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Speaking Verse to Power: Circulation of Oral and Written Critique in the Lives of the Caesars

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Chapter Summary

Suetonius's Lives of the Caesars offers numerous glimpses into a world of anonymous criticism, some prose, verse, multi-media performances, that circulated orally, as written libelli, and as graffiti in public places at Rome. The Romans saw the practices of anonymous criticism of the society's leaders as a part of a continuum, whether expressed orally or by writing. Writers of verses undoubtedly hoped for oral distribution and transmission of their products, and the selection in Suetonius and Cassius Dio attests to some success. The result is in no way a statistically reliable reading of that mood, and undoubtedly the examples that caught Suetonius's ear and eye were influenced by his own taste and views. They are nonetheless invaluable if momentary glimpses of a world beyond the official canon, of rapid composition in response to immediate events where some voices seized the chance to speak verse to power.

Keywords: Cassius Dio; Lives of the Caesars; oral critique; prose; Rome; Suetonius; verse; written critique



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