Text and Context: Suetonius and Imperial Power (CLA1408)

StaffProfessor Rebecca Langlands - Convenor
Credit Value15
ECTS Value7.5
NQF Level4
Duration of Module Term 1: 11 weeks;

Module aims

  • To study Suetonius Lives of the Caesars in detail, taking a broad overview of the work, exploring comparisons between the treatments of different emperors, and also focusing in on specific passages for close analysis.
  • To consider how the author uses the ancient genre of biography to explore the question of what it meant to be a Roman Emperor and how imperial power changes from the 1st century BC and the dictatorship of Julius Caesar, through the rule of the Julio-Claudian and Flavian emperors to his own day.
  • To explore how the author uses standard and recurrent motifs and themes such as physical appearance, family relationships, death scenes, military campaigns, behaviour at the games, omens and portents, and sexual behaviour to characterise emperors as good or bad rulers.
  • To investigate how Suetonius writes about public figures as a way of thinking about the nature of power itself.

ILO: Module-specific skills

  • 1. You should be able, with guidance, to describe and evaluate what the text can tell us about specific aspects of Roman culture such as the development and representation of imperial power, the cultural role of gladiatorial shows and other ancient spectacles and Roman sexual mores
  • 2. You will have assimilated a basic understanding of biography as a formal ancient genre with specific literary conventions and be able, with guidance, to show how Suetonius manipulates these conventions
  • 3. You will be able to analyse, evaluate and use Suetonius' Lives of the Caesars as both literature from a particular genre and as a historical source
  • 4. You will have assimilated basic background knowledge about Rome under the Emperor Hadrian and understand how contemporary issues informed the way that the biographies were written, and how this might in turn affect the way we use them as sources both about the material they relate and about Suetonius' own day

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

  • 5. You will have a basic understanding of the issues involved in reading in translation and will be able to use commentaries and secondary literature to enhance your reading of ancient texts, as well as being able to identify and appreciate different theoretical approaches to ancient literature
  • 6. You will understand issues involved in using ancient texts as historical source material and be able to relate texts to their socio-historical context

ILO: Personal and key skills

  • 7. You should demonstrate independent and group study skills in guided research and presentation of findings
  • 8. You should also be able to select and organise relevant material and to present this in connected oral and written form, and to discuss issues in a peer group
  • 9. You should be able to manage your own time and meet deadlines

Syllabus plan

Whilst the content may vary from year to year, it is envisioned that it will cover some or all of the following topics:

Lectures, seminars and individual assignments are integrated into a coherent programme where each element builds on, reinforces and engages with previous elements; lectures, seminars and assignments each contribute something different to your engagement with the subject.

Lectures demonstrate critical and analytical techniques and provide: introductions and overviews to the broad themes and approaches of the module; guidance in using secondary literature; feedback on seminars and assignments.

In the student-led seminars you apply your developing skills in using these approaches and techniques to close analysis of specific passages from the set text around particular themes, through independent study, group-work and class discussion of topics such as The Politics of Spectacle, Death of an Emperor and The Sex Lives of Emperors. Your findings and ideas are presented to the class and contribute to broader discussion about the subject, providing informal feedback on your ideas.

The four written assignments are where you apply and develop (with the aid of regular feedback from the lecturer) your skills in research, critical analysis, writing and argumentation in close analysis of specific passages from the set text around particular themes.

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled learning and teaching154 x 2 hour lectures; 7 x 1 hour lectures
Scheduled learning and teaching7.55 x 1.5 hour seminars
Guided independent study127.5Private study

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Written assignment 110500 words1-9Mark and written feedback
Written assignment 210500 words1-9Mark and written feedback
Written assignment 320750 words1-9Mark and written feedback
Written assignment 420750 words1-9Mark and written feedback
Examination402 hours1-9Mark and written feedback

Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
Written assignmentsWrittens assignments1-9Referral/Deferral period
ExaminationExamination1-9Referral/Deferral period

Re-assessment notes

Deferral – if you miss an assessment for certificated reasons judged acceptable by the Mitigation Committee, you will normally be either deferred in the assessment or an extension may be granted. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of deferral will not be capped and will be treated as it would be if it were your first attempt at the assessment.

Referral – if you have failed the module overall (i.e. a final overall module mark of less than 40%) you will be required to submit a further assessment as necessary. If you are successful on referral, your overall module mark will be capped at 40%.

Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

Basic reading:

Core Set Text:

  • Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars, (trans. Catharine Edwards) Oxford World Classics

Other Recommended Reading:

  • Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, Suetonius. The Scholar and his Caesars (2nd edition, 1992)

Module has an active ELE page?


Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

The module is supported by ELE; much of the source material and secondary reading is available here in electronic form. 

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Origin date


Last revision date


Key words search

Suetonius, Power, Julius Caesar