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Running in the Family: Inheritance and Family Resemblance in Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 December 2022

Phoebe Garrett*
Australian National University


The ancestry sections in Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars demonstrate the inheritance of character traits down the family line. The effectiveness of this as a rhetorical technique rests on an expectation of inheritance and resemblance along the family line. This study investigates the mechanism of that resemblance from the evidence available in Suetonius’ text—nature or nurture?—and then proposes that since the mechanism appears to be not quite the same as that evidenced in earlier writers, the biographer's model of inheritance and degeneration is part of a conversation about succession to the principate. Part one sets out the patterns of resemblance/difference that appear from the lists of ancestors, part two the evidence for nature and nurture of character traits in Suetonius’ Lives, and part three compares the way resemblance works in Suetonius with the way it works in other authors. As modern views on nature and nurture have changed with social and political changes, the final section proposes that the changes over the first century of the principate have to do with the political and social changes in that period. Suetonius’ model of hereditary vice, not hereditary virtue, arises from a disaffection with the system of hereditary succession.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Australasian Society for Classical Studies

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