Scholia Reviews ns 11 (2002) 16.

Catharine Edwards (tr.), Suetonius: Lives of the Caesars. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Pp. xli + 392. ISBN 0-19-283271-9. UKŁ7.99.

John Jackson,
Rhodes University

It must have been daunting to produce a new translation of Suetonius' Caesars in view of the success of the one by Robert Graves.[[1]] Graves' version -- a classic in its own right -- has probably done more than any other work in English to make Roman imperial history accessible to the general reader. But for students of Classics it has certain faults. Often it merely paraphrases, and its style is radically different from that of the original. The staccato listing in Nero 51 of that emperor's physical characteristics is a case in point.

Catharine Edwards has studied the text of Suetonius carefully and has translated with great precision, also paying due attention to Suetonius' style, which she values more highly than do many commentators and translators. (For example Eduard Norden's comments on Suetonius in Die Antieke Kunstprosa [Leipzig 1915], are limited to a single dismissive footnote, vol. 1 p. 387 n. 1.) Furthermore, her version (on the whole) sounds remarkably unlike a translation.

Consider the following: In the description of Augustus' less than impressive role in the Sicilian War there occurs the curious expression: tam arto repente somno deuinctus (Aug. 16.1). This is neatly rendered: 'he had been so deeply asleep all of a sudden.' On Galba's arrival in Rome not long before his assassination, the words quare aduentus eius non perinde gratus fuit, 'his arrival was not particularly welcomed . . . ' (Galba 13) preserve what was probably an intended understatement by the author. For Vespasiano adamato -- that emperor's description for record purposes of some questionable expenditure -- it would be hard to improve on: 'item: a passion for Vespasian' (Vesp. 22). As Claudius tentatively recovers his composure after being seized by the Praetorian Guard that has murdered Caligula, he is described as aliquanto minore spe quam fiducia (Claud. 10.3). What better translation than 'feeling relief rather than anticipation'? In that chapter Suetonius' description of Claudius' accession to me represents this author at his best: Edwards does justice to the deadpan reporting of gloriously incongruous details. Her version of another great passage -- Nero's escape and suicide -- does not disappoint either (Nero 47-49).

Much of the effectiveness of Edwards' translation is achieved by close adherence to the original. For example she usually follows Suetonius' tendency to use indirect rather than direct speech, whereas Graves' heavy use of the latter damages some of the subtlety of the text. Edwards also retains much of the original word order, e.g. Tib. 65.1:

Seianum res nouas molientem, quamuis iam et natalem eius publice celebrari et imagines aureas coli passim uideret, uix tandem et astu magis ac dolo quam principali auctoritate subuertit.

'Sejanus' plans to usurp his power -- though Tiberius was already aware of the public celebrations of his birthday and the golden images of him which were everywhere honoured -- he only just managed to overturn; and even then rather through cunning and deceit than through his authority as emperor.'

A sentence like that is worth savouring: its structure re-enacts devious Sejanus' treatment by the even more devious Tiberius. Similarly effective is Edwards' version of Suetonius' heavily qualified praise of Vespasian's tolerance (Vesp. 15):
Non temere quis punitus insons reperi[r]etur nisi absente eo et ignaro aut certe inuito atque decepto.

'It cannot easily be shown that any innocent person suffered punishment, except when Vespasian himself was away and unaware of events -- or at least against his wishes and through his being misinformed.'

There are, however, some occasions when the following of the original word order puts the English under a little strain (Claud. 35.2):
motu ciuili cum eum Camillus, non dubitans etiam citra bellum posse terreri, contumeliosa et minaci et contumaci epistula cedere imperio iuberet uitamque otiosam in priuata re agere, dubitauit adhibitis principibus uiris an optemperaret.

'When Camillus was in rebellion against him and, having no doubt that he could intimidate Claudius without going to war, sent him an offensive, bullying, and insulting letter in which he ordered him to surrender the empire and lead a life of leisure as a private citizen, Claudius summoned the leading men of the state and debated as to whether he ought to go along with this.'[[2]]

A few other possible faults in the translation can be noted. The term pius (Tib. 17.2, Cal. 22.1) is almost untranslatable, but something like 'dutiful' would have been more appropriate than 'pious'. 'Swingeing' (for gravia, applied to Vespasian's taxes [Vesp. 16.1]) seems archaic. In Aug. 94.4 Augustus' birth is mentioned as having occurred 'ten months' later than a portent just described, but I presume that the phrase decimo mense implies that nine months had passed. In Claud. 21.6 '. . . when those who were to fight called out: 'Hail Emperor! Those who are about to die salute you', he replied: 'Or not.'' Edwards' note explains that 'not' refers to dying, but less ambiguous wording would have removed the need for an explanation. Her translation of the division in Cal. 22.1 reads: 'The story so far has been of Caligula the emperor, the rest must be of Caligula the monster.' Although in many ways this is admirably expressed, the quasi before de principe appears to have been ignored. Yet it seems important to take it into account: as can be inferred from the examples of Caligula's conduct up to that point, he has not so far emerged as an entirely commendable emperor. For some of the period before 27 BC reference is made to Augustus as 'Octavian' (Aug. 9-17). Technically this may be correct, but it could be confusing to a reader unfamiliar with the historical background. Although the name change is explained in the 'Chronology' and index of proper names (under 'Augustus'), and 'Octavius' appears in that index, the form 'Octavian' does not: a bit of searching may be required. Better, I think, to follow Suetonius' practice of referring to him as 'Augustus' throughout.

For the most part background information is easy to find and clearly set out: in effect Edwards has provided a commentary. From this book alone much could be learnt about the events of the period and many aspects of Roman life. In addition to the sections just referred to, there is a family tree of the Julio-Claudians (p. 295), a glossary of terms (pp. 358-63), a diagram of Rome (p. xxxviii), and maps of Italy and the Roman Empire (pp. xxxix-xli). The introduction (pp. vii-xxx) focuses on Suetonius, including his role as a biographer, the structure of the Lives, his use of sources, his influence on subsequent ages and his style. In it the results of recent scholarship are interestingly and clearly presented, apart from a puzzling citation (Titus 10) offered as evidence that Suetonius might have been writing after AD 130 (p. viii). Since Edwards believes that the 'Lives of the Caesars need to be read against one another if we are to appreciate their nuances' (p. xix), many of her comments in the Explanatory Notes invite the reader to make such comparisons -- valuably so.

In a few places the notes seem slightly incomplete. Worth mentioning are the connection between hellebore (p. 325) and madness, the function of the Diribitorium (p. 329), the connection between the pun on morari and Greek (p. 338), what exactly the 'Julian law Against Assassination' involved (p. 338), the actual towns affected by the disaster in Britain in the 60's (p. 339), the association between dogs and shamelessness in the etymology of 'cynic' (p. 350) and perhaps a comment on Suetonius' apparent mistake with the birthdate of Titus (p. 351) -- although the chronology remains uncertain.

Possibly the index of proper names should have offered a little more on Berenice and Cincinnatus. Otherwise it is excellent.

The general index, which lists themes that are of interest to Suetonius, is a good idea, but there are some problems with it in its present form. For 'anger' the only reference given is to Claudius (Claud. 38): certainly he is the only Caesar to whose character the terms ira and iracundia are directly applied, but other Caesars also display anger (e.g. Cal. 53). The references to 'inconsistency' are limited to Claudius, Galba and Vitellius, yet throughout the Lives there are instances of inconsistent behaviour by most of the Caesars. Only one example is given of 'meanness' in an emperor: Tib. 46f. -- why not add Vesp. 16, 19? 'Restoration of the Republic' is indeed a significant theme, but it is strange that Aug. 28 is ignored. Possibly 'clemency' should include two ironic applications of this term: Tib. 53, and Vit. 14. Other themes that are worth considering are: 'accession', 'disasters', 'structural divisions' and 'reactions to the death of the Caesar'.

The select bibliography provides useful guidance for deeper study.[[3]]

The book's few imperfections are greatly outweighed by its merits, and I have had no hesitation in prescribing it for my students. At around twelve U.S. dollars it is affordable even in South African currency, and in many other ways too it is good value.[[4]]


[[1]] R. Graves (tr., rev. M. Grant), Suetonius: The Twelve Caesars (Harmondsworth 1989).

[[2]] Other examples can be found at Tib. 12: 'Tiberius had also . . . ', and Dom. 16: 'Then in the morning . . . '.

[[3]] J. Gascou, Sučtone historien (Paris 1984), ought to appear under 'Critical Works', heavy- going though it might be for many English-speaking readers. To 'Editions, Translations, and Commentaries' should be added two recent commentaries on Caligula by Donna Hurley (Atlanta 1993) and David Wardle (Brussels 1994) and one on Vespasian by Brian Jones (London 2000). The latter would have appeared too late for inclusion.

[[4]] I noticed a few gremlins: 'whom' (for 'who' p 51 para. 1 line 31), 'freedman' (for 'freedmen' p 67 para. 2 line 9), 'archiac' (for 'archaic' p 87 para. 1 line 2), 'not' (for 'nor' p 112 para. 2 line 7), pleon (for pelon (Greek) p 125 para. 3 line 5), Caninus Rebilis (for Caninius Rebilus p. 202 para. 3 line 17), 'has' (for 'had' p 269 para. 1 line 4), 'was' (for 'were' p 316 line 17), 'games' (for 'game' p 330 line 10). The family tree (p. 295) needs '=' between Julia and Tiberius and greater clarity with one of the lines of descent: otherwise one might think that the marriage of Drusus and Livilla was incestuous. Generally, though, it is easier to follow than most of those I have seen of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.