Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.04.02

A. Lippold, Die Historia Augusta: eine Sammlung römischer Kaiserbiographien aus der Zeit Konstantins (ed. G.H. Waldherr).   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 1998.  Pp. 280.  ISBN 3-515-07272-1 (pb).  DM 124.  

Reviewed by David Potter, University of Michigan
Word count: 1016 words

There have been important developments in the study of the Historia Augusta during the last decade. A Budé edition has been undertaken under the general direction of J.-P. Callu, which now extends to three volumes that give us the lives of Hadrian, Aelius Caesar and Antoninus Pius in the first, of Macrinus, Diadumenianus and Elagabalus in the second, Aurelian and Tacitus in the third (edited by Paschoud).1 With generous commentary, and extensive polemical introductions, this project threatens the budget of any classicist. For those who cannot wait for the Budé there is André Chastagnol's 1994 translation of Hohl's Teubner text, including a fine introduction to the whole work as well as separate introductions to each life and some notes.2 Those looking for a reasonable statement of the state of scholarship on questions relating to the Historia Augusta can do a very great deal worse than getting a copy of Chastagnol. For those who want an antidote to Chastagnol's reasoned case for a date around 400, there is now Lippold's collection of essays.

The subtitle of this volume reveals it premise, that the Historia Augusta dates to the time of Constantine. The book presents twenty essays in which L. either sets forth and defends his view, or treats other topics in third and fourth century history. A reader who, like the present reviewer, agrees with Chastagnol (and many others) will view this claim with skepticism. But this reader should also view the project with respect (even while remaining unconvinced). L. argues well, he treats other scholars with generosity, and his own agnosticism about points that many would take as indications of a specific date in the period where the Historia Augusta is usually placed is valuable.

L.'s introduction, written in 1998 responds to recent work, especially to Paschoud's introduction to his Budé edition of 1996. While Paschoud followed the communis opinio and determines the date on the basis of parallels with other late fourth century literature, and assumes one key source, Nicomachus Flavianus, that must date to the 390s, L. asserts that these parallels are too imprecise to prove direct intertextual connection (and, of course, that the dependence upon the lost work of Nicomachus is an unproven assumption). What he applauds in Paschoud's work is the stress upon a western senatorial outlook in the collection as a whole. For L. the biographies reflect precisely this view, and the key feature of the work is the absence of serious religious antagonism. It is the religious aspect that leads him to think that the work must fall somewhere around 330. To place such emphasis on the treatment of religion (especially Christianity) is problematic. One need look no further than Ammianus Marcellinus to find an author of the 390s who could write a history of the fourth century that avoided overt polemic. Even if one accepts T.D. Barnes' recent assertion that the systematic avoidance of Christianity is a form of polemic in itself, L.'s notion that a pagan writer must offer overt commentary on Christianity by the end of the fourth century is not convincing.3 The interesting feature of Barnes' work, which bears close, if accidental, connection to important trends in feminism and postcolonialism, is the notion that failure to engage a subject in its own terms is a form of repression. L.'s reading of religion in the Historia Augusta can be taken in exactly the same way, suggesting that suppression was a deliberate strategy on the part of the author. Otherwise, one could read his analysis as confirmation of the point best represented in John Matthews' splendid book on Ammianus, that it was possible for a reasonable person to think that polytheist and Christian could coexist without the need for conflict and that he could find aspects of Julian's religious policy, and of some Christian behavior, equally problematic.4 L.'s dating is based on just the same sort of a priori argument that he is an astute critic of in others. What L. does not deal with is the foundation of Dessau's case for a date c. 400, that the bogus prosopography of the lives bespeaks the late rather than early fourth century.

Even if one does not want to follow L.'s approach, it must be admitted that he raises serious questions about some of the arguments contributing to the communis opinio that the Historia Augusta dates to the period c. 400. The brief note reprinted from Historia 41 (1992) on possible allusions to the De Rebus Bellicis at various points in the Historia Augusta is a fine sample of L.'s overall approach. What was might be taken as an allusion to a text is shown rather to be a reference to a policy that spans the course of the century. Likewise, L. is surely correct in criticizing the reasoning that lies behind an effort to identify the figure of Misitheus (Timesitheus) with Stilicho on the grounds that the problem of "kinderkaisertums" was much on people's minds after the death of Theodosius. As he rightly notes, it was a problem for Herodian, and may well have been something of an issue for Diocletian. In a much earlier article (1972) L. undermined Alföldy's view that the narrative of Aurelian's campaign against the Goths in Italy "must be" a response to Radagaisus' invasion of Italy in 407. Inflated numbers for barbarians and reference to ritual, characteristics of the Historia Augusta passage (V. Aur. 18-19) are sufficiently commonplace that an effort to see a direct allusion to an event of the early fifth century is unnecessary, and this objection might reasonably be extended to Paschoud's belief that the reference here is to the controversy over the altar of Victory in 384.5

If one is not simply interested in arguments about the date of the Historia Augusta, one can turn to this volume for some good work on Pertinax, Maximinus Thrax (L. is the author of a massive commentary on the Historia Augusta biography) and on the reign of Constantine. Despite the reservations mentioned earlier, this is a collection that repays reading, and it is useful to have these essays collected in one place.


1.   J.-P. Callu, ed. Histoire Auguste, 1.1, Introduction générale, vies d'Hadrien, Aelius, Antonin (Paris, 1992); R. Turcan ed., Histoire Auguste: 3.1, Vies de Macrin, Diaduménien, Héliogabale (Paris, 1993); F. Paschoud ed. Histoire Auguste 5.1, Vies d'Aurélien et de Tacite (Paris, 1996).
2.   A. Chastagnol, Histoire Auguste (Paris, 1994).
3.   T.D. Barnes, Ammianus Marcellinus and the Representation of Historical Reality (Ithaca, 1998), 79-94 (with full reference to other discussions).
4.   J.F. Matthews, The Roman Empire of Ammianus (London, 1989), 435-51.
5.   F. Paschoud, "Raisonnements providentialistes dans l'Histoire Auguste," BHAC 1977/78 (Bonn, 1980), 173-8 and Paschoud ed. Histoire Auguste: vies d'Aurélien et de Tacite, 123.

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