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Gcse ancient History

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Sources: Suetonius and Tacitus’ aims and interests

4.1 Tacitus and Suetonius: their methods
Tacitus and Suetonius had a number of sources available to them which are lost to us now. They could use:

  • the daily record of Senate meetings (Acta Senatus) 003B

  • letters and memoirs of fellow senators such as Pliny the Younger and Seneca

  • earlier Historians: Fabius Rusticus, Cluvius, Aufidius Bassus, the Elder Seneca;

  • Suetonius had access to archive material as Hadrian’s Secretary/Librarian.

They occasionally mention them by name, but most of the time they record what they think was the truth. They do not have the attitude to recording the source of their information as modern historians.

Task 4A

Read the following three passages and consider how they use their sources:

Fabius Rusticus writes that the orders were written to Caecina Tuscus, giving him command of the praetorian cohorts but that because of Seneca's influence Burrus kept the post. Pliny the Elder and Cluvius say there was no doubt about the commander’s loyalty. Fabius certainly tends to praise Seneca; Seneca’s friendship was influential in the success of Fabius’ career. Where historians agree, I will follow their views; when they differ, I will name them and record their views.
Tacitus Annals 13.20

The author Cluvius writes that Agrippina took her desire to keep power so far as to offer herself more often to a drunken Nero, all dressed up and ready for incest. She did this at midday when Nero was already warmed up with wine and food. Those close to both had seen passionate kisses and sensual caresses, which seemed to imply wrongdoing it was then that Seneca who looked for a woman’s help against this woman’s charms, introduced Acte to Nero. This freed-woman who was anxious because of the danger to herself and the damage to Nero’s reputation, told Nero that the incest was well known since Agrippina boasted about it. She added that the soldiers would not tolerate the rule of such a wicked emperor. Fabius Rusticus writes that it was not Agrippina, but Nero, who was eager for incest, and that the clever action of the same freedwoman prevented it. A number of other authors agree with Cluvius and general opinion follows this view. Possibly Agrippina really planned such a great wickedness, perhaps because the consideration of a new act of lust seemed more believable in a woman who as a girl had allowed herself to be seduced by Lepidus in the hope of gaining power; this same desire had led her to lower herself so far as to become the lover of Pallas, and had trained herself for any evil act by her marriage to her uncle.

Tacitus Annals 14.2

No one doubted that he wanted sexual relations with his own mother, and was prevented by her enemies, afraid that this ruthless and powerful woman would become too strong with this sort of special favour. What added to this opinion was that he included among his mistresses a certain prostitute who they said looked very like Agrippina. They also say that, whenever he rode in a litter with his mother, the stains on his clothes afterwards proved that he had indulged in incest with her.

Suetonius Nero 28

How do the two authors differ in their approach?

Which of the two seems more reliable and why?

Sometimes they do not name the source but they say that there is some disagreement over what happened. Most of the time they do not give us their view but leave the readers to make up their own minds. Sometimes they say there are different versions simply to suggest that the story is not believable, for example Tacitus (4.19) says:

Everyone agrees on the facts so far. There is some disagreement over whether he inspected his mother’s dead body and praised her beauty – some say he did, others say he didn’t.

At another point he says:

Several writers at the time report that, for quite a while before his death, Britannicus and been abused by Nero. (Tacitus Annals 13.7)

Task 4B

What impression do you have about Tacitus’ own view of these events?

Credible writers provide horrible facts: he could not wait to see the dead body; he held her limbs; he criticised some and praised others; being thirsty during all this he had drinks.

Suetonius Nero 34

Tacitus and Suetonius do not always give us the same version of events, or one has details which the other does not include. They were probably working from the same sources. Suetonius was also likely to be using Tacitus’ works and deliberately differing by using another source of information. Tacitus is sometimes more skeptical about a story than Suetonius. At other times even Suetonius, who likes to include all the rumours and gossip, cannot believe what he has heard.

There was a well-known story that there had been snakes acting as guards during his childhood, a fantastic story probably modelled on stories from other lands. Nero, never one to be modest about himself, used to claim that only one snake was ever seen in his room.

Tacitus Annals 11.11

There is also the story that the men sent to kill Nero fled, frightened by a snake which shot out from his pillow. This story arose because a snake’s skin was found in his bed by his pillow.

Suetonius Nero 6

Surely it is too much to believe that he himself signed the contract for the dowry in the marriage of Messalina and Silius just because the freedmen persuaded him that the marriage was really a fake,arranged so that they could transfer to another a certain danger which the omens said was threatening the emperor himself.

Suetonius Claudius 29

Suetonius does, like Tacitus, include different versions where he thinks it matters, although he does not tell us who the different authors were.

There is general agreement that Claudius was poisoned, but a lot of argument about when it happened and who poisoned him. One version is that it was his food-taster, the eunuch Halotus, during a feast with the priests in the Citadel. Another view is that Agrippina herself did it at a family dinner when she gave him poisoned mushrooms, his favourite food. There are differences in the stories of what happened afterwards.

Suetonius Claudius 44

4.2 Tacitus and Suetonius: their aims

Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus b. AD 70

Suetonius was writing biographies not histories. He never wrote a biography of Agrippina and includes information about her only where it helps his portrayal of the emperors. He includes stories and rumours which reflect upon his subjects. His information about Agrippina is selective and at times he contradicts himself. His portrayal, like Tacitus’, isstereotypical. She uses her woman’s charms to hook Claudius (Claudius 26); there is very limited detail about her actions in Claudius’ death (44). She is presented as having some power over Nero early in the biography (Nero 6/9). In section 28, however, it is Nero who insitgates the incest. In 34 she is described as annoying, or violent or threatening.

Suetonius does clearly do research, and his inclusion of letters from the archives is evidence of this. But a lot of time his material is not his own, but gathered from previous writers. He is interested in character not political or historical issues. He and Tacitus used the same sources and much of what he says is the same as Tacitus but not always.

Cornelius Tacitus AD 55-117

It is important to remember that Tacitus was writing a chronological history (the word Annals is from the Latin Annus meaning a year). He wrote about events year by year only occasionally for the sake of clarity avoiding the simple arrangement. For example he describes the events in Parthia which cover more than one year before going back to events in Rome in the 60s AD. He is also concerned not to put every trivial event into his work but to concentrate on what he sees as important ones. He is therefore selective about what he includes and his judgement about that may lead him to exclude information which may have been useful. He concentrates on the internal politics of the empire, focusing upon events in the Senate and the palace, and the personalities involved. He tells us very little about ordinary people’s lives, economic affairs or social issues.

He was a Senator himself and a Governor of provinces. There is an inscription which names him as governor of Asia in AD 112. He had a successful career under the Emperors Domitian and Trajan. He was married to the daughter of Agricola, the governor of Britain from AD 77-84. His experiences with Domitian, who, like Nero, is seen as a cruel tyrant, may have affected how he judged the earlier emperors and the process by which the Senate lost more and more power during the 1st century AD.

He claimed to write without prejudice or bias (Annals 1.1) and he is careful not to accept every story he finds in his sources. He also records good qualities in his characters as well as bad ones.

His comment about about Agrippina the Elder (Annals 1.33) that she is too easily provoked to anger is balanced by the statement about her love and loyalty to Germanicus and her family. When she dies, Tacitus calls the charges brought against her by Tiberius as ‘disgraceful slanders’ (Annals 6.25). He admits she was greedy for power but comments upon her masculine ambition against her feminine defects. Germanicus is said to have warned Agrippina about her anger.

He told her, when she returned to the city of Rome, not to anger those in stronger positions by competing for power. (Annals 2.72).

But Tacitus makes it clear that she acts to preserve and enhance her family.

4.3 Attitudes towards women in the sources

The portrayal of women as stereotypes rather than individuals is a feature of Tacitus’ presentation of women in his histories. His view about the role of the women of the imperial family was probably not very different from the commonly held view about women and power. He dislikes the way the women plot against each other in the efforts to manoeuvre their children as successors to the emperor. So he portrays the women as rivals and writes of them as hostile to each other.

She had always fiercely hated Lollia and had become even more of an enemy over the rivalry for the marriage with Claudius.

Tacitus Annals 12.22

First she ruined Domitia Lepida for purely feminine reasons. Lepida was the daughter of the younger Antonia, as the grandniece of Augustus, the second cousin of Agrippina, and sister of her husband Domitius Ahenobarbus, and so believed herself to be the equal of Agrippina in status. They were virtually equal in beauty, youth and wealth. Both were immoral, notorious and vicious; they rivalled each other in crime as much as in the prosperity provided for them by fortune. The bitterest struggle was over who should have the most influence with Nero.

Tacitus Annals 12.64

Similarly Junia Silana (Annals 13.19) attempts to undermine Agrippina because of a personal issue. Tacitus does not present them in detail: there is a general description of them as ‘equal in beauty, youth and wealth’ but no description of them as individuals.

Agrippina’s ambition is dominatio (power, control, domination). Seneca is recalled to help her win power (Annals 12.8). But he differentiates her from other women like Messalina:

However, this was a woman who was not motivated like Messalina; she did not play with the affairs of Rome like some toy for her personal pleasure. Rome was now enslaved by an almost masculine dominance. In public Agrippina showed a serious, often arrogant face; in private, there was no sign of immorality, unless it helped her in her search for power; she had an enormous desire for money which was excused with the reason that money was a means to power.
Tacitus Annals 12.7

However, Tacitus cannot get rid of his stereotyping of women - her reaction to Acte:

Agrippina, however, became angry as women do and raged… ‘(Annals 13.13)
Again when explaining how Agrippina is taken in by Nero’s pretence of friendliness before his attempt to kill her he says:

‘…because women easily believe what is enjoyable. ‘(Annals 14.4).

He makes a comparison between Agrippina and Livia, who had also made sure that her son, Tiberius, succeeded Augustus, and who had also tried to rule through her son.

Claudius was decreed to be a god and his funeral was conducted exactly as Augustus’ funeral. Agrippina equalled her great-grandmother Livia in the magnificence of her dress. ‘ (Annals 12.69)

Tacitus at the start of the Annals had suggested that there were rumours about Livia’s involvement in the deaths of Tiberius’ rivals. Like Agrippina, Livia had kept Augustus’ death secret until the arrangements for Tiberius’ accession were complete. There is even a murder to start the reign, that of Agrippa Postumus. This parallels Agrippina’s murder of Silanus (Annals 13.1).
For more information about women in Rome and attitudes towards women see:

© OCR 2009
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