Vol. 2 No. 17 · 4 September 1980

Controversy abating and credulity curbed?

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

6032 words

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.

It remains to assess the consequences. They are various and valuable, extending far beyond questions of single or multiple authorship. Instant relief accrues for the plain man, perplexed or annoyed by the abstruse detail of an intricate controversy, prone to acquiesce in the authority of standard manuals – few clear and comprehensive statements have been issued in recent years. He will be happy to see the work-force (helots or hierophants) now set free for useful tasks. For example, Church History seen from the point of view of non-fanatical pagans, or a biography of Athanasius.

To friends of the Six dismay may percolate. Sundry arguments or devices lapse that were invoked to discriminate between biographers. Not so long ago a French scholar was able to equip them with an identity, each and all.3 Thus ‘Spartianus’, sober and intelligent (not the man to forge a document), or ‘Lampridius’, with a propensity towards moralising and to scabrous details, and so on. Again, significance has been discovered in the fact that only one of them, ‘Capitolinus’, cites ‘Junius Cordus’ (long recognised by most as a non-existent author). The label ‘Capitolinus’ appertains to nine biographies. Like the HA itself, they cover the gamut, from compilation to mature and exuberant fiction. Applying the same arguments to ‘Capitolinus’, advocates of plurality might have split him into two or rather three persons, without perceptible discomfort.

Persons and names in fact opened the path and inspired the pioneer. When composing entries for the Prosopographia Imperii Romani, Hermann Dessau came upon items of nomenclature which, ostensibly anterior to the year 284, were not only invented but redolent of a much later age – such as ‘Toxotius’ and ‘Nicomachus’. He drew the conclusion. Hence joy and sorrow. Also efforts of evasion: aristocrats who bore those names in the second half of the fourth century no doubt had ancestors in the epoch of Diocletian and Constantine.

In 1971 appeared the Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire. In certain respects a declension from Dessau – but the task was infinitely more arduous. A work of this kind is liable to omissions. One of them is notable, the sad fate of the Six. Four of them are left out, no excuse or palliation. Two qualify – ‘Lampridius’ and ‘Vopiscus’. To ‘Lampridius’ was allocated a role and a personality: ‘he refers to Christianity more often and in a less hostile spirit than the other biographers.’ Together with the general inadvertence, that item, it may be noted, avows multiple authorship in the enterprise.

Plural authors for the HA being now discountenanced, much writing goes down the drain. One fate carries off the learned along with the lazy, the clever no less than the credulous.

For the faithful, a sombre consolation avails. They were not confuted through mere appeal to language and style and structure. The computer did it. By the same token, disappointment for those who had laboured in the vineyard or derived refreshment from fiction and imposture. At the eleventh hour a machine cheats them of reward.

What then remains to be done? Quite a lot. First of all, to carry on the historian’s plain duty, to segregate fact from fraud. That entails ‘Quellenkritik’, to some a name of dread. The basic source of the first sequence of imperial biographies (the nine Vitae from Hadrian to Caracalla) needs to be defined beyond dispute, the accretions to be separated (and used for other purposes). Less is known about certain rulers than what earned credit from the illustrious author of the Mémoires d’Hadrien (1951) or from professed historians. After Caracalla, invention has the larger part. The nature and quality of the Severus Alexander was no secret. As Gibbon declared, ‘the mere idea of a perfect prince, an awkward imitation of the Cyropaedia’. A recent estimate puts the factual residue at about 2 per cent.

Along with a mass of forged documents (letters and decrees of emperors, orations of senators) the HA carries over two hundred bogus persons, of every rank and character, from ‘Ablavius Murena’ to ‘Zosimio’. In one biography, that of the Emperor Tacitus (15 pages in a modern text), none of the names is genuine, save those of emperors. The semblance of authenticity is conveyed by an alternating technique, the names either rare and startling or drab and indistinctive.

The HA adduces some thirty-five biographers or historians nowhere else on attestation. That is one of the main clues to the nature of the work. The prime exhibit is ‘Junius Cordus’, cited not as a main source for any biography but on the side. His function is to be scourged as a frivolous and deleterious writer. He has two entries as ‘Aelius Cordus’. Like a novelist, the author forgot. Proust was not clear whether the husband of Mme Verdurin was ‘Auguste’ or ‘Gustave’. Not but that ‘Aelius Junius Cordus’ still has fanciers.

As have other fables. Severus Alexander, ‘so an author of the time relates,’ worshipped at a domestic chapel in which stood images of Christ and Abraham, along with a pair of pagan sages or saints. The beliefs of the Syrian prince do not fail to seduce adepts of religious syncretism. Again, the Emperor Tacitus, on generous exposition as an elderly senator of frugal and scholarly habits (each night he would read or write, save on the second of the month). For the full count the reader is exhorted to consult the copious biography written by ‘Suetonius Optatianus’. This emperor claimed the historian as an ancestor and enjoined that copies of the books be made every year. Hence unique testimony to the transmission of classical texts in an obscure epoch.

Next, language and style. By paradox this ample repertorium has had little attraction for the tribe of philologists, although displaying oddities in abundance: archaisms, rare or poetical words, neologisms and technical terms, peculiar expressions. There are also vulgarisms, some creeping already into late authors, such as positus, equivalent to the missing present participle of the verb esse. Others anticipate Romance idioms, as fecit occidi or the preposition de instead of ex.

Third, the author himself, to be sought and found in his fabrications. Apart from bogus characters one comes upon emperors and usurpers made vivid through physical appearance, diet and drink, literary productivity; then speeches and letters, consular dates, civilian and military posts, regiments and mixed bodies of troops, schedules of supplies, paintings and sculpture. Greek verses in translation, omens and oracles.

That is not all. If the fabrications are catalogued in order, as each rubric appears for the first time, a clear progression will emerge. Developing in resource, the author improves all the time, and stands out before the end as a master of craft and audacity.

At a public festival the Prefect of the City invites ‘Vopiscus’ to share his official carriage. Deploring the fact that no biography exists of Aurelian (his relative, to be sure), the Prefect offers memoirs written by that emperor and documents from the Bibliotheca Ulpia. He then goes on to allude to manifest defects in the four classic historians of Rome and adds encouragement. ‘Do not worry. Write as you please. You will have for companions in mendacity those whom we admire as paragons of historical eloquence.’

The scene is set in the carnival season when masked revellers went about the streets impersonating both high and low. The genial impostor has raised his mask for a moment. In a later place, pretending to a serious vein, he reverts to the theme and rebukes the four historians because they affect an elevated style. Biographers are modest, and they tell the truth. For proof, six names are appended (four of them spurious).

The author’s talent has not always secured recognition. Likewise the humour. Some of the jokes are feeble, like the pervasive puns on names, recalling the schoolboy or his instructors. But observe Gallienus interrupting the ceremonial pomp of his decennial festival with a clamour for his dinner: ‘ecquid habemus in prandio?’ And there are sustained efforts. A prophecy foretold that a descendant of the Emperor Tacitus will extend conquest to the ends of the world, imposing Roman governors on Ireland and Ceylon; and further, he will restore sovereignty to the Senate and die at the age of 120, leaving no heir. This is not to happen until a thousand years have elapsed. As the author explains, the descendants of Tacitus (who are numerous) are still waiting for the ‘millesimus annus’.

That a writer should exhibit so portentous an evolution in the course of one and the same work is a rare and remarkable phenomenon. Yet such are the facts. Elsewhere early essays or first drafts have seldom been preserved. As Gibbon says, ‘many experiments were made before I could hit the middle tone between a dull chronicle and a rhetorical declamation: three times did I compose the first chapter.’ Saint-Simon furnishes a more revealing parallel. In 1694, when he was a youth on military service, he began a diary. Some of that sober record (but not much) was incorporated in the Mémoires he composed in old age (between 1739 and 1749), having turned meanwhile into a blend of Suetonius and Tacitus, combining personal detail about monarch and courtiers with subversive commentary.

Now the HA is not just bad biography or dishonest history. Nor did dearth of evidence or sources running out reduce the author to inventions. The five biographies of princes and pretenders (an original product) are defined by modern scholars as ‘the secondary Vitae’. Not secondary, however, in his design and intention. They foreshadow the later exposition, the mature achievement.

A question might occur about the literary genre. Describing portions of the HA, some speak of historical romance. Better, perhaps, ‘fictional history’. A distinction might be drawn, on various criteria – but not clear or easy. B. Perry in his book The Ancient Romances (1967) excluded historical Fiction, of set purpose. Not perhaps a good idea – and he omitted Xenophon’s Cyropaedia. Some definitions need to be looked at again.

The HA opens wide perspectives – namely, the purpose of literary fraud and its personal motives, the techniques of verification. Other media offer guidance, such as works of art or inscriptions on stone or metal.

In the year 1881 the coast of Brazil delivered a Phoenician document, set up by Hiram’s men from Tyre, after a long voyage that began at Eziongebir on the Red Sea. Surviving only in copies, the text has been held genuine by a Semitic philologist (Cyrus Gordon). Superior literacy has rendered North America more prolific in pre-Columbian testimonies. About ninety years ago, a runic inscription was dislodged from the roots of a tree in rural Minnesota: a party of Norsemen (both male and female) had got that far in the year 1362. Until recently the stone was on proud exhibit in the Smithsonian Institute at Washington.

When the object is extant, scientific tests can be applied (the Turin Shroud is said to be under inspection). They have not spared the bronze tablet which Sir Frances Drake erected on the coast of California, where it emerged from a sand hill. The specific metal alloy was not in use in the 16th century. The proof was superfluous. Where Drake’s memorial would have written ‘for ever’ the tablet has ‘forever’. Similarly, later grammatical forms on the Minnesota stone.

A single word may condemn, and the economical solution is sheer delight. Elaborate literary deceptions offer tougher resistance, or hold out, not suspected or impugned for a long time. In 1819, Hase, Keeper of Greek manuscripts at the Bibliothéque Royale, published fragments of a Byzantine historian. The ‘Toparcha Gothicus’ (as it is called) furnished precious information about Russian history, otherwise so sparse in the tenth century. It is now exposed as a forgery.4 The searching demonstration brought up other activities of Hase, and cast light on his devious character: an ambitious upstart and immigrant of German origin, an erudite scholar who kept a secret diary written in Greek.

Recent notoriety attends upon Sir Edmund Backhouse (the Hermit of Peking) who discovered the memoirs of a Chinese courtier that vouchsafe startling disclosures about the last empress. Once again the person concords with the product, as is shown by a masterpiece of detection.5 The historian who conducted that stylish operation was alert to the wider implications of his theme. Concluding his portrayal of the venerable and bearded impostor, he subjoined brief reference to other artists, notably Lenormant, the French Hellenist and archaeologist, and the bibliographer T. J. Wise, who manufactured more than fifty first editions of English poets.

Through the ages forgeries have been in constant employ to commend the claims of a party, a government, a religion. Sacred relies and national antiquities often carry their purpose on their face, or not far beneath. Nor is the craving for personal fame absent, for academic rewards or pecuniary profit. Hase was thus impelled (though he got only the Order of St Vladimir, fourth class), and so was Wise. That need not detain. A pure and more amiable manifestation is here in question: deceit for its own sweet sake.

He who perpetrates a hoax enjoys a double delectation. He fools people, and soon or late they come to see that they have been fooled. Superior and subtle jokers are in no hurry to be found out. Thus the Scandinavian who composed the runes and planted the stone – a vagrant theological student, as was long suspected and in the end proved.

The theme of revenge delayed beyond the grave has appealed to a versatile humorist. In one of the stories of Alphonse Allais a local antiquary, at odds with colleagues, instructs a friend to order his interment, clothing the corpse in a suit of Chinese armour, sealing it in a Gallo-Roman sarcophagus along with a selection of Greek coins. He imagined with merriment ‘la gueule que feralent les archéolagues dans cinq cent ans’.

Notable performers may still evade censure or renown. In 1912, the Classical Review published from the pen of R. W. Raper (a Fellow of Trinity College, Oxford, not previously known for productivity) a suspiciously eloquent contribution entitled ‘Marones: Virgil as Priest of Apollo’. Noting the opinion that regarded the poet as a Celt, he raised protest: ‘the scientist of the future will perhaps take a wider and more comprehensive view.’ He then went on to expound his own theory. Virgil had for ancestress a Jewish lady. Kidnapped by pirates, she ended up in Italy, having married on the way in Thrace the priest of Apollo called Maron. Furthermore, her descendant himself became ‘acquainted with the Hebrew Prophets’ and we may even contemplate him ‘reverently poring over the Book of Kings’. Raper’s article evoked mild demur in the next volume of the periodical. Warde Fowler gravely pointed out, among other things, that at Rome Apollo was ‘a deity who had never been a really important one’; and he alluded to ‘Augustus’ “Apollinarism” (in my opinion much exaggerated of late)’.

The article seems to have had no other repercussions. Virgilian scholars were perhaps growing diffident, or rather discreet, about their own speculations, in dangerous proximity. The tone and content betray Raper’s motives, while the source of inspiration and the date (or at least a terminus post quem) could have been divined. In 1907 appeared Virgil’s Messianic Eclogue, a composite work but mercifully short, with Fowler and Conway among the contributors. Five years later, the preface to the Oxford Book of Latin Verse spread itself on the Celtic spirit (‘for that is what it was’) and the Celtic extraction of the Transpadane poet. Virgil, by the way, thought that his city was an Etruscan foundation.

The Historia Augusta has been described and discussed as a forgery, all too often. The term is harsh and misleading. It suggests criminality or profit, it connotes an offence subject to legal penalty or redress. The question must be asked, who suffers injury when the dead or the non-existent are impersonated? – and pseudonyms have been a harmless recourse.

‘Imposture’ is the better word. Once the author’s sense of humour is recognised and conceded, a further step can be taken. The thing is a hoax. The missing preface might have conveyed a gentle hint, averring research in a library or in family papers, a chance discovery in a temple or a tomb. The interview of ‘Vopiscus’ with the City Prefect suffices, or the general impression reinforced by a few revealing items. To use one of the phrases by which Albertine betrayed to the Narrator her growing sophistication, ‘j’estime que c’est la bonne solution, la solution élégante;’.

The author avows and parades the tastes of a scholar. He is a collector of oddities and a word-fancier, quoting from the Latin classics and using various devices such as oracles emitted in the form of Virgilian verses or bogus characters with names borrowed from Cicero; and several turns of phrase put him in the close vicinity of scholiasts.

Imposture of this sophisticated type presupposes both a literary tradition and erudition become professional. Italy in the Renaissance proliferated in pastiche and creative fiction. Annius of Viterbo not only composed volumes of pseudo-history. He staged an excavation, on ground suitably salted.

The last quarter of the fourth century witnessed a marked and momentous renascence of letters and learning. Forgotten classics were revived and put into circulation, notably the satirist Juvenal, and they called for commentaries. In the train of erudition returned erudite fraud.

Educated Christians had been employing familiar techniques for polemical ends or for edification. Jerome now wrote his Life of Paul, duly equipped with ‘corroborative details’ – among them metal gear in a cave left there by forgers of coins in the days of Antonius and Cleopatra. This Paul is put on show as the proto-hermit of the Egyptian desert, preceding Antony, whom Athanasius had celebrated. Paul gave delight to readers through long ages. In 1969 he lost his place on the calendar by decree of the Vatican.

The epoch of Diocletian and Constantine was a bleak and barren tract of time. To accept and retain a whole school of Latin biographers was a strange dereliction of modern scholarship, impervious to the odour of fraud and the impact of a joke.

Authorship and date can no longer be kept separate. Not much has to be said. From the year 1889 the hunt was on. More and ever more anachronisms were put up. Exhilaration of the chase enticed to false trails or premature kills, and some of the bag were liable to be rejected by sceptical or conservative assessors. No matter – many of the anachronisms have themselves become irrelevant and obsolescent anyhow. A literary criterion supervened. Dessau detected a piece of the epitomator Aurelius Victor which had been inserted in the biography of Septimius Severus (as elsewhere, the compiler flagged, for the basic source was more ample than he needed). Victor was writing in 360.

A path of evasion offered, it is true: the suspect passage might belong not to Victor but to Victor’s source. That path is now blocked. Exact scrutiny establishes many more traces of the epitomator in diverse sections of the HA. Not merely facts, but inspiration for the author to embark on stretches of sustained fiction. For example, the romantic development of an alleged interregnum of six months ensuing after Aurelian was killed and before Tacitus was proclaimed. According to Gibbon, ‘an amazing period of tranquil anarchy’. Misled by the documentation, he styled it ‘one of the best attested and most improbable events in the history of mankind’.

The dedications which some of the Six address to Diocletian and Constantine should never have deceived. The egregious ‘Lampridius’ undertook to write about Elagabalus by express command of Constantine, albeit with reluctance, for the subject was repulsive; and he was emboldened to deter him from the influence of evil counsellors, especially eunuchs. Constantine should know, having lived under their dominance (‘qui talibus inserviit’). One of the first and heaviest opponents of Dessau opined that the Six were a group of courtiers.

Anachronisms (not merely the flagrant and absurd) have forfeited function and appeal in debate. A fairly broad consensus emerges, advocating the last decade of the fourth century. In consequence, historians modify their approach. They look for the impact of contemporaneous transactions, above all the proscription of pagan cults in 391 and the battle beside the River Frigidus when the cause went down in defeat in September of 394. Next, influences from other writers of the time, from Ammianus and even from Jerome. And finally, illumination is discovered on the social habits of the time, ranging from games and spectacles to learning and letters. It was a colourful age, Roman tradition and the old faith now defended by theosophists and classical scholars, while a senator, the noble Pammachius, promenaded in the black garb of a monk.

The HA being planted in a congenial environment, the temptation ensued to divine its purpose. Propaganda was an obvious answer. Many have sought the author in the ranks of the pagan aristocracy, in or close to the ‘circle of Symmachus’ (which, by the way, is liable like other literary groups to lose members on analysis). When ‘propaganda’ is surmised, various questions impinge: by whom exercised and for whom, to what end of persuasion, of defence, of consolation. They have not found clear and convincing answers, although something might be said in favour of a rearguard action conducted by a pagan and a patriot.

The political opinions of the author are no secret. He admires the imperial tradition, he extols the prestige of the Senate, he is devoted to the memory of the Antonine rulers. A man who elected to write biographies of good and bad emperors had no choice. Doctrine and attitudes are predictable. They were there already in the Latin sources.

The references to Christianity have been solicited with loving or anxious care. No inordinate concern with contemporary cults and beliefs seems to come out. This pagan might have been scabrous and savage. There was promising material, from ambitious bishops to militant monks. Jerome showed what could be done. He employed his talents of derision and invective to satirise the Roman clergy: luxurious and crafty, ensnaring pious widows of birth and wealth.

Instead, our friend turns out to be innocuous or humorous, as when Aurelian reproves the Senate for neglecting to consult the Sibylline Books, for behaving no better than a conventicle of Christians. A prime document is the Letter of Hadrian, close towards the end of the work. The emperor warns his brother-in-law against indulgence towards Egyptians. There is no true religion in the whole country, money the only god. Votaries of Serapis and Christ are interchangeable hypocrites. When the Patriarch of the Jews pays a visit to the land of Nile each party tries to convert him, forcibly.

The treatment accorded the Jews is in fact an instructive clue, avowing gentle malice and a taste for the exotic. Thus the ritual eating of ostrich flesh (so a Syrian prince is made to allege) or the Gallic virago ‘Vituriga’ who changed her name to ‘Samso’.

This in a season when homilies of Chrysostom at Antioch erupted in coarse abuse, when a bishop on the Euphrates, mustering his flock and enlisting the monks, proceeded to burn down a synagogue. The Emperor Theodosius tried to intervene but had to give way before the potent authority of Ambrose.

It is not wholly fanciful to discover in the HA an unobtrusive plea for toleration; and admonition can be conveyed under the cover of frivolity. None the less, it is a misconception to assume a serious purpose. The HA is a genuine hoax. As in the beginning Dessau declared, ‘eine Mystification leigt vor.’ The text discloses a rogue scholar, delighting in deceit and making a mock of historians. Perhaps a professor on the loose, a librarian seeking recreation, a civil servant repelled by pedestrian routine.

The computer having spoken (or better, the text), the single author leads towards a suitable milieu, hence to the time of writing. Is there any escape, any device left for combining single authorship with the ‘traditional date’ – or rather ‘ostensible dates’? In the past conservative critics displayed agility and much resource. One elaborate exposition, of weight and authority, operated with live groups of biographies and two editors, one Constantinian, the other Theodosian. The echoes of it are not yet mute. A recent theory summarily proposes three authors (an Anonymus followed by ‘Pollio’ and ‘Vopiscus’), a collection made before the year 330, some interpolations between 400 and 410.6

It will not be easy to resuscitate once again the old expedient. The season for editors and interpolators is past and perished. Plain testimony from Aurelius Victor puts the HA as a whole subsequent to 360.

All manner of things have been seen in the course of this controversy. A single author may now have to be conjured up with a long life to fit the ostensible dates, and a long span of activity – say, sixty or seventy years ...

There are precedents, albeit imperfect. At one stage in the controversy the fashion obtained of assuming that an annalistic history was the basic source exploited in the first sequence of imperial Vitae, from Hadrian to Caracalla. In the early years of this century E. Kornemann produced an annalist of superior quality (perhaps a senatorial jurist in the ‘circle of Ulpian’) who was over 80 when writing under Severus Alexander. He could also assign a name, viz. ‘Lollius Urbicus’, whom the HA happens to cite – and who might be presumed a grandson of the general who invaded Scotland. About the same time O. T. Schulz came out with a performer almost centenarian. Having been a schoolfellow of Marcus Aurelius (born in 121), he survived to recount the reign of Caracalla (killed in 217).

The conjoint themes of history and fiction encourage brief mention of Courtil de Sandras, a soldier and literary adventurer, whose Mémoires de Mr. d’Artagnan were exploited rather than surpassed by Dumas. The composition is fluent and attractive, enriched with lively episodes and an adequate measure of corroborative detail. On a mission to London the famous ‘Mousquetaire du Roi’ had conversations with Cromwell and, an easier enterprise, seduced ‘l’Anglaise’, the mistress of the French ambassador.

Towards 1912, the Mémoires attracted the attention of a medieval scholar, Charles Samaran, who had been a member of the Ecole des Chartes since 1897. He was able to rectify error, discard fiction, and bring supplement from unpublished archives. The result was a neat and elegant book.7 Alert and active as ever, Samaran celebrated his 100th birthday in October of 1979, to the delight of his many friends.

While ‘tempus, dies, fortuna’ permit the present essay to terminate with a personal tribute to the living, commemoration of a different order will not escape the reader. Ninety years have passed since the signal exploit of Hermann Dessau. During his life he suffered neglect or dispraisal (disciples were few, apart from the valiant Ernst Hohl), and posthumous recognition was delayed or impeded. In recent times or even in recent years, Dessau’s main arguments, so some held, had been refuted long since or remained highly dubious; while scholars and critics of repute may still be found defending ‘the traditional date and the plural authorship’ of the Historia Augusta.8

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Vol. 2 No. 19 · 2 October 1980

SIR: I fail to see a binding logic in Ronald Syme’s equation of ‘genuine hoax’ with a lack of ‘serious purpose’ (LRB, 4 September). Forgery (imposture, hoax) – the most trivial aspect of which is described as ‘making a mock of historians’, no inconsiderable achievement, some might think – may have a very serious Intention in mind: an attack on the system which is to judge it. Being duped is an education. Oddly, despite references to ‘pastiche’, ‘impersonation’, ‘pseudo-history’ and ‘fictional history’, Syme omits to mention the most renowned ‘hoaxes’ in English literature: Chatterton’s Rowley and Macpherson’s Ossian. Both these authors were ‘masters of craft and audacity’, as the consequent literary-historical controversy demonstrated. Most major critics were drawn into the vortex, and many took stock of their beliefs before drowning or struggling to safety. We need only quote Thomas Warton, compiler of the first literary history of English poetry, to see how ‘seriously’ the whole affair was regarded:

the determination of these questions affects the great lines of the history of poetry and even of general literature. If it should be decided, that [Chatterton’s] poems were really written so early as the reign or Edward IV, the entire system that has hitherto been framed concerning the progression of poetical composition, and every theory that has been established on the gradual improvement of taste, style, and language, will be shaken and disarranged.

Ian Haywood
London EC5

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