Sincronía Summer 2008

CAYO SUETONIO AND ROMAN LEISURE: an historical perspective for an modern problem[1]


Maximiliano Korstanje

Palermo University, Argentina


The following review is aimed at discussing the work titled the twelve Caesars of roman biographer C. Suetonio. We have not only taken different profiles of the Roman Imperators but also traced a line between otium and the daily roman life. In this context, we are not afraid to say that Suetonio contribution to old history has been significant in several aspects; particularly in our case we have attempted to summarize his work rescuing the biographies of three Princes that we consider the most representative in their dynasty: Augusto (dynasty Julia), Nero Claudio Caesar (dynasty Claudia) and lastly, Tito Flavio Domiciano (dynasty Flavia).  


For some reason, there is a strong attraction by some tourism researchers to appeal to the history of leisure in old Rome (Norval, 1935) (Khatchikian, 2000) (Getino, 2002) (Norrild, 2005) (Cioce Sampaio, 2005) (Fortunato, 2005). As a result of this, in occasions these authors make a conceptual bridge between roman leisure and modern tourism supposing one of them is correlated to another. Although, this type of introductions can be (partly) illustrative; generally these approaches lack of depth, clarity or relationship with in the topic which is being studied. For this reason, we consider roman sources like Suetonio are extremely useful to study of the leisure and pleasure in Rome scientifically.


Octavianus Augusto – 27 AC to 14 DC.

Octavianus Augusto ruled Rome form 27 AC to the 14 Dc. Nephew of Julio Caesar. During their regency, he undertook an countless of public works in Rome and outskirts. Undoubtedly, these companies helped to development and practice of leisure in the whole Empire. Once crowned Imperator, and pacified Rome of the internal fights Augusto built the Forum,  Mars, Jupiter and Apollo temples. Besides, Augusto promoted certain incentives so that the citizens beautified the city, with new monuments in his honor and drown the divisions of Rome in neighborhoods and sections, reinforcing the surveillance of the streets and the security at nights.


Among other things, he enlarged the bed of the River Tiber restoring the service of mail and undertaking diverse works of architectural maintenance in areas just upon collapse. The ways to Rome were improved and increased such as the Road Flaminia until Rimini. Also, Augusto urged to improve all the roads and streets for the city under his own cost. (Suetonio, page. 79).  


On the other hand, Augusto enhanced the use of old ceremonies and established moral order limiting the access of the youths (without accompaniment) to the lupercales (this event did not have precedents in the life and the Roman beliefs). Then, he fomented the Secular and annual games in honor to the gods and according to Suetonio also "he corrected a great number of abuses so detestable as pernicious;  born of the customs and licenses of civil wars Augusto made the peace with his enemies … Augusto contained the thieves establishing guards in the convenient points so that make more sure the trips" (Suetonio, page. 80).  


Though Suetonio clarifies and stress his demagogic character, authoritarian and sometimes perverse towards his politic adversaries, other chronicles affirm that inside his psychology, and his admiration for Febo, Augusto exacerbated values linked to the anger in almost all his public appearances rewarding the competitors beyond to result of  combat.  In this sense, we can affirm that this Imperator demonstrated certain passion for the Greek-Roman fight, and also spread out the industry of sports Roman Empire throughout. (Suetonio, page. 87).   


Indeed, during Augusto era there were different efforts which did not only improve the facade of the city but also implied deep social reformations (like a new distribution in the wheat surpluses). The roads improved the economy receiving to thousands of people coming from diverse parts of the Empire, the monuments would have been the obligatory attraction for these travelers as combat of gladiators in the arena. The sentence "all roads take to Rome" seemed to be a unquestionable reality while Augusto regency.       


Regarding to his private life, Augusto did not seem to pursue pompous luxuries although his weakness was intended to young women and games. Generally, in his retirements -outside of the city- the Imperator loved to be lodged in houses with view to the sea. These kind of places should be refurnished with very simple decoration as Lanuvio, Prenesto and Tibur. In relation to his, foods, Augusto did not have a pre-established schedule, and in occasions he ate very little. Under this context, his favorite plates were the blended bread, the small fish, or figs and homemade cheeses. At nights, sometimes frequently, Augusto forced his slaves to recites him stories until the dawn. In consequence,  it is not strange to show Augusto gets up early and when. Furthermore, whenever  he should give some private ceremony he choose to stay in proximities of the event.  


At time of conducting a trip, most of them was for the nights. Product of this experience (with an accident of the ray where almost he dies) Augusto  hated to travel on days of storm. On the other hand, it was common not to see the imperator traveling by day because some resistance to solar light. In this point, it is necessary to mention that he was extremely superstitious and believed as certain all the auspices. If before undertaking a trip in the morning he put the left foot in the right side of room, this was interpreted as an unlucky sign. Even when we do not have any registrations that Augusto canceled some trip for this reason, their biographers -by means of their private letters- have been able to reconstruct  Imperator obsessions.    


After an extenuate day, to relax Augusto took sea bathrooms and thermal.  Another of their practices in lapses of rest was related with the fishing, the poetry and the theater. Although he did not observe the grammar he wrote in some poems and read aloud in front of his companies in some public banquets (Suetonio, pages. 99-104). Aside from this point, Augusto will be reminded as one of the best governors of Rome and his archetypes will be keep on by some another princes. Sometimes, he would be lined directly to Febo, sometimes to another deity, Octavianus-Augusto not only reformed  the roman style of life but also created the notion of Imperious. It is not strange more than ten centuries later, some European kings evoke Augusto glory for their own.  


Nero Claudio Caesar ruled Rome from 54 DC to the 68 DC.   

Approximately nine months after the Tiberius death, is born in the city of Anzio, Nero Claudio Caesar. From very young Nero was seen interested by the Trojan games and for the Circus. During their reign he abolished too onerous taxes, distributed four hundred sesterces for person and monthly assignments of wheat, and gave diverse spectacles such as the juvenile games or theatrical representations. From this perspective, Nero incorporated woman role in the papers of jesters, and distributed big quantities from gifts to the whole Roman town. (Suetonio, pages. 200-202) 


On the other hand, he also carried out and important architectural enterprise as construction  of an amphitheater in the temple of Mars. Contrary to his own predecessors, Nero disposed the gladiator games do finish with the dead of some participant including criminals or slaves. Therefore it was not strange, he forced to combat senators and sixty gentlemen of countless prestige each others.


Although at the beginning, he refused himself to occupy in the games an eloquent place, meanwhile his reign was expanded most was his obsession to be in scene as protagonist. It is possible that this Imperator has very well understood the political benefits in the organization of these shows inaugurating the five-year games composed by gymnastic games, music festivals and careers of horses. In other words, Nero was rewarded as well in poetry and music by his ability with the harp. (Suetonio, page. 203) 


However, after the famous fire of Rome, Nero accused the Christian "giving them to the torture" in the sands. Conceived as "strange" and "superstitious", the primitive Christian gathered all those attribute  for a group of easy stigmatization ; their beliefs were very divergent in comparison to those of Roman town, their associations were not public and they only adored to only one deity.  


Even when the exactly causes that fired Rome are ignored, Nero took advantage of the occasion and accused Christian as main responsible group. Quickly, this idea was spread out to all sectors of this society who did not dude to forward its own rage directly to this low-esteemed group. In occasions, many Christian were sacrificed by gladiators, praetorians or eaten alive for hungry wild animals. The persecutions toward this group was extended for the whole empire including the counties or colonies. (Gibbon, 1776-88) 


As Prince, Nero undertook two journeys, one to Alexandria and another to Acaya. Nevertheless, after receiving a wrong premonition he decided to cancel the first one. During his foods Nero loved to plays and listen music at all times. Some testimonies prove this Imperator carried out daily several public appearances in music shows and art, where his songs were sometimes prolonged whole hours picking up greeting and applauses of the assistants.  


Linguistically, he spoke and wrote Greek perfectly and keep Seneca as his private consultant. In this sense, we are not wrong to confirm Nero possessed an exacerbated admiration for the Hellenic culture. Along of a certain meeting, one of the diners requested to him by delighting every all presents with his prodigious songs but suddenly Nero responded: "Only Greeks knew how to listen and they were worthy of  his voice". (Suetonio, page. 207). Besides, Nero take part as actor in some Greek tragedies and played Oedipus, Hercules, Orestes and Canacea among others. (Suetonio, pages 205-208).    


In one of Nero intervention’s there was a serious accident where he was involved. This event obliged him to finish the career. However, this event did not prevent to be equally crown as winner. For all received support  before leaving the gave Nero gave freedom to the whole county and granted citizenships to most of Greeks present. It is proved that  there was a profession called "the augustiniani" exclusively who are dedicated and trained in the different forms of applauses for Caesar. (Suetonio, page. 208)  


In spite of his histrionic and social character, in his private life Nero got certain chaotic and disordered aspects; when the sun hid without going farther, he wear up as slave and went out to hurt some night travelers. Among other awful things, Nero enjoyed to go in summer to beaches and places of disorder such as Ostia. Once there Nero embraces all possible carnal pleasures, excess and vicious. Excessively ostentatious, he wasted through the roman treasures in splendid parties, constructions and games. 

According to Suetonio, this Prince only spent for Tíridates about eight hundred thousand sesterces by day. (Suetonio, page. 211)      


Finally, Nero Claudio Caesar era was characterized by an economic lethargy, a stage of considerable inflation and excessive expenses which affected notably to the imperial economy. In that point, his games and bad habits had consumed great part of the treasures of Rome and provoked some  legionary riots in the counties like Gallia and Hispania. By the exile of Nero –dated in the 68 AD- Julio-Claudios dynasty finds the end. After Nero death, a succession of diverse emperors occupied the throne of Rome although without too much stability; to be more exact, we can confirm four emperors were happened (Galba - Oton - Vitelio - Vespasiano). Truthfully, Vespaciano initiates a only new dynasty well – known as Flavius dynasty. 


Tito Flavius Domiciano rules from 81 DC to  96 DC.    

Domiciano was born in Granada and as imperator stood aboard in not very fruitful companies as an expedition to Gallia and Germany. His histrionic spectacles were alike to whose performed by Nero; gladiators' combats and naval battles were some of his preferred events at nights. While he observed the games, Domiciano had on his feet a midget scarlet dress with who chatted in occasions of trivialities but in others of important political questions. In opposition with his predecessors, Domiciano celebrated his proper secular games restoring Augusto calendar's. 


Following this explanation, the prince settled down in honor to Jupiter Of the Capitol a five-year contest of arts and music where an important number of poets, gymnasts and musicians congregated to give commendations and gifts; Domiciano used to appear in public with a golden crown, a gown Greek purple and dress with military footwear. Regarding some parties in honor to Minerva, Domiciano prepared at mount Albano base a combat of animals, scenic games, and poetry. (Suetonio, page. 279)  


In some way, we can point out Domiciano tried to change the customs establishing regular foods and prohibiting histrions public appearances. During his regency, he increased legionary wages reduced the hours of work in taverns.  Among another issues, he undertook public trials against some cuestors and praetors who was questioned in their honorability. Suetonio says that Domiciano has aversion to human blood; as a result of that, the gladiator games was occasionally finish to death. 


However, in his private life he rehearsed all type of treatments towards their baldness, any critic or joke with regard to this were seriously punished. Domiciano hated the physical activity and take part of public event like Nero.  Nevertheless, it is well- recognized his ability with the arch and arrow. In his lapses of rest, the Prince played to the dice, and adored the bathrooms. Following this, his private banquets were magnificent although short in duration.


From a political point of view, Domiciano was implacable with the conspiracies and rebellions but his ostentatious expenses -in public parties- forced him to confiscate the goods of certain families. In occasions if a person would be accused of some betrayal crime the State appropriated of all involved family possessions. Titus Flavius Domiciano assassination astonished deeply a plenty of legionaries groups pointed in the outskirts of Rome. However, the senate took the occasion to erase the name of Domiciano for all public monuments. This measure rapidly wake up the revenge of some praetorians or legionaries sectors and generated a new institutional period known like “adoptive Imperators Regency” o Antoninos dynasty.     


After all points recently exposed, leisure forms in old Rome varied according to each regency customs. This brief work had the intention to reflect -by means of a bibliographical source of high credibility- the liaison between Imperators and the way how to rule Rome. In this context, leisure was used as mechanism of hegemony by legitimating certain practices and prohibiting another’s. This matter not only turns interesting for future works, but also allows us to compare roman leisure (otium) by modern tourism, then ¿is modern tourism a mechanism aimed at creating hegemony? ¿where does this hegemony comes from?. Possibly, like the otium in Roman Empire, the modern tourism work in two sense. On the one hand, tourism would provide a cohesion sense among all who share the principle of humanity by placing aside to all who are not catalogued into this group. Following otium logic which was only granted for human -and not for slaves-, tourism may not be empowered by “no developed societies”. But on another hand, tourism appears to be an mechanism capable to become “savage groups” (barbarians) to “developed societies”. It remains to be seen whether the promised benefits of tourism are part of ideology and hegemony. 



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  • Norval, Aletta. J (1935). La Industria Turística. Traducción y presentación de Francisco Muñoz de Escalona (2007). Disponible en Universidad de Málaga, España.     
  • Suetonio, Cayo. (1985). Los Doce Césares. Madrid: Editorial Sarpe.



[1] Korstanje, Maximilian is Ph. Doctorate (c) in Social Psychology and lecturer at Palermo University, Argentina. The author is member of AIEST (INTERNATIONAL ASSOSIATION OF SCIENTIFIC EXPERTS IN TOURISM, SAINT GALLEN, SWITERLAND).

Sincronía Summer 2008