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Literary Devices Used by Suetonius for the Portrayal of Caligula's Character

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Suetonius uses a variety of literary techniques in order to portray Caligula’s character in a negative light, which primarily revolve around the establishment of superficial praise for Caligula, in order to more strikingly condemn him later. In order to demonstrate this, we must observe the way in which Suetonius structures the Life of Caligula to maximize this effect, before noting the stylistic techniques which emphasize this structural criticism, and the use of specific language to maximize the contrast. In this way, it can be proven that Suetonius uses literary techniques in conjunction with the structure of the work to condemn Caligula’s character.

Firstly, it is critical that we observe Suetonius’ use of the structure of the Life of Caligula as a literary technique with which to negatively portray Caligula’s character. The work is broadly divided into two main segments, divided by Chapter 22. Before this point, Suetonius provides a more neutral account, which gives way to a much harsher depiction of Caligula’s failings, as evidenced by the programmatic contrast between Caligula ‘as an emperor’ (‘principe’) and ‘as a monster’ (‘monstro’). This structure allows Suetonius to emphasize points against Caligula’s character by falsely establishing the appearance of virtue, before emphatically denying it later within the work; a clear example of this is his treatment of Caligula’s piety. His presentation of Caligula within the account of him as an emperor aligns with the Roman virtue of piety, or ‘sacred dutiful conduct’ towards family and the gods, explicitly referring to his frequent sacrifices to the gods, his building of the temple to divine Augustus, and his devotion to his family; this is crucial, since it conveys piety both to the gods and his family (especially in the case of his deified ancestor), and so presents him strikingly positively initially. However, after Chapter 22, this is undermined by accounts of Caligula replacing the heads of divine statues with his own, and engaging in human sacrifice (as emphasized by the depiction of the victim as a ‘votum’, or ‘offering’), a terrible crime to the Romans, denoting ‘barbarity and inhumanity’. As a result, the initial positive depiction of Caligula is dramatically inverted, not only because his impiety here replaces his earlier piety by succeeding it narratively, but also because the reveal presents Caligula as a shallow pretender, adding another accusation to Suetonius’ presentation of his character. As a result, we can see that the structure of Suetonius’ presentation of Caligula allows for a strikingly negative portrayal of his character, since it allows him to discredit his pious deeds while emphasizing his impious ones, while also allowing him to level the charge of duplicity against Caligula.

A potential counterargument to the view that Suetonius was using the structure of the work as a technique to negatively present Caligula’s character would be to assert that Suetonius was merely listing positive and then negative anecdotes regarding Caligula. This would mean that the undermining of Caligula’s piety would be merely the result of the negative anecdotes coming second, rather than any structural literary technique; this is the view championed by Bradley, who criticizes Suetonius for merely amassing ‘anecdotal evidence’ without any discrimination. However, Bradley’s argument is unconvincing for two main reasons. Firstly, Suetonius begins his criticism of Caligula by drawing attention to a title which he claimed, “Pius the Pious One”. This would be illogical unless Suetonius’ specific interest was in presenting Caligula as a liar, given that he just expressed intent to criticize Caligula, and especially since he immediately moves on to covering Caligula’s aforementioned impious crimes. This is especially likely given that one way in which Caligula was presented as pious in the first account was through his refusal to murder Tiberius; Suetonius’ claim that the murder was ‘considered’ (‘cogitato’) by Caligula presents his piety as shallow, which stands out amidst the praise and serves as foreshadowing that Caligula’s piety would later be proven false. It is clear from this foreshadowing that Suetonius intended to use the structure of his work to undermine Caligula’s character, disproving Bradley’s argument that he was mindlessly comparing anecdotes. Secondly, further proof that Suetonius was doing more than just listing stories is the severity of the charge of human sacrifice; the accusation of human sacrifice against Catiline is proof of how seriously the charge was taken, and given this, Suetonius would have had no reason to present Caligula as pious if he was waiting to deploy this accusation, since nothing could possibly outweigh it. The only exception to this notion would be if Suetonius were establishing Caligula as pious for the specific purpose of tearing him down again using this charge, and thus, we can object to Bradley on the grounds that Suetonius was clearly choosing specific anecdotes, in order to fit the structural technique with which he would attack Caligula’s character. Overall, therefore, we can definitively conclude that Suetonius used the structure of the Life of Caligula as a literary technique with which to negatively portray Caligula’s character.

Having established that Suetonius broadly used the structure of the Life of Caligula in order to negatively present Caligula’s character, we must analyze the stylistic devices which support this structure. One such stylistic choice is in Chapter 16, in which Suetonius praises Caligula for his ‘temperance’ (‘moderatio’); this praise is emphasized by a double negative (‘nec sine’), which serves to draw focus to the ascribed virtue. Moreover, Suetonius’ repetition of the exact virtue-term ‘moderatio’ throughout the Lives of the Caesars, including twice when covering Tiberius, further emphasizes the importance of the term within the text. As a result, the fact that Caligula is only described with the virtue once, and with specific emphasis, serves to imply a striking deficiency in him by comparison to other emperors. This is especially crucial because of the importance which the imperial line placed on the virtue of temperance, as evidenced by Suetonius’ own focus on the exact term for each ruler since Julius Caesar, since it renders Caligula’s emphatic moral deficiency even more damning. As a result, the stylistic presentation of Caligula’s virtue supports the structure of Suetonius’ criticism by drawing emphasis to a false virtue, serving as foreshadowing for its later subversion. Furthermore, since Suetonius also describes Caligula using inverted terms during the critical account, most strikingly using ‘intemperans’, meaning ‘being immoderate’, it is clear that this effect was an intentional stylistic choice, since the use of a direct antonym clearly proves his intent to subvert the former praise. Thus, the double negative, the repetition of terms, and the striking use of antonym are all examples of the literary style of this work portraying Caligula’s character in a strongly negative way by supporting the structure of his criticism.

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Another example of how Suetonius uses literary style in order to reinforce the structure of his argument can be seen in his coverage of several anecdotes regarding Caligula’s cruelty. He notes instances of brutality towards slaves, gladiators, priests, and consuls, in ascending order of prestige, in order to both convey the sheer number of his victims and emphasize the disgrace caused by his actions. This is emphasized by the presentation of Caligula as a sacrificial officiant, first cutting into a prone gladiator (the ‘dagger’ which he used being the tool of the cultrarius emphasizes the sacrificial theme), then a priest, connected to the theme of sacrifice by his involvement in the ritual, and culminating with the consuls, attached to the verb ‘iugulari’ (‘to slaughter’). This presentation is so critical to emphasizing the cruelty of his actions because of the taboo of human sacrifice in Roman society, which, combined with the ascending tricolon of the prestige of the victims, strikingly conveys the increasingly arbitrary savagery and inhumanity behind Caligula’s actions, making his emphasized victim count even more damning. This effect is even stronger since his crimes are presented as ‘games and feasting’. Power convincingly observes that several of these anecdotes have no relation to entertainment, such as Caligula’s execution of the priest, and so Suetonius must be asserting that the executions themselves were entertainment from Caligula’s perspective, further emphasizing his cruelty and impiety. Thus, the presentation of these anecdotes as a stylistic ascent, combined with his presentation of Caligula as a callous celebrant, allows Suetonius to emphasize his account of Caligula as a monster, aligning his linguistic style with the structure of his account in order to negatively portray Caligula’s character. Overall, therefore, Suetonius’ uses several stylistic techniques, which align with the structure of his argument by emphasizing both the falsehood of Caligula’s virtues in the first account, and the severity of his vices in the second, in order to negatively portray Caligula’s character.

Finally, having demonstrated the ways in which Suetonius uses the structure of the work to demonize Caligula, and the ways in which his linguistic style supports this structure, we must observe the ways in which Suetonius uses specific vocabulary to emphasize his points. A key example of this is his use of the words ‘princeps’ and ‘rex’. Suetonius’ use of the word ‘principe’ to denote his first, neutral account is striking; as a term derived from the ‘princeps senatus’, it was associated with the republic and with Rome, as evidenced by Augustus’ use of the title, and so seen as acceptable. Conversely, Suetonius begins the second account by associating Caligula with ‘reges’, a word denoting un-Roman autocracy that was heavily frowned upon by the Romans, as demonstrated by Julius Caesar’s rejection of the term. This forms a juxtaposition which not only emphasizes the distinction between Suetonius’ two accounts, upholding the structure of his argument, but also negatively portrays Caligula; the direct speech, in which Caligula not only states his approval of sole rulership, strikingly associating him with the un-Roman, ‘rex’ and ‘monstrum’ half of the contrast, but does so with two different Greek terms for ‘king’, forcefully emphasizing the foreignness of his ideals, vividly conveys this negative portrayal. Moreover, the fact that Suetonius makes this contrast at the turning point between his two accounts makes it especially crucial to note, since it is programmatic of the severe criticism which he is about to unleash, as well as epitomizing the undermining of Caligula’s character (since one could not be a fair Roman princeps and a despotic tyrant simultaneously). Thus, we can see from this that Suetonius’ specific choices of vocabulary here are used to support the structure of his argument by juxtaposing his two accounts, while also serving as a technique with which he can demonize Caligula’s character by firmly associating him with his critical account.

Another way in which Suetonius uses specific linguistic choices in order to negatively convey Caligula’s character is through references. An example of this is his coverage of Tiberius strikingly likening Caligula to a ‘Phaethon’; by portraying him as a figure capable of destroying the world, Suetonius is able to emphasize his dangerous character in a striking and hyperbolic manner. Additionally, the fact that this reference appears during Suetonius’ first account allows it to serve as ominous foreshadowing as well; in much the same way as Tiberius is foretelling the evil deeds of Caligula, Suetonius is alluding to the revelations of his second account which will reveal Caligula’s true nature, an especially striking way of conveying critical intent. Thus, Suetonius’ reference to a mythical figure here allows him to both condemn Caligula’s character in a strikingly dramatic way, and to also ominously allude to his future criticisms in a way which emphasizes their severity and maintains the structure of his work. Conversely, Suetonius’ reference to Caligula using the famous line “oderint, dum metuant”, from Accius, achieves condemnation in the opposite manner; rather than emphasizing the cruelty of Caligula’s deeds from the perspective of others, Suetonius is here emphasizing how unmoved Caligula was by his own crimes, by stressing Caligula’s treatment of torture as entertainment. This intention is proven by the existing theme of Caligula’s brutality being presented as ‘games and feasting’ throughout the second account, since it demonstrates a focused effort from Suetonius to achieve this portrayal. Thus, Suetonius has used both of these references as devices with which to portray Caligula’s character in strikingly negative ways, within the structure of his argument. Overall, therefore, Suetonius’ stylistic use of vocabulary, in the form of connotations and references, is part of his negative portrayal of Caligula’s character, in conjunction with the specific structure of his two accounts.

In conclusion, Suetonius aligns stylistic techniques and linguistic choices with the structure of his two accounts for his negative portrayal of Caligula’s character. The intentional division of his argument into two accounts, one superficially positive and one negative, allows Suetonius to falsely praise Caligula, before strikingly negating the praise in order to more severely criticize him, while his repetition of virtue-terms allows him to more emphatically establish false praise, and his use of ascending lists and sacrificial connotations allow for a more severe criticism. Moreover, his use of titles with specific connotations, together with striking references, enables him to emphasize the structure of his argument while criticizing Caligula in multiple ways.

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Literary Devices Used by Suetonius for the Portrayal of Caligula’s Character. (2022, December 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 4, 2024, from
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