, Volume 3, Issue 3, pp 265-282

The classical tradition in the Carolingian Renaissance: Ninth-century encounters with Suetonius

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This essay looks at the use made of Suetonius’Lives of the Caesars by Einhard in his biography of Charlemagne, written in the early ninth century. Einhard leans upon Suetonius in devising a biographical structure and in the moral qualities which inform his characterisation. He also makes direct citations from Suetonius in describing Charlemagne’s physical appearance. Scholars have previously believed that Einhard’s relationship to Suetonius escaped the notice of contemporaries, and was first appreciated in the Renaissance. But the evidence for Carolingian interest in Suetonius’ work, thoroughly reassessed here, shows that a small circle of Einhard’s peers were moved by their interest in theLife of Charles to read Suetonius. Moreover, a study of reactions to Einhard’s work demonstrates that Carolingian intellectuals were aware of Einhard’s debt to the classics in developing a ‘new biography’. This adds to our understanding of Carolingian classicism, suggesting that the Carolingian renaissance saw an active involvement with, and debate upon, the classical tradition.

This essay is based on a paper given at the Third Meeting of the ISCT held at Boston University, 8–12 March 1995, and at a one-day seminar on Carolingian Culture held jointly by the Faculties of History and Music, University of Cambridge, 25 May 1995. I should like to thank the organisers of these two events for their hospitality, the Master and Fellows of Peterhouse, Cambridge, for financial support allowing my attendance at the former, and my audiences on both occasions. Both David Ganz and Rosamond McKitterick kindly read and commented upon earlier versions of this essay; all errors, of fact or judgement, remain of course my own. I must also thank Wolfgang Haase, the editor of this journal, for helpful suggestions which have strengthened my argument.