Sunday, November 6, 2011


Nathalie Louis, Commentaire historique et traduction du Divus Augustus de Suétone. Brussels: Latomus, 2010. Pp. 761. ISBN 9782870312650. € 106.

Reviewed by D. Wardle, University of Cape Town (

Version at BMCR home site

One of the greatest desiderata in Suetonian studies has been a full-scale commentary on the Life of Augustus. Although undergraduate students in the English-speaking world have been well served by Carter's 1982 edition,1 its scale is relatively small and the author's interests are heavily weighted towards the vita publica section of the Life. Anyone looking for a commentary directed at more than the constitutional and administrative has had to resort to Shuckburgh's 1896 edition, which (hardly needs to be said) is severely dated in most respects or to Levi's 1951 edition, also on a small scale.2

Louis has now produced what is undoubtedly a weighty tome: introductory chapters to orientate the reader to Suetonius and his methods (pp. 10-72), an extremely detailed historical commentary with Latin lemmata and new French translation (pp. 73-588), three chapters in which she picks up key themes from the Life (pp. 589-644), a lengthy bibliography (pp. 645-89) and various indexes (pp. 690-751).3

Anyone attempting to produce a commentary on this Life is faced with an enormous task.4 The sheer quantity of bibliography on Augustus and Suetonius alone is terrifying and is multiplied by the need to comment on a wide range of questions not limited to the author and biographical subject alone.

Louis bases her text on that of Ailloud and, I believe, prints in her lemmata nothing that diverges intentionally from Ailloud, although her discussion of the issues reveals that she prefers other readings.5 Her failure to interact with Ihm, whose Teubner text is still the standard, and with the variations from Ihm proposed by Carter detract from the value of her text and the discussions she does present. A few examples may illustrate the point: at 31.7 she indicates no lacuna after illorum, although Ailloud and Ihm rightly do; at 43.2 her discussion notes a few of the suggestions that have been made to restore syntax and a greater closeness to the words of Res Gestae, but the lemma indicates no problem; at 83.1 she ignores the obelus of Ailloud and Ihm and translates sestertio by 'de faible valeur' without comment.

The translation that accompanies every lemma is clear and accurate; where she disagrees with Ailloud or subsequent French translators (Baudemet and Klossowski) she indicates the reason for the disagreement. I have found only one error: Suetonius' quaterdecies milies (101.4) should not be translated as 'quatre milliards de sesterces' but as '1,400 million sesterces'.6 The contribution of Louis has to be evaluated mainly in respect to her introduction, concluding essays and the commentary itself, which I shall treat briefly in turn.

After a brief discussion of what can be known about Suetonius, more about the limits of our knowledge, Louis moves on to discuss the general method adopted by Suetonius and kinds of content to be found in the imperial Lives. She highlights key issues such as i) the handling of change, as seen both in the character of emperors and in public opinion about them, ii) the level of determinism that Suetonius accepts as explaining imperial actions and iii) the emperor as guarantor of moral values, whose actions reveal his character and Suetonius' view of him. She rightly highlights Suetonius' concern to win over the reader by his research, both by presenting convincing evidence and showing appropriate uncertainty, revealing his own opinion mostly by the subtlety of his 'présentation synthétique' (p. 54) by species rather than by explicit comment. With regard to Augustus specifically, she confronts the question that emerges repeatedly throughout the commentary of how to evaluate the copious negative material that Suetonius includes: she believes (rightly) that Suetonius' overall evaluation of Augustus is positive, the optimus princeps, but that the contrast between good and bad reveals much about the biographer's thought. While holding that Suetonius presents 'une unicité du portrait' (p. 66), she emphasises often a distinction between 'Octavius' and 'Augustus' and puts the turning point at the triumvir's visit to the corpse of Alexander. However, while there was a strong tradition of separating the young triumvir from the later emperor, seen clearly in Dio, Suetonius makes absolutely clear through the words which end chapter 8 novissime per quattuor et quadraginta annos solus rem p. tenuit that he considers both the triumviral period and the principate as the 'reign' that he will analyse by species, as he famously indicates in the very next sentence (9).

Louis returns to much of this in her concluding chapters, where she in essence synthesises what Suetonius has often separated across his species to produce a composite picture of Suetonius' Augustus. In 'le lissage de l'image de l'empereur' (pp. 689-610) she rightly emphasises that Suetonius places great value on the consensus of positive opinion about Augustus (most emphatically chapters 57 to 60) to override the negative material from the triumviral period and that he privileges spontaneous or popular manifestations over official votes. Another key characteristic is that Suetonius' triumvir is implacable in his pietas to Julius Caesar; 'Octavian' may be cruel, both to political opponents and members of his own family, but not for his own pleasure or power. The information in one species can nuance or neutralise that in another: the emperor's celebrated clementia and civilitas (chapters 51-56) emerge as the result of careful reflection and development by Augustus, youthful arrogance yields to mature wisdom.

But one may ask: Is the reader meant to undo the careful sorting into categories that Suetonius has done for him?

In 'Quelques éléments du divus' (pp. 627-44) Louis has rightly hit on a key aspect of the Life, but her discussion needs some refinement. I would emphasise how carefully Suetonius reflects the complex realities of imperial divinisation: for the elite in particular his divinity was posthumous only, for peoples of the east he was worshipped from the beginning of his career to the very end, publicly Augustus toed the traditional line but privately he was willing to anticipate his divinity, and uniquely of all divi Augustus demonstrated the power of his numen.7 In a very large, detailed commentary such as that of Louis there will inevitably be much to disagree with and also much to applaud.8 Of the latter, just to highlight a few: the suggestion that existimatio (3.1) is taken directly from Cicero's letter (p. 90); a single word like etiam (4.1) reveals Suetonius' attitude (p. 97); ultus (21.5) and the persona of Octavian as avenger of Caesar (p. 203); good emphasis on the 'tableau sombre' relating to the security situation in Italy and the breaking of the lex Iulia de vi publica (32.2; p. 275); the sense of iustos (38.1) well brought out (p. 310); nice link between Suetonius' role as ab epistulis (40.6) and use of Augustus' letters to Tiberius and Livia (p. 328); on Augustus as traditional pater severus (64.4; p. 421); on Augustus' diet (77.3; p. 477-8); on his perpetually challenged health (81.2) as an emphasis to highlight Augustus' stoic courage in surmounting difficulties (p. 489); good use of Bouché-Leclercq's idea that a Greek wordplay on ἀετός as ἀ and ἐτός may lie behind the eagle's warning to Augustus of a relatively imminent demise (97.2; p. 556-7); and a nice use of Justin Apol. 21.3 on the idea of imperial ascensions (100.7; p. 577). On the reverse side, there are two B.C/A.D. slips in the prosopography of L. Nonius Asprenas (p. 347) and the date of the s.c. from Larinum (p. 348).

This work has clearly had a very long gestation and starts by being the best part of a decade out of date. In the main bibliography there is only one item from 2001 and one from 2000; the vast majority of items predate the late 1990s. The short bibliographical addendum has items as late as 2009, but there is little sign that the addenda have been incorporated into the commentary.9 Although the enormity of her task should not be forgotten, the absence of many basic pieces of scholarship can at times frustrate; Louis has a natural affinity for French scholarship, often to the exclusion of what Anglophone or German scholars would consider essential works: for example, nothing by Girardet on the technical questions of imperium, no Linderski on the oath of 32 BC or on collegia; no Judge on the idea of "restoring the Republic"; no Lebek on technical issues relating to the Equestrian Order and most surprisingly no Hanslik on the way that Suetonius has conceived of the Life as whole and connected its various parts.10

Also, it is inevitable in a work of this length and complexity that there will be typographical errors, but the sheer number of them indicates a problem with the proof-reading. I have noted in excess of 150 errors. The index in particular is riddled with errors, mostly in relation to English, but also many authors' names are mangled and the dates of works reported wrongly.11

Overall Louis' work is undoubtedly the best commentary on Suetonius' Augustus that exists. It does, however, have some serious problems, and more in particular needs to be said on the control and organisation of material by Suetonius within his species as well on the links between species.


1.   J. M. Carter, Suetonius: Divus Augustus (Bristol, 1982).
2.   E. S. Shuckburgh, C. Suetoni Tranquilli Divus Augustus (Cambridge, 1982). M. A. Levi, C. Suetoni Tranquilli Divus Augustus (Florence, 1951).
3.   In 'La distance entre Auguste et le pouvoir' (pp. 611-26) Louis emphasises Suetonius' concern to illustrate the totality of Augustus' personality, which results in revealing how ordinary he was in some respects – plagued by bad health and physical weakness, a slave to certain superstitions, a lacklustre leader of troops – how the acquisition and exercise of power exposed him to physical danger and constant opposition and how a fundamental insularity and insecurity developed affecting every aspect of his life. Louis' synthetic approach does indeed reveal eloquently the problems, institutional and personal, that faced Augustus and every element is drawn from the information that Suetonius provides. Is it, however, the overriding image of Augustus that a reader of the Life emerges with and that Suetonius intended?
4.   The reader should be warned that the reviewer is in the latter stages of a commentary on the Life and Josiah Osgood is also working towards an edition.
5.   E.g. at 64.5 she prints notare, but her discussion rightly indicates that natare should be preferred. I hope that carceronata at 65.10 is a typographical error for carcinomata. The lemma at 63.1 omits ut sibi genero, although it is clear from the translation that Louis does not intend its absence. Carter's proposed generum, which makes excellent sense, is not discussed. At 80.2 she follows Ailloud in reading habenarum, an emendation proposed by D. W. Triller, in preference to harenarum of the manuscripts retained by Ihm, without indicating that there is a textual issue. Also, note the odd attraction to the suggested reading of Nisard viditque mortuam Cleopatram at 17.8 instead of the generally accepted viditque mortuum. Cleopatrae.
6.   Louis follows Ailloud and Baudemet in this translation. Forcellini, the Oxford Latin Dictionary and 20th century English translators all understand multiples of 14, not 40.
7.   See R. Hanslik, 'Die Augustusvita Suetons', Wiener Studien 67 (1954), 99-144.
8.   Louis' decision to make her lemmata the full chapter subdivisions used by Ailloud often makes it harder for the reader to discover what she is saying about a particular word or phrase than shorter lemmata would do.
9.   For example an article by M.-C. Ferriès, 'Luperci et Lupercalia de César à Auguste' from Latomus 2009 appears in the bibliography, but is not used at Aug. 31 where Augustus' innovations to the Lupercalia are noted. Similarly I. Cogitore's Le légitimité dynastique d'Auguste à Néron (Rome, 2002), is not used in chapters 19 or 51, where its contents are useful. Louis also tends to refer to the first edition of PIR, even for letters early in the alphabet (e.g. p. 192 on Aemilii).
10.   For Hanslik see n.5. See also the collected papers of K. M. Girardet, Rom auf dem Weg von der Republik zum Prinzipat (Bonn, 2007); J. Linderski, 'Rome, Aphrodisias and the Res Gestae. The genera militiae and the Status of Octavian', JRS 74 (1984), 74-80; E. A. Judge, '"Res publica restituta". A Modern Illusion', in J. A. S. Evans (ed.), Polis and Imperium. Studies in Honour of Edward Togo Salmon (Toronto, 1974), 279-311; W. D. Lebek, 'Das SC der Tabula Larinas: Rittermüsterung und andere Probleme', ZPE 85 (1991), 41-70.
11.   Perhaps the most confusing aspect is that, although the very useful collection of papers L'Urbs. Espace urbain et histoire (Ier siècle av. J.-C. – IIIeme siècle apr. J.-C.) appears as A.A.V.V. 1985 in the index, the individual chapters appear as 1987 and as coming from MEFRA vol. XCIX.

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