1521 Aldine Suetonius Caesars Roman Emperors Nero Caligula P.-incunable Erasmus

1521 Aldine Suetonius Caesars Roman Emperors Nero Caligula P.-incunable Erasmus

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1521 Aldine Suetonius Caesars Roman Emperors Nero Caligula P.-incunable Erasmus:

[Early Printing - Post-Incunabula - Venice] [Latin Classics] [Ancient History - Roman Empire] [Biographical Literature]

Printed in Venice by the heirs of Aldus Manutius and Andrea d'Asola, May 1521.
Text in Latin, with some passages in Greek. Edited by Giovanni Battista Egnazio, with his Dedication to Jean Grolier.
The SCARCE AND DESIRABLE SECOND ALDINE EDITION, the first to include the annotations by Erasmus and, therefore, preferred to the first Aldine of 1516.

According to Dibdin, since the Aldine editions of Suetonius "were formerly the common manual of almost every one who wished to study the Roman history, Renouard informs us that it is EXTREMELY DIFFICULT TO OBTAIN A CLEAN AND PERFECT COPY of them. The second [1521] edition is the more valuable, as containing an Index Memorabilium, and the notes of Egnatius; also the annotations of Erasmus, from the Basel edition of 1518." (Thomas F. Dibdin, An Introduction to the Knowledge of Rare and Valuable Editions of the Greek and Latin Classics, vol.II, p.439. 
The exemplar offered here - complete, wide-margined and in a superb state of preservation - should, without a doubt, be considered one of such rare "clean and perfect copies".

This fine edition of Suetonius, printed in Aldus' celebrated italic type, was issued in the famous series of the Aldine "pocket classics". In addition to Suetonius' De vita Caesarum, the book also contains the important 4th century AD Roman history by Eutropius (known as Breviarium historiae Romanae), in ten books, a complete compendium of Roman history from the foundation of the city to the accession of Valens, compiled with considerable care from the best accessible authorities. Also included is Paul the Deacon's Historia Romana, the continuation of Eutropius' history, written in 8th century, as well as excerpts from Aurelius Victor's De Caesaribus (361 AD), a brief survey of the emperors of Rome from Octavian Augustus in 30 BC to Constantius II in AD 360. Sextus Aurelius Victor was a 4th century A.D. Roman historian and politician, who served as governor of Pannonia Secunda under the emperor Julian (361-363), and in 389 became urban prefect.

The most significant and popular work of Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (ca. 69/75 - after 130), an equestrian and a historian during the reign of the emperor Hadrian, the celebrated "Twelve Caesars" (De vita Caesarum) is a set of biographies of twelve successive Roman rulers, including (and beginning with) Julius Caesar and the first eleven emperors of the Roman Empire: Octavius, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasianus, Titus, and Domitianus. 

Suetonius was a close friend to Senator and letter-writer Pliny the Younger. Pliny describes him as 'quiet and studious, a man dedicated to writing'. Through Pliny, Suetonius came into favour with Trajan and Hadrian. Under Trajan he served as secretary of studies and director of Imperial archives. Under Hadrian, he became the Emperor's secretary. In 122, Hadrian dismissed him for disrespectful behaviour towards Empress Vibia Sabina. Suetonius may have later regained imperial favor under Hadrian and returned to his position.

The De vita Caesarum was written circa 121 AD, and was dedicated to Suetonius' friend Gaius Septicius Clarus, a prefect of the Praetorian Guard. The work presents the life of each Caesar according to a standard pattern (which influenced mediaeval biographers), describing his ancestry and family history, omens, physical appearance, some of his quotes, followed by his early life, political career and private life, often full of salacious, erotic, often shockingly graphic details.

With its many lively personal anecdotes, racy, gossipy, dramatic and often amusing details, the Twelve Caesars has been criticised for its lack of historical rigour, and often regarded as a sort of a tabloid version of Tacitus, as Suetonius seemed to concentrate mostly on the quirks of the emperors' personal lifes, their sexual perversions, and the horrors and bloodbaths they inflicted.

However, De vita Caesarum was highly influential as a model for biography in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Suetonius was praised in particular by Petrarch, who included his Caesars in a list of his favourite books; manuscript copies of the work were owned by notable Renaissance scholars and noblemen such as Boccaccio, Poggio, Salutati, and members of the Visconti, Medici, Strozzi and Piccolomini families.

Suetonius' work is highly valued for its revealing descriptions of the patterns of Roman social life, particularly the eating and drinking habits. Caligula, we are told, drank pearls of great price dissolved in vinegar; Nero had a circular banquet hall which constantly revolved; and Vitellius invented a dish of enormous size which he named the Shield of Minerva, Defender of the City, in which he mingled the livers of pike, the brains of pheasants and peacocks, the tongues of flamingoes and the milt of lampreys.

"There is an account of Caesar's crossing the Rubicon, and a detailed narrative of his assassination; mention of his dark piercing eyes and his attempts to conceal his baldness. Augustus is said to have been short but well-proportioned, with aquiline nose and eye-brows that met, careless in dress, frugal, and sparing in diet... There is a vivid picture of the grotesque appearance of Caligula, of his waywardness and insane cruelties; of the awkward walk, loud guffaw, and stammer of Claudius... The life of Nero reveals much about his stage displays and his passion for horses [...] and that of Domitian records his restoration of the libraries which had been burnt down and his efforts to collect manuscripts." (Oxford Companion to Classical Literature). From Suetonius we also learn that Augustus was afraid of lightning and thunder and carried a piece of seal skin as protection against them; that Caligula slept with his mother and his sister, etc, etc.

Suetonius' Lives has been a favourite source for writers on ancient Rome - from Middle Ages to 20th century (e.g., it provided the basis of the plot for Robert Graves' historical novel I Claudius).

Both Aldine editions of Suetonius were dedicated by its editor, Italian humanist Giovanni Battista Egnazio, to Jean Grolier (1479-1565), a French court official and bibliophile who served in various capacities under Louis XII, Francois I, Henry II and Charles IX. He was a patron of French and Italian scholarship and printing. Grolier's extensive library may have numbered as many as 3,000 books, for many of which he is known to have commissioned elaborate bindings. As Charlotte Adams wrote in a pamphlet printed for Grolier Club in 1884, "In the history of bookmaking, no more interesting and brilliant figure is to be found than that of Jean Grolier de Servires, vicomte d'Aguisy. Treasurer-General of France, ambassador to the Court of Rome, and bibliophile, his life forms a complete, epitomized expression of the higher literary feeling of his time".

Bibliographic references:

Adams S-2035; Ahmanson-Murphy 201; Bibliotheca Erasmiana Bruxellensis 499; Renouard p. 91, no. 7; Dibdin, Greek and Latin classics, II, p. 439.

Physical description:

Octavo; textblock measures 155 mm x 96 mm. Late 16th- or early 17th-century full vellum over boards with yapp edges; red morocco gilt-lettered label.

Collation: A-G8 H4 a-z8 aa-rr8.
Foliation: (60), 320 leaves (forming 760 pages).
Collated and COMPLETE, including the original blank D8.

Printed in Aldine Italic type 1:80. 30 lines and headline per page. Initial-spaces with guide-letters.
Woodcut Aldine device on title-page and verso of the final leaf (rr8v). Colophon on rr8r.

Preliminaries include:

  • A1r: title (verso blank).
  • A2r-A4r: Dedication letter by Johannes Baptista Egnatius to Jean Grolier.
  • A4v-B4v: Contents the XII Caesars.
  • B4v-B7r: Translations of Greek words in Suetonius.
  • B7v-B8r: The life of Suetonius (B8v blank).
  • C1r-D7v: Annotationes by Giovanni Battista Egnazio (D8 blank).
  • E1r-F7v: Annotations (arranged in alphabetical order) by Erasmus (with his preface on E1r-E2r).
  • F8r-G6r: Alphabetical index on Eutropius.
  • G6v-H4v: Alphabetical index on Paulus Diaconus.


Fine engraved bookplate of BROSSARD DE CLÉRY, an old (originating in the late 15th century) French noble family from Normandy, whose younger branch is established in Vexin in Northwestern France where it owns the land of Clery.

The bookplate, dating from early to mid-19th century and engraved by certain Mssr. Pollet of rue Dauphin, 22, Paris, suggests that the book might have belonged to one of the two sons of Denis-Tranquille Brossard de Clery, knight, Lord of Clery and Bouttencourt (died 1813), most likely to Charles Denis Ernest Brossard de Clery, knight, lord of Clery, sub-lieutenant in Regiment Colonel-General, born in 1795.

A paper slip with a short handwritten bibliographical note in French in a 19th-century hand tipped to front free endpaper.


Very Good+ to Near Fine antiquarian condition. Binding very slightly rubbed and with some very light soiling, small chip to top of spine and top of front joint, but binding extremely fresh, clean and firm. Name of Erasmus on title-page crossed out causing a small ink-burn hole (no loss on verso, which is blank); everywhere else Erasmus' name is intact! A few leaves with minor, unobtrusive manuscript marginal notes in neat 16th-century hand, occasional very light marginal soiling. Otherwise a remarkably clean, bright and solid, wide-margined example of this desirable edition.

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1521 Aldine Suetonius Caesars Roman Emperors Nero Caligula P.-incunable Erasmus:

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