The lost preface to Suetonius’ “Lives of the 12 Caesars”

Many will remember the BBC series I, Claudius, which was based on Robert Graves novel of the same name.  The series drew heavily on his translation of the Vita Caesarum of Suetonius Tranquillus.  This was composed under Hadrian in the early 2nd century and published in 120 AD.

Suetonius covered the lives of twelve Caesars, from Julius Caesar down to the murder of Domitian in 93 AD.  His gossipy, colourful work, has always been popular.

Few perhaps are aware that it has reached us only in an incomplete form.  The opening pages of the work are missing in all the handwritten copies that we now have.  It seems that only a single copy from ancient times, now lost, made it into the 9th century — not an unusual pattern for a classical text — but that this copy had lost the opening quaternion.  This means that we do not have the prologue, nor the opening for the Life of Julius Caesar.

I learn from L. D. Roberts’ excellent work on the transmission of Latin literature[1] that as late as the sixth century, John the Lydian had seen a copy which was complete, and included a prologue with a dedication to Septicius Clarus.   This interesting statement is referenced to p.ix-x of the 1858 edition of K. Roth, which is described as the standard critical edition.  I thought it would be interesting to look and see precisely what is said.

Fortunately the Roth edition is easily accessible on Google books.  Here is p.ix, where the facts are laid out in the rather less than straightforward form popular with certain editions of the period.

On p.286 is the text of the extract from John the Lydian concerning the prologue:

Τράγκυλλος τοὺς τῶν Καισάρων βίους ἐν γράμμασιν ἀποτίνων Σεπτικιῳ, ὃς ἦν ὕπαρχος τῶν πραιτωριανῶν σπειρῶν ἐκ̕ αὐτοῦ, πραίφεκτον αὐτὸν τῶν πραιτωριανων ταγμάτων καὶ φαλάγγων ἡγεμόνα τυγχάνειν ἐδήλωσεν.

 This is apparently from On the Roman magistrates, 2. 6, and may be found on p.171 of the Bonn edition.  It tells us that “Tragkullos” — i.e. Tranquillus — in the “letter” or prologue dedicated the lives of the Caesars to Septicius, who was prefect of the Praetorian cohort. (I can’t quite make sense of the titles given above).  I think it is a reasonable inference from this statement that John had seen a copy with such a preface.

  1. [1]L. D. Reynolds (ed.), Texts and Transmissions: A Survey of the Latin Classics. Oxford: Clarendon, 1983, p.399, at the start of the article on Suetonius written by Michael Winterbottom.

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