The story of the astrologer Ascletario is introduced by Suetonius as the last item in a series of portents and predictions presaging Domitian’s violent death. This paper gives an analysis of this episode, discussed in the wider context of the catalogue of portents in Dom. 15.2-3 and, indeed, of the whole death narrative of the biography. A comparison to the parallel story in Cassius Dio (67.16.3) reveals important differences between the two authors; it is argued that Suetonius is closer to the original version of the anecdote and that Dio may have been influenced by Herodotus’ story of Croesus on the pyre. It is also argued that Suetonius expects his readers to connect the Ascletario episode with another Flavian portent, reported at Ves. 7.4 (dogs are prominent in both). Two other ‘canine’ passages of the Domitian, 10.1 and 23.1, are briefly discussed. The proposed analysis supports the view of Suetonius as an author who carefully structured his biographical rubrics and invited his readers to make connections within both a single biography and wider textual units.
A considerable portion of Suetonius’ last imperial biography is devoted to Domitian’s death.1 There are two sections dealing with the emperor’s demise, separated by some final rubrics (the emperor’s personal appearance and health, literary and leisure interests, sexual attitudes etc., chs. 18-22). The former section consists of chapters 14-17. It concentrates, firstly, on the emperor’s foreknowledge of his death and some predictions and portents pointing to it and, secondly, on the course of the plot to assassinate Domitian.2 The latter section (ch. 23), on the other hand, serves as something of an epilogue (it concludes the biography of Domitian as well as the whole collection) and its main focus is on the differing reactions to the emperor’s murder within Roman society.3 In Ihm’s Teubner edition, the biography is 479 lines long and both sections dedicated to Domitian’s death total 116 lines—which constitutes some 24.2% of the whole text. The only other Suetonian biography with such an explicit focus on the last period of an emperor’s life is that of Nero: 1057 lines in total, with two sections devoted to his death occupying 237 lines or 22.4% of the whole text. Gaius’ biography, on the other hand (and I intentionally take as a comparandum the biography of an emperor who died a violent death, as a result of a conspiracy), exhibits quite a different ratio: from the entire text numbering 1017 lines, 83 lines of the ‘death chapters’ constitute a mere 8.2% of the total.4
When considering the first ‘death section’ of the Domitian (chs. 14-17), it is important to note, firstly, that the emperor’s end is approached from two different perspectives. In chapters 14-16 the narrative focus is on Domitian himself and this subsection duly ends with occisus est (16.2), a quite appropriate closure. However, there follows, rather unexpectedly, another subsection (ch. 17) which presents the events of the emperor’s last day (already dealt with in the previous chapter) from a different point of view, this time concentrating on the conspirators. The crucial (although not the last) word in this subsection is contrucidarunt (17.2).5 Occisus est, on the other hand, appears once again at 17.3, where Suetonius gives the chronological data about Domitian’s death (occisus est XIIII Kal. Octob. anno aetatis quadragensimo quinto, imperii quinto decimo) and also, twice, in the closing chapter of the biography (the second ‘death section’): occisum eum populus indifferenter, miles gravissime tulit (23.1) and ante paucos quam occideretur menses … (23.2). The second important point which should be borne in mind is that at the very beginning of the first section Suetonius informs his readers that Domitian was from his early years perfectly aware of both the exact date (year, day and hour) and the manner of his death:
per haec terribilis cunctis et invisus, tandem oppressus est <…> amicorum libertorumque intimorum simul et uxoris. annum diemque ultimum vitae iam pridem suspectum habebat, horam etiam nec non et genus mortis. adulescentulo Chaldaei cuncta praedixerant …Suet. Dom. 14.16
The consequence is that in the following chapters the main focus is on how (rather than if) the prediction of the Chaldaeans will eventually come true. And, as has been noted above, in these chapters (14-16) the narrative perspective is, in general terms, that of Domitian. The only difference is that, unlike the emperor, the reader has not yet been informed about the exact date and manner of Domitian’s death (see n. 5 above; the only detail which has been revealed by the narrator is that it will apparently be caused by ferrum, cf. 14.1).
A prominent place in this subsection is given, not surprisingly, to portents and other events forecasting the emperor’s end. Such signa (to use the most general term)7 occur frequently in the De vita Caesarum. Apart from relatively few passages in which they are mentioned to illustrate a major biographical theme (such as Julius Caesar’s disrespect for religious matters or Claudius’ susceptibility to external influences), they appear in clusters, in separate rubrics. These rubrics may be divided into two categories: those enumerating signa which forecast a future emperor’s rise to power (e.g. Aug. 94-96; Tib. 14; Gal. 4; Ves. 5) and those devoted to portents and predictions that relate to his approaching death (e.g. Jul. 81; Aug. 97; Cal. 57; Nero 46). The latter category occurs in almost all biographies, with the exception of the Titus (but see Tit. 10.1). In what remains the fundamental discussion of the signa passages in the De vita Caesarum, Helmut Gugel rightly insists that the lists are carefully structured, with the most remarkable items placed either at the end or in the middle of a given unit (often a subdivision of a catalogue rather than this catalogue as a whole). According to Gugel, Suetonius makes a well-thought-out selection of the available material, limiting himself to those signa which are particularly relevant to his purpose (see esp. Gal. 1.1). Consequently, the notion of the biographer proudly putting on display everything which he has come across during his research, with no concern for selection, order and emphasis, should be rejected.8
Another important point is that Suetonius sometimes makes connections between one passage relating to signa and another. Perhaps the most clear example is Gal. 4.3, an account of the young Galba’s dream featuring the goddess Fortuna, whose statue he found the next morning by his bedroom and transferred, with due honour, to his Tusculan villa. Towards the end of his short rule, Galba had another dream vision of Fortuna, and once again he travelled to Tusculum in reaction to it, but this time the prospects were dark (Gal. 18.2).9 As Bruno Poulle has shown in his treatment of the signa passages in the Galba, connections (which he calls “un système d’échos internes”) may be made both within a single biography and from one biography to another; his main focus are such links between the Galba and the Augustus.10 This observation will prove especially relevant to the argument presented in this paper.
In the Domitian we have the following catalogue (15.2-3):11
Lightning strikes occurring frequently over the last eight months of the emperor’s life (that is from mid-January to mid-September 96; Domitian was murdered on 18th September 96), some of them hitting places whose symbolical importance is beyond question (the Capitoline hill, the temple of the Flavian dynasty, the imperial palace on the Palatine with the emperor’s own cubiculum).12
An equestrian statue (of Domitian, we may presume) is damaged by a violent tempest; its titulus is blasted from its base and falls onto a neighbouring monument.13
The second fall of a tree which many years ago, when Vespasian was still a private citizen, fell for the first time but suddenly rose up again afterwards.
The tristissima sors given to the emperor by the oracle of Praenestine Fortuna at the beginning of the new year (96); this contrasts sharply with the responses he had previously received, which were always auspicious.
Domitian’s dream featuring his favourite deity, Minerva,14 leaving his bedroom shrine and explaining to him that she is unable to protect him any longer since she has been disarmed by Jupiter.
As the sixth and the last item in this list15 comes the Ascletario episode, which I will soon focus on in greater detail. This episode not only concludes the catalogue, but it is also its climax: Suetonius clearly states that it was this very event that distressed the emperor to the greatest extent. Significantly, the biographer only twice refers explicitly to Domitian’s reaction to the portents and predictions enumerated in this chapter.16 The first reference is given in the first item; there, Suetonius quotes Domitian’s own words commenting on the continuous assault of lightning strikes: feriat iam, quem volet.17 The second reference comes in the introduction to his last item (nulla tamen re perinde commotus est18 quam responso casuque Ascletarionis mathematici). Therefore, on the one hand, there is a ring composition (Domitian’s reaction registered at the beginning and end of the catalogue),19 and, on the other, a clear indication that the Ascletario episode was, from the emperor’s own point of view, the most remarkable.20 Another indication is provided by the amount of space given by Suetonius to the last item: ten lines of the Teubner edition in comparison to slightly more than twelve lines devoted to the first five items. The passage in question reads as follows:
nulla tamen re perinde commotus est quam responso casuque Ascletarionis mathematici. hunc delatum nec infitiantem iactasse se quae providisset ex arte, sciscitatus est, quis ipsum maneret exitus; et affirmantem fore ut brevi laceraretur a canibus, interfici quidem sine mora, sed ad coarguendam temeritatem artis sepeliri quoque accuratissime imperavit. quod cum fieret, evenit ut repentina tempestate deiecto funere semiustum cadaver discerperent canes, idque ei cenanti a mimo Latino, qui praeteriens forte animadverterat, inter ceteras diei fabulas referretur.Suet. Dom. 15.3
Suetonius does not say explicitly what kind of things Ascletario21 predicted and revealed to his audience. However, it is obvious from the context that his prophecy was about the emperor’s approaching death.22 That is why he was accused (delatum) and tried before the emperor. Domitian’s intention was to prove (to himself as well as to others) that Ascletario was no expert on astrology at all since he was unable to predict even his own future. The anecdote somewhat resembles the story told by Tacitus about Tiberius’ Rhodian ‘exile’ and his method of proving the expertise of astrologers offering their services: they were thrown off a cliff si vanitatis aut fraudum suspicio incesserat—with the sole exception of Thrasyllus, who managed to predict possible danger in store for him (Ann. 6.21.1-2).23
Suetonius is not the only source for the Ascletario story. It is also reported in the Roman History of Cassius Dio (as abbreviated by Xiphilinus). Dio says that there were several signs (σηµεῖα) forecasting Domitian’s death and selects the following as his examples: the emperor’s two dreams (the second one is the Minerva dream we know from Suetonius, but in Dio it is presented in a slightly different version); the prediction of a certain Larginus Proculus, who gave the exact date of the emperor’s death, was brought from the province of Germany to Rome and was condemned to death—but happened to survive since his execution was postponed;24 an anonymous astrologer’s prophecy about both the date and the manner of the emperor’s death. This is Dio’s last item:
ἕτερος τέ τις πρότερόν ποτε εἰπὼν αὐτῷ καὶ ὁπότε καὶ ὅπως φθαρήσεται, ἔπειτα ἐρωτηθεὶς ὁποίῳ αὐτὸς τέλει τοῦ βίου χρήσεται, καὶ ἀποκρινάµενος ὅτι ὑπὸ κυνῶν ἀναλωθήσεται, ἐκελεύσθη µὲν ζῶν κατακαυθῆναι καὶ τὸ πῦρ αὐτῷ προσήχθη, ὑετοῦ δὲ ἐν τούτῳ πολλοῦ καταρρυέντος ἥ τε πυρὰ ἐσβέσθη καὶ ἐκεῖνον κύνες ὀπίσω τὼ χεῖρε δεδεµένον καὶ ἐπικείµενον ἐπ᾽ αὐτῆς εὑρόντες διεσπάραξαν.D.C. 67.16.3
Someone else, also, had told Domitian on a previous occasion both the time and the manner of his death, and then, upon being asked what kind of life’s end he himself should meet, had replied that he should be devoured by dogs. Thereupon command was given that he should be burned alive, and the fire was applied to him; but just then there was a great downpour of rain, the pyre was extinguished, and later dogs found him lying upon it with his hands bound behind him and tore him to pieces.transl. by E. Cary [Loeb], slightly modified
There are some significant differences between Suetonius’ and Dio’s versions of the story. Firstly, there is no indication that Dio regards this episode as the most disturbing (from the emperor’s standpoint) or intriguing one (from that of the reader). In fact, he uses an introductory formula somewhat similar to that in Suetonius, but applies it to his previous example, involving Larginus Proculus (ὃ δὲ δὴ µάλιστα διὰ πάντων ἄξιον θαυµάσαι ἐστί).25 The astrologer episode is appended as a kind of epilogue, but not as a pinnacle. Secondly, we are told that it was to the emperor that the astrologer had earlier revealed the time and the manner of Domitian’s death and that some time later he was questioned about his own. In Suetonius, on the other hand, Ascletario made his (not explicitly stated) prophecy first to an unspecified audience and only later repeated it to the emperor, when he was being tried in front of him. Moreover, the phrase ‘both the time and the manner of his death’ (καὶ ὁπότε καὶ ὅπως φθαρήσεται) resembles Suetonius’ annum diemque ultimum vitae … horam etiam nec non et genus mortis, occurring (as we remember) not in the context of the Ascletario episode, but in the passage where we are informed that Domitian from his early years knew what was in store for him, having been told his fate by Chaldaeans (a detail absent from Dio’s Domitianic narrative). Lastly, and most crucially, Dio’s astrologer was not executed on the spot but condemned to being burnt alive.26 The burning in Suetonius is that of the astrologer’s corpse; Domitian wanted no physical remnants to be left of Ascletario’s body so that his prophecy about being rent by dogs would come to nothing.
In my opinion, Suetonius is closer than Dio to the original version of the tale—and of course the question of its authenticity is irrelevant here.27 What Domitian asked the astrologer was not what death he would die but, rather, what end would await him. The Latin version has quis ipsum maneret exitus and even the Greek one points to the same direction: ὁποίῳ αὐτὸς τέλει τοῦ βίου χρήσεται (therefore I have modified Cary’s translation at this point; he has ‘what manner of death he, the prophet, should meet’). Domitian meant, in the first instance, death, but he understood that exitus might have a wider meaning. Therefore he did not limit himself to executing Ascletario; he also went to great lengths in order to ensure that his corpse would not be savaged by dogs. In imperial Rome the corpses of executed criminals were normally disposed of unceremoniously, being thrown into the Tiber or left unburied somewhere outside the town.28 In such a case, however, the danger of Ascletario’s corpse being torn to pieces by dogs would be considerable.29 Thus Domitian, paradoxically, saw to it that his victim would receive the most appropriate burial (although normally it was the denial of burial that was regarded as the last punishment)—ordering his corpse to be burned on a pyre and, afterwards, (presumably) the remaining cineres to be put in an urn and carefully interred. This process, however, took a lot of time. David Noy refers to estimates according to which a standard Roman cremation lasted some seven or eight hours, or possibly even longer. It was quite likely that something, for instance a violent storm, would hinder the process; and in fact Noy lists some examples of “Roman cremations which went wrong”, including this particular one.30
The final difference between Cassius Dio’s and Suetonius’ accounts concerns the astrologer’s answer to the question of what end will await him—in Suetonius he says that he will shortly be rent by dogs (fore ut brevi laceraretur a canibus), whereas in Dio he affirms that he will be killed (or perhaps devoured: ἀναλωθήσεται) by them. Dio’s Domitian apparently did not consider the possibility of dogs eating the astrologer’s corpse. However, he chose, rather surprisingly, burning as the method of execution—although he must have known that there were more efficient and less time-consuming methods. And in fact the poor man was still alive when dogs arrived to devour him. His still being alive is what is important here: for Dio the issue is not what happened to the astrologer (either dead or alive) at the end; the issue is, rather, what kind of death he actually died. It is also possible that a Greek historiographical intertext is responsible for this aspect of Dio’s account: in Herodotus’ famous story, the Lydian king Croesus was saved from being burnt alive on a pyre thanks to sudden rainfall which extinguished the flames (1.87).31 The Suetonian (and, I posit, also the original) version of the episode was hardly parallel to the Herodotean account—and it had to be modified (of course, the story in Dio has no happy ending, at least from the punished man’s point of view—in contrast to that in Herodotus).
It would be wrong, however, to look upon the Ascletario episode in Suetonius without relating it to the previous five items in the catalogue of forecasts of the emperor’s death.32 There is an obvious connection between the first and the last item on the list: the sudden storm which interrupted the cremation of the astrologer’s corpse should be linked to those lightning storms tormenting Rome over the first eight months of 96 (and this would be the second instance of ring composition in this passage, the first being, as noted above, a reference to Domitian’s reaction). What I regard, however, as particularly telling, is Suetonius’ third item: arbor, quae privato adhuc Vespasiano eversa surrexerat, tunc rursus repente corruit (with repente suggesting that, in this case, no lightning storms or cloudbursts were involved). Bohumila Mouchová observes that cross-references are a rare phenomenon in the De vita Caesarum; there are no more than ten instances and, importantly, “[n]iemals beruft sich Sueton auf eine Stelle zwischen den Biographien”—although quite frequently the same material is presented in two different lives.33 Taking this into account, we may regard the relative clause pointing to the times when Vespasian was still a private citizen as an implicit or ‘vicarious’ cross-reference to the relevant section of the Life of Vespasian.34 In chapter 5 of that biography there is a long list of ostenta pointing to Vespasian as a new emperor and the founder of a new dynasty. One of them concerns the tree mentioned in the Domitian:
arbor quoque cupressus in agro avito sine ulla vi tempestatis evulsa radicitus atque prostrata insequenti die viridior ac firmior resurrexit.Suet. Ves. 5.4
This was a well-known story, also recounted by Tacitus (Hist. 2.78.2) and Cassius Dio (66.1.3)—who, however, unlike the Latin authors, says that the tree was in fact overthrown by a violent wind.35 Tacitus adds a detail that haruspices were asked to interpret the portent and that their verdict was most favourable for Vespasian, then still a very young man (iuvenis admodum). What is particularly interesting in this context is that the event is not mentioned at all in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History,36 although in book 16 of this work there is a short discussion of trees which suddenly fell down and later spontaneously rose up: est in exemplis et sine tempestate ullave causa alia quam prodigi cecidisse multas ac sua sponte resurrexisse (Nat. 16.132); the examples given are those of an elm tree, a willow, a white poplar and a plane tree.37 Unless we assume that the story was concocted only after AD 79 (but, if we may rely on Tacitus, it was known even before Vespasian’s rise to power), it is rather difficult to suppose that Pliny did not know it; it seems evident that it must have figured rather prominently in Flavian official discourse. It is likewise difficult to think that he omitted it on purpose—especially when we consider his firm loyalty to the Flavian house. But perhaps he decided to leave it out because the story concerned a cypress tree—and this particular species of trees was not greatly esteemed. Pliny himself, referring to Cato the Elder, mentions many disadvantages of this species—negligible fruit, bitter leaves, noxious smell, almost no shadow—and ends his account by pointing to its being sacred to the god of the Underworld: Diti sacra et ideo funebri signo ad domos posita (Nat. 16.139).38 But, strangely, in a different context, when speaking of some very old trees, he adduces the instance of a cypress tree, reputedly as old as Rome itself, circa suprema Neronis principis prolapsa atque neglecta (Nat. 16.236). There was no rising up in this case and so the story resembles the portent passage in the Domitian rather than that in the Vespasian.
The two episodes in Suetonius are obviously related to each other and there should be no doubt that one of the biographer’s aims in putting the tree story (which, in contrast to its Vespasianic counterpart, is unattested outside Suetonius—but see n. 35 above) in his Domitianic catalogue was to refer his readers back to the relevant passage in the earlier life.39 Moreover, the target of this reference is not just the tree episode but, to an even greater extent, a story which should be viewed as a counterpart to the Ascletario item.40 It occurs almost immediately before the tree prodigy, followed only by another item, which I also quote:
prandente eo quondam canis extrarius e trivio manum humanam intulit mensaeque subiecit. cenante rursus bos arator decusso iugo triclinium irrupit ac fugatis ministris quasi repente defessus procidit ad ipsos accumbentis pedes cervicemque summisit. arbor quoque …Suet. Ves. 5.441
Thus we have two stories placed prominently at the very beginning of the narrative of the rise of the Flavian house and towards the very end of the account of the dynasty’s final days and both of them involve a dog, or dogs, savaging parts of a human corpse. This is, I believe, hardly a mere coincidence—and both the cypress tree episodes seem to corroborate this opinion. And there seems to be yet another link between the relevant sections of the two biographies, a link the aim of which is to put closely together the rise of Vespasian and the fall of Domitian, that is the rise and fall of the Flavian dynasty. The list of signs in the earlier biography begins with a story of a branch sprouting from the trunk of an oak tree each time Vespasian’s mother was giving birth to a child. For Vespasian’s birth there was a huge new branch, instar arboris. Suetonius adds that on that occasion the lucky father consulted a haruspex: quare patrem Sabinum ferunt, haruspicio insuper confirmatum, renuntiasse matri, nepotem ei Caesarem genitum (Ves. 5.2).42 The only other mention of the words haruspex or haruspicium in the Flavian lives occurs at Dom. 16.1: in the morning of the last day of his life Domitian condemns a haruspex sent from Germany qui consultus de fulgure mutationem rerum praedixerat.43 The reader is expected to recall that some 87 years earlier another haruspex also predicted a mutatio rerum, although of a different kind.
Let us look at the two ‘dog’ episodes more closely. There are some significant details which seem to corroborate the opinion that the biographer intended these episodes to be taken together. Consider the meal context: in the case of Vespasian it is a midday prandium, whereas in that of Domitian it is a cena—but note that another story in the Vespasian chapter, featuring a bos arator paying homage to the future emperor, provides a shift from prandium to cena. The parallel is further stressed by the use of similar syntax: compare prandente eo (Vespasian) and ei cenanti (Domitian). The significance of the cena in the Ascletario episode is probably also that it implicitly indicates that the burning up of the astrologer’s corpse was a long process: we may infer that his execution took place rather early in the morning (immediately after the trial) and was followed by the process of cremation which lasted many hours; towards the end of the day Domitian might have had reason to believe that everything was over—and was deeply disappointed by the message.
The introduction of the mime actor Latinus is particularly significant.44 It would have been sufficient for the effectiveness of the tale to end with discerperent canes, but the biographer takes care to add that the information about what had happened to Ascletario’s corpse was passed on to Domitian—and that it was actually Latinus (mentioned only here in Suetonius) who brought it from the town. Thus the story returns to the place from which it started,45 namely to the palace of Domitian (where the astrologer is likely to have been tried),46 having in between moved to the outskirts of Rome (where Ascletario’s pyre was built and where Latinus spotted dogs savaging his corpse).47 Note also that at the very beginning we are told that Domitian nulla … re perinde commotus est quam responso casuque Ascletarionis mathematici: Suetonius proleptically puts the emperor’s reaction before the story itself is told and emphasises that what distressed the emperor was not just the astrologer’s responsum but also his casus; in fact, the combination of the two. Thus the story may ironically end with Latinus providing the emperor with what he thinks is entertainment (as becomes his profession), but what is, in real fact, something deadly serious. And there may be a link between Ascletario being brought to trial (delatum) and Latinus bringing his story to Domitian (referretur). In the Vespasian passage we have the dog bringing a human arm and putting it under the dining table (intulit).48
But the full significance of mentioning Latinus becomes clear when we pay attention to the fact that he was a man of the stage. Note that he brings his entertaining story to the emperor inter ceteras diei fabulas: the words may be understood simply as the day’s gossip, but since Suetonius is careful to refer to the man as mimus, the connotation of ‘theatrical plays’ or ‘scripts’ seems unmistakable. Seen in this context, the story of the astrologer is a re-enactment of that of Actaeon, famously rent apart by his own hunting dogs after being metamorphosed into a stag—and thus it belongs to the world of the theatre.49 Both Varro and Lucian attest to the Actaeon myth being the subject of pantomime plays.50 Of course, Latinus performed in mimes rather than pantomimes and so did not tackle mythological themes51 —but, differences apart, he was, in general terms, a man of the theatre. And the fact that Ascletario was tried and sentenced to death might also contribute to associating him with the stage; precisely at that period convicted criminals were sometimes forced to play mythological or other roles culminating in their death.52
The question arises as to the reasons for the biographer’s use of theatrical connotations in the Ascletario episode. There are of course numerous references in Suetonius to the stage, some of them also on the level of imagery.53 Such references are particularly significant in his death narratives, and there is an obvious link here to the well-known idea of human life as a stage performance which now is approaching its end.54 As regards Dom. 15.3, it is tempting to suppose that Suetonius wants to draw his readers’ attention to the theatrical dimension of the account of Domitian’s death as a whole: the farce of this emperor’s end stands in sharp contrast to the noble art of dying as displayed by Augustus, famously asking his friends ecquid iis videretur mimum vitae commode transegisse (Aug. 99.1).55
Returning to the verb referretur, there may be a hidden allusion here to Latinus’ rather special emploi, namely his role as an informer. Admittedly, the question of whether he actually engaged in delationes is controversial,56 but assuming that he did, we get a fine picture of Ascletario being first accused and brought to trial (delatum—Latinus was, as far as we know, not involved) and then once again being the object of a delatio, this time concerned with the fate of his corpse (but see n. 48 above). So even the dead convict still remains, in a sense, on the informer’s agenda, a situation which bears some resemblance to such episodes in Tacitus as that about the senate’s debate on the punishment of Lucius Vetus and two members of his family, all of whom were already dead and even buried (Tac. Ann. 16.11.3).57 And it is also in Tacitus that we find a fine example of blending the role of an informer with that of an actor: at Ann. 13.21.3 Agrippina the Younger rejected the charges brought against her by (among others) an actor named Paris with a scornful remark that Junia Silana (who stood behind the accusation) quasi scaenae fabulas componit.58
All that has been said so far about the Ascletario episode and its ramifications cannot be wholly reconciled with a view of the biographer so very much fixated on his ‘rubrics’ that he found it impossible to arrange his material according to a different, more sophisticated pattern—especially outside the limits of a single biography. But recent Suetonian scholarship has provided ample evidence that he was also an artist capable of seeing beyond the limitations of the per species method—or stretching them as far as possible (if he wished to do so).59 In this he seems to be not far away from his fellow writer Tacitus (with whom he is so often unfavourably contrasted), so skilled at manipulating the annalistic format of Roman historiography to bring home his own message.60
Before concluding, let us briefly examine two further passages from the biography of Domitian which seem to belong to the same ‘canine’ complex. The first comes from the famous chapter (in fact, a ‘rubric’) on the emperor’s saevitia:
patrem familias, quod Thraecem murmilloni parem, munerario imparem dixerat, detractum spectaculis in harenam canibus obiecit cum hoc titulo: impie locutus parmularius.Suet. Dom. 10.1
Dogs are very infrequent in Suetonius; apart from this passage as well as the two others discussed in this paper, there is just one further mention of a real dog in Vit. 16, a passage depicting how Vitellius shut himself in a caretaker’s lodge at his palace with a dog tied to the door. So the fact that Suetonius adduces this very tale—from many others exemplifying Domitian’s saevitia which were at his disposal—is hardly accidental.61
The second passage comes from the biography’s last chapter and it refers to the senate’s rejoicing after Domitian’s murder:
… senatus adeo laetatus est, ut repleta certatim curia non temperaret, quin mortuum contumeliosissimo atque acerbissimo adclamationum genere laceraret, scalas etiam inferri clipeosque et imagines eius coram detrahi et ibidem solo affligi iuberet, novissime eradendos ubique titulos abolendamque omnem memoriam decerneret.Suet. Dom. 23.162
The mention of the emperor’s broken imagines and abolished tituli refers the reader back to the second item in the catalogue of portents and predictions, where we read that e basi statuae triumphalis titulus excussus vi procellae in monimentum proximum decidit.63 But this reference, once again, serves to activate the readers’ memories of the whole passage. The verb lacerare is present in this final chapter, used figuratively and pointing to the verbal assault on the dead emperor, but also appearing in the Ascletario episode in its proper meaning of physically rending or tearing apart.64 This verb is used nine times in Suetonius, but only three instances are those of metaphorical usage (apart from Dom. 23.1 also Jul. 75.5 and Tib. 66, so only in the early lives).65 The dogs are rending the (physical) body of the dead astrologer (here it is important that he is no longer alive; contrast Cassius Dio’s account) and the senators, by means of verbal abuse, are rending the (symbolical) body of the dead emperor. Towards the end of the biography (and of the whole collection) there is a fine example of dramatic justice and role reversal: the paterfamilias of the saevitia chapter is now, finally, avenged.66
The list of predictions and portents announcing the death of Domitian in the Suetonian biography is long, and it becomes even longer if we also add the events of the emperor’s last two days, the account of which is given in ch. 16 (see n. 15 above). This is a very clear indication that not just this emperor’s life, but Rome’s second dynasty as a whole is approaching its end. Importantly, the only other regular list of prodigies in the Flavian lives (and in the last book of the collection) is that concerning Vespasian’s rise to power at Ves. 5.2-5. We have no signa relating to the accession of Domitian, and the portents which may be taken to announce either Vespasian’s death or Titus’ coming to power or else the latter’s death (Ves. 23.4; Tit. 1.2; 5.1; 10.1) are scattered around the respective biographies; they may serve other ends,67 and should not be treated on an equal level with these two major lists. As in the Galba, the reader is invited to make connections between the signa which announce a private man’s unexpected rise to power and those which mark a ruler’s violent end.68 I have tried to show in this paper that the task of making these connections is in fact facilitated by the biographer by means of such signposts as the two cypress tree episodes and, in a somewhat different and (perhaps) more subtle way, the two stories featuring dogs and corpses.69
Ash, R. (2016). Never Say Die! Assassinating Emperors in Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars. In: K. de Temmerman and K. Demoen, eds., Writing Biography in Greece and Rome. Narrative Technique and Fictionalisation, Cambridge, pp. 200-216.
Brind’Amour, P. (1981). Problèmes astrologiques et astronomiques soulevés par le récit de la mort de Domitien chez Suétone. Phoenix 35, pp. 338-344.
Champeaux, J. (1995). L’Etrusca disciplina chez Suétone, Vie des douze Césars. In: D. Briquel and C. Guittard, eds., Les écrivains et l’Etrusca disciplina de Claude à Trajan, Tours, pp. 63-87.
Frangoulidis, S. (2005). Another Ending. Gaius Caligula’s Assassination Narrative in Suetonius’ Caligula 56-60. Ordia Prima 4, pp. 131-139.
Gorringe, C.F. (1993). A Study of the Death-Narratives in Suetonius’ De vita Caesarum, Dissertation, University of Queensland.
Gugel, H. (1970). Caesars Tod (Sueton, Div. Iul. 81, 4-82, 3). Aspekte zur Darstellungskunst und zum Caesarbild Suetons. Gymnasium 77, pp. 5-22.
Hope, V.M. (2000). Contempt and Respect. The Treatment of the Corpse in Ancient Rome. In: V.M. Hope and E. Marshall, eds., Death and Disease in the Ancient City, London/New York, pp. 104-127.
Hulls, J.-M. (2014). The Mirror in the Text. Privacy, Performance, and the Power of Suetonius’ Domitian. In: Power and Gibson, eds., pp. 178-196.
Hurley, D.W. (2014). Rhetorics of Assassination. Ironic Reversal and the Emperor Gaius. In: Power and Gibson, eds., pp. 146-158.
Leppin, H. (1992). Histrionen. Untersuchungen zur sozialen Stellung von Bühnenkünstlern im Westen des Römischen Reiches zur Zeit der Republik und des Principats. Bonn.
Mooney, G.W. (1930). C. Suetoni Tranquilli De vita Caesarum libri VII-VIII. Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Divus Vespasianus, Divus Titus, Domitianus. With Introduction, Translation and Commentary. London.
Murison, C.L. (1999). Rebellion and Reconstruction. Galba to Domitian. An Historical Commentary to Cassius Dio’s Roman History, Books 64-67 (A.D. 68-96). Atlanta.
Poulle, B. (1999). Les présages de l’arrivée de Galba au pouvoir. In: E. Smajda and E. Geny, eds., Pouvoir, divination et prédestination dans le monde antique, Besançon, pp. 33-42.
Tamm, B. (1963). Auditorium and Palatium. A Study on Assembly-Rooms in Roman Palaces During the 1st Century B.C. and the 1st Century A.D. Stockholm.
Wardle, D. (2007). A Perfect Send-off. Suetonius and the Dying Art of Augustus (Suetonius, Aug. 99). Mnemosyne 60, pp. 443-463.
Woodman, A.J. (1993). Amateur Dramatics at the Court of Nero. Annals 15.48-74. In: T.J. Luce and A.J. Woodman, eds., Tacitus and the Tacitean Tradition, Princeton, pp. 104-128.
The Domitian is not a much discussed Suetonian biography (in contrast to, e.g., Aug., Tib. or Nero), but see Mouchová 1968, 97-103; Lambrecht 1995; Hulls 2014. The text of the De vita Caesarum used in this paper is that by Maximilian Ihm (Lipsiae 1907, Teubner). The edition by Robert A. Kaster (Oxford 2016, OCT) appeared after the main body of this paper had been completed.
For four subdivisions within this section, see Ash 2016, 204 (who discusses assassination narratives in Jul., Cal. and Dom. and notes a similar structural framework in all of them).
There are also two final praesagia mortis, significantly separated from those related in chs. 15-16 (for further information, see below), and pointing to the happier times under the insequentes principes. It is better to regard ch. 23 as the second ‘death section’ rather than as a continuation of the Domitian’s final rubrics of chs. 18-22: clearly, chronology is of importance here and the chapter can be linked more obviously with the per tempora than with the per species portion of the biography. The sequence D(eath)-F(inal) R(ubrics)-D(eath’s) A(ftermath) occurs less frequently in Suetonius than the sequence FR-D-DA, however cf. Nero, Gal. and Otho.
Nero 40-50 and 57; Cal. 56-60. Cf. also Jul. 80-88 (169 lines and just 13.2% of the Life as extant—bearing in mind that a number of initial chapters are missing). For Suetonius’ depiction of Nero’s death, “perhaps the most successful piece of continuous narrative in the Caesars” (Townend 1967, 93), see e.g. Lounsbury 1987, 71-78; Hägg 2012, 223-227; for that of Caligula, see Hurley 2014; for that of Julius Caesar, see Gugel 1970. A comparative analysis of three assassination narratives in Suetonius (Jul., Cal., Dom.) is given by Ash 2016. I was unable to consult an unpublished PhD dissertation by Gorringe 1993.
Thus it may be said that in this biography the emperor dies twice (or even three times, if we count his symbolic death, reported at 23.1). Importantly, the Domitian is the only biography in the De vita Caesarum in which the story of the emperor’s death is told again from a different perspective (Tib. 73.2 and Cal. 58.2 are not exactly parallels, since they only give various source traditions, without a shift of perspective). It should also be noted that the theme of the conspiracy is introduced as early as 14.1, but, in contrast to Jul. 80.1 and Cal. 56.1, this announcement is not followed by the details of the plot; these are postponed until ch. 17. For a good recent treatment of the conspiracy from a historical standpoint, see Collins 2009 (with an ample bibliography).
For this prediction as a post factum astrological computation, see Brind’Amour 1981. A close parallel to this passage is found in Nero 40.1-2: a general announcement of the end of Nero’s rule (talem principem … terrarum orbis tandem destituit) is followed by a prediction received by the emperor sometime in the past: praedictum a mathematicis Neroni olim erat fore ut quandoque destitueretur (note the repetition of the crucial verb; later in this chapter we have destituto). But this prediction was very unspecific (cf. Suetonius’ other instances of quandoque in the context of prophecies: Jul. 81.1; Aug. 94.2; 94.10; 96.1; Tib. 14.2; Gal. 9.2; Ves. 5.3) and Nero, in contrast to Domitian, was not particularly worried; Suetonius adds that there were other prophecies which seemed more encouraging. For similarities between the ‘death sections’ in these two biographies, see Gugel 1977, 30. Importantly, both Nero and Domitian were the last rulers of their respective dynasties.
Thus Nero 6.2; Gal. 1.1; 8.2; Ves. 5.2. Other words used by Suetonius in this context (some of them interchangeably) are augurium, auspicium, monstrum, omen, ostentum, portentum, praedictio, praesagium, prodigium and somnium. For Suetonius’ own distinction between ostentum, monstrum and prodigium, see Pratum, p. 284 Reifferscheid (it is not followed scrupulously in the De vita Caesarum).
See Gugel 1977, 24-73 (and esp. 26-27 for his general observations). Not all of Gugel’s discussions of individual passages are equally successful; for example, when analysing Nero 46 he neglects the division, made explicitly by Suetonius himself, between somnia, auspicia and omina (58-59).
See Gugel 1977, 63 (item five in a catalogue of ten, so emphasised by being placed in the middle). See also Benediktson 1997, 169 and esp. Poulle 1999, 37: “cette correspondance a comme principal effet d’établir une structure bipartite de la biographie; l’ascension est suivie de la chute, illustration des retournements de la Fortune, qui est précisément la divinité honorée puis négligée”. For another example of such correspondences, see Vit. 9 and 18 (on which see Power 2014, 61-62).
Poulle 1999, 40: “les échos entre les biographies d’Auguste et de Galba créent un effet de structure plein de signification, mettant en valeur implicitement la relation complexe de filiation et d’opposition entre les deux empereurs”.
In Ihm’s edition, the catalogue in 15.2-3 is divided into two paragraphs, the first one ending with the Praenestine Fortuna item. It would have been better to put the division after repente corruit, the last words of the overturned tree episode. In that way we would have, firstly, three ostenta (in a wider, not technical meaning of the word) and, afterwards, three praedictiones (cf. Tib. 14.1 for the distinction). The arrangement is, most probably, not chronological (despite Mouchová 1968, 34; Gugel 1977, 26 n. 13; Lambrecht 1995, 516): item four must be dated to the very beginning of AD 96 and thus earlier than item one (the words annum novum commendanti imply that Domitian consulted the oracle early in January rather than during the main celebrations at Praeneste in April). Thus there is no reason to regard the last item (the Ascletario episode, fully discussed below) as occurring only two or three days before the emperor’s death. Of key importance here is the impact the event has on Domitian, not the chronology.
Besides the obvious association of Jupiter with Domitian (on which see e.g. Fears 1977, 222-226), the Capitol calls to mind Domitian’s appearance in the events of December AD 68 (Dom. 1.2: bello Vitelliano confugit in Capitolium), an episode from his early life which Flavian authors grossly amplified (Mart. 9.101.13-14; Stat. Theb. 1.21-22). The fact that he rebuilt the Capitoline temples, destroyed by fire in AD 80 (Dom. 5), is also relevant. The temple of the gens Flavia (cf. Dom. 5) is mentioned here not only because of the dynasty (which ended with Domitian), but also because of the last of the Flavians himself, since it was located on the Quirinal Hill, on the site of the house of Vespasian where Domitian had been born (Dom. 1.1). For the dynastic dimension of this thunderbolt, see Champeaux 1995, 70, who discusses this passage alongside Galba 1 (ac subinde tacta de caelo Caesarum aede …: the second of the two evidentissima signa announcing the end of the Julio-Claudians). And the detail of the emperor’s own cubiculum is particularly telling because this is the very place in which he will be killed.
… atque etiam e basi statuae triumphalis titulus excussus vi procellae in monimentum proximum decidit. (It is not clear what kind of ‘monument’ is being referred to; most probably it is not a tomb, although this is the standard meaning of the word in Suetonius.) The event recorded is very closely connected with the thunderstorms mentioned immediately beforehand, so it may be assumed that the statue was also struck by lightning. But the detailed description of what happened to the struck object suggests that we are dealing here with a new narrative item. Most probably, the reference is to the equus Domitiani statue in the Forum Romanum, famously celebrated by Statius in the opening poem of the Silvae (ironically, the poet claims, echoing Horace and Ovid, that this monument fears neither rainy winters nor Jupiter’s fire, 1.1.91-92). For other portents in Suetonius involving statues of emperors, see Aug. 97.2; Cl. 46; Gal. 1; Vit. 9; Ves. 5.7; Dom. 6.2. The first passage in particular may be relevant to our purpose since it also features a damaged titulus.
Minervam, quam superstitiose colebat …: strikingly, this is all that we learn in this biography about the emperor’s religious attitudes (there is no special rubric). For Domitian and Minerva see, e.g., Morawiecki 1977; Girard 1981. On this item (and other stories of gods deserting emperors), see Hekster 2010. See also, for other imperial dreams in Suetonius which portend the dreamer’s approaching death, Jul. 81.3; Tib. 74; Cal. 57.3; Nero 46.1; Gal. 18.2; all of them, with the exception of Nero’s, relate to a deity.
Differently Gugel 1977, 71, who enumerates five more Vorzeichen (16.1-2). But these are of a different character than those listed above (mainly the emperor’s own sayings) and it is better to treat them as a separate unit.
It is obvious, however, that all of them are told from the princeps’ own perspective, as in Jul. 81.1 (sed Caesari futura caedes evidentibus prodigiis denuntiata est) or Nero 46.1 (terrebatur ad hoc evidentibus portentis somniorum et auspiciorum et ominum)—and in contrast to Cal. 57.1, where there is no reference to the emperor’s reaction (futurae caedis multa prodigia extiterunt). Mouchová 1968, 37-42 has a separate section on “Beziehung des Kaisers zu den Vorzeichen”.
For such quotations, see Damon 2014 (and cf. Gugel 1977, 29, for their importance in rubrics devoted to portents). There are 23 of Domitian’s sayings reported by Suetonius in this biography, 12 of which are quoted in direct speech.
The verb refers back to 14.2 (Domitian’s prescience of his death): quare pavidus semper atque anxius minimis etiam suspicionibus praeter modum commovebatur.
On this as a structural principle in Suetonius (but with reference to much larger units), see Power 2009 (Gal. 1 and Vit. 18); Power 2014, 73-76.
Cf. Gal. 4.2: nihil aeque postea Galbam temptantem res novas confirmavit quam mulae partus (because many years earlier his grandfather, on hearing the prediction about his family’s eventual rise to power, commented mockingly: sane, cum mula pepererit).
For his name, see Sijpesteijn 1990, who concludes that Suetonius gives it correctly. For the significance of naming secondary characters in Dom. 15-17, see Ash 2016, 206-207. For astrologers in Rome, apart from the classic study by Cramer 1954, see now Ripat 2011 (with further references).
In his fine treatment of the Suetonian account of Julius Caesar’s death, Gugel 1970, 12-13 calls attention to the phrase quod apud senatum proposuerat agere (Jul. 81.4) and remarks that, although Suetonius does not say explicitly what Caesar planned to put forward in the senate, the reader, “nach allem, was bisher gesagt wurde und geschehen war”, has no difficulty in arriving at the intended conclusion. The same is true of the Domitian passage and it is curious that, in his own discussion of it, Gugel 1977, 71 refers to the Ascletario episode as a “Vorzeichen, das sich gar nicht auf Domitian selbst bezieht”. Cassius Dio is, in contrast to Suetonius, explicit (see below).
For Suetonius’ own version of the Thrasyllus story, with quite a different focus, see Tib. 14.4. He makes no mention of the astrologer’s prescience of his peril. See also D.C. 55.11.1-3 (who is closer to Tacitus than to Suetonius). A professional seer (augur, astrologer, etc.) unable to predict his own fate is a common literary motif in antiquity (e.g. Hom. Il. 2.858-859; A.R. 2.815-817; Verg. A. 9.327-328; Ov. Met. 5.146-147). Both Thrasyllus and Ascletario belong to the second category, that of seers prescient of (also) their own future; this group’s most prominent mythological representative is Amphiaraus (e.g. A. Th. 587-589). This category also includes Josephus, whose prediction concerning Vespasian’s rise to power is shown to be confirmed by the fact that he had foretold his own captivity as well (J. BJ 3.405-407).
He is usually identified with a haruspex mentioned by Suetonius at 16.1 (he was tried and condemned on the morning of 18th September, but the biographer says nothing about his survival); see Jones 1996, 128; Haack 2006, 77-79.
Immediately after the astrologer passage Dio says that he has one more story to tell, and this will be the most marvellous one (παραδοξότατον)—but he is deferring it until the account of Domitian’s murder is given. The story in question is placed at the very end of the book (67.18) and concerns Apollonius of Tyana’s telepathic vision of the assassination (curiously resembling the story of an augur Cornelius and the battle of Pharsalus, also told, apart from other sources, by Dio 41.61.4-5). Interestingly, Dio, not unlike Suetonius, divides his list of portents into two units, separated by the emperor’s death, and places the second unit as his closing item (for Suetonius, see n. 3 above).
See Murison 1999, 268, who remarks that Dio’s detail of the astrologer being sentenced to being burnt alive “reflects increased ‘judicial frightfulness’ and the marked difference in treatment of humiliores … by the early third century”.
“The veracity of most [of the prediction stories told in Suet. Dom. 14-17] should be questioned”, says Collins 2009, 76. For the Ascletario story, see Brind’Amour 1981, 343-344.
See Hope 2000, 116-120. Cf. e.g. Suet. Nero 48.2: during the emperor’s flight from Rome his horse becomes disturbed ex odore abiecti in via cadaveris.
We have to remember that stray dogs preying on human corpses, a frequent literary theme beginning famously with Hom. Il. 1.4-5, also belonged to the real life of the ancient world. For the motif’s treatment in literature, see Lilja 1976, index s.v. ‘scavenger dogs’. It may be said that it did not take any remarkable acumen in astrology for Ascletario to predict that he would end being rent by dogs.
Noy 2000, 188. As he rightly notes, “[m]ost references to cremation in Roman literature give a misleading impression of speed” (187).
The story of Croesus on the pyre (not original with Herodotus; it appeared before him in Bacchylides’ third ode) is one of numerous accounts involving “pyre-extinguishing rain” (as runs the title of a section in Cook’s book, discussing the motif: Cook 1940, 506-524). However, since the Herodotean version of the Croesus story is arguably the most famous of these accounts, it is justified to suppose that Cassius Dio may have alluded to it at 67.16.3.
There are some links with the following narrative as well. Most obviously, with the haruspex story at 16.1 (see n. 24 above), who was, it should be emphasised, consultus de fulgure. (Ripat 2011, 130-131 notes that there is no clear-cut distinction in ancient sources between haruspices and astrologers.) But note also Domitian’s own astrological prediction quoted in the same paragraph and introduced with the phrase et conversus ad proximos affirmavit. The verb picks up affirmantem of the Ascletario episode (affirmare in this biography occurs only at 15.3 and 16.1); it may be said that the emperor emulates his former victim in the art of astrology (they both give a true prediction—and die soon afterwards).
Mouchová 1968, 65. For cross-references in Roman prose in general, see Starr 1981, who notes, inter alia, that in Pliny the Elder’s books 8-11 almost half of 61 cross-references are to another book.
Thus Mouchová 1968, 66.
On the other hand, the collapse of the tree towards the end of Domitian’s rule occurs only in Suetonius—but it is quite likely that it also appeared in Tacitus’ lost books of the Histories. For the earlier episode and its treatment by Tacitus (also for some differences between him and Suetonius), see Morgan 1996. See also Vigourt 2001, 300-302, who discusses Ves. 5.4 alongside another story in Suetonius featuring a revived tree, Aug. 92.2.
He almost certainly did not mention it in his lost historical work which, consequently, should not be regarded as the common source of Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio for Vespasian’s omens; see Chilver 1979, 237.
Pliny insists that all such occurrences are fausti ominis. His first example, that of an elm tree in the grove of Juno in Nuceria, shows the connection between recovering trees and the condition of the Roman state; the event is dated to the Cimbrian wars and Pliny remarks: a quo deinde tempore maiestas p. R. resurrexit, quae ante vastata cladibus fuerat.
Admittedly, the cypress tree has also, on the symbolical level, brighter connotations as “un arbre dont la verdure permanente fait un symbole d’immortalité” (thus Vigourt 2001, 301), but this aspect is absent from Pliny.
See above (the text with nn. 9 and 10) for Suetonius’ correspondences between various passages relating to portents, both within a single biography and from one biography to another. Importantly, Ves. and Dom. are in the same (eighth) book of the collection.
Thus there is a connection, via the Life of Vespasian, between the third and the sixth item on the list of signs foretelling Domitian’s death. Cf. n. 11 above on the possible division of the list into two subsections, one dealing with ostenta (items 1-3), the other with praedictiones (items 4-6).
See Gugel 1977, 67-68, who divides the catalogue of signs in Ves. 5.2-7 into four groups of three and defines the second triad (the dog, the ox, the tree) as “Natur- und Tierwunder” pointing to, respectively, Vespasian’s imperial power, the homage of his subjects and the empire’s resurrection. As for the symbolism of manus, see the comment of Theodorus Marcilius (1610, quoted by Mooney 1930, 399): “manu humana denuntiabatur fore ut Vespasiani manu omnia regerentur. Manus nempe dextra imperii signum, cuius et instrumentum est.”
Importantly, the story is unattested elsewhere and most probably the result of Suetonius’ own research; see Morgan 1996, 46.
See nn. 24 and 32 above. For other passages in the De vita Caesarum involving (explicitly mentioned) haruspices, see Jul. 61; 77; 81.2; Aug. 29.3; 96.2; Tib. 63.1; Gal. 19.1; Otho 6.2. For a discussion, see Champeaux 1995 (who takes into account also those passages in which haruspices are not explicitly mentioned).
See n. 21 above for the naming of secondary characters.
Which is finely brought out by the verb referretur, placed at the end of the episode.
It is reasonable to assume that the trial of Ascletario (and also the trial of the haruspex, mentioned in the next chapter) took place in the auditorium of the imperial palace. For such auditoria (also as spaces for hearing cases), see Tamm 1963, whose discussion is in fact centred around the basilical hall in Domitian’s Palatine house, “architectonically and historically perhaps the most important of all the places that have ever, in any way, been described as auditoria” (p. 24).
Roman cremations usually took place outside the city walls.
Of course, I would not press this point since compound verbs derived from fero are very common, also in Suetonius.
I owe this important point to James Uden. Perhaps it is also possible to see a parallel between Actaeon the victim of Diana and Ascletario the victim of Domitian; interestingly, in his exilic poetry Ovid draws a parallel between himself and Actaeon (and, consequently, between the vengeful anger of two deities, Augustus and Diana); see esp. Ov. Tr. 2.105-108 with Ingleheart 2010, 124-126 and passim.
Var. Men. 513 Bücheler; Luc. Salt. 41.
His most famous role was that of a lover surprised by the woman’s husband, who found his hiding-place in a chest (Juv. 6.44). For his life and career, see Leppin 1992, 253-254.
See the classic paper by Coleman 1990. Admittedly, such performances were given not in the theatre but in the arena. The most famous example is a mime play on the vicissitudes of the robber-leader Laureolus; actors impersonating the main character were crucified at the end of the performance.
Note the use of mimus in Aug. 99.1 (quoted below), Tib. 24.1 (Tiberius’ accession) and Cal. 45.2 (Gaius’ military exploits).
See e.g. Sen. Ep. 77.20. The concept goes back to Plato (Phlb. 50b; R. 577b). For the motif of theatre and stage playing in Suetonius’ death narratives, see Frangoulidis 2005; Power 2014, 68-69; Ash 2016, 209-213 (as well as two papers cited in the next note).
There is a rich bibliography on this controversial (and corrupt) passage; see esp. Wardle 2007 and Dunsch 2015 (with further references). This paragraph owes much to a comment by an anonymous referee for this journal.
The main evidence that he was an informer is Juv. 1.35-36, but the text may be corrupt; see Courtney 1980, 93. The scholia ad loc. (where Massa, Carus and Latinus are referred to as nequissimi delatores) are blatantly unreliable. But there is also a passage in Schol. ad Juv. 4.53-55, citing a (probably) good authority, Marius Maximus, and listing Latinus together with two other men as potentes apud Domitianum (which may or may not point to them being informers). Latinus figures in a prosopographical survey of the early imperial delatores in Rutledge 2002, 244. See also Leppin 1992, 253-254 and Rivière 2002, 50-53 (who discusses the Juvenal passage and notes that Latinus, being of servile origin, could not act as a delator in court and thus his role was rather that of “un maillon dans une chaîne de dénonciations”). More sceptical is Henriksén 2012, 123-124. Much depends on how we estimate the quality of Marius Maximus.
Once again I am indebted to this journal’s anonymous referee for this observation.
For an excellent discussion of Tacitus’ use of theatrical imagery, see Woodman 1993.
For a new approach to Suetonius, see most recently the chapters collected in Power, Gibson (eds.) 2014. A new period in Suetonian scholarship opened with Steidle 1951, and there were numerous important publications in the early eighties. The proviso ‘if he wished …’ is necessary because, obviously, the biographer does not always take enough care in giving a consistent and well-thought-out picture of his emperors. In the Domitian, the section on saevitia (10-11) precedes the crucial information about the princeps’ prescience of his violent death (14.2). When we read at 3.2 that he was metu saevus we are inclined to take this fear as a stock element in descriptions of tyrants—and only towards the end of the biography do we come to realise that he had, in fact, good reasons to be frightened (cf. 14.2: quare pavidus semper atque anxius …).
See Ginsburg 1981.
The passage in question is also an interesting example of the ‘spectator turned spectacle’ motif; for the blurring of the division between the audience and actors in imperial Rome, see above all Bartsch 1994.
It is remarkable how this last chapter of the biography (and of the whole collection) picks up themes, syntax and vocabulary from the closing chapters of earlier lives. To give only a few instances: (a) Tib. 75.1: morte eius ita laetatus est populus, ut …; (b) Nero 57.1: obiit … tantumque gaudium publice praebuit, ut …; (c) Cal. 60: … quidam vero sententiae loco abolendam Caesarum memoriam ac diruenda templa censuerint. Note also certatim at Aug. 100.2. For Suetonian endings and how they refer to other parts of the collection, see Power 2014, although I am not convinced by all his examples. Of course the most important link is that between Dom. 23.2 and Ves. 1.1 (the end and beginning of book 8): abstinentia ~ cupiditatis, moderatione ~ saevitiae (cf. also Dom. 3.2; 10.1), and even insequentium principum ~ trium principum (see Power 2009, 220 n. 16).
See n. 13 above. There may also be a link to the beginning of the Life of Galba, the second of the two evidentissima signa predicting the end of the Julio-Claudian dynasty (ac subinde tacta de caelo Caesarum aede capita omnibus simul statuis deciderunt, Augusti etiam sceptrum e manibus excussum est). See Power 2009, who shows that Gal. 1 is in fact the beginning of this biography and not the end of the Life of Nero.
This point was made by Katarzyna Ochman.
In both these passages lacerare is used of verbal abuse (or, more precisely, defamatory writings). For non-metaphorical usage, see Gram. 9.1; 15; Aug. 91.1; Tib. 60; Cal. 28. Dilacerare is not attested. According to Rivière 2002, 52, also in 15.3 lacerare may be understood metaphorically (since informers were frequently compared in Greek and Roman texts to dogs attacking their prey, “Ascletarion pourrait ainsi faire allusion aux dénonciateurs … qui le conduisent à la mort”).
For role reversal (on which, in the narrative of the assassination of Gaius, see Hurley 2014), cf. 17.3: cadaver eius populari sandapila per vispillones exportatum Phyllis nutrix in suburbano suo Latina via funeravit … Had it not been for the faithful nurse, Domitian’s corpse would have been either cast away somewhere outside Rome or hastily and only partially cremated (and, presumably, rent by dogs afterwards). Compare Ascletario’s semiustum cadaver with Cal. 59: cadaver … tumultuario rogo semiambustum and Tib. 75.3: corpus … conclamantibus plerisque … in amphitheatro semiustilandum (and cf. Cic. Mil. 33: tu P. Clodi cruentum cadaver … infelicissimis lignis semiustilatum nocturnis canibus dilaniandum reliquisti). When applied to emperors’ corpses, cadaver in Suetonius refers only to the most wicked among them, namely Tiberius, Caligula and Domitian.
This is especially the case with Ves. 23.4, where prodigies are invoked in order to present two stories which illustrate Vespasian’s jocularity (a special rubric devoted to it begins at 22.1).
See n. 9 above. The obvious difference is that here the connecting threads run across more than one biography (but within a single book). Benediktson 1997 shows how Suetonius uses ring composition to bring together Galba’s beginnings and end.
The original idea for this paper was conceived some time ago during a PhD seminar on Suetonius’ Domitian. I am grateful to my then PhD students, Agnieszka Franczyk-Cegła, Antoine Haaker and Katarzyna Ochman for stimulating discussions. An earlier version was presented at the second conference on “Literary Interactions under Nerva, Trajan and Hadrian”, held in Rostock in June 2014. My thanks go to the participants for their comments, in particular to Alice König, Rebecca Langlands, Christiane Reitz, James Uden and Christopher Whitton. My gratitude is owed also to this journal’s anonymous referees for their insightful criticism. The paper is a partial result of the research project “Four Studies on Roman Early Imperial Historiography and Biography”, financed by the Polish National Science Centre (NCN) on the basis of decision No. DEC-2011/03/B/HS2/04016.