At the beginning of the Vitellius occurs a long and unusually inconclusive discussion of the possible origins of the Vitellii. Throughout the long passage introducing Vitellius’ family (1.1–2.2), the biographer lays out the terms of reference for his study of a family: are they uetus et nobilis (‘ancient and noble’) or nouus et obscurus (‘new and obscure’)? In the end, Suetonius can’t decide. The topic of the Vitellii receives extended treatment even though it proves nothing about Vitellius’ ancient pedigree. This intriguing opening prompts the reader to wonder what Suetonius sees as the role of this ancestry section. That it remains in the Life, despite its problems, shows that the family’s status is a very important part of the format of a Suetonian Life. By pausing over Suetonius’ Vitellius we can see the careful attention the biographer pays to the gradations of status, including mythical genealogy, nobility, maternal family, origo, patrician or plebeian status, and rank.


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pp. 53-68
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