Why were most Roman emperors so perverted?

Summary of Caesar life

The Roman perestroika

After Augustus ’death in AD 14, the liberal values ​​of the Roman Republic lost more and more importance. The Senate was de facto disempowered and the absolutist ruling emperors turned out to be capricious and unpredictable. The slightest criticism of them could be fatal. Only after the assassination of the tyrannical Domitian in 96 AD returned under the emperors Nerva, Trajan and Hadrian the long-awaited freedom of thought and speech back to Rome. The newly flourishing historiography began a merciless reckoning with the past century and the excesses of the despots. Their most famous representative was Tacituswho hated everything autocratic and z. B. in his writings on the Germanic peoples praised the virtues of a free people against the degenerate and cowardly Romans of that time. According to Tacitus, historiography should be a warning to the people so that the dark times never returned. The time of the so-called adoptive emperors began with Nerva and Trajan. The succession should no longer regulate the blood relationship, but the adoption of the "best" into the family of the respective emperor. Basically, however, it was only made a virtue out of necessity, because none of these emperors had children of their own who could have been considered. The era of the five adoptive emperors (96–180 AD) is still regarded today as the cultural and global political heyday of the Roman Empire. Under Trajan, for example, the Roman Empire was bigger than ever before or after him.


Suetonius was employed as the imperial librarian and secretary under Trajan and Hadrian. As such, he had access to the imperial archive and thus to numerous original sources. He often collected his material for years before he began to write it. It relied on biographies and autobiographies of the emperors, imperial speeches and senate minutes, wills and secret ordinances. Above all, however, he repeatedly referred to the gossip and rumors at the imperial court, to popular anecdotes and z. Sometimes oral traditions from people who had known the later emperors.

From a letter from Sueton's friend and sponsor Pliny it emerges that as a "silent scholar" he always hesitated for a long time and doubted himself before the publication of his works. Suetonius probably finally brought out the imperial servants in eight books shortly before or after he lost his position at the imperial court around 121 AD. The long biographies of the first six emperors each formed a book, that of the three emperors in 68/69 the seventh and that of the three Flavians the eighth. He dedicated the work to his patron Septicius Clarusas reported elsewhere. However, the dedication has been lost, as has the beginning of Caesar's biography.

Impact history

With his political biography, Suetonius created a new form of historiography that served as a model well into the late Middle Ages. Aurelius Victor Written to be around AD 360 Liber de Caesaribus about the time from Augustus to his present. At the beginning of the fifth century an anonymous author introduced the Historiae Augustae the imperial servants ending with Domitian for the period up to Numerian in the style of Suetons. The Saint Jerome at the same time wrote the first Christian literary history with the title De viris illustribus. Einhard, the biographer Charlemagne, also based itself on its Roman predecessor in the ninth century, and the sculptors of the Renaissance made their imperial busts according to Sueton's detailed information on the appearance of the emperors. The Italian poet Francesco Petrarch even praised him as "the most reliable source" and the "most careful historian".

In stark contrast to this is the more modern criticism. The philosopher William Durant about describes in his Cultural history of mankind the painful transition from the “greatness” of Tacitus to “gossip and odds and ends” Suetons: “The writing of history is here degraded to biography and the biography is distorted into anecdotal.” Others criticize the division into categories, the lack of historical context and the focus on seemingly banal details that do not do justice to the historical significance of the respective emperors. What is certain today is that many of the stories and character descriptions handed down by Suetonius should be treated with caution. For the most part, he saw himself as an objective chronicler who reproduced the statements and opinions of others without examining them or making their own assessments. Regardless of whether these were always correct, however, it provided a multifaceted picture of everyday Roman life. Today's interpreters of his work appreciate him above all for breathing life into an epoch that has frozen to stone. This is how the English author supported himself Robert Graves 1934 for his famous fake autobiography Me, Claudius, Kaiser and God mainly on Suetons Kaiserviten.