Controversy abating and credulity curbed?

Ronald Syme looks at those biographies of Roman emperors collectively known as the ‘Historia Augusta’

Erudite controversies serve a variety of purposes. On the lowest count they afford nutriment, unfailing even if meagre, to tired and traditional topics. Industry reaps easy reward since bibliographies abound. There is a further benefit if the evidence never offered prospects of a solution.

A number of problems, ostensibly historical, are devoid of substance. For example, the Date of the Nativity. When curiosity or dispute first arose, the facts were beyond the reach of ascertainment. Which did not deter Tertullian. Rebuking the sceptical and ignorant, he told them to consult the records of a Roman census held in Judaea.

Debate goes on. New discoveries add sustenance, eagerly snapped up. A text from Palestine, lurking in the Louvre, was published for the first time in 1930: it had been catalogued as ‘une dalle de marbre, envoyée de Nazareth en 1878’. This document is an imperial edict forbidding under penalty the violation of sepulchres; and experts in Greek epigraphy put the lettering in the first century of our era. The Nazareth Decree (for some thus styled it, incautiously) created a stir. By 1937 it had spawned some thirty learned papers (apart from references innumerable). Nor did it forfeit its seduction in the Fifties. Interest faded in the sequel. The object hardly matters any more – and so far no copy seems to have turned up of the despatch which Pontius Pilate sent to Tiberius Caesar, as Tertullian testifies.

For a recent parallel, observe the Decree of Themistocles, enjoining various measures to be taken at an early stage in the campaign that was to terminate with the Battle of Salamis. The copy was inscribed on stone about two centuries later. That is not the point. The document belongs to a recognisable class of patriotic fabrications already put to good employ by Athenian orators.

Debates about authenticity and authorship have a perennial charm. Pseudepigrapha flourished in Antiquity, in compensation, perhaps, for the decadence of epic and the rudimentary condition of the novel. Certain literary genres, such as letters of poets or sages, and their biographies, carry the meaning and motive on the surface. The reading public clamoured for information about the early life of authors who attained classic fame – and early writings were duly manufactured.

Two letters of advice are extant, addressed by Sallust to Julius Caesar. In the course of the last sixty years or so they have engaged zealous champions, both historians and students of Latin literature. One of the products has 50 BC for its ‘dramatic date’, so most critics hold. For believers that is also the ‘real date’. Those who acclaim this Sallust are impelled to extol his political insight and sensitivity to issues of the day. They say less about that prescience of future events which enabled him to write with three major assumptions in mind: war will come, Caesar wins, Caesar proceeds to augment the size of the Roman Senate.

Known systems of literary education have recourse to the imitation of Classical models. Hence impersonation, and no thought of deception. There are traps for the unwary. The Pseudo-Sallust possesses the style and manner several years before the great innovator created it for the writing of history – and he overdoes it, as may happen to a parodist in any age.

Style or anachronism, either criterion by itself may be enough to condemn a product once it has come under suspicion for other reasons, such as dubious provenance or a motive all too patent. Devoted to literary imposture, the present essay may conduce to sundry reflections about the duration of controversies, why they continue and how they find an end. Some are kept going by pertinacity or equivocation. They may lapse or perish through fatigue and inanition. A new weapon or a single sharp blow is not so common.

By its amplitude, by the inherent problems and their repercussions, the Historia Augusta stands without a rival in any age. These imperial biographies are the sole Latin source of any compass for the years 117-284AD, from the death of Trajan to the accession of Diocletian. They convey a double assertion – six authors, and they wrote at different times during the reigns of Diocletian and of Constantine (who died in 337).

Those claims went unchallenged until the year 1889, when a young scholar, Hermann Dessau, made a discovery that alarmed his seniors. Dessau’s exposition was firm and lucid: a single author, and he perpetrated his imposture at a later season, towards the end of the fourth century.

It would be instructive, though perhaps tedious, to recount the annals of prolonged warfare, the ebb and flow of battle, the names of ancient power. Historians were the principal contenders, eager for facts and preoccupied with the dating of the work. That was unfortunate. The primary approach to the HA should be literary: structure and sources, language and authorship.

Of the six ostensible biographers, ‘Vopiscus’ is the last in order. He named three of them as predecessors. However, neither he nor they assert that they are writing in collaboration. That must be stated at the outset, to preclude misconceptions. Some critics make the incautious assumption. For support and parallel, appeal has even been made to large histories of multiple authorship published at Cambridge. The notion is ingenious. Taken a step further it entails an editor – but also a planner, however incompetent.

On cursory inspection, the name labels fall apart. Their apportionment was often peculiar or in conflict with the text. One of the ‘Six’ polishes off the life of Marcus Aurelius, quickly. He is denied the sequel of Commodus. Or he will announce the next biography, only to be pre-empted by somebody else. Gibbon preferred to cite them ‘without distinction, under the general and well-known title of the Augustan History’. Not all scholars in the recent time have paid heed to the salubrious admonition. Error ensues, and multiple delusions.

The labels of identity were carelessly attached. They are an afterthought, that is clear. It would be worth ascertaining at what stage in composition the author chose to pass himself off as a collection, first of all four (but later rising to six). Perhaps (so it can be argued) when he had finished compiling and abridging his source for the nine emperors from Hadrian to Caracalla. About this time, creating a novelty in biography, he decided to write, as pendants to those rulers, the lives of two princes and three pretenders to the power. Fiction was almost total, like what was to follow, a culmination soon reached with Elagabalus and Severus Alexander.

If the labels were waived or dismissed as pseudonyms, a case might still be made for plural authorship in some form or other. At first sight the Vitae are alarmingly hybrid and heterogeneous. Reflection or scrutiny provides the explanation. The matter is diverse, and so is the treatment. The author compiles (as in the first sequence of Caesars), he translates from Greek sources, he indulges in free composition. The phenomenon is likewise apparent in individual biographies. Style exhibits a wide range from the prosaic or even vulgar to rhetoric and eloquence.

The common features outweigh variation and divergence. Habits of language or grammar, unusual words and expressions recur in widely separate portions of the HA. Above all, the author’s fabrications, characteristic and recurrent.

Nonetheless, like the ‘traditional date’, the ‘plurality of authors’ still finds advocates, especially among Italian scholars (national fancies in Classical learning, and national contrasts, may afford some amusement).[1] Some continue to employ the names of the ‘Six’. The more subtle, it appears, might be disposed to settle for a lesser company, but they refrain from specifying the number. Discreet cover is supplied by the term ‘Scriptores Historiae Augustae’. As elsewhere in this controversy, clarity is called for.

When dispute and dissent keep going, it is worth an effort to look for reasons. One of them is respect for tradition and the written word, deference to authority (that is, authority in the modern time). Classical scholars sometimes incur disparagement for sticking to their texts. In this instance, a paradox comes to light, and a pertinent question. One wonders whether conservative critics examine the Historta Augusta as a whole, whether they read it often enough. The ‘literature of the subject’ is a fatal substitute.

Is there no end in sight? A new and novel technique might decide the question of authorship once and for all.

The computer supervenes.[2] To its arbitrament are submitted some of those regular and unobtrusive phenomena that betray the linguistic habits of an author. First, the HA as a whole is compared with a group of other writings, for length of sentences. It is shown homogeneous. Second, the Six are analysed by the types of phrase that begin or end a sentence. The response appears unequivocal.

Doubts are sometimes voiced about the method when applied to vocabulary, and peculiar results may emerge when different portions of a known author are put to the test. It will not be easy to impugn the present operation. Those who conducted the inquiry may await attempts without undue apprehension.

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[1] Half a dozen names could be cited.

[2] ‘The Authorship of the Historia Augusta: Two Computer Studies’ by I. Marriott (Journal of Roman Studies, LXIX, 1979).

[3] Le Crépuscule des Césars: Scènes et Visages de l’Histoire Auguste (1964) by H. Bardon.

[4] ‘The Date and Author of the so-called Fragments of Toparcha Gothicus’ by I. Sevcenko (Dumbarton Oaks Papers, XXV, 1971).

[5] A Hidden Life by H. R. Trevor-Roper (1976).

[6] Storia di Roma, VI, by L. Pareti (1961).

[7] D’Artagnan by Charles Samaran (Calmann-Lévy, 1912).

[8] Timpanaro made a firm statement: ‘proprio in base agli argomenti stessi di Momigliano, sarei ancor piu decisamente favorevole alla datazione tradizionale e alla pluralita di autori.’ Quoted by Momigliano, English Historical Review, LXXXVIII (1973), p. 14.