Example Of Essay On The Principate: Suetonius Vs. Tacitus
Tacitus was a senator, who also indulged in documenting the history on behalf of the state. Most of the historical articles and stories narrated and documented by Tacitus were centered on both the positive and negative attributes of the imperial system that ruled Rome being part of the government. How could he say anything that opposed the government that he was serving? Amazingly, Tacitus is more thorough and highly opposed to imperialism as a regime than Suetonius, who was an independent biographer. Suetonius was a biographer who wrote biographies of the great men of Rome. Suetonius offers a more objective and less biased perspective on the Principate. His perspectives, however, are criticized to be skewed more towards the scurrilous and scandalous events during the reign of these great men as opposed to giving both the positive and negative attributes of such leaders.
This paper assesses the difference in the perspectives held by Tacitus and Suetonius owing to their narration styles, their point of view, and the role they played in the government. However, there are a number of other authors whose perspectives on the Principate, or the imperial Roman system are equally appealing and educational. However, for this paper, the focus will be primarily on Tacitus and Suetonius. Tacitus’s most popular work is The Annals of Imperial Rome because Suetonius published a number of biographies. Suetonius is termed by Pelling as one of the first biographers in history (Pelling 252). In Suetonius case, the main work assessed is his Julius Caesar biography.
One of the key differences between the works of Tacitus and Suetonius is the use of secondary sources. Suetonius is a widely read scholar who undertook several analytical aspects pertaining to the imperial system. Tacitus, on the contrary, wrote a history as he saw it and read it from people with firsthand encounters with the leaders and the period of leadership of different rulers. Tacitus’s works are entirely dependent on firsthand experience and the information relayed primarily focuses on the firsthand source of information. As such, the varying views in the presentation of information on the same topic from both writers are traceable from the main sources. Suetonius focuses on the less known facts about imperial leaders because Tacitus centers on the publicly known events and knowledge, offering additional information on the topic.
Suetonius was a widely descriptive author who divided much of the content he presented to an emperor to a group of subheadings each suiting the character discussed a given leader. At the beginning and the end stages of a ruler’s life, Suetonius used a narrative approach. However, within the body of a book, he divided the character traits of the author into a group of character traits that best suited the leader. For instance, in some cases he would focus on aspects such as a ruler’s sexuality, physical appearance, lifestyle, his spiritual life (connection with the gods) and his administrative capacities. As such, Suetonius focused on Imperialism from the perspective of each ruler whose biography he wrote (=Suetonius).
Tacitus, on the contrary, was more inclined in understanding the Imperialism law and understanding its pros and cons. For this reason, Tacitus approach is not centered on the ruler, as is the case with Suetonius, but rather focuses on the Principate itself. While Suetonius was more interested in the leaders, as expected of him since he is a biographer than the Principate. However, Suetonius focuses on the Imperial rule under the leadership of each of the leaders reviewed by some of Suetonius’s works.
Tacitus is one of the few people who motivated the formation of a republic and the abolishment of the Roman Empire. Arguably, most of his perspectives about Julio-Claudians and the Principate are negative (=Caes. Claud. 4.4–8, 5.1–3). Tacitus viewed the imperial Roman rule as Dominatio. Tacitus openly opposed with much of his opposition being accorded to Augustus (=Tacitus, Annals 15.7). However, being a member of the government, Tacitus believed that the Principate was a political necessity despite its various incoherencies. One of the aspects about the Principate, which Tacitus was openly opposed to, was the lack of public consideration in decision-making. Tacitus argued that the Emperors were like gods who did whatever struck their fancy. Tacitus believed that the practical powers held by the emperors were exaggerated.
Tacitus also addressed the Principate in relation to the level of competition for power, especially from the senators (=Tacitus, Annals, 15:3.2). Tacitus sees the senators’ ambition that drove them into the field of politics as a negative aspect with leaders competing for wealth instead of seeking power to improve the lives of people. The perspectives that Tacitus gives indicate a high level of dissatisfaction with the system. However, Suetonius is a biographer, and thus most of his content is aligned to showing how much of a hero the character was during his lifetime. As such, less resentment has been directed to the Principate from Suetonius’s works as compared to Tacitus’s works.
However, Suetonius also highlights a couple of issues about the Principate, addressing it from both the subject’s perspective and that of the people whom he ruled. Primarily when addressing the Julius Caesar, Suetonius addresses the blind ambition that Caesar had forced him to team up with Alexandria for a greater command and control (Suétone and Catharine 3). Suetonius focuses on the subject mainly as opposed to the Republic and the Principate. For instance, Suetonius focuses majorly on Caesar’s active sex life in his writing as opposed to the leadership. As such, the perspectives held by Suetonius indicate that in his belief, the imperial rule ranged from one emperor to another.
Suetonius also addresses some of the negative aspects of the leaders that were also relayed in the imperial Roman rule. Suetonius argues that one of the negative attributes about Caesar was the fact that he was a control maniac. Caesar is said to have controlled people and his subjects to fit his single-minded purpose (Suétone and Catharine 3). As such, Imperial system according to Suetonius and Tacitus was all about the leader. Tacitus presents it as a misuse of power because Suetonius relays it as the direction of power. Each leader had his set of traits, which largely influenced the overall outcome of the leadership and ruling system in the organization. Additionally, Suetonius argues that during the Principate era, the leaders had too much control over the public, which thus made it a highly volatile regime. The volatility in the leadership would be induced possibly by the erratic changes in the emperor’s moods.
Suetonius, similar to Tacitus addresses the issue of wealth resulting from the gaining of power. Suetonius argues that leaders used their position to amass great wealth for themselves despite the effect it would have on the population. However, Suetonius goes an extra step ahead of Tacitus as he addresses the spending habits of the leaders. In Caesar’s case, he spent most of the wealth to win the goodwill of the people, making extravagant gestures for the amusement of the public (Pelling 255). Caesar would purchase a large item, and the people would be so thankful that they would try to honor and repay him. As such, his spending habits were not as destructive as most of the leaders. Tacitus addresses August by arguing that his spendthrift nature was a misuse of public funds. However, Suetonius offers a continuum of stories. For instance, in his work, Lives of the Caesar’s, the narration begins with Augustus not Caesar, and ends with Vitellius (=Suet, Caes. 12). As such, Suetonius compares the current leaders with previous leaders and future leaders. His approach was to highlight the impact that different leaders had on the Principate.
Tacitus also addresses another critical issue about the Principate. Tacitus focuses on the Imperial system as a structure that was forced on the people by being incorporated into the society. Civility is addressed as the main cause of this transition from Principate being a political philosophy to a social necessity (Oakley 177). In this context, Tacitus argues that civility promoted the hierarchical system and autocracy by embedding it into the social structure. Once the Principate was introduced into the society, bureaucracy – which existed in the Republic – was forgotten, and autocracy stepped in as the ruling principle (=Tacitus, Annals, 15:7.10). From Tacitus perspective, the only reason, which the Principate or Imperialism was a viable option for Roman leadership, is the fact that the society was so used. It was to an extent of a change in the political structure would crumble the entire system. According to Suetonius, Caesar used the Principate best. Caesar would correct the errors of preceding emperors and pave way for the future emperors. Caesar set patterns for the future (Suet, Caes. 19).
Despite the different approaches used by both Tacitus and Suetonius, the content related is very similar in some aspects; for instance, both beliefs that the Republic is a better version of leadership as compared to Imperialism. However, both authors also harbor different and independent ideas about the leadership of Rome and the appropriateness of Imperialism. Suetonius argues that Imperialism is, thus, an appropriate leadership style if it is in the hands of a good leader. Suetonius argues that some leaders have a variety of perspectives that would mold the society. The best political doctrine to enhance such societal growth and positive leadership attributes would be the Principate. However, Suetonius argues that in the hands of bad leadership, imperialism would result in too much damage from the society. Suetonius illustrates this perspective through indicating the mistakes the leaders made, and the positive effects their leadership had for the people of Rome.
Tacitus shares a different perspective since his argument is centered on the negative attributes of Imperialism. Although, he acknowledges the positive attributes of the Principate, Tacitus outlines all the negative attributes associable with the Principate. Augustus, the father of the Principate, and one of the people who popularized it across Rome is one of the people whom Tacitus does not spare in his narration of history. Arguably, Tacitus addresses a majority of the Julio-Claudians arguing that the Imperial system is only for their advantage at the expense of the common citizen. Tacitus expressed much of his freedom when addressing the Imperial system, focusing more attention on the power-hungry senators. However, he also outlines the various positive attributes associated with the system, explaining the reason the Principate did not face much opposition from the public. However, both authors present varying accounts of the same leaders. For instance, Tacitus’s perspective of Augusts is very different from Suetonius’s perspective.
C. Pelling “The First Biographers: Plutarch and Suetonius,” in A Companion to Julius Caesar, ed. M. Griffin (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 252-266
S. P. Oakley, “Res olimdissociabiles: Emperors, Senators and Liberty,” in The Cambridge Companion to Tacitus, ed. A. J. Woodman (Cambridge University Press, 2010), 184-194.
Suétone, and Catharine Edwards. Lives of the Caesars. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.
Tacitus. "Tacitus Annals 15: 20 -23, 33-45." The Class Library, 2015. Web. January 26, 2015.
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