According to the Roman biographer, Suetonius (c. 70-130+), Emperor Tiberius (r. 14-37) read daily and liked to quiz his dinner guests on trivia from the subjects he had studied that day. Apparently, a certain scholar named Seleucus was a frequent guest at Tiberius’ table and he would astound the emperor by being able to answer every question that Tiberius asked. Such knowledge and memory, however, did not come naturally to Seleucus. Instead, before he ever had a meal with Tiberius, Seleucus reportedly talked to the emperor’s servants and questioned them about what Tiberius was currently reading. With these helpful tips from the servants, Seleucus would then thoroughly study the books in question so he could answer any of the emperor’s questions. Unfortunately for the scholar, word of Seleucus’ pre-dinner studies reached Tiberius’ ear. The emperor interpreted this as cheating and promptly cut off all contact with the scholar. Suetonius even alleged that Tiberius later forced Seleucus to commit suicide.
As for the identity of the Seleucus in the story, there happened to have been a prominent scholar with that name who likely lived during the reign of Tiberius. His name was Seleucus “Homericus” of Alexandria. He seemed to have been best known as a scholar of language—he wrote a piece on the Greek language and another on proverbs that could be found in Alexandria. Seleucus of Alexandria was also a prolific biographer and a writer of literary critiques who commented on the works of many scholars and poets. Nevertheless, other than his name and bibliography, most of his writings only remain in fragments, and little is known about the actual life of Seleucus of Alexandria. As a result, he is a plausible, but not proven, fit for Suetonius’s story.
It is possible that this story is simply folklore or rumor about Tiberius’ strange reign. After all, Suetonius’ style was dominated by stories that portrayed the personalities of his subjects, and he sometimes used rumor and satirical songs as a source to get a glimpse of public opinion toward a figure. Furthermore, Suetonius’ enthusiasm and focus seemed to decrease after he completed his biographies of Julius Caesar and Augustus—his accounts on the rest of The Twelve Caesars are shorter and less detailed. Nevertheless, much of the information recorded by Suetonius was truthful, either as historical fact, or, at least, it was genuinely what many Romans believed.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (The Great Library of Alexandria, c. 19th century, by O. Von Corven [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, translated by Robert Graves and edited by James B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007.