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The Fifteenth Century Book

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Ninth Century - The Text

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The biography of Special Collections' copy of Scriptores Historiae Augustae begins with the text of the book, which was written centuries before our edition was printed in 1490. The text comes from a manuscript copied during the ninth century at the monastery at Fulda, today held in the Vatican Library, called the Codex Palatinus. In this principal manuscript, it is entitled the Vitae Diversorum Principum et Tyrannorum a Divo Hadriano usque ad Numerianum Diversis compositae. Such was the interest in Germany in the Historia Augusta that not long after this Fulda manuscript was finished a copy of it was made, now preserved in the library at Bamberg, written in Anglo-Saxon characters and dating from the ninth or tenth century. About the same period, also, another manuscript was made either from the original of the Fulda manuscript or from this codex itself. This was contained in the library of the Abbey at Murbach in the eleventh century, in the catalogue of which it is listed as Codex Spartiani.

The topic of the book is a collection of biographies of Roman emperors from Hadrian (117-138) through Carinus (283-285). This is important because there are very few sources that cover these time periods. The book states that it is a compilation of six separate authors. However, in 1889, Hermann Dessau suggested that the work was actually that of a single author. Since that time, there has been continuing investigations as to the true nature of the Historia Augusta. In 1889, Hermann Dessau, who had become increasingly concerned by the huge amount of anachronistic terms, late-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. Several computer analyses of the text have been done to determine whether there were multiple authors. Many of them conclude that there was but a single author, but disagree on methodology. However, several studies done by the same team concluded there were several authors, though they were not sure how many.

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 – but the biographies are increasingly tracts of invention in which occasional nuggets of fact are embedded.

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.

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.

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.

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