An imperial civil servant of the time of Justinian, in John the Lydian

While looking at John the Lydian, De magistratibus romanis, for quotations from Suetonius, I happened upon a story.  The manner of its telling is rather like Suetonius also![1]  It also refers to a lost work by Suetonius on famous courtesans.  But let’s have a look at the excerpt.

The earthquake in Syria in the time of Justinian demolished Antioch; and the Persian wars devastated the country, so that no taxes were coming in from these areas.  Now read on!

57. … One John who came from Mazaca … while he was enrolled among the scriniarii of the military magistracy, he craftily, Cappadocian that he was, gained access to the emperor and won his friendship; and, because he had promised to do things beyond belief on behalf of the government, he was promoted into the ranks of the intendants of finance. Then from there, as if on a stepping-stone, he was elevated to the ranks of the so-called illustres; and, though not yet known as to what sort of a man he was by nature, he was suddenly hoisted into the prefectural dignity.

Thereafter the emperor, since he was good and benign, could not by any means bear to entrust the magistracy to wicked magistrates because by this time he had learned and discovered by their deeds that

“Cappadocians are always foul; when, however, they have gotten the belt, they are fouler and for the sake of profit they are foulest.
“But if, then, they lay hold of the grand chariot twice or thrice, clearly then straightway hour by hour they are foulest-on-foulermost.”

Now, after the wicked Cappadocian had assumed public power in such manner as I have just stated, he produced calamities; first of all because he had set up fetters, shackles, stocks, and irons, having set aside within the praetorian court a private, darksome prison for the punishments of those who were under his authority, just like Phalaris, cowardly and to his slaves alone most powerful, both imprisoning there those who were being constrained, exempting no one of whatever station in life from his tortures, and suspending absolutely without investigation those who were merely being calumniated as possessing gold and besides releasing them either destitute or dead.

And, whereas the populace is an attestor of these things, I know because I had been a spectator and was present at the things that were being done; and how, I shall explain.

A certain Antiochus, already an old man by age, was reported to him as being a possessor of a certain amount of gold. For that reason he arrested him and suspended him from both hands with stout ropes until the old man, having denied it, was freed from his bonds as a corpse. I was a spectator of that vile murder, for I knew Antiochus.

62.  Immense wealth, therefore, was amassed by the “most just” prefect, so that it even encouraged him to the point of usurpation, the more vulgar segment of the populace favoring him and assisting his attempts.

Therefore, since he was paying court to it and drawing it to himself, he did not think that he was convincing it that he was a devotee of that faction unless, whenever crossing over to the East, he personally put on also a bright-colored green raiment and became distinctly seen by all.

The sort of things, then, that he did in the case of the Cilicians and all the burdens with which he weighed down the taxes contrary to the emperor’s benignity, is known well by absolutely everyone.

When he had returned to us, however, as he saw oceans of money flowing around him, he hoisted into the first ranks of the state all who had become his friends, even his cooks, in fact, so that none of them, even of his purchased slaves, was left naked without vast wealth and honor desirable by municipal councillors.

As for himself, however, he lived riotously, bathing together with adolescents who were bloomless and not yet masculine-looking because of the smoothness of their body and with licentious harlots, and gratifying his lust both by doing and by submitting, “becoming pallid as a result of both vices,” and quaffing unmixed wine over burnt-offerings so unsparingly that, exhausted to prostration, he would be lifted up in a litter by his naked companions, because he used to pile on the wine to match the victuals.

Since neither the strait which lies below the city, nor the Hellespont in its entirety, was quite enough for his fancy palate, since no scallop, no sturgeon, no variety of fish worth their weight in gold had been left any longer to the open sea, the servants of his luxurious palate turned to the Euxine, no fish being conceded to the sea, no fowl to the mountains or to the woodlands, the Phasis in its entirety not sufficing for his banquets, so that the scallops seemed not to entrust themselves to their natural flight from place to place but to retire into the air, using their shells as if they were wings, in order to dodge the gluttony of the Cappadocians.

64.  Let some such points stand said as regards this fish. As, however, the Cappadocian used to make his way up to the capital, or rather used to be escorted back, girls were seen at his side in troops, their bodily frame draped with sandyces, clearly revealing such parts as they “ought to have concealed from the eyes of males.”

I shall leave the present subject for the moment and try to explain what the sandyx is and what sort of garment the Lydians had in days of old. The Lydians, being rich in gold in days of old because of the abundance of gold such as which the Pactolus, including the Hermus, supplied to them, had the expertise also to produce gold-woven tunics (and Peisander attests this when he said “Lydians gold-robed”), and not only these but also the so-called sandyces (they were tunics invented by them; though of the linen ones  they were the sheerest, yet they used to dye them with the juice of the sandalwood plant; the color of this plant is fleshlike), with which the women of the Lydians, casting a shade over their naked body, seemed to be wearing nothing but air alone and by beauty beyond morality and decency used to entice those who gazed at them.

When Omphale at one time had clothed Heracles with such a tunic when he was disgracefully in love with her, she made him womanish; for this reason, in fact, Heracles was referred to as Sandon, as Apuleius the Roman philosopher in his work titled Eroticus and before him Tranquillus, too, in his work On Famous Courtesans have mentioned. Hence it is, I suppose, that still even to this day sandones are spoken of disparagingly, which, from the construction of sheets, the common folk believe are called sandones, “sheets,” as it were.

65.  One had to say such things by way of digression, as it were, but I now return to the Cappadocian. Harlots were wont to entice him, as he was being embraced by other naked-appearing harlots, with lascivious kisses which forthwith impelled him to sexual intercourse; and, after he had been worn out, he used to taste of both the delicacies and drinks offered him by other catamites. So many and so frothy were they as to cause him to vomit when his mouth no longer could contain them but, in the manner of a torrent, belched out what he had eaten and imposed no small danger on his flatterers, who, because of the glaze of the tessellated pavements, used to slip away.

In this manner he continued to rot away, joining the days to the nights, so that, while the morning star marked the end of his dining, the evening star marked the beginning of his business. In order, however, that interference with his pleasures might not happen to occur, he renounced on each occasion the Temple of Justice (it is called Secretum in the courts of justice), undertaking to make his appearance in it only when, turning mad because of the immoderation of his food, he had picked out the most distinguished men of the civil order for punishments. He had judges appointed at “the Emperor’s Stoa,” so that, while they were listening to the lawsuits that pertained to money, he might remain awake at night in such manner as I have just recounted.

John then goes on to record how even the court recorders – himself among them – could not make a living as the system was disrupted in order to save money.  The final fate of “The Cappadocian” is not recorded before the text breaks off in the sole, damaged manuscript.

Was the Cappadocian really a pervert?  Or was this, by now, stock rhetoric?

  1. [1]Ioannes Lydus, On Powers; or; the magistracies of the Roman state, 1983, tr. Anastasius Bandy, book 3, esp. ch. 64.

The lost opening of Suetonius’ “The Twelve Caesars”, in John the Lydian

The biography and actions of the first twelve Caesars, from Julius to Domitian, were immortalised by a civil servant of the age of Hadrian.  Suetonius Tranquillus in his De vita Caesarum, On the lives of the Caesars, perhaps best known in English by the title of the Penguin edition, The Twelve Caesars, created a gossipy, colourful portrait that will prevail in the minds of men so long as his work is read.

But the work has not reached us in a complete form.  The preface is gone, and the opening sections of the life of Julius Caesar are likewise lost.  It seems that a single gathering of leaves, a quaternion, was lost from the ancestor of all known copies.  No manuscript known today, or known for centuries, contains this material.

In the sixth century, however, the Greek antiquarian John the Lydian was more fortunate.  Rummaging around the remains of Roman literature, and recording – in Greek – whatever he found worth remembering, he came across a copy of Suetonius’s classic work.

The copy that John the Lydian had included the prologue.  This included a dedication of the work to Septicius Clarus.

We know this, because of a few words in his work, De magistratibus populi Romani.  So I learn, from L.D.Reynolds marvellous work on the transmission of the Latin classics, Texts and Transmissions (p.399).

Unfortunately Reynolds leaves vague where John the Lydian says this, giving a reference to the old 1858 edition of Suetonius by Roth, p.x-xi.  Roth does not trouble to tell us in these words precisely where he found this information: but on p.286 we find this excerpt:


In accordance with the infuriating referencing practice of his age, Roth vaguely refers to the “Bonn” edition.  Fortunately this also is online – the Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae 29, 1837, – and so it can be referenced, although – curiously – the Bonn edition actually reads somewhat differently at a critical point!  It gives “Septimio” instead of “Septicio”.  But the low quality of the CSHB text is notorious.

If instead we consult the 1903 Teubner edition of Lydus, by R. Wunsch,[1] on p.61, we find the passage given as above.  Indeed Roth advises us that the Septimio/Septicio variant arises merely from an editor’s error in misreading a manuscript.[2]

The passage may be found in De Magistratibus, book II, chapter 6.  There is an English translation by Anastasius Bandy, which sadly I have no access to.  So let me just give the relevant words:

So Tranquillus dedicated the lives of the Caesars to Septicius, who then was prefect of the Praetorian cohort…

This “Septicius” can only be Septicius Clarus, whom Roth tells us held that post from 119-121 AD.  This dates the publication of The Twelve Caesars to ca. 120 AD.

From such slender threads do we gain just a little more information about one of the best-loved works of antiquity!

  1. [1]Online at
  2. [2]Ms. Paris Supp. gr. 257.

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.

The Suetonius we do not know

I doubt that many people reading this blog are unfamiliar with the master work of Q. Suetonius Tranquillus, Lives of the 12 Caesars (and if you are, go and buy the Penguin translation by Robert Graves NOW).  But how many of us have read the other surviving works: the Lives of the Grammarians, Poets, Rhetoricians?  I certainly never have.

This afternoon, sitting at the keyboard, for some reason I found myself reading the Wikipedia article, which linked to the Gutenberg translation which included these texts.  They deserve to be better known.

XIII. LABERIUS HIERA was bought by his master out of a slave-dealer’s cage, and obtained his freedom on account of his devotion to learning. It is reported that his disinterestedness was such, that he gave gratuitous instruction to the children of those who were proscribed in the time of Sulla.