Augustan History (Latin: Historia Augusta) is a late Roman
collection of biographies, written in Latin, of the Roman Emperors,
their junior colleagues, designated heirs and usurpers of the period
117 to 284. Supposedly modeled on the similar work of Suetonius, The
Twelve Caesars, it presents itself as a compilation of works by six
different authors (collectively known as the Scriptores Historiae
Augustae), written during the reigns of
Diocletian and Constantine I
and addressed to those emperors or other important personages in Rome.
The collection, as extant, comprises thirty biographies, most of which
contain the life of a single emperor, while some include a group of
two or more, grouped together merely because these emperors were
either similar or contemporaneous.
However, the true authorship of the work, its actual date, and its
purpose, have long been matters for controversy amongst historians and
scholars, ever since
Hermann Dessau in 1889 rejected both the date and
the authorship as stated within the manuscript. Major problems include
the nature of the sources it used, and how much of the content is pure
fiction. For instance, the collection contains in all about 150
alleged documents, including 68 letters, 60 speeches and proposals to
the people or the senate, and 20 senatorial decrees and acclamations.
Virtually all of these are now considered to be fraudulent.
By the second decade of the 21st century, the overall consensus
supported the position that there was only a single author who was
writing either at the end of the 4th century or the beginning of the
5th century, and who was interested in blending contemporary issues
(political, religious and social) into the lives of the 3rd century
emperors. Further, that the author used the fictitious elements in the
work to highlight references to other published works, such as to
Ammianus Marcellinus in a complex allegorical game. Despite
these conundrums, it is the only continuous account in
Latin for much
of its period and is thus continually being re-evaluated, since modern
historians are unwilling to abandon it as a unique source of possible
information, despite its obvious untrustworthiness on many levels.
1 Title and scope
2 Textual transmission
3 The dating problem
4 Six scriptores or a single author?
5 Primary and secondary Vitae
6 Genre and purpose
7 Historical value
7.1 False documents and authorities
7.2 Examples of false historical events and personages
Marius Maximus or 'Ignotus'?
9 Literary value
10 See also
14 External links
Title and scope
Historia Augusta originated with Isaac Casaubon, who produced
a critical edition in 1603, working from a complex manuscript
tradition with a number of variant versions. The title as recorded
on the Codex Palatinus manuscript (written in the 9th century) is
Vitae Diversorum Principum et Tyrannorum a Divo Hadriano usque ad
Numerianum Diversis compositae ("The Lives of various Emperors and
Tyrants from the Divine
Numerian by Various Authors"), and
it is assumed that the work may have been originally called de Vita
Caesarum or Vitae Caesarum.
How widely the work was circulated in late antiquity is unknown, but
its earliest use was in a Roman History composed by Quintus Aurelius
Memmius Symmachus in 485. Lengthy citations from it are found in
authors of the 6th and 9th centuries, including
Sedulius Scottus who
quoted parts of the Marcus Aurelius, the Maximini and the Aurelian
within his Liber de Rectoribus Christianis, and the chief manuscripts
also date from the 9th or 10th centuries. The six Scriptores –
"Aelius Spartianus", "Julius 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 c. the
late 3rd and early 4th century. The first four scriptores are attached
to the lives from
Hadrian to Gordian III, while the final two are
attached to the lives from Valerian to Numerian.
The biographies cover the emperors from
Numerian. A section covering the reigns of Philip the Arab, Decius,
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
Trajan have also been lost at the
beginning of the work, which may suggest the compilation might have
been a direct continuation of Suetonius. It has 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
Quintillus and Florian, whose reigns are merely briefly
noted towards the end of the biographies of their respective
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 –
Edward Gibbon used it extensively in the first
volume of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. However, "in
modern times most scholars read the work as a piece of deliberate
mystification written much later than its purported date, however the
fundamentalist view still has distinguished support. (...) The
Historia Augusta is also, unfortunately, the principal
for a century of Roman history. The historian must make use of it, but
only with extreme circumspection and caution."
Existing manuscripts and witnesses of the
Augustan History fall into
A manuscript of the first quarter of the ninth century, Vatican Pal.
lat. 899 (Codex Palatinus), known as P, and its direct and indirect
copies. P was written at
Lorsch in Caroline minuscule. The text in
this manuscript has several lacunae marked with dots indicating the
missing letters, a confusion in the order of the biographies between
Verus and Alexander, and the transposition of several passages: two
long ones which correspond to a quire of the original which became
loose and was then inserted in a wrong place, and a similar
transposition in Carus. P is also distinguished by a succession of
six centuries of editorial corrections, beginning with the original
scribe, and includes such worthies as
Petrarch and Poggio Bracciolini;
none of these editors betray any knowledge of any other witness.
A group of 15th century manuscripts, designated as Σ. Not only are
the lives rearranged in chronological order, but the corruptions
present in P have been subjected to drastic emendations or omitted
altogether. Beginning with Dr. Ernst Hohl, some have asserted that the
improvements in the text come from a source independent of P. Although
admitting that "this question still remains to be answered
definitively", author Peter Marshall noted that research undertaken
through to the 1980s had improved scholarly knowledge concerning the
methods and abilities of early Italian humanists, and concludes by
saying that "the Σ manuscripts nowhere provide readings which are
beyond the powers of the humanists active at the time.
Three different sets of excerpts, one of which Theodor Mommsen
suggested was possibly the work of Sedulius Scottus. How any are
related to P is unclear.
In Marshall's opinion, the best scholarly editions are those by H.
Peter (Teubner, 2nd ed. 1884), & E. Hohl (Teubner, 1971, reissue
of 1965 revised by Ch. Samberger & W. Seyfarth).
A later version of the Codex Palatinus (possibly a version that was
Petrarch in 1356) was the basis of the editio princeps of the
History, published in
Milan in 1475. A subsequent printed version (the
Aldine edition) was published at
Venice in 1516, and this was followed
closely by an edition edited by Desiderius Erasmus, and published by
Johann Froben in
Basel in 1518.
The dating problem
Hermann Dessau, whose groundbreaking work on the
Historia Augusta led
to its critical re-evaluation in the 20th century.
Edward Gibbon had observed that there was something wrong
with the numbers and names of the imperial biographers, and that this
had already been recognised by older historians who had written on
that subject.[note 1] A clear example was the referencing of
the biographer 'Lampridius' (who was apparently writing his
biographies after 324) by 'Vopiscus', who was meant to be writing his
biographies in 305-6. Then in 1889, Hermann Dessau, who had become
increasingly concerned by the large number of anachronistic terms,
Latin vocabulary, and especially the host of obviously false
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 4th century, probably in the reign of
Theodosius I. Among his supporting evidence was that the life
Septimius Severus appeared to have made use of a passage from the
mid-4th-century historian Aurelius Victor,[note 2] and that the life
Marcus Aurelius likewise uses material from Eutropius.[note 3]
In the decades following Dessau, many scholars argued to preserve at
least some of the six Scriptores as distinct persons and in favour of
the 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. Hermann Peter (editor of the
Augustan History and of the Historicorum Romanorum reliquiae) proposed
a date of 330 for when the work was written, based upon an analysis of
style and language. 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
Julian the Apostate (useful for arguing the work was intended as pagan
In the 1960s and 1970s 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 AD 395. Other recent studies also show
much consistency of style, and most scholars now accept the theory
of a single author of unknown identity, writing after 395.
Although it was believed that the History Augusta did not reference
any material from Ammianus Marcellinus' history, which was finished
before 391 and which covered the same period, this has now been
shown not to be the case, and that the
Historia Augusta does in fact
make reference to Ammianus' history.
Not all scholars have accepted the theory of a forger working around
the last decades of the 4th century or the beginning of the 5th.
Arnaldo Momigliano and A.H.M. Jones were the most
prominent 20th century critics of the Dessau-Syme theory amongst
English-speaking scholars. Momigliano, summarizing the literature from
Dessau down to 1954, defined the question as "res iudicanda" (i.e. "a
matter to be decided") and not as "res iudicata" ("a matter that has
been decided"). Momigliano reviewed every book published on the topic
by Sir Ronald Syme, and provided counter arguments to most if not all
of Syme's arguments. For instance, the reference in the Life
of Probus about the emperor's descendants which has been taken to
Sextus Claudius Petronius Probus and his family may, in the
opinion of Momigliano, equally refer to the earlier members of the
family, which was prominent throughout the 4th century, such as
Petronius Probinus (consul in 341) and
Petronius Probianus (consul in
322). Momigliano's opinion was that there was insufficient
evidence to dismiss a composition date of the early 4th century, and
that any post-Constantinian anachronisms could be explained by an
editor working on the material at a later date, perhaps during the
Constantius II or Julian.
Other opinions included Dr H Stern's, who postulated that the History
was composed by a team of writers during the reign of Constantius II
after the defeat of
Magnentius on behalf of the Senatorial aristocracy
who had supported the usurper. In the 21st century, Alan Cameron
rebutted a number of Syme's and Barnes' arguments for a composition
date c.395–400, suggesting a composition date between 361 and the
Six scriptores or a single author?
Linked to the problem of dating the composition of the History is the
question about the authorship of the work. Taking the History at face
value, there is clearly a division between the authors named prior and
after the presence of the interrupting lacuna. For the first half of
the History, four scriptores are present, and the biographies are
divided in a remarkably erratic fashion:
Aelius Spartianus (7 lives): Hadrian, Aelius, Didius Julianus,
Caracalla and Geta.
Julius Capitolinus (9 lives): Antoninus, Marcus, Lucius Verus,
Pertinax, Albinus, Macrinus, The Maximini, The Gordiani, and Maximus
Vulcacius Gallicanus (1 life): Avidius Cassius.
Aelius Lampridius (4 lives): Commodus, Diadumenus, Heliogabalus and
Of these four, Spartianus and Gallicanus claim to be undertaking a
complete set of imperial biographies from
Julius Caesar onwards, while
Lampridius' stated intention was to write a collection of biographies
that would deal with the Gordians, Claudius II, Aurelian, Diocletian,
Maximian and the four rivals of Constantine. Capitolinus also implied
that he was writing more biographies than are present in the
The second half of the History is divided between two scriptores.
Unlike the first half, the emperors tackled in this section are
grouped logically, and are divided roughly in half between the two
scriptores in chronological sequence:
Trebellius Pollio (4 lives): Valerian, Gallienus, Tyranni Triginta and
Flavius Vopiscus Syracusanus (5 lives): Aurelian, Tacitus, Probus,
Quadrigae Tyrannorum and Carus,
Carinus and Numerian.
In terms of any acknowledgement of the mutual existence between the
scriptores, only Flavius Vopiscus (ostensibly writing in 305 or
306)[note 4] refers to any of the other authors (specifically
Trebellius Pollio, Julius Capitolinus and Aelius Lampridius). None of
the other five demonstrate any awareness of the existence of any of
their 'colleagues'. However, these references cause difficulties
when these authors also address Constantine in their dedications, as
Vopiscus was also doing. For instance, Capitolinus mostly addresses
Diocletian, but in the Albinus, Maximini and Gordiani he addresses
Constantine in a fashion that suggests he is writing after 306.
The theory that there was a single author, as initially postulated by
Dessau, is based on the difficulties inherent in having a single work
comprising a number of individuals but without any textual evidence of
an editor who brought the material together. This is especially
evident in that the text has examples of stated intentions by an
author to write a life of one of the emperors, only for that life to
be completed by another of the scriptores.[note 5] If those
statements are true, and those additional lives were completed, then
an editor must have been involved in the project in order to select
one scriptor's life over another's.
However, the presence of a post-Constantinian editor, as originally
postulated by Theodore Mommsen, still has notable support, most
recently articulated by Daniel Den Hengst, who suggests that the
editor was the author of the second half of the History, operating
under the pseudonyms of Pollio and Vopiscus. Further, that this editor
not only wrote the secondary lives in the first half, but he was also
responsible for the insertions into the primary lives in that
series. He takes the view that the vast stylistic differences
between the two halves of the History means they cannot have been
written by the same author.
Nevertheless, if the validity of six independent authors is accepted,
there are still issues, as the way they approached their work does
show similar themes and details. All six not only provide
biographies for the emperors, but also for the Caesars and usurpers.
They describe their work and approach in very similar language, and
quote otherwise unknown historians and biographers, such as Junius
Cordus. They collectively share many errors, such as calling
Diadumenianus "Diadumenus". They also share much idiosyncratic
content and similar language, with particular focus on women, wine and
military discipline, and were fixated on poor plays on words ascribing
personality traits to certain emperors, for instance Verus was
truthful, while Severus was a severe individual. Additionally, the
authors shared certain stylistic characteristics that has been
suggested would not naturally occur between individuals writing
separately. For instance, the authors all happen to use the word
occido with respect to killing (a total of 42 occurrences), but only
once do any of them use the alternative word of interficio. This ratio
is not found with any other writers in this time period and for this
genre. Finally, each of the six scriptores authored fictional
lives for some of their biographies, all of them using fake sources,
documents and acclamations.
It has been postulated that the names of the scriptores themselves are
also a form of literary playfulness, not only mocking both legitimate
authors and historians, but also the narrative itself. The names
Trebellius Pollio and Flavius Vopiscus are sourced in various ways
from Cicero's writings, as is the name Capitolinus. Further,
the word vopiscus is a rare
Latin term, referring to a twin who
survives, while its sibling died in utero; this has been interpreted
to refer to "Flavius Vopiscus" as being the final one to survive from
the six authors of the History. Vulcacius is believed to be a
mockery of Volcatius Sedigitus, who was a historical literary critic
with some association with humor. The meanings behind the other two
scriptores (Spartianus and Lampridius) have eluded interpretation.
Finally, it should also be noted that the results of recent
computer-assisted stylistic analysis concerning the single vs multiple
authorship have proven to be inconclusive:
"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."
Primary and secondary Vitae
A unique feature of the
Augustan History is that it purports to supply
the biographies not only of reigning Emperors (called "primary lives"
by modern scholars), but also "secondary lives" of their designated
heirs, junior colleagues, and 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' 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' 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 freedom in the
invention of events, places and people without the need to conform to
authentic historical facts. As the work proceeds the author's
inventiveness undergoes an increasing degree of elaboration as
legitimate historical sources begin to run out, eventually composing
largely fictional accounts such as the "biographies" of the "Thirty
Tyrants", whom the author claimed had 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, probably because the secondary lives were written
after the Life of Caracalla.
The biography of
Macrinus is notoriously unreliable, and after a
partial reversion to reliability in the Life of Elagabalus, the
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
Dexippus in the later books, for the entire imperial period
Enmannsche Kaisergeschichte as well as Aurelius Victor, Eutropius,
Ammianus Marcellinus and
Jerome – but the biographies are
increasingly tracts of invention in which occasional nuggets of fact
However, even where recognisable facts are present, their use in the
History cannot be taken at face value. In the Life of Alexander
Severus, the History makes the claim at 24.4 that Alexander had
considered banning male prostitution but had decided against making it
illegal, although the author added that the emperor Philip did later
ban the practice. Although the claim about Alexander is false, the
note about Philip is true — the source of this is Aurelius Victor
(28.6–7, and who in turn sourced it from the Kaisergeschichte), and
the History even copies Victor's style of moralising asides, which
were not in the Kaisergeschichte. Normally, this anecdote would
have been included in a Life of Philip, but its absence saw the author
include it in another life. This is taken as evidence that the
mid-work lacuna is deliberate, as the author was apparently reluctant
to abandon any useful material that could be gleaned from the
Estimated amount of reliable historical details in some of the
Historia Augusta's secondary and later primary vitae
Type of Vita
% estimate containing reliable historical details
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. Under this anti-
Christianity theory, the lacuna
covering the period from
Philip the Arab
Philip the Arab through to the end of
Valerian's reign is seen as deliberate, as it freed the author from
addressing Philip's reign, as by the late 4th century, Philip was
being claimed as a Christian emperor, as well as not discussing Decius
and Valerian's reigns, as they were well known persecutors of the
Church. It also avoided dealing with their fates, as Christians saw
their ends as divine retribution for their persecutions. In fact,
where mentioned, both
Decius and Valerian are viewed very positively
by the author of the History. Further, it is noted that the
History also parodies Christian scripture. For instance, in the Life
Alexander Severus there is: "It is said that on the day after his
birth a star of the first magnitude was visible for the entire day at
Arca Caesarea", while "where, save at Rome, is there an imperial
power that rules an empire?" is considered to be a response to 2
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.
He theorized that the History is primarily a literary product – an
exercise in satire produced by a 'rogue scholiast' catering to (and
making fun of or parodying) the antiquarian tendencies of the
Theodosian age, in which
Marius Maximus were fashionable
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 verbosissimus, qui et
mythistoricis se voluminibis implicavit ('the most long-winded of men,
who furthermore wrapped himself up in volumes of historical fiction').
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
Hilaria in which the Prefect urges him to write as he chooses and
invent what he does not know.
Cicero, one of the authors whose works the
Historia Augusta references
Other examples of the work as a parody can be taken from the names of
the Scriptores themselves. It has been suggested that "Trebellius
Pollio" and "Flavius Vopiscus Syracusius" were invented, with one
theory arguing that their origins are based on passages in Cicero's
letters and speeches in the 1st century BC. With respect to
"Trebellius Pollio", this is a reference to Lucius Trebellius, a
Mark Antony who was mentioned in the Philippics (Phil,
11.14), and another reference to him in
Epistulae ad Familiares along
with the term "Pollentiam" reminded the History's author of Asinius
Pollio, who was a fellow Plebeian Tribune alongside Lucius Trebellius
and a historian as well. This is reinforced by noted similarities
between the fictitious criticism of "Trebellius Pollio" by "Flavius
Vopiscus" at the start of the Life of Aurelian, with similar comments
made by Asinius Pollio about Julius Caesar's published
Commentaries. Significantly, Lucius Trebellius adopted the
Cognomen Fides for his actions as Plebeian Tribune in 47 BC to resist
laws that would abolish debts; later when he fell into debt himself
and began supporting debt abolishment,
Cicero used his cognomen as a
method of abuse and ridicule. According to this theory it is no
coincidence that, in selecting the name "Trebellius Pollio", the
author is playing with the concepts of fides and fidelitas historica
at the precise point in the lives that are assigned to "Trebellius
Pollio" and "Flavius Vopiscus Syracusius".
In the case of "Flavius Vopiscus Syracusius", it was argued that it
too was inspired by the Philippics' reference to "Caesar Vopiscus"
(Phil, 11.11), with Cicero's reference to Vopiscus immediately
preceding his reference to Lucius Trebellius. The cognomen
"Syracusius" was selected because Cicero's
In Verrem is filled with
references to "Syracusae" and "Syracusani". Further, in Cicero's
Cicero refers to Strabo Vopiscus as an authority on
humour, during which he refers to the reputation of Sicilians when it
came to humour, and Syracuse was one of the principal cities of
Sicily. Such references were intended as a "knowing wink" to the
readers of the History, who would recognise the mockery of the
historical material by the author. This corresponds with David
Rohrbacher's view of the History, who maintains that the author has no
political or theological agenda; rather that the History is the
equivalent of a literary puzzle or game, with the reader's
understanding and enjoyment of the numerous elaborate and complicated
allusions contained within it being the only purpose behind its
In support of this theory, Rohrbacher provides an example with respect
to Ammianus Marcellinus' work. In one passage (Amm. 19.12.14),
Ammianus describes the Christian emperor Constantius II's attempts to
prosecute cases of magic under treason laws, in particular the death
penalty applied to those men who were condemned simply for wearing an
amulet to ward off diseases: "si qui remedia quartanae vel doloris
alterius collo gestaret" ("For if anyone wore on his neck an amulet
against the quartan ague or any other complaint"). There is a very
similar imperial ruling described in the Life of
which makes no sense in Caracalla's time, and is worded in almost
exactly the same way: "qui remedia quartanis tertianisque collo
adnexas gestarent" ("wearing them around their necks as preventives of
quartan or tertian fever").
Other theories include André Chastagnol's minimalist opinion that the
author was a pagan who supported the Senate and the Roman aristocracy
and scorned the lower classes and the barbarian races, while
François Paschoud proposed that the last books of the History are in
fact a type of alternative historical narrative, with events and the
personalities of recent 4th century emperors woven into the fabric of
a series of 3rd century emperors. According to Paschoud, the
representation of the emperor Probus is in fact a version of Julian,
Carus substituting for
Valentinian I and
Carinus for Gratian.
From the sixth century to the end of the 19th century, historians had
recognized that the
Historia Augusta was a flawed and not a
particularly reliable source, and since the 20th century modern
scholars have tended to treat it with extreme caution. Older
historians, such as Edward Gibbon, not fully aware of its problems
with respect to the fictitious elements contained within it, generally
treated the information preserved within it as authentic. For
instance, in Gibbon's account of the reign of Gallienus, he
uncritically reproduces the Historia Augusta's biased and largely
fictional account of that reign. So when Gibbon states "The
repeated intelligence of invasions, defeats, and rebellions, he
received with a careless smile; and singling out, with affected
contempt, some particular production of the lost province, he
carelessly asked, whether Rome must be ruined, unless it was supplied
with linen from Egypt, and arras cloth from Gaul", he is reworking
the passage in The Two Gallieni:
I am ashamed to relate what
Gallienus used often to say at this time,
when such things were happening, as though jesting amid the ills of
mankind. For when he was told of the revolt of Egypt, he is said to
have exclaimed "What! We cannot do without Egyptian linen!" and when
informed that Asia had been devastated both by the violence of nature
and by the inroads of the Scythians, he said, "What! We cannot do
without saltpetre!" and when Gaul was lost, he is reported to have
laughed and remarked, "Can the commonwealth be safe without Atrebatic
cloaks?" Thus, in short, with regard to all parts of the world, as he
lost them, he would jest, as though seeming to have suffered the loss
of some article of trifling service.
Gibbon then noted after this passage: "This singular character has, I
believe, been fairly transmitted to us. The reign of his immediate
successor was short and busy; and the historians who wrote before the
elevation of the family of Constantine could not have the most remote
interest to misrepresent the character of Gallienus." Modern
scholars now believe that Gallienus' reputation was posthumously
maligned, that he was one of the main architects of the later Roman
imperial structure, and that his reforms were built upon by succeeding
Nevertheless, it is unwise to dismiss it altogether as it is also the
Latin source regarding a century of Roman history. For
example, scholars had assumed that Veturius
Macrinus mentioned in the
Didius Julianus was an invention of the author, like so many
other names. However, an inscription was uncovered which confirmed his
existence and his post as
Praetorian Prefect in 193. Likewise, the
Hadrian's Wall was constructed during Hadrian's
reign and that the
Antonine Wall was built during the reign of
Antoninus Pius are recorded by no other extant ancient writer
apart from the Historia Augusta,[note 6] the veracity of which has
been confirmed by inscriptions.
False 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. In all
it contains around 150 alleged documents, including 68 letters, 60
speeches and proposals to the people or the senate, and 20 senatorial
decrees and acclamations. 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
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
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 expressions of the author's
creative imagination. For example, the biographer "Cordus" is
cited twenty-seven times in the History. Long considered to be a real,
but lost, biographer until midway into the 20th century, with
a couple of minor exceptions where material claimed to be sourced from
Cordus is in reality from
Suetonius or Cicero, every other citation is
fake, providing details which have been invented and ascribed to
Cordus. Cordus is mentioned almost exclusively in those Vitae where
the History used
Herodian as the primary source, and his appearances
vanish once Herodian's history comes to an end.
The author would also misattribute material taken from a legitimate
historian and ascribe it to a fictitious author. For instance,
Herodian is used more often than he is explicitly referenced in the
History; in addition to the ten times he is correctly cited, three
times his material is cited as "Arrianus", probably to multiply the
author's sources. Further, not only does the author copy from
Herodian without citation (either direct lifts, abbreviations or
supplementations), he often distorts Herodian, to suit his literary
Then there is the deliberate citation of false information which is
then ascribed legitimate authors. For instance, at a minimum, five of
the History's sixteen citations of
Dexippus are considered to be fake,
Dexippus appears to be mentioned, not as a principal source of
information, but rather as a contradictory author to be contrasted
against information sourced from
Herodian or the Enmannsche
Kaisergeschichte. In addition Quintus Gargilius Martialis, who
produced works on horticulture and medicine, is cited twice as a
biographer, which is considered to be another false attribution.
Examples of false historical events and personages
The untrustworthiness of the History stems from the multifarious kinds
of fraudulent (as opposed to simply inaccurate) information that run
through the work, becoming ever more dominant as it proceeds. The
various biographies are ascribed 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. For
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; however, it has been suggested that the names for these
persons be amended to be Severus and Vettulenus, and that these men
were suffect consuls sometime before 192.
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' consulship fell in 134, and Hadrian
adopted Aelius in 136. The letter is said to have been
published by Hadrian's freedman Phlegon, with the letter's existence
not mentioned anywhere except in the History, 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,
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
Decius (on campaign against the Goths) and he summons
Valerian to bestow the honour. The revival of the censorship is
Decius had been dead for several months by the date
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 until 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.
Trebellianus, one of the fictitious tyrants included in the Historia
Augusta, drawn by
Guillaume Rouillé in Promptuarii Iconum
In the Tyranni Triginta, the author 'Trebellius Pollio' sets out to
chronicle 'the 30 usurpers who arose in the years when the Empire was
Gallienus and Valerian'. 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 a number who are entirely fictitious: Postumus the
Younger, Saturninus, Trebellianus, Celsus, Titus, Censorinus, and
In the Life of Tacitus, the emperor is acclaimed by the Senate,
meeting in the Curia Pompiliana, which never existed. The History
then lists a number of individuals, all of whom are invented by the
author: the consul 'Velius Cornificius Gordianus', 'Maecius
Faltonius Nicomachus', the Prefect of the City 'Aelius
Cesettianus', and the
Praetorian Prefect 'Moesius
Gallicanus'. Private letters commending
Tacitus are quoted from
the senators 'Autronius Tiberianus' and 'Claudius Sapilianus', both of
whom are assumed to be fictitious. Most of the 'Maecii' and
'Gallicani' in the History are believed to be inventions of the
In the Quadrigae Tyrannorum (Four tyrants: The Lives of Firmus,
Saturninus, Proculus and Bonosus), the author includes Firmus,
said to have been a usurper in Egypt under Aurelian. There
is no certainty that this person ever existed; however, there was a
Corrector named Claudius
Firmus stationed in Egypt in 274, about the
Zosimus states that
Aurelian was dealing with some trouble in
that province. Nevertheless, the History's wealth of detail about
him is considered to be completely invented. For example, he
would eat an ostrich a day, he had a carriage drawn by ostriches, he
would swim among crocodiles, he built himself a house fitted with
square panels of glass.
In the Life of Probus, 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 History's late 4th-century date,
as it seems to be a fairly transparent allusion to the rich and
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, for instance, has argued that the lives up
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
Trajan (these are not part of the original texts, which begin with
His view (part of a tradition that goes back to J. J. Müller, who
advanced Marius' claims as early as 1870, and supported by modern
scholars such as André Chastagnol) was vigorously contested by Ronald
Syme, who theorized that virtually all the identifiable citations from
Marius Maximus are essentially frivolous interpolations into the main
narrative source, which he postulated was a different
whom he styled 'Ignotus ("the unknown one"), the good
biographer'. His theory argued, firstly, that as Marius
wrote a sequel to the Lives of the Twelve Caesars, his work covered
the reigns from
Nerva to Elagabalus; consequently, this would not have
included a biography of Lucius Verus, even though the biography of
that Princeps in the History is mainly of good quality. Secondly,
that 'Ignotus' only went up to Caracalla, as is revealed by the
inferior and mostly fictitious biography of Macrinus. Finally,
that the composer of the
Historia Augusta wrote the lives of the
emperors through to the Life of
Caracalla (including Lucius Verus)
using Ignotus as his main source, and supplementing with Marius
Maximus on occasion. It was only when the source failed that he
turned to other less reliable sources (such as
Maximus), as well as his own fertile imagination, and it was at
this juncture that he composed the first five minor lives, through to
the Life of Geta.
A similar theory to Syme's has been put forward by François Paschoud,
who claimed that Maximus was probably a satirical poet, in the same
Juvenal and not an imperial biographer at all. His
argument rests on the point that, outside of the mentions in the
History, the only extant referencing of Marius' work is always in the
context of Juvenal, and that the History's description of him as a
historian cannot be taken at face value, given how it invents or
distorts so many other citations. This theory is rejected by
historians such as Anthony Birley and David Rohrbacher.
Historia Augusta has been described by
Ronald Syme as "the most
enigmatic work that Antiquity has transmitted". Although much of
the focus of study throughout the centuries has been on the historical
content, since the 20th century there has also been an assessment of
the literary value of the work. For much of that time the assessment
has been critical, as demonstrated by the analysis put forward by
The literary, as well as the historical, value of the Historia Augusta
has suffered greatly as a result of the method of its composition. In
the arrangement in categories of the historical material, the authors
did but follow the accepted principles of the art of biography as
practised in antiquity, but their narratives, consisting often of mere
excerpts arranged without regard to connexion or transition, lack
grace and even cohesion. The over-emphasis of personal details and the
introduction of anecdotal material destroy the proportion of many
sections, and the insertion of forged documents interrupts the course
of the narrative, without adding anything of historical value or even
of general interest. Finally, the later addition of lengthy passages
and brief notes, frequently in paragraphs with the general content of
which they have no connexion, has put the crowning touch to the
awkwardness and incoherence of the whole, with the result that the
oft-repeated charge seems almost justified, that these biographies are
little more than literary monstrosities.
M. L. W. Laistner was of the opinion that "even if the Historia
Augusta was propaganda disguised as biography, it is still a wretched
piece of literature", while
Ronald Syme noted that with respect
to the author's
He was not an elegant exponent. His normal language is flat and
monotonous. But uneven, and significantly so. For this author is
erudite, a fancier of words, and a collector. Hence many rarities, or
even inventions ... first, when depicting the measures of a
military disciplinarian, he brings in technical terms redolent of the
camp. Second, archaism, preciosity, and flowery words.
Further, the work shows evidence of its having been put together in a
very haphazard and hasty fashion, with little to no subsequent editing
of the material to form a cohesive narrative. Birley sees an
example of the carelessness with which the author approached the work
in the construction of Marcus Aurelius' biography, where midway
through the Life of
Marcus Aurelius the author found himself in a
muddle, probably because he had historical material in excess of what
he required, and also because he had already used up much of his
source to write separate biographies of
Lucius Verus and Avidius
Cassius, whose lives intersected with Marcus'. The answer he came
up with was to use Eutropius as his source for a brief overview of
Marcus' principate following the death of Lucius Verus. However,
he found that in doing so, the narrative's ending was too abrupt and
so, after including some gossip about Commodus not being his son, he
once again began an account of Marcus' reign after the death of
Although these criticisms still form the prevailing view on the
History's literary worth, modern scholars such as Rohrbacher have
begun to argue that, while it is poorly written and not a stylistic or
polished work, its use of allusion as a vehicle for
parodying popular late 4th century biographical and historiographical
works means that the very features which were once a cause for intense
criticism (such as the inclusion of irrelevant or contradictory
inventions alongside traditionally sourced material) are actually an
intentional and integral part of the work, making it one of the most
unique pieces of literature to emerge from the ancient world.
Thirty Tyrants (Roman) – about the Tyranni Triginta, one of the
books of the Historia Augusta
Titus Aurelius Fulvus
^ Gerardus Vossius, who published de Historicis Latinis in 1627,
discussed the problem of the distribution of the various vitae among
the scriptores, but also the problems about the authors cited by them.
Louis-Sébastien Le Nain de Tillemont, who published Histoire des
Empereurs et des autres Princes qui ont régné durant les six
premiers Siècles de l'Eglise in 1690, provided a wholesale
denunciation of the biographies as being worthless, full of
contradictions and chronological errors.
^ Sev. 17.5–19.4 was copied from Victor, Caes. 20.1 and 10–30; in
both passages there is a major error, which mixes up the emperor
Didius Julianus with the legal scholar Salvius Julianus
^ MA 16.3–18.2 was lifted from Eutropius 8.11
^ In the Aurelian, Vopiscus refers to Constantinus Chlorus as emperor
Diocletian as a private citizen, dating this composition between
Diocletian's abdication on 1 May 305 and Constantius' death on 25 July
^ For example, Spartianus declares that he is going to write a life of
Verus, but that life is attributed to Capitolinus.
^ Where other ancient writers (such as Eutropius) speak of a defensive
wall in Britain, they have associated it with the activities of
Septimius Severus - see David Shorter's Roman Britain: A Sourcebook
(2008), pp. 113–114
^ Magie 1921, p. xii.
^ a b Magie 1921, pp. xx-xxi.
^ Breisach 2007, p. 75.
^ a b Magie 1921, p. xi.
^ Birley 1988, p. 20.
^ Magie 1921, pp. xxiv-xxv.
^ a b Birley 1988, p. 9.
^ Birley 1967, pp. 125–130.
^ Syme 1983, pp. 118–119.
^ Syme 1971, p. 277.
^ Barnes 1978, p. 12.
^ a b Browning 1983, pp. 43,45.
^ Magie 1921, p. xxxiii.
^ a b Marshall 1983, p. 354f.
^ Marshall 1983, p. 355.
^ Marshall 1983, p. 356.
^ Magie 1921, p. xxviii.
^ Birley 1988, p. 7.
^ Magie 1921, pp. xxx-xxxi.
^ a b Birley 1988, p. 11.
^ Magie 1921, p. xxxii.
^ Syme 1971, p. 1.
^ a b c Birley 2006, p. 20.
^ Syme 1971, p. 2.
^ Momigliano 1984, p. 113.
^ Baynes 1926, pp. 169-169.
^ Hornblower, Spawforth & Eidinow 2012, p. 691.
^ Birley 2006, p. 19.
^ Syme 1983, pp. 13–14.
^ a b Rohrbacher 2016, p. 20.
^ Momigliano 1954, pp. 22–46.
^ a b Momigliano 1969, pp. 566–569.
^ a b Momigliano 1973, pp. 114–115.
^ Jones 1986, p. 1071, Note 1.
^ Momigliano 1984, p. 121.
^ Momigliano 1984, pp. 125, 133.
^ Momigliano 1984, p. 140.
^ Cameron 2010, pp. 743–746.
^ Birley 1988, p. 12.
^ Birley 1988, pp. 11–12.
^ a b Birley 1988, p. 10.
^ a b c d e f Rohrbacher 2016, p. 5.
^ a b Den Hengst 2010, p. 182.
^ Rohrbacher 2016, p. 6.
^ Rohrbacher 2016, pp. 20–21.
^ Birley 2006, pp. 25–27.
^ a b Rohrbacher 2016, p. 23.
^ Rohrbacher 2016, pp. 23–24.
^ Prickman 2013, University of Iowa's website.
^ Syme 1971, pp. 54–57.
^ Syme 1971, pp. 56–57.
^ a b Birley 1988, pp. 13–14.
^ Syme 1983, pp. 44, 211, 214.
^ Syme 1971, pp. 57–59.
^ Syme 1971, pp. 146–150.
^ Birley 1988, p. 14.
^ a b Rohrbacher 2013, p. 151.
^ Rohrbacher 2013, pp. 150–151.
^ Birley 2006, p. 23.
^ Birley 2006, p. 22.
Historia Augusta & 395 AD, Alexander Severus, 13.5.
Historia Augusta & 395 AD, Alexander Severus, 14.4.
^ a b c d Birley 2006, p. 25.
^ Syme 1983, pp. 12–13.
^ Syme 1983, p. 214.
Historia Augusta & 395 AD, The Lives of the Thirty Pretenders,
^ Syme 1971, p. 76.
^ Syme 1968, p. 192.
^ Birley 2006, p. 26.
^ a b c d Birley 2006, p. 27.
^ a b Rohrbacher 2013, p. 148.
^ a b Rohrbacher 2016, p. 143.
^ a b Rohrbacher 2013, p. 147.
^ a b Rohrbacher 2016, p. 4.
^ Bray 1997, pp. 3–4.
^ Gibbon 1776, Ch. 10.
Historia Augusta & 395 AD, The Two Gallieni, 6.1–6.8.
^ Gibbon 1776, Ch. 10, Note 156.
^ Bray 1997, p. 4.
^ Mellor 2002, p. 163.
Historia Augusta & 395 AD, Hadrian, 11.2.
Historia Augusta & 395 AD, Antoninus Pius, 5.4.
^ Birley 1988, p. 13.
^ Potter 2005, p. 150.
^ Campbell 1994, p. 248.
^ Mehl 2011, p. 21.
^ Potter 2005, p. 149.
^ Hadas 2013, pp. 356–357.
^ Rohrbacher 2016, pp. 6–8.
^ Syme 1983, pp. 113–114.
^ Syme 1983, pp. 98–99.
^ Magie 1921, pp. xviii-xix.
^ Syme 1968, pp. 96–98.
^ Rohrbacher 2013, p. 161.
^ Rohrbacher 2016, p. 13.
^ a b Rohrbacher 2013, p. 160.
^ Birley 1988, pp. 12–16.
Historia Augusta & 395 AD, Geta, 3.1.
^ Syme 1968, p. 123.
^ Birley 1966, pp. 249–253.
^ Raschke 1976, pp. 761–762.
^ Habelt 1968, p. 121.
^ Birley 2013, p. 3.
^ Syme 1968, p. 60.
^ Syme 1971, pp. 21–24.
Historia Augusta & 395 AD, The Two Valerians, 5.4–6.1.
^ Syme 1971, p. 215.
^ Den Hengst 2010, p. 97.
Historia Augusta & 395 AD, The Lives of the Thirty Pretenders,
^ Bunson 1991, p. 414.
^ Cancik, Schneider & Salazar 2009, p. 91.
^ Den Hengst 2010, p. 159.
^ Kreucher 2003, p. 105.
^ a b Syme 1971, pp. 4, 12.
^ Syme 1983, p. 117.
^ a b Baldwin 1984, p. 4.
^ Syme 1971, pp. 238–239.
^ The Lives of Firmus, Saturninus, Proculus and Bonosus at
Historia Augusta & 395 AD, The Lives of the Thirty Pretenders,
Historia Augusta & 395 AD, Aurelian, 32.2.
^ Barnes 1978, p. 71.
^ Den Boeft et al. 2013, pp. 150.
Historia Augusta & 395 AD, The Lives of the Thirty Pretenders,
Historia Augusta & 395 AD, Probus, 24.1–24.3.
^ Syme 1968, p. 164.
^ Platnauer &
Claudian 1922, Panegyric on the Consuls Probinus and
Olybrius, Note 1.
^ Jones, Martindale & Morris 1971, pp. 739.
^ Birley 1988, pp. 14–15.
^ Syme 1983, p. 33.
^ Birley 1988, p. 15.
^ Syme 1983, pp. 31–33.
^ Syme 1983, p. 32.
^ Syme 1983, pp. 32–33.
^ Syme 1983, pp. 31–32.
^ Syme 1983, p. 44.
^ a b Birley 2006, p. 21.
^ Rohrbacher 2013, pp. 161–162.
^ Magie 1921, pp. xxiii-xxiv.
^ Laistner 1966, p. 180.
^ Syme 1971, p. 251.
^ Birley 1988, pp. 18–19.
^ a b c Birley 1988, p. 19.
^ Rohrbacher 2016, p. 171.
^ Birley 1988, p. 18.
^ Rohrbacher 2016, pp. 170–172.
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