Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2.2.2

C. Bertrand-Dagenbach, Alexandre Sévère et l'Histoire Auguste. Brussels: Collection Latomus vol. 208, 1990. Pp. 216. 1,000F (pb). ISBN 2-87031-148-6.

Reviewed by David Potter, The University of Michigan

The Historia Augusta is a strange book. Ostensibly it is a collection of imperial biographies from Hadrian to Carinus (117-285 AD) including lives of sundry Caesars and usurpers, composed by six authors who wrote under the tetrarchs and Constantine.1 The factual content of the lives obviously varies tremendously; some of the early lives appear to be closely based on reliable sources, others are mostly fiction, some may well be nothing but. Even before the advent of modern scholarship there were doubts about what could and could not be believed. With the development of modern critical techniques, these doubts became more serious, and in 1889 Hermann Dessau solemnly pronounced the work a forgery, arguing that it was written by a single author at the end, rather than the beginning, of the fourth century.2

In the very next year, Theodor Mommsen responded to Dessau's article with a massive defense of the traditional date, though conceding that there was some later manipulation of the corpus in the age of Valentinian and Theodosius I.3 Controversy ensued. Although many classicists have remained blissfully ignorant of the consequences (readily evident these days in citations such as Spart. V. Hadr. 16.1 instead of HA V. Hadr. 16.1), the vast amount of energy expended on this matter has yielded two points that are generally accepted by almost all combatants. These are that Dessau's instinct about the date was correct, as was his view about the authorship. The first principle is based upon the study of invented names and literary allusions. The second rests on probability. Read as a whole, the work comes across as a sustained joke.4 It is hard to believe that a team would have been so consistent in its selection and handling of source material, so regular in its style of invention, or so consistent in its humor, to have produced the work that we have.5 In addition, although the more elaborate efforts to quantify this impression have been shown to be inadequate, there does not seem to be any significant variation in the prose style from the beginning to end of the collection.6

One other question that has attracted attention through the years is the reliability of the information that the author provides. Although it is obvious that there is a good deal of fact mixed in with the fancy, it has proved difficult to draw a firm line between the two. Furthermore, there is still a good deal of debate as to what the ability to draw such a line would gain us: we still do not have any agreement as to what the author's sources were, and how well informed these sources were. The latter point is particularly complicated; even the best historians of antiquity made mistakes, and, even when we can trace a particular statement back from the Historia Augusta to a second or third century author, this does not mean that the account we get is reliable. The Historia Augusta does offer some unique and valuable information, but it must be excavated with care.

The result of the various trends in recent scholarship is that the study of the Historia Augusta has moved in two directions. One is into the area of late fourth-century literary and intellectual history, the other towards the realm of second- and third-century literature and politics. Cécile Bertrand-Dangenbach seeks to unite these two disparate enterprises in her study of the longest of the vitae, that of Alexander Severus (54 Teubner pages). The book falls into two sections after a mercifully short, and uncontroversial, statement of B.-D.'s position on the composition issue. After a brief (and useful) chronological outline of Severus' reign, she explains that she will analyze the life in light of Gérard Genette's work on narrative functions (B.-D. p. 50), which, as it turns out, will be supplemented with study of Latin rhetorical works. The second section is an analysis of the picture of Alexander that the vita provides, in light of the other extant sources for the reign. The first section of the book is interesting and suggestive, giving us a better insight into the way that the author thought about writing the life, and providing useful discussions of several important topoi. In particular, I find the application of Genette's work, distinguishing a passage's "narrative function" (telling the story) and "metanarrative" function (exploring the implications of the story), a far more satisfactory method than that used by some writers in English who seek to identify passages simply as rhetorical, and therefore false. But it is also much too serious. B.-D. recognizes that there are literary games being played throughout, but her analysis is informed by her conclusion that the work is a treatise on good government that faithfully reflects the political, social, and religious thought of the late fourth century (p. 120). My feeling is that the life is a parody of that thought. It may be that our positions are not that far apart, for parody must reflect the familiar to be effective, and it can be as devastating. But an analysis of this life must take account of the fact that if a critique is being offered here, it is amusing.

A bogus account of a meeting of the senate at which Alexander refuses the names Antoninus and Magnus takes up five chapters at the beginning of the life (V. Alex. 6-11), and a large section of this book (pp. 87-118). In this story, set erroneously on March 6, 222 (the real date of Alexander accession was March 11), Alexander refuses the names that he was offered on the grounds that the nomen Antoninorum was disgraced by Elagabalus and that he himself had not yet done anything great. To B.-D. this is designed to show the gravitas and constantia of the ideal princeps (as in V. Alex. 12.3) and stands as implicit criticism of the proclamation of Valentinian II at the age of four in 375, and that of Theodosius' sons, Arcadius and Honorius, twenty years later (they were eleven and eighteen years old respectively) (p. 105). Reflection upon exempla, of the sort that fills this passage and is used by B.-D. to support her point, was clearly very important in what passed for political thought in the fourth century. But are we to take seriously reflection such as: magni vero nomen cur accipiam? quid enim iam magnum feci? cum id Alexander post magna gesta, Pompeius vero {post} magnos triumphos acceperit. quiescite igitur, venerandi patres, et vos ipsi magnifici unum me de vobis esse censete, quam Magni nomen ingerite (V. Alex. 11.4). This scene is surely a send-up of the sort of pious reflection that fills the pages of an author like Ammianus, or, to use the language of theory, the metanarrativistic function of this passage is to subvert its ostensible narrative function by making it appear too absurd. When it comes to the nomen Antoninorum the author may simply be echoing rhetorical flourishes in Marius Maximus' biography of Elagabalus that were picked up by a number of the author's contemporaries.7 When the author describes Alexander's dislike of panegyric in accord with the exemplum of Pescennius Niger, the defeated rival of Severus (oratores et poetas non sibi panygericos dicentes, quod exemplo Nigri Pescennii stultum ducebat, sed aut orationes recitantes aut facta veterum canentes libenter audivit) (V. Alex. 35.1), it should be clear that whatever the author's message is, it is to be read with a smile.

Imperial ceremonies or damnationes, discussions of legitimacy and praefationes -- these are places where the author tends to wax fanciful and funny. Study of any one life must take account of the collection as a whole. The author describes (for example) the murder of Aper as follows: avus meus rettulit interfuisse contioni, cum Diocletiani manu esset Aper occisus; dixisse autem dicebat Diocletianum, percussisset: gloriare, Aper, Aeneae magni dextra cadis. quod ego miror de homine militari, quamvis plurimos plane sciam militares vel Graece vel Latine vel comicorum usurpare dicta vel talium poetarum. ipsi denique comici plerumque sic milites inducunt, ut eos faciant vetera dicta usurpare (V. Car. 13.3). An author who can argue, while imitating a form of historical verification, that Diocletian could have recited Aen. 10.830 while killing Aper because soldiers must use elevated diction since they are brought on stage by comic poets, has to be read for fun. Comparable examples abound throughout the Historia Augusta. This is not to say that the same author cannot be including solid factual material, or that the same author cannot be trying to say something serious -- this would be to argue a case that would deny the existence of a great deal of literature. But it is to say that the problem with B.-D.'s analysis is not with what she has to say about how the author tells a story (here her contribution is helpful), but with her view of the way that a Roman would have read it.

The second half of the book, in which B.-D. compares the picture of Alexander in the Historia Augusta with those that are provided elsewhere, is less interesting. Much of what goes wrong here is not, however, without parallel elsewhere. It begins with the facile assumption that the literature we have is a fair representation of what was available in antiquity. This is as absurd in the area of historical Quellenforschung as it is elsewhere. In this case B.-D. adopts the notion (which is not novel) that traditions can be arranged on stemmata like manuscripts (useful only when there are clear verbal parallels), and invites us to believe that Cassius Dio, who had some nice things to say about his consular colleague, influenced the view of fourth century Latin writers. To be fair, connections with Dio have been suggested by other scholars; but these alleged connections have never amounted to much, and we are left without evidence that Dio ever had influence upon a fourth century Latin audience.8 The further analysis of the portrait of Alexander that accompanies this discussion is based upon the assumptions set out in the first part of the book. Even if there are problems here, this survey does provide a useful discussion of issues that were of concern in the late fourth century.

Although I have serious disagreements with some of B.-D.'s notions about the Historia Augusta, the conception of this book is valuable. Many of the problems associated with the Historia Augusta are very old. We need to take a new look at the way this collection can be read in order to determine what it can tell us about life and letters in the fourth century. The synthetic approach that B.-D. takes is a real step in the right direction.


1. The collection received the title Scriptores Historiae Augustae from Casaubon in his edition of 1603 on the basis of the reference to Tacitus as scriptor Historiae Augustae at HA V. Tac. 10.3. In light of the modern belief that the collection is the work of one author it is now conventional to refer to the collection simply as the Historia Augusta. For a good summary of the issues see K.-P. Johne, Kaiserbiographie und Senatsaristokratie. Untersuchungen zur Datierung und sozialen Herkunft der Historia Augusta (Berlin, 1976), 11-16.

2. H. Dessau, "Über Zeit und Persönlichkeit der S.H.A.," Hermes 24 (1889), 337-92.

3. Th. Mommsen, "Die Scriptores Historiae Augustae," Hermes 25 (1890), 228-92.

For a clear statement of this view see R. Syme, Historia Augusta Papers (Oxford, 1983), 218-9.

5. For a selection of bad jokes (from lives attributed to different authors) see R. Syme, Emperors and Biography (Oxford, 1971), 63.

6. I. Marriott, "The Authorship of the Historia Augusta: Two Computer Studies," JRS 69 (1979), 51-64 sought to prove unitary authorship; the methods used are shown to be faulty by D. Sansone, "The Computer and the Historia Augusta: a Note on Marriott," JRS 80 (1990), 174-7, though, as Sansone points out, the faults in Marriott's analysis in no way vitiate the observation that anyone reading the work would make, that there appears to be remarkable congruence of style throughout.

7. Syme, Emperors and Biography, 79-80.

8. T.D. Barnes, The Sources of the Historia Augusta, Collection Latomus vol. 155 (Brussels, 1978), 81-9, for a good statement of the situation with regard to Dio. His own belief (shared with Syme) that the good information in the lives down to Elagabalus goes back to a biographer other than Marius Maximus is more problematic. For bibliography on this point see D.S. Potter, Prophecy and History in the Crisis of the Roman Empire (Oxford, 1990), 369 n. 47.