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augustan

Augustan History

The Augustan History (Lat. Historia Augusta) is a late Roman collection of biographies, in Latin, of the Roman Emperors, their junior colleagues and usurpers of the period 117 to 284. It presents itself as an assemblage of works by six different authors (collectively known as the Scriptores Historiae Augustae), written in the reigns of Diocletian and Constantine I, but the true authorship of the work, its actual date, and its purpose (if any), have long been matters for controversy. Associated major problems are the sources it used, and how much of the content is sheer fiction. Despite these conundra, all of which are of considerable interest, it is the only continuous account for much of its period and is thus continually being re-evaluated, since modern historians are understandably unwilling to abandon it as a unique source of possible information, despite its obvious untrustworthiness on many levels.

Title and scope

The name originated with Isaac Casaubon, who produced a critical edition in 1603, working from a complex manuscript tradition with a number of variant versions. How widely the work was circulated in late antiquity is unknown, but lengthy citations from it are found in authors of the sixth and ninth centuries AD, and the chief manuscripts also date from the ninth or tenth centuries. (The editio princeps was published at Milan in 1475). The six Scriptores – "Aelius Spartianus", "Iulius Capitolinus", "Vulcacius Gallicanus", "Aelius Lampridius", "Trebellius Pollio", and "Flavius Vopiscus (of Syracuse)" – dedicate their biographies to Diocletian, Constantine and various private persons, and so ostensibly were all writing around the beginning of the 4th century. The biographies cover the emperors from Hadrian to Carinus and Numerian. A section covering the reigns of Philip the Arab, Decius, Trebonianus Gallus, Aemilian and all but the end of the reign of Valerian is missing in all the manuscripts, and it has been argued that biographies of Nerva and Trajan have also been lost at the beginning of the work, which would therefore have been a direct continuation of Suetonius. (It has also been theorized that the mid-3rd century lacuna might actually be a deliberate literary device of the author or authors, saving the labour of covering Emperors for whom little source material may have been available.) Despite devoting whole books to ephemeral or in some cases non-existent usurpers, there are no independent biographies of the Emperors Quintillus and Florian, whose reigns are merely briefly noted towards the end of the biographies of their respective predecessors, Claudius Gothicus and Tacitus. For nearly 300 years after Casaubon’s edition, though much of the Augustan History was treated with some scepticism,it was used by historians as an authentic source – in the first volume of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, for example.

The dating problem

In 1889, Hermann Dessau, who had become increasingly concerned by the huge amount of anachronistic terms, Vulgar Latin vocabulary, and especially the host of obviously bogus proper names in the work, proposed that the six authors were all fictitious personae, and that the work was in fact composed by a single author in the late fourth century, probably in the reign of Theodosius I. Among his supporting evidence was that the life of Septimius Severus makes use of a passage from the mid-4th century historian Aurelius Victor, and that the life of Marcus Aurelius likewise uses material from Eutropius. In the decades following Dessau many scholars fought rearguard actions to try to preserve at least some of the six Scriptores as distinct persons and some first-hand authenticity for the content. As early as 1890 Mommsen postulated a Theodosian ‘editor’ of the Scriptores’ work, an idea that has resurfaced many times since. Others, such as Norman H. Baynes, abandoned the early 4th century date but only advanced it as far as the reign of Julian the Apostate (useful for arguing the work was intended as pagan propaganda). In the 1960s and 70s however Dessau’s original arguments received powerful restatement and expansion from Sir Ronald Syme, who devoted three books to the subject and was prepared to date the writing of the work closely in the region of 395 AD. Other recent studies also show much consistency of style, and most scholars now accept the theory of a single late author of unknown identity. Computer-aided stylistic analysis of the work has, however, returned ambiguous results; some elements of style are quite uniform throughout the work, while others vary in a way that suggests multiple authorship. To what extent this is due to the fact that portions of the work are obviously compiled from multiple sources is unclear.

Primary and secondary Vitae

A unique feature of the Augustan History is that it purports to supply the biographies not only of reigning Emperors but also of their designated heirs or junior colleagues, and of usurpers who unsuccessfully claimed the supreme power. Thus among the biographies of 2nd-century and early 3rd-century figures are included Hadrian’s heir Aelius Caesar, and the usurpers Avidius Cassius, Pescennius Niger and Clodius Albinus, Caracalla’s brother Geta and Macrinus’s son Diadumenianus. None of these pieces contain much in the way of solid information: all are marked by rhetorical padding and obvious fiction. (The biography of Marcus Aurelius’s colleague Lucius Verus, which Mommsen thought ‘secondary’, is however rich in apparently reliable information and has been vindicated by Syme as belonging to the ‘primary’ series.) The ‘secondary’ lives allowed the author to exercise free invention untrammelled by mere facts, and as the work proceeds these flights of fancy become ever more elaborate, climaxing in such virtuoso feats as the account of the 'Thirty Tyrants' said to have risen as usurpers under Gallienus. Moreover, after the biography of Caracalla the ‘primary’ biographies, of the emperors themselves, begin to assume the rhetorical and fictive qualities previously confined to the ‘secondary’ ones. The biography of Macrinus is notoriously unreliable, and after a partial reversion to reliability in the Elagabalus, the life of Alexander Severus, one of the longest biographies in the entire work, develops into a kind of exemplary and rhetorical fable on the theme of the wise philosopher king. Clearly the author’s previous sources had given out, but also his inventive talents were developing. He still makes use of some recognized sources – Herodian up to 238, and probably Dexippus in the later books, for the entire imperial periode the Enmannsche Kaisergeschichte – but the biographies are increasingly tracts of invention in which occasional nuggets of fact are embedded.

Genre and purpose

Interpretations of the purpose of the History also vary considerably, some considering it a work of fiction or satire intended to entertain (perhaps in the vein of 1066 and All That), others viewing it as a pagan attack on Christianity, the writer having concealed his identity for personal safety. Syme argued that it was a mistake to regard it as a historical work at all and that no clear propaganda purpose could be determined. In his view the History is primarily a literary product – an exercise in historical fiction (or ‘fictional history’) produced by a ‘rogue scholiast’ catering to (and making fun of) the antiquarian tendencies of the Theodosian age, in which Suetonius and Marius Maximus were fashionable reading and Ammianus Marcellinus was producing sober history in the manner of Tacitus. (The History implausibly makes the Emperor Tacitus (275-276) a descendant and connoisseur of the historian.) In fact in a passage on the Quadriga tyrannorum - the 'four-horse chariot of usurpers' said to have aspired to the purple in the reign of Probus - the History itself accuses Marius Maximus of being a producer of 'mythical history': homo omnium verbossissimus, qui et mythistoricis se voluminibis implicavit. The term mythistoricis occurs nowhere else in Latin. Of considerable significance in this regard is the opening section of the life of Aurelian, in which 'Flavius Vopiscus' records a supposed conversation he had with the City Prefect of Rome during the festival of Hilaria in which the Prefect urges him to write as he chooses and invent what he does not know.

Bogus documents and authorities

A peculiarity of the work is its inclusion of a large number of purportedly authentic documents such as extracts from Senate proceedings and letters written by imperial personages. Records like these are quite distinct from the rhetorical speeches often inserted by ancient historians – it was accepted practice for the writer to invent these himself – and on the few occasions when historians (such as Sallust in his work on Catiline or Suetonius in his Twelve Caesars) include such documents, they have generally been regarded as genuine; but almost all those found in the Historia Augusta have been rejected as fabrications, partly on stylistic grounds, partly because they refer to military titles or points of administrative organisation which are otherwise unrecorded until long after the purported date, or for other suspicious content. The History moreover cites dozens of otherwise unrecorded historians, biographers, letter-writers, knowledgeable friends of the writers, and so on, most of whom must be regarded as figments of the author's fertile and fraudulent imagination.

Examples of falsehood: a small selection

As indicated above, the untrustworthiness of the HA stems from the multifarious kinds of fraudulent (as opposed to simply inaccurate) information that run through the whole work, becoming ever more dominant as it proceeds. Species of fraudulence begin with the ascription of the various biographies to different invented 'authors', and continue with the dedicatory epistles to Diocletian and Constantine, the quotation of fabricated documents, the citation of non-existent authorities, the invention of persons (extending even to the subjects of some of the minor biographies), presentation of contradictory information to confuse an issue while making a show of objectivity, deliberately false statements, and the inclusion of material which can be shown to relate to events or personages of the late 4th century rather than the period supposedly being written about. Specific examples would be endless: the following, both minor and major in effect, are merely typical.

  • The biography of Geta states he was born at Mediolanum on 27 May; the year is not specified but it was 'in the suffect consulships of Severus and Vitellius'. He was actually born at Rome on 7 March 189; there was no such pair of suffect consuls in this or any other year.
  • A letter of Hadrian written from Egypt to his brother-in-law Servianus is quoted at length (and was accepted as genuine by many authorities well into the 20th century). Servianus is saluted as consul, and Hadrian mentions his (adopted) son Lucius Aelius Caesar: but Hadrian was in Egypt in 130, Servianus's consulship fell in 134, and Hadrian adopted Aelius in 136. The letter is said to have been published by Hadrian's freedman Phlegon (whose existence is mentioned nowhere except in the HA, in another suspect passage). A passage in the letter dealing with the frivolousness of Egyptian religious beliefs refers to the Patriarch, head of the Jewish community in the Empire. This office only came into being after Hadrian put down the Jewish revolt of 132, and the passage is probably meant in mockery of the powerful late 4th-century Patriarch, Gamaliel. (See R. Syme, Emperors and Biography, pp. 21-24.)
  • Decius revives the office of Censor; the Senate acclaims Valerian as worthy to hold it in a decree dated 27 October 251. The decree is brought to Decius (on campaign against the Goths) and he summons Valerian to bestow the honour. The revival of the censorship is fictitious, and Decius had been dead for several months by the date stated. (Syme, op. cit., p. 215)
  • Valerian writes to 'Zosimius', procurator of Syria (otherwise unknown) instructing him to furnish the young Claudius with military equpment including a pair of aclydes. The aclys (a kind of Homeric javelin) is a weapon only found in poetry (eg Virgil, Aeneid VII.730). (Syme, op. cit., p. 216)
  • Valerian holds an imperial council in Byzantium, attended by several named dignitaries, none of them otherwise attested and some holding offices not known to exist till the following century, at which the general 'Ulpius Crinitus' (a name apparently chosen to evoke the military glories of the Emperor Trajan) takes the young Aurelian (destined to be another military Emperor) as his adopted son. There are no grounds to believe this is anything other than invention.
  • In the Tyranni Triginta, the author 'Trebellius Pollio' sets out to chronicle 'the 30 usurpers who arose in the years when the Empire was ruled by Gallienus and Valerian' (I, 1). The number 30 is evidently modelled on the notorious 'Thirty Tyrants' who ruled Athens after the end of the Peloponnesian War. The chapter contains 32 mini-biographies. They include two women, six youths, and seven men who never claimed the imperial power; one usurper of the reign of Maximinus Thrax, one of the time of Decius, and two of the time of Aurelian; and four who are entirely fictitious.
  • The Emperor Tacitus is acclaimed by the Senate, meeting in the 'Curia Pompiliana' (no such building) and after orations by the consul 'Velius Cornificius Gordianus' (no such person) and 'Maecius Faltonius Nicomachus' (ditto: most of the 'Maecii' in the HA are invented), he goes to the Campus Martius and is presented to the troops by the Prefect of the City 'Aelius Cesettianus' (no such person) and the Praetorian Prefect 'Moesius Gallicanus’ (ditto: the HA has several invented 'Gallicani'). Private letters commending Tacitus are quoted from the senators 'Autronius Tiberianus' and 'Claudius Sapilianus' (no reason to believe in them, either). (Syme, op. cit., pp.238-239)
  • In the Quadrigae Tyrannorum, the author includes Firmus, said to have been a usurper in Egypt under Aurelian. There is no certainty that this person ever existed, and the HA's wealth of detail about him is wilful invention: he would eat an ostrich a day, he had a carriage drawn by ostriches, he would swim among crocodiles, he built himself a palace out of cubes of glass, and so on.
  • In the Life of Probus (Ch.XXIV, 1-3), the author 'Flavius Vopiscus of Syracuse' states that the Emperor's descendants (posteri) fled from Rome and settled near Verona. There a statue of Probus was struck by lightning, a portent according to soothsayers 'that future generations of the family would rise to such distinction in the senate they all would hold the highest posts', though Vopiscus (supposedly writing under Constantine) says this prophecy has not yet come to pass. This is one of the strongest indications of the HA's late fourth-century date, as it seems to be a fairly transparent allusion to the rich and powerful senator Sextus Claudius Petronius Probus (consul in 371) whose two sons held the consulship together in 395. Petronius Probus was born in Verona.

Marius Maximus or ‘Ignotus’?

Certain scholars have always defended the value of specific parts of the work. Anthony Birley has argued, for instance, that the lives up to Septimius Severus are based on the now-lost biographies of Marius Maximus, which were written as a sequel to Suetonius' Lives of the Twelve Caesars. As a result, his translation of the History for Penguin Books covers only the first half, and was published as Lives of the Later Caesars, Birley himself supplying biographies of Nerva and Trajan (these are not part of the original texts, which begin with Hadrian). His view (part of a tradition that goes back to J.J. Müller, who advanced Marius’s claims as early as 1870) was vigorously contested by Syme, who held that virtually all the identifiable citations from Marius Maximus are more or less frivolous interpolations into the main narrative source, which he postulated was a different author whom he styled ‘Ignotus, the good biographer’. He argued that as far as is known Marius did not write a biography of Lucius Verus, even though the biography of that prince in the History is mainly of good quality, and that ‘Ignotus’ only went up to Caracalla, as is revealed by the lamentable biography of Macrinus.

Historical value

More than a century of criticism, argument and counter-argument has established that the Augustan History is not a reliable source for any of the period that it purports to cover, and it is especially unreliable in that era for which it is one of the very few written sources, the years 253–284. Inextricably entangled in its fictions and jokes, however – and especially in the earlier biographies – is a wealth of genuine historical information of which it is often the sole transmitter. All students of Imperial Rome from the reign of Hadrian to the sons of Carus must therefore inevitably confront it, and try honestly to assess its value to them.

Bibliography

An English translation of the complete work (by David Magie, London & Harvard 1932) with facing Latin text, is available in the Loeb Classical Library. Partial translation by Anthony Birley as Lives of the Later Caesars in Penguin Books.

  • Norman H Baynes, The Historia Augusta. Its Date and Purpose (Oxford, 1926)
  • Ronald Syme, Ammianus and the Historia Augusta (Oxford, 1968)
  • Ronald Syme, Emperors and Biography (Oxford, 1973)
  • Ronald Syme, Historia Augusta Papers (Oxford, 1983)

Notes

See also

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