Suetonius then presents the biographies of the later two Emperors of the Flavian dynasty: Titus and Domitian. The individual biographies concentrate on the public and private lives of the subjects, and gives an insight into character and personality of the emperors.
The Style and Reliability of The Twelve Caesars
The book gives information on the physical appearance, habits, and personal details of the subjects. The Twelve Caesars is an important source for many Emperors, and it is the main source of the lives and death of Caligula and Vespasian. The image of many Roman Emperors has been deeply influenced by the work. Yet Suetonius was also a man of his time; despite his learning, his works are full of omens. His view of character was that it was fixed and ordained by fate. It appears that Suetonius had access to the Imperial library before his dismissal from office. Despite this, much of his work is based on hearsay and even gossip. Nevertheless, the work is widely considered by historians as generally reliable. Suetonius, like every other author, had his own biases. He was sympathetic to the Senatorial elite who disliked the Imperial system. Many critics have argued that his may have colored Suetonius portrait of Emperors such as Caligula and Domitian, who are portrayed as bloody tyrants. Some modern historians have argued that Domitian and Nero were not the monsters portrayed in their biographies.
Influence of Suetonius’ work
Dispite his reputation, Suetonius did not invent the genre of biography. The first known Roman biographer was Cornelius Nepos (110-25 BC), and the Greek Plutarch wrote his Parallel Lives c 80 AD. However, Suetonius work was immensely popular and widely imitated. Marius Maximus (160-230 AD) wrote a sequel to the Twelve Caesars, and this formed the basis of the anonymous work the Historia Augusta, an important if unreliable historical source. In the Middle Ages, Einhard wrote a biography of Charlemagne, modelled on Suetonius. The Byzantine author Michael Psellos (1018-1090) was inspired by Suetonius to write the Chronographia, a compilation of Emperors from the 10th to 11th century. The Lives of the Twelve Caesars contributed greatly to the emergence of the genre of biography.
The Twelve Caesars is a much-loved work, and still widely read today. It is an important landmark in the development of the genre of biography, and remains a critical source for Roman history in the First Century AD. Suetonius himself is the rare example of a biographer who arguably casts a shadow as long as his subjects.
Suetonius (1997). The Twelve Caesars. Penguin: Harmondsworth.