- C. Suetonius Tranquillus: De Grammaticis et Rhetoribus
From a very early stage, the Romans were interested in their own literary history. In the second century B.C.E., Accius composed his didascalica; in the first century, Varro, Cornelius Nepos, and Julius Hyginus all wrote biographies of literary figures; and early in the second century c.e. Suetonius wrote a set of books De uiris illustribus, giving accounts of the lives of Roman poets, historians, orators, philosophers—and teachers of grammar and rhetoric. Our knowledge of the first four categories of writers is exiguous: aside from Cicero’s Brutus, which is of more importance for chronology than for biography proper, we have the versions of some of Suetonius’ lives of the poets that are attached to scholia and the one-sentence notices excerpted from Suetonius by Jerome in his adaptation of Eusebius’ Chronicle; we also have occasional anecdotes in the elder Seneca, Aulus Gellius, and a few other sources. The vagaries of textual transmission, however, have left us much better off with the last of Suetonius’ rubrics: a single manuscript survived to the middle ages containing (along with Tacitus’ minor works) the portion of De uiris illustribus known as De grammaticis et rhetoribus (DGR). The text is badly preserved, and it is also incomplete: of the sixteen professors of rhetoric once included, lives of only five remain. Even so, it is a text of considerable importance for students of Roman education and, indeed, of Roman intellectual life: not only does it describe the origins of grammatical and rhetorical education at Rome, it discusses the origins, character, and students of the men who taught the elite of Rome; it preserves anecdotes involving the leading political and literary figures of the first centuries B.C.E. and c.e.; and along the way it offers quotations, otherwise unknown, from such figures as Valerius Cato, Helvius Cinna, Furius Bibaculus, Cicero, Asinius Pollio, and Asinius Gallus.
Until now, DGR has been an extraordinarily difficult text to understand or [End Page 475] to use. Suetonius’ chronology is vague, his biographical reconstructions obscure, and his narratives maddeningly brief and anecdotal—not to mention the fact that the text itself is so corrupt that the words themselves are not always easy to ascertain. No longer: with Robert Kaster’s magnificent edition, DGR is a text that cannot only be read, but understood, used, and even (at times) admired. In some respects, K. is the perfect match for Suetonius: like Suetonius, K.’s principal interest is not in the internal history of ancient education, but in its external history, above all in the social context and significance of teaching at Rome. It should also be said, however, that in other ways K. is far better than Suetonius: where the ancient text is brief, elliptical, and anecdotal, K. is thorough, patient, and extraordinarily learned. K.’s edition includes a long introduction, a new critical text and facing translation, and an exhaustive commentary, followed by four appendices (of which the longest and most important concerns Suetonius’ use of the elder Seneca). A brief review can scarcely do justice to K.’s achievement; a few comments will have to suffice.
Introduction: Although DGR is perhaps the portion of De uiris illustribus that modern scholars would most happily have done without, K. turns the very obscurity of the subject matter to good advantage. In writing of poets, historians, and the rest, Suetonius could make full use of earlier biographers such as Nepos and Hyginus; with the teachers, he had no such sources. As a result, DGR provides an excellent laboratory in which to observe Suetonius’ working methods: K. analyzes brilliantly the way in which he collected his information, how it is related to his research for the lives of literary figures, and the strengths and weaknesses of Suetonius’ approach. In both the introduction and the commentary (to singularly good effect in his analysis of DGR1–4 on the origins of grammatical teaching at Rome), K. pays close attention...