Lewis Honors College Capstone Collection

Year of Publication



Arts and Sciences


Classical Languages and Literature

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts in Modern & Classical Lang, Lit & Cultures

First Capstone/Thesis Advisor

Dr. Terence Tunberg


In The Lives of the Caesars , Suetonius delves into the enduring legacy of madness and depravity of the emperors Nero and Caligula. By highlighting their extreme personal shortcomings in their roles of princeps to the Roman people, he shows how the two rulers were almost entirely divorced from reality. Our thesis is the following: by juxtaposing “Caligula” and “Nero” , we can see how Suetonius attributes the unacceptable aspects of their reigns to the isolation that was a direct result of not only their personal education and ideology, but also the expectations and pressures of the Roman perception s of exemplary leadership and authority. To support this, we provide a brief historical account of the nature of the Augustan reforms of the early Roman Imperial period, and present Suetonius not as a historian, but rather a performative and sensational biographer astute in his use of history, anecdote, and hearsay. We examine specific passages from “Caligula” and “Nero” and assert that the inadequate education of both of these men prior to assuming the role of princeps , combined with corrupt interpersonal relationships and a competitive grandeur with respect to the Augustan image of success resulted in a type of dereliction that only added to their madness. Their strange and erratic behavior was illustrated via their interaction (or lack thereof) with the Senate, their cults and deification, nonsensical military mobilization and excessive use of force, and ultimately their deaths at the hands of an unsatisfied system. We will argue that Suetonius depicts the sins of Caligula and Nero in a very distinct manner, one that highlights their lack of acceptability by utilizing a form that is very different than the one used in his other imperial biographies (namely “Augustus,” “Tiberius,” and “Domitian”). We contend that this tacit disapproval stems from his view regarding the gravity of the consequences that came about as a result of their demented rule. We conclude with the assertion that, within the narrative of Suetonius’ piece, Nero and Caligula were isolated by their madness, and that this isolation has endured in their legacy as Rome’s most notorious emperors.