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The Writing Styles of Suetonius and Plutarch Through the Life of Julius Caesar

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Many biographers present information in different ways. A great way to thoroughly examine the writing styles of two separate biographers is to see how they present the life of the same person. Fortunately enough, two ancient biographers focused one of their works on the life of Julius Caesar. These two ancient biographers are Plutarch and Suetonius. By having both biographers depict the story of the life of the same character, it makes each biographers’ writing aspects that much more apparent to the reader. Plutarch has a very wide array of features to his writing, but also focuses heavily on military to write his biography about. Overall his writing is a nicely configured drama with different personas to discuss aspects in Caesar’s life. Suetonius has a style that is much less focused on drama but uses the political manipulation of that era as his strongest facet.


Suetonius has a rather structured style of biography for Julius Caesar. Throughout the biography, Suetonius most centrally focuses on how Caesar used any means to manipulate his way into higher positions of power. In section 17 of Suetonius’ The Twelve Caesars, Suetonius explains how Caesar defended himself against being placed in the ‘group’ of the Catiline conspirators. To quote the whole section would be too excessive, so to paraphrase, Curius is a public bounty who is to turn a list of these conspirators to the senate to be punished. Vettius is an informer to which this list came from, and he claims that he has direct evidence against Caesar to have him guilty. Caesar appealed at Cicero’s testimony, and Curius was no longer entitled to the bounty he had. Vettius was also placed in jail under Caesar’s demand because he could not produce the bond and was declared a forfeit. Through Caesar’s manipulation of people and events, it worked out that he ended up saving himself from being labeled a Catiline conspirator. Many of Suetonius’ sections in this book go in great detail examining political positions of power and manipulations in order to attain those positions. Perhaps a better example of this feature of Suetonius’ writing can be shown on page 9 of The Twelve Caesars. Suetonius states, “Finally, he began an attack on the opposing faction by bribing Vettius to announce that some of them had tried to make him assassinate Pompey” (Suetonius, 9). Keep in mind, the Vettius mentioned here is the same person mention from Section 17 earlier; the one Caesar put to jail. Caesar is bribing Vettius to make a false accusation to boost his own influence in Rome for doing the actions that he has been doing; almost to come up with a false justification of sorts for his actions. These aspects of Suetonius’ writing really reflect the personality of Caesar. Caesar is willing to go to some extremes to make sure he is in a position of power, or that people approve of him. Quite perhaps one of the best examples found in this book illustrating Suetonius focusing on his manipulations and political influence as his main facet of his writing style is on page 11. Suetonius says, “To prevent a recurrence of this sort of trouble he made a point of putting the chief magistrates of each new year under some obligation to him, and refusing to support any candidates or allow them to be elected unless they promised to defend his cause while he was absent from Rome. He had no hesitation in holding some of them to their promises by an oath or even a written contract” (Suetonius, 11). This is when Caesar is in power as a consul. This blatantly shows how Caesar would make sure he stayed in power by his means of political manipulation. By having Caesar be able to put his own people in important positions of power, these trials or elections that would come up would make sure he is either saved or elected. He would continually stay in this higher ranked political position. Because Suetonius uses this facet of his writing to create the foundation for his biography of Caesar, it does a great job in showing the reader how Caesar’s personality was. Suetonius presents his work in a structured manner stressing these various political manipulations, and has Caesar interacting with them. As Caesar interacts with these ‘events’, the reader gets a better idea of Caesar as a person. By Suetonius focusing on this style as his main foundation to his biography, it is an effective way to illustrate Caesar to the reader.

Suetonius also had other aspects to his writing that contributed to a good overall depiction of the life of Caesar. Suetonius also had a section dedicated to simply describing the physical and mental attributes of Caesar. Interestingly enough, Suetonius didn’t simply melt these various attributes throughout the biography, but saved them all for their own separate section in the biography. Perhaps the most apparent attribute to Caesar’s personality that Suetonius makes apparent in his work is Caesar’s love for a lavish lifestyle; “Contemporary literature contains frequent references to his fondness for luxurious living” (Suetonius, 22). He continues on to expand on this attribute of his personality for the rest of the page, and continuing onto the next ending in section 48.

One interesting feature in this biography is when Suetonius is discussing Caesar’s writing ability. This is in section 56 of The Twelve Caesars, on page 27. Oddly enough, Suetonius does not voice his own opinion about Caesar’s writing ability at all; the whole section is comprised of the opinions of other famous ancients of that era. It does a good job illustrating to the reader how Caesar’s writing ability was. It is just very odd to not have Suetonius directly say what he thought of his writing ability, after all, it is his biography. There are other accounts where Suetonius throws in an outside source (such as these other famous ancients) and their opinion on the topic he is discussing currently at that point in the biography. One of these examples is on page 4, “Another reference to it may be detected in a letter of Cicero to Axius, where Caesar I said to have ‘established in his consulship the monarch which he had planned while only an aedile’” (Suetonius, 4). Bringing in these outside sources is another effective way to portray the life of Caesar to the reader.


Plutarch is another ancient biographer who decides to write about the life of Julius Caesar. By examining this life story, Plutarch’s writing styles are discovered. Plutarch focuses mainly on military matters in Caesars life, while adding nice dramatic details to make the biography more entertaining/tragic. It appears that Plutarch has these personas in which he writes through to explain an aspect about Caesar’s life, such as a psychologist, philosopher, and diviner.

A prime example in which Plutarch focuses on Caesar’s military-life in his biography is on pages 212-213 of Plutarch’s Lives Volume II. To quote these pages would be too much, but throughout this section, (and others as well) he discusses the events in which Caesar faced militarily. These events do not necessarily give the reader an idea of Caesar’s personality (although there are examples that do, which I will discuss shortly) they simply describe the tactics and unfolding of events of a battle or war. Since Caesar was constantly engaging in wars with people, it makes sense that Plutarch would focus so much on these various battles and give very nice descriptions of the events as they unfolded. Another example is on page 226 of Plutarch’s Lives Volume II, where Plutarch describes Caesar’s army, “For the best part of his men, though they had great experience, and showed irresistible courage in all engagements, yet by their frequent marches, changing their camps, attacking formations…beginning to give way with the failure of their strength.” (Plutarch, 226). An example like this shows that biographically speaking; he is not focusing on Caesar, but his army and their traits. This example does not lead into a section where Plutarch discusses Caesar in some way, but it leads into a description where because of these reasons, another military strategy/decision was made. These ‘digressions’ were apparent in the biography. But there were also examples in which he described an aspect or two about Caesar’s personality while also describing these battles/wars. On page 211 of Plutarch’s Lives Volume II, he states “He succeeded, however, in making his retreat into a strong position, where, when he had mustered and marshaled his men, his horse was brought to him; upon which he said, “When I have won a battle, I will use my horse for the chase, but at present let us go against the enemy.”” (Plutarch, 211). In this paragraph of the biography, Plutarch is describing an event from his first Gallic War. The description of this event also reveals to the reader a trait of Caesar. Horses were meant for the people of upper levels of society, the patricians, especially in battle. The fact that Caesar turned down his horse until he has won the battle, by fighting hand-to-hand beside his men, shows that Caesar has humbleness to him. He doesn’t feel entitled to have the horse until he earns it by fighting with his men. I believe this style of Plutarch is the best way to reveal Caesar’s personality.

Plutarch does show the reader Caesar’s personality in different ways. For example, on page 210 of Plutarch’s Lives Volume II, he states “His contempt of danger was not so much wondered at by his soldiers because they knew how much he coveted honour…For he was a spare man, had a soft and white skin, was distempered in the head and subject to an epilepsy…” (Plutarch, 210). In this example, Plutarch deliberately states the aspect of Caesars personality (or even physical attribute, as is in this case) to the reader, and the readers simply takes it as is. This style is effective in portraying an idea of what Caesar is like to the reader, but it lacks the entertainment of a good story. One thing about Plutarch is that although he mainly focuses on military and religion for his biography’s delivery, he has these other examples of writing styles which really broaden his ability as a writer over other ancients at this time.

Plutarch also has a focus on different personas. Plutarch was trying to describe a philosophy of life through the biography of Caesar, on page 239 “Fate, however, is to all appearance more unavoidable than unexpected.” (Plutarch, 239). While discussing the manner in which Caesar was assassinated, he throws in this little element of philosophy into his biography. This portrays a different lens in which Plutarch writes in, and makes the reader understand how Plutarch has certain interests in these character’s lives, or simple that he shows the reader how he believes in certain things. The next example focuses on Plutarch being a psychologist. On page 236 he discusses Caesar’s internal conflict, “It was in fact a sort of emulous struggle with himself, as it had been with another, how he might outdo his past actions by his future.” (Plutarch, 236). This approach by Plutarch makes the reader actively think about Caesar having these mental struggles which he must deal with, almost growing a personal connection to Caesar. This tactic by Plutarch gives Caesar a more alive-like quality in which the reader can relate with. Plutarch also has a very dramatic/tragic element to his writing. On page 241, Plutarch uses very dramatic images to make the ending of the biography that much more tragic, “But the place which was destined for the scene of this murder, in which the senate met that day, was the same in which Pompey’s statue stood, and was one of the edifices which Pompey had raised…plainly showing that there was something of a supernatural influence which guided the action and ordered it to that particular place.” (Plutarch, 241). This aspect about Plutarch’s writing style really enhances the entertainment of the biography as a story, and not as just strictly an informational series of events dealing with Caesar. When Plutarch utilizes this aspect, it greatly improves the impact of his biography of Caesar to the reader.


Both ancient biographers deliver a story about Julius Caesar effectively. Suetonius uses structure and the avoidance of drama while focusing on the political/manipulative aspect of Caesar’s life. Plutarch focuses on mostly the military of Caesar’s life to write his biography and also uses different personas in which to write through to deliver an extremely effective life story of Caesar.


Plutarch. (2001). Plutarch's Lives Volume II. New York: Modern Library.

Suetonius. (2007). The Twelve Caesars. London: Penguin Classics.

Rosie09 02:00, October 17, 2011 (UTC)

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