Like many Romans of his era, we do not know for certain where or when Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus was born. He may have been born in Italy or more probably, he may have been born in the province of Africa, in Hippo Regius. His birth date of 69 AD has been deduced from his book, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, in which he tells us that his father, Suetonius Laetus, was a tribune with the 13th Legion Gemina and was present when Otho decided to commit suicide after Otho’s defeat by his rival to the purple, Vitellius. As Laetus was a military tribune, several facts are readily deduced: 1) Laetus could only have been about 20 years of age in 69 AD; 2) the defeat of Otho ended his political career; 3) tribunes could only come from senatorial or equestrian classes; and 4) Laetus must have had some wealth. In addition, Suetonius described himself as being a young man twenty years after the death of Nero, who died June 9, 68 AD.
During the reign of Domitian (81-96 AD), Suetonius was sent to Rome to be educated as an orator and where he studied rhetoric. There, he became a close friend of Pliny the Younger, a Senator. We know a great deal about Pliny the Younger and Suetonius from the surviving letters of Pliny.
Pliny was considered to be a connoisseur of literary talent. Pliny paints the picture of Suetonius being a “quiet and studious, a man dedicated to writing.” Pliny helped Suetonius in many ways, such in buying a farm, obtaining certain immunities granted to only a father of three children, when Suetonius was childless, and appointing him to a staff position when Pliny was proconsul of Bithynia Pontus. Further, Pliny introduced Suetonius to Emperor Trajan and later to Emperor Hadrian. Thus, Suetonius became secretary of studies and director of imperial studies under Trajan, and later personal secretary to Hadrian.
Was Suetonius in a position to know? The imperial offices which Suetonius held lend great weight to his writings.
We know from an inscription in stone found in 1952 in Hippo Regius that Suetonius had been a bybliothecis, an a studiis, and an ab epistulis. The office of a bybliothecis means that Suetonius was responsible for the libraries in Rome. There were at least seven of them, usually consisting of two reading rooms, one for Latin and one for Greek literature. The a studiis was a documentalist of the imperial archives. If the emperor were to ask a question, then the a studiis had to find the texts of imperial documents which dealt with the matter. Finally, the ab epistulis was one of the most important men in the civil administration of the Roman Empire, being the ‘minister of letters’, because Suetonius was responsible for the imperial correspondence.
Suetonius’ work, Lives of the Twelve Caesars makes two references:
“As the Jews were making constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.” Claudius 25.4
“Punishment by Nero was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition.” Nero 16.2
Much has been made of the word “Chrestus” in the first reference, because this is the correct spelling of a proper Greek name. From this word, some have argued that the reference is not to Jesus, which would have required the use of the word “Christus”, but is to a person named Chrestus. In addition, Suetonius correctly spelled ‘Christians’ so it is unlikely that he mis-spelled Chrestus when he meant ‘Christus’.
Dr. Robert Harris has noted three things which, in my opinion, are dispositive concerning the matter: first, the 4th-century Latin Christian Lactantius noted that Jesus was commonly called “Chrestus” by those who were ignorant; second, Suetonius did not say, “at the institution of a certain Chrestus,” Suetonius simply expected that his readers would know the person to whom he was referring-it had to be a person very well known at the time Suetonius was writing; and third, the substitution of a ‘e’ for a ‘i’ was a very common spelling error in proper names in this era. Finally, it should be noted that the first reference is made to the same events which are chronicled in Acts 18:2, which places Christians in Rome in 41-49 AD, which would be a strong indication that Jesus existed, because His life would have been within living memory.
In the next part of this article, I will review the writings of Pliny the Younger.