This volume contains chapters on Nepos, Plutarch, and Suetonius, the three best-known Classical biographers. There are also accounts of the less-familiar works of Q. Curtius Rufus and the author—or authors—of the Historia Augusta, while an attempt has been made to trace the development of Latin biography in the Middle Ages.
Biography has always been a popular literary genre—from the point of view of both the reader and the writer. There is something in human nature that makes men more interested in people than in events, and the details of the personal life and habits of eminent men have always fascinated the more ordinary members of the community. For the writer, the span of one man's life forms a compact literary unit, and, in the case of a biography written by a disciple or a protégé, the material will lie ready to hand.
The greatest name in Latin biography is Suetonius. He influenced biographies written at Rome during the next three centuries. The Historia Augusta, for example, follows the pattern he laid down, though not his technique. Almost more important was his influence in the Middle Ages. Einhard's Life of Charlemagne, which owed much to the Twelve Caesars, marks the point where hagiography begins to be replaced by secular biography. Suetonius also affected the historiographical tradition, and it was as a result of his popularity in the Middle Ages that character sketches, descriptions of personal appearance, and examples of various types of behaviour became a feature of many histories written at that period.
The Middle Ages were indebted to Suetonius, Shakespeare to Plutarch, Gibbon to the Historia Augusta. Since the Renaissance their methods have gradually been superseded by a more critical and scientific approach, but the ancient biographers can always claim the credit for having established biography as a major form of literature.