Roman biography

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Tacitus (c. 56—120 ad) Roman historian

Augustus (63—14 bc)

Tiberius (42—37 bc) Roman emperor ad 14–37

Hadrian (76—138 ad) Roman emperor

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Roman biography did not wholly derive from its Greek equivalent: their own political and family customs led Romans to value the recording of the deeds of their great men. We hear of dirges at funerals, and of funeral laudations (see laudatio funebris). Such laudations were preserved and kept among the family records, together with the portrait masks (imagines) of distinguished ancestors: Cicero complains about the inaccuracies of these laudations. Sepulchral inscriptions became very elaborate, often giving details of private as well as public matters (see ‘laudatio turiae’). The flavour of such formal memorials is as recurrent in Roman biography as that of encomium in the Greek counterpart.

The competitive quest for glory also stimulated writers to self‐justification and self‐defence. The award of a triumph might depend on the bulletins sent home by generals. More elaborate apologetic or propagandist autobiography found a natural home in Rome. Caesar's Commentaries presented an esp. nuanced form of self‐projection; Cicero too wrote about his own career and achievement both in Latin and in Greek. Under the Principate, it was esp. members of the imperial family who wrote political memoirs: Augustus, Tiberius, Iulia Agrippina, Hadrian, Septimius Severus.

Justification was not limited to autobiography. Gaius Sempronius Gracchus' two books To Pomponius presented a picture of his brother Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (2) which similarly contributed to contemporary debate. In a letter to Lucceius Cicero seems to assume that a historical monograph will naturally centre on a single person and his achievements, and playfully pleads for a liberal attitude to the truth.

The political heat of the late republic produced further writings designed to praise and defend, or sometimes attack, not only political actions but private character or philosophy. The influence of forensic rhetoric, so ften describing the life of client or opponent, is here strong. The death of Porcius Cato (2) inspired works by Cicero and Brutus, which were answered first by Hirtius, then by Caesar in his Anticato. Such works represent the beginnings of a considerable literature, a blend of martyrology and ideological propaganda, which came to cluster around the Stoic opponents of the 1st‐cent. Principate (see stoicism). Tacitus' Agricola explores political life under a tyrant, though it praises restrained collaboration rather than ostentatious martyrdom; its use of one man's life to sketch a political ambience is deft.

Jerome named Varro, Nepos, and Suetonius in a canon of biographers. Varro may be named for his On Poets or for his Portraits, or even for his Life of the Roman People, a Roman imitation of Dicaearchus. Suetonius' Caesars reduces the element of historical narrative, providing instead a learned survey of an emperor's character and behaviour under a series of headings. The style of the Caesars proved congenial as spectators increasingly saw Roman history in terms of the ruling personality, and biography supplanted historiography as the dominant mode of record.

There is little intimacy in Roman biography. Much Latin poetry is self‐revealing and self‐analytical, but the most ambitious formal autobiography and biography is centred on public figures, and exploration of inner life is felt inappropriate. Cicero does tell us something of his education and development, analysing his debt to various teachers; but there are no Latin pieces of self‐exploration comparable with Marcus Aurelius' ‘Meditations’ until we reach St Augustine.


Subjects: Classical Studies.

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