The Roman historians Suetonius, Plutarch, and Tacitus wrote accounts of prominent people in the ancient world that were more often propaganda than objective reporting.
A present-day historian compared ancient historians to tabloid reporters and imagined historians in the distant future writing about the 20th century with only the National Enquirer and other scandal sheets as their primary sources of information.
That’s an exaggeration that does disservice to the important information ancient historians have bequeathed to posterity.
Unauthorized Celebrity Biographies of the Ancient World
The Emperor Hadrian employed Suetonius (c. 60-130 AD), above, as his secretary and court chronicler. The emperor wanted to distance himself from the debauchery and madness of the early emperors. To please his boss, Suetonius piled on the dirt – whether or not it was true.
The historian’s most famous work, The Twelve Caesars, contains exaggerated or fabricated information about Julius Caesar and the first 11 emperors of Rome who followed him.
To his credit, Suetonius often labeled unflattering information about his biographical subjects as “alleged” or “suspected.” He also mentioned their commendable behavior, although rarely.
Julius Caesar, Dictator of Rome, Boyfriend of a King
Suetonius had a mixed opinion of Julius Caesar. Although homosexuality was tolerated in ancient Rome and Greece, Suetonius nevertheless wrote disapprovingly about Caesar’s bisexuality which had prompted Caesar’s contemporaries to call him “every woman’s husband and every man’s wife.”
Suetonius names names and offers details about Caesar’s sex life:
“He served his first campaign in Asia…Sent to fetch a fleet, he dawdled so long at the court of Nicomedes [the king of Bithynia, part of modern-day Turkey] that he was suspected of improper relations with the king.”
It’s difficult to dismiss Suetonius’ allegations about the affair between Caesar and Nicomedes because the Roman orator Cicero, Caesar’s contemporary and enemy, corroborated it. Cicero outdid Suetonius by claiming that Caesar had lost his virginity to the king.
When Caesar gave a speech in the Senate praising Nicomedes, Cicero interrupted him, shouting: "No more of that, pray, for it is well known what Nicomedes gave you, and what you gave him in turn."
Caesar’s minor flaws, in particular vanity, didn’t escape Suetonius’ notice or disapproval:
“He was somewhat overnice in the care of his person, being not only carefully trimmed and shaved, but even having superfluous hair plucked out.”
Caesar’s premature baldness distressed the vain conqueror, according to Suetonius. As a victorious general, Caesar was allowed to wear a crown of laurel leaves, which he valued most of all because the crown hid his baldness.
Caesar also did a Donald Trump comb-over to hide his thinning hair above his forehead.
Caesar and Cleopatra, a Strategic Alliance and Romance
Suetonius’ portrait of the first of his 12 Caesars wasn’t all negative. The chronicler disagreed with Caesar’s contemporaries who criticized the dictator’s May-December affair with the queen of Egypt as the folly of a 52-year-old man, an ancient age in the ancient world, for a woman of 21.
Suetonius defended Caesar’s decision to allow Cleopatra to remain in power instead of turning the richest country in the Mediterranean into a Roman province. According to Suetonius, Caesar’s motives had more to do with politics than sexual obsession:
“He turned over the rule of Egypt to Cleopatra…fearing that if he made a province of it, it might one day under a headstrong governor be a source of revolution.”
Rebellions in Roman provinces interrupted the flow of wealth to the empire’s capital city. When Herod Archelaus, Herod the Great’s son and successor, failed to suppress riots by Jews who sought independence from Rome, the king was deposed and replaced with Roman governors, most notably Pontius Pilate.
Memories of the slave revolt led by the Thracian (Bulgarian) gladiator Spartacus in the 1st century BC which had ravaged the entire Italian peninsula remained fresh and frightening in the minds of Romans a century later, including Suetonius.
The historian repeated negative accounts of Caesar by others but dismissed some of the criticism of his subject:
Bibulus, an alcoholic consul or co-ruler of the Roman Republic who has given his name to another word for drunk, “bibulous,” called Caesar “the queen of Bithynia.”
A madman once saluted Caesar’s ally, Pompey the Great, as “king of Rome” in public, then had the temerity to hail Caesar as Rome’s “queen.”
Julius Caesar, Teetotaler
Unlike his detractor, Bibulus, Caesar was abstemious about alcohol.
Suetonius wrote admiringly, “That he drank very little wine not even his enemies denied. There is a saying of Marcus Cato that Caesar was the only man who undertook to overthrow the state when sober.”
Accounts of the depravity of Caesar’s successors, like Caligula and Nero, have stoked the imagination of novelists and filmmakers who have based their work on Suetonius’ Lives, which may have exaggerated the behavior of the worst emperors.
Suetonius wrote that Caligula may have killed his uncle Tiberius in order to succeed him, but no other historians of the time make that claim. In fact, the most reliable historian of the 1st century AD, Josephus, a Jewish rebel turned Roman quisling, wrote that Tiberius died of natural causes at the age of 78.
Suetonius’ more outrageous anecdotes may be fabrications as well because no other historians of the era mentioned such memorable incidents.
One of the foulest deed’s Suetonius but no one else attributes to Caligula is disemboweling his pregnant sister and lover Drusilla because he was anxious to determine the sex of the fetus.
Parallel Lives of the Rich and Infamous
Plutarch (c. 46-120 AD), a Greek historian and Roman citizen, is best known as the author of Parallel Lives. The anthology compared prominent Greeks to Romans. In Plutarch’s account of Julius Caesar, the historian had mostly good things to say about his subject, but also called him vain and haughty.
Shakespeare’s negative portrayal of the title character in Julius Caesar was based on Plutarch’s estimate of the subject.
Plutarch preferred Caesar’s rival, Pompey the Great, whom he called “trustworthy” and “tactful,” an assessment modern historians reject.
Like Suetonius, Plutarch commented on Caesar’s vanity but treated it like a joke rather than a moral failing as the censorious Suetonius did.
Although Cicero shared Suetonius’ criticism of Julius Caesar’s turning the Roman Republic into a dictatorship, the orator believed Caesar’s vanity made him an unlikely tyrant.
According to Plutarch, Cicero said, "When I look at his hair, which is arranged with so much nicety, I cannot think that this man would ever conceive of so great a crime as the overthrow of the Roman constitution."
The Greatest Roman Historian
Tacitus (56-117 AD), was a Roman senator and is considered the greatest historian of early empire. But scholars today question his objectivity, as they have the fairness of Suetonius and Plutarch.
According to Yong-Ling Ow, a medical researcher at the University of Pennsylvania who writes a blog about ancient history, “Tacitus freely employs the use of gossip and rumors.”
Tacitus’s major work, the Annals, contains some positive information in his largely negative assessment of Tiberius, the depraved second emperor of Rome and stepson of the first emperor, Augustus.
“Again, while his mother lived, he was a compound of good and evil; he was infamous for his cruelty, though he veiled his debaucheries. Finally, he plunged into every wickedness and disgrace, when fear and shame being cast off, he simply indulged his own inclinations.”
Harvard’s Yong-Ling Ow notes the contradictory elements of Tacitus’ opinion of Tiberius:
“Curiously though, despite Tacitus’ powerful portrayal of Tiberius as a villainous emperor, it is obvious even in the evidence Tacitus cites against him that Tiberius was an exceptional emperor. This can be seen from his generosity to Asia after the earthquake, grants to impoverished senators and lack of personal avarice or profligacy.”
Caligula and Nero's Rival for Worst Emperor
Suetonius’ assessment of Tiberius was much harsher. Details of the emperor’s voyeurism and lethal pedophilia during his final years on the island of Capri remain as shocking today as they were to Suetonius, who wrote:
“On retiring to Capri, [Tiberius] devised secret orgies: teams of both sexes, selected as experts in deviant intercourse and dubbed ‘analists,’ copulated before him to excite his flagging passion.”
It gets worse. Tiberius “acquired a reputation for still grosser depravities that one can hardly bear to tell, let alone believe,” then tells all the details of the emperor’s perverted behavior:
“He trained little boys to crawl between his thighs when he went swimming and tease him with their licks and nibble; unweaned babies he would put to his organ as though to the breast, being by age rather fond of this form of satisfaction.”
On another occasion, Tiberius raped two boys, then had their legs broken when they complained. Other youths who displeased the emperor were thrown from the emperor’s cliff-top palace into the Mediterranean Sea. Victims who survived the fall on to the rocks were beaten to death by fishermen with oars.
Modern morality, sensitized by the McMartin Pre-school and the ongoing pedophile priest scandals, would make it impossible to dramatize Tiberius’ caprices on Capri.
In the 1970s, the adult sex emperors of Rome engaged in attracted the attention of censors. The BBC production of I, Claudius, about the emperor and uncle of Caligula, depicted the incident in which Caligula disembowels his sister.
When the miniseries aired on public television in the U.S., the scene was cut. Enquiring minds at PBS didn’t want to know…
(Excerpted in part from the author’s Invisible People: History’s Homosexuals Unhidden and To Kill a King: A History of Royal Murders and Assassinations From Ancient Egypt to the Present. Los Angeles: Genesee Avenue Books, 2011.)
Causes Frank Sanello Supports
ACLU, ASPCA, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders