(c) Jerry Fielden 2000 

Suetonius and the reign of Tiberius: a comparison with other sources 

Suetonius wrote a vivid account of Tiberius’ life in his Twelve Caesars. Tiberius’ personality, especially his duplicity, cruelty and dissimulation appear clearly in this writer’s biography of the second emperor. I would like to recount and analyze certain episodes in Suetonius’ biography of Tiberius and in the other authors’ accounts, particularly Tacitus’ and Dio Cassius’. I will then compare these and try to tie them in to the authors’ outlooks as historians and possible class relationships as a mode of explanation for the angle of each story. 

First, I would like to talk briefly about each of the concerned writers and their sources, to give us a basis for what will follow. Four authors have chronicled Tiberius’ reign in some detail, one of them, Velleius Paterculus, while Tiberius was alive and ruling the Empire, the other three, Suetonius, Tacitus and Dio Cassius, later on in the history of Rome. 

Velleius Paterculus was a military tribune under Augustus, a prefect of the horse, a legate, a quaestor and finally a praetor under Tiberius.[1] He is known as an admirer of Tiberius, whom he served under, and of Sejanus, and this can be seen in the text. Whether this positive outlook was due to genuine admiration, prudence or fear is another story. He died around 30 or 31, so we do not have his angle on the fall of Sejanus.[2] 

Suetonius Tranquillus was an equestrian and had a career that was more scholarly than military,[3] but he still achieved high administrative posts under Trajan and Hadrian. He was a friend of Pliny the Younger and with Pliny’s patronage, was offered a military tribunate in 102, which he finally refused, but he occupied three very important secretarial posts: the a studiis, a bibliothecis and finally, ab epistulis. Hadrian dismissed him around 122[4] (possibly because of a breach of etiquette with the emperor’s wife).[5] According to the Suda, he was more renowned as a scholar than as an official.[6] 

Cornelius Tacitus was born in the equestrian order and was made a senator under the Flavians, and had a distinguished career path in public office. He also studied public speaking. He was a military tribune, and then a quaestor, obtained a praetorship in 88, was a member of the quindecimviri sacris faciundis, and then became a consul in 97. He obtained the proconsulate of Asia in 112. He had married the daughter of the consul Julius Agricola in 77 and wrote a book about his father-in-law’s exploits in Britain. He was also a friend of the younger Pliny.[7] 

Cassius Dio Cocceianus was a Greek from Bithynia who became a senator and was eventually a consul, once under Macrinus and another time under Severus Alexander, in 229. He was also a proconsul of Africa, and legate of Dalmatia and Pannonia. Dio wrote a history of Rome from the beginning to his own lifetime under Alexander Severus.[8] 

Velleius tells us that he used Cato and Hortensius. He may have used Atticus, Cornelius Nepos, Messala Corvinus, Augustus’s autobiography, and possibly Livy. As he lived during the reign of Tiberius and served under him in the army, he will have had a lot of first-hand experience for this emperor and some for his predecessor.[9] 

As for the later authors, they will have certainly had access to some common sources. Syme cites Aufidius Bassus, Pliny the Elder, Servilius Nonianus, Cluvius Rufus, etc.[10] We know for certain that Suetonius used Augustus’ letters.[11] He also probably used the acta senatus,[12] the acta populi,[13] Tiberius’ own writings,[14] Aufidius Bassus and/or Servilius Nonianus, Seneca the Elder,[15] Cluvius Rufus,[16] Pliny the Elder,[17] the emperors’ various wills,[18] and their edicts,[19] as well as inscriptions, monuments, and graffiti.[20] Suetonius also infers about Tiberius’ popularity from people destroying his statues and portraits.[21] 

Tacitus probably used Aufidius Bassus,[22] Pliny the Elder,[23] Servilius Nonianus,[24] and Fabius Rusticus.[25] He might have also talked to aged senators who had memories of the Julio-Claudians and of the case of Nerva at Capreae with Tiberius,[26] and he probably consulted the acta senatus as well.[27] He may have also consulted Agrippina’s memoirs and Claudius’ autobiography.[28] He possibly took material from Tiberius’ speeches, which may have been conserved and consulted by the Flavian emperor Domitian, who was an admirer of Tiberius.[29] 

Dio Cassius wrote a century later and did not have access to live witnesses for the Julio-Claudians. He probably used a lot of the same sources as Tacitus and Suetonius, as they were probably still extant in his day. He might have then used Cluvius Rufus,[30] Pliny the Elder,[31] and Cremutus Cordus.[32] It is possible, but doubtful, that he used Tacitus.[33] 

I will now describe how each of these authors saw Tiberius as a person. Velleius Paterculus is the only completely favorable source we have. He sees Tiberius as skillful (II.xciv, cxxi), valorous (II.xcvi), cautious or careful (II.cvi, cx) courageous (II.cxxix), modest (II.cxxii, cxxiv) and even superhuman (II.civ). To these qualities, we can add from Suetonius: considerate and courteous (XI, XXIX), dutiful to his family (XI),[34] confident (XIV, XIX), persevering (XVI), cautious or careful (XVII), modest or moderate (XXVI, XXVII), patient (XXVIII), and respectful (XXII). Dio also sees this quality of respect (LVII.7.4-8.1), and he sees Tiberius as fair or impartial (LVII.11.7), temperate (LVII.13.3), cautious or careful (LVI.13.2, 24.6), modest or moderate (LVII.8.1-10), respectful (LVII.7.4-8.1) and generous (LVII.10.4-5). Tacitus also sees this quality of generosity (IV.6, VI.45) as well as other good traits such as modesty (IV.38.1), trust and friendship (IV.59) and hard work (IV.13). 

Unfortunately for Tiberius’ reputation, there follows a long list of vices, which seem to take over his personality more and more and this is seen at several points in the reign, such as after the death of Drusus, that of Livia, then that of Sejanus.[35] Suetonius sees Tiberius as fearful (XII-XIII, XXV, LXIV), full of hatred for his family (L-LIV), hypocritical or deceitful (XXIV), scheming or cunning (XXII, XXV, LXV), avaricious or rapacious (XXXIV, XLVI, XLVII, XLVIII, XLIX), cruel or harsh (LVII-LXII, LXXV), arrogant (LXVIII), intolerant (XXXVI), neglectful (XLI, LXIX), drunken (XLII) and sexually depraved (XLIII-XLV). Dio sees him as suspicious (LVII.3.2, LVIII.18.2), fearful (LVII.4.1, LVIII.13), hating his family (LVII.2.2, 2.7, 3.3, 12.5, 18.6), hypocritical or deceitful (LVII.1.1, 13.6, LVIII.4.9, 6.3-7.1), scheming or cunning (LVII.16.4, LVIII.10), cruel or harsh (LVII.14.1, 19-20), intolerant (LVII.18.5a), drunken (LVIII.frag.3), and sexually depraved (LVIII.22). Tacitus sees a lot of wicked traits in the emperor too, like his hatred of his family (IV.57), his hypocrisy or deceit (IV.71.3), his avarice or rapacity (IV.45), his cruelty or harshness (I.75.4, IV.57, VI.51), and his debauchery and sexual depravity (IV.57, V.2, VI.1, VI.51). 

The tradition seems slanted towards an unfavorable portrayal of Tiberius, in all three of the later authors as a shared characteristic,[36] most likely pointing to a common or several common sources. But even with these hostile portrayals, the emperor’s many qualities seem to break through. Tiberius did have to walk a careful path through the minefield of early Imperial Roman politics. He had to show leadership, firmness and tolerance, which he does seem to do in the beginning of his reign,[37] and all four authors seem to agree on this, even though Tacitus, especially, thinks it was all deceit and cunning on the emperor’s part. And we have to remember that Tiberius had already proved his valor and leadership qualities in his military campaigns under Augustus’ reign. 

Several events should be reviewed to establish how Tiberius gained power and what gestures he did to retain it at the beginning of his reign. Let us begin by looking at the death of Augustus. Here, the authors’ accounts sometimes converge, and sometimes differ widely. 

Velleius, of course, gives an account favorable to Tiberius; he says that Tiberius went with the already-sick Augustus to Campania, and then left him at Beneventum. Augustus then felt so sick at Nola that he recalled Tiberius, who held the dying emperor in his arms. Having recommended a course of action to the continuation of their “joint work”, Augustus died after having felt a bit better for seeing Tiberius and hearing his voice.[38] 

Suetonius describes the same events, the recall of Tiberius at Nola, and adds the famous phrase about Augustus having well played his part. The difference in his account is that Augustus is stated to have died in Livia’s arms, with a sudden moment of terror where he thought that 40 men were carrying him away.[39] In another part of his biographies, Suetonius says that Tiberius spent an entire day with the dying emperor. And there was gossip going around that Augustus said after this discussion that he was sorry for the people of Rome, who were going to be ground slowly under the jaws of Tiberius.[40] 

Tacitus describes a possible plot by Livia, but only as hearsay. He is not sure if Augustus was still alive when Tiberius reached Nola. Then there is the matter of Livia preventing dispatches about the emperor’s death being sent and sending fake reports instead, “holding the fort” until Tiberius had had time to reach Augustus’ deathbed.[41] 

Dio sees Livia as entirely evil and responsible for Augustus’ death by poisoning him with figs. He states that she was fearful that he would recognize Agrippa Postumus as his successor. He also describes the “actor” episode, but decries it as ridiculous, and he states that Augustus declared that he “found Rome of clay and left it of marble”. Dio is not sure if Tiberius was present either, and he also states that Livia may have hidden the death of Augustus until Tiberius had had time to arrive at the scene.[42] 

We can deduce that Suetonius may have read Velleius or another author with the same description of Tiberius being present and able to talk with Augustus before his death, and that all three of the later authors knew from a common source (or several different knowledgeable sources) that Livia was present at the scene, though we don’t know if there really was a plot in Tiberius’ favor by his mother, a plot which was eventually to result in the death of Agrippa Postumus, an event which we shall now look at in more detail. 

Velleius does not describe the actual act, but just states that Agrippa deserved to die because of his madness.[43] Suetonius states that Agrippa was killed by a tribune of the soldiers guarding him in his exile, and that the order may have either come from Augustus or Livia signing her husband’s name to protect her son. He did not know if Tiberius himself was involved, and he states that Tiberius pleaded ignorance of the order and that the Senate should apprised of the affair. But Tiberius eventually let the matter drop by his silence.[44] Tacitus tells us that Augustus may have visited Agrippa to reconcile himself with him and Livia learned about this though the wife of a companion of Augustus’s on the trip, Fabius Maximus, who died soon afterward. A centurion was sent to kill Agrippa, with orders from an unknown source. Tacitus does his utmost to disculpate Augustus, and lays the blame on Tiberius and Livia. Here too, Tiberius says that he had not given that order, and that the Senate should establish an inquest into the act.[45] Dio says that as soon as he had gained power, Tiberius himself issued the order to kill Agrippa. The new emperor then denied having done so, and that the killer would be punished, which never happened in this case. Tiberius then let various rumors take over: Augustus may have been responsible, or the centurion who was guarding Agrippa, or even Livia. 

My own point of view tends towards the act of elimination of a rival and possible revolutionary focus by either Livia or Tiberius, or both. If Augustus had seen his grandson as a threat to the institution of the principate that he founded, I believe that he would have had him killed long before the fact. I think that Augustus left him alive because he wanted to keep all his succession options open. If Agrippa had been that dangerous of a monster, Augustus would have not allowed him to live.[46] We know that Augustus never let family love get into the way of his politics and his views of the State, as we can see in the episodes with his daughter and granddaughter, the two Julias. The one thing we can find in common in Suetonius, Tacitus and Dio is that Tiberius denied being responsible for the murder, but he did not do anything about it afterwards, which probably points to him or Livia. 

An episode that is sharply contrasted is that of the disaster at the Spelunca cave. Suetonius tells us that Tiberius was dining at a place called the “Grotto” and that rocks fell from the ceiling and crushed many of the guests and servants, but that the emperor was spared.[47] The next chapter is concerned with the disaster at Fidenae, where Tiberius must return to the mainland after an amphitheater had collapsed, killing several thousand people. This is recounted matter-of-factly by Suetonius and here, Tiberius can be seen as generous with his person, because he makes himself “accessible to all”, contrasting with his earlier retiring attitude. [48] Tacitus sees the whole of both events as a proof of the emperor’s irresponsibility, and lays the blame indirectly on Tiberius for the Fidenae disaster:[49] Tiberius had forbidden this kind of entertainment, so the show-starved people flocked in huge numbers to the amphitheater, which had been poorly built, and consequently collapsed under the numbers.[50] As for the cave episode, Tacitus tells us it explains the growing trust Tiberius had in Sejanus after the incident,[51] and that the emperor should have been running the government in Rome instead of having fun at banquets.[52] 

I see Tacitus’ account as proof that Tiberius was old and tired of being the leader of Rome, but could not find a safe way to abdicate as Diocletian did three centuries later. There was no way at that point in the principate that he could let go of the “wolf’s ears” without danger to his own person, because there was not a fixed succession pattern[53] or a power-sharing agreement such as the tetrarchy. 

The last episode I will look at is that of Tiberius’ death. Here we see a lot of convergence on the part of the three authors. Only Suetonius gives us several possible theories, some of which converge with Dio and Tacitus. Dio and Tacitus agree that Macro was concerned. We definitely see a common source when we are told that Tiberius seems aware of what is going on and tells Macro that he is doing well “to leave the setting and to join the rising sun”.[54] There is also a probable common source when we are told that either Macro alone or Macro and Gaius refuse Tiberius food and have him smothered in a pile of heavy clothes.[55] This is also seen in Suetonius in the near-analogy of the pillow put over the dying emperor’s face, possibly by Caligula himself.[56] 

Suetonius is the author with the greatest amount of varying stories on Tiberius’ death. He talks about Gaius poisoning Tiberius, about the food being refused (which parallels Dio’s and Tacitus’ stories), and about a possible natural death, whereas Tiberius tried to get up after none of his attendants came to help him, and then lacking strength to go further, he just died on the spot.[57] 

We can deduce that Suetonius had no idea of how the real episode could have happened, but that the other two authors, most likely working from a common source, were certain of the way the events unfolded; indeed, we can feel plainly Gaius’ fear at the possible revival of the old emperor and at Macro’s matter-of-fact behavior in both Dio and Tacitus. 

To conclude, Suetonius’ fashion of writing differs greatly from the others; he wrote his biographies using subject headers, so to speak, whereas the other three used linear chronology. Of course, Velleius Paterculus was a panegyrist of sorts, and praised Tiberius, whereas Tacitus strongly disapproved of the second emperor. Suetonius and Dio are hostile as well, but Suetonius offers a wider treatment of Tiberius’ qualities than the other two later authors. As for class, it did not seem to me to matter as much in Suetonius as in the others. In Tacitus, a consular, we see the outraged nobilitas rising to the surface. He is angered by Tiberius’s bad treatment of the responsibilities of ruling and at his debauchery. Dio also echoes this, at a much later date, but with the same class outlook. Velleius, of course, gives us the military angle and I believe he is very important to our understanding on how a soldier could be attached to his commander, and I think that even through his exaggerated praises of the emperor, this attachment is genuine, and it certainly does not ring false to me. Finally, Suetonius is the one who offers us the most options in understanding the events unfolding in the reign of Tiberius, and especially his death, not only in his judgment of the facts as he sees them, but in the multiple sources he had to work with, sources that he has no hesitation in sometimes pitting one against the other. 


Dio Cassius 
Roman History (Cambridge, 1961) 

Lives of the Caesars, (London, 1920), vol. 1 

Complete Works, (New York, 1942) 

Velleius Paterculus 
Compendium of Roman History, (Cambridge, 1967) 

Benediktson, D. Thomas 
“A Survey of Suetonius Scholarship, 1938-1987”, CW 86, 1992-93, 404-410 

De Coninck, Luc 
“Les sources documentaires de Suétone, 1900-1990”, ANRW II.33.5 (Berlin, 1991), 3675-3700 

Detweiler, Robert 
“Historical perspectives on the death of Agrippa Postumus”, CJ, vol. 65, # 7, (Pittsburgh, 1970), 290 

Gascou, Jacques 
Suétone historien, (Rome, 1984) 

Giua, Maria Antonietta 
“Una lettura della biografia svetoniana di Tiberio”, ANRW II.33.5 (Berlin, 1991), 3733-3747 

Martin, R.H. 
“Tacitus and the death of Augustus”, CQ 49, (Oxford, 1955), 123-128 

Syme, Ronald 
Tacitus, (Oxford, 1958) 

Wallace-Hadrill, Andrew 
Suetonius, (London, 1993) 

Woodman, Anthony John 
Tacitus reviewed, (Oxford, 1998) 


[1] He served under Tiberius in the Army and was actually one of the last praetors suggested by Augustus and one of the first named by Tiberius; Velleius Paterculus, Compendium of Roman History, (London, 1967), II.CXXIV.4 

[2] The fall of Sejanus is also missing from Tacitus, but there is some material on the aftermath after the lost section 

[3] Ronald Syme, Tacitus, (Oxford, 1958), 91 

[4] OCD, 3rd Ed., 1451 

[5] Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, Suetonius, (London, 1993), 6 

[6] Wallace-Hadrill, 7 

[7] Syme, Tacitus, 63 ff. 

[8] Syme, Tacitus, 271 

[9] Vell., Introd. (1) 

[10] Syme, Tacitus, 276 ff., 691 ff. 

[11] For instance in Tib. LXXI.2 

[12] These were the Senate archives; Jacques Gascou, Suétone historien, (Rome, 1984), 480; Luc De Coninck, “Les sources documentaires de Suétone, 1900-1990”, ANRW II.33.5 (Berlin, 1991), 3683 

[13] This was the Roman People’s “journal”, possibly also named the acta diurna and founded by Julius Caesar; Gascou, 480 

[14] Gascou, 504 

[15] Wallace-Hadrill, 64; Syme, Tacitus, 277; Gascou, 259 (6), 265 

[16] Wallace-Hadrill, 65 (15) 

[17] Wallace-Hadrill, 65 

[18] Gascou, 476; for instance in Tib. LXXVI.2; De Coninck, 3684 

[19] De Coninck, 3683 

[20] Gascou, 515 ff. 

[21] Gascou, 519 

[22] Syme, Tacitus, 691 (2), 697 

[23] Tac., Ann. I.69.2; most likely Pliny’s Bella Germaniae; Syme, Tacitus, 276 and 698; Anthony John Woodman, Tacitus reviewed, (Oxford, 1998), 125 

[24] Syme, Tacitus, 275-276, 287, 700 

[25] Syme, Tacitus, 293-294 

[26] Syme, Tacitus, 299 and 301 

[27] Syme, Tacitus, 278-280, 700 

[28] Syme, Tacitus, 278, 296 

[29] Syme, Tacitus, 285 

[30] Syme, Tacitus, 287 (5); Cluvius Rufus may have been the main common source for Dio, Suetonius and Josephus, according to Momigliano 

[31] Syme, Tacitus, 276, 698 

[32] Syme, Tacitus, 698 

[33] Syme, Tacitus, 690 

[34] Tib. XI; this is where he defends his wife Julia, even though he doesn’t like her 

[35] This can be especially seen in Tacitus, who divides Tiberius’ worsening character in five stages; D. Thomas Benediktson, “A Survey of Suetonius Scholarship, 1938-1987”, CW 86, 1992-93, 409; Suetonius, however, seems to see this evolution of Tiberius’ character in two phases, starting at XLI; Maria Antonietta Giua, “La biografia suetoniana di Tiberio”, ANRW II.33.5 (Berlin, 1991), 3735-3738 

[36] Syme, Tacitus, 271 

[37] Except for the seeming confusion in the first Senate meetings, which might have also been a calculated move on his part 

[38] Vell., II.cxxiii 

[39] Suet., Div. Aug., XCVIII.5-XCIC.2 

[40] Suet., Tib., XXI 

[41] Tac., Ann., I.5; there is a theory that the Livia incident was Tacitus’ adaptation of his own description of what Agrippina did after Claudius’s death, so she could ensure that Nero had time to take power; R.H. Martin, “Tacitus and the death of Augustus”, CQ 49, (Oxford, 1955), 123 ff. 

[42] Dio, LVI.30-31 

[43] Vell., II.cxii 

[44] Suet., Tib., XXII 

[45] Tac., Ann. I.5-6 

[46] Robert Detweiler, “Historical perspectives on the death of Agrippa Postumus”, CJ, vol. 65, # 7, (Pittsburgh, 1970), 290 

[47] Suet., Tib., XXXIX 

[48] Suet., Tib., XL 

[49] Woodman, 139 

[50] Tac., Ann., 4.62 

[51] Tac., Ann., 4.59 

[52] Woodman, 153 

[53] There were several putative successors for Tiberius, including possibly the ambitious Sejanus 

[54] Dio, LVIII.28.4; Tac., Ann., VI.46 

[55] Dio., LVIII.28.3; Tac., Ann., VI.50 

[56] Suet., Tib., LXIII; Cal., XII 

[57] Suet., Tib., LXXIII


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