Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.03.07

Peter Michael Swan, The Augustan Succession: An Historical Commentary on Cassius Dio's Roman History, Books 55-56 (9 B.C. - A.D. 14).   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2004.  Pp. 428.  ISBN 0-19-516774-0.  $90.00.  

Reviewed by Adam Kemezis, University of Michigan (
Word count: 2498 words

While it is a rare historian of the Augustan period who has not had to deal with Cassius Dio, it is probably an even rarer one who can claim thorough understanding of or comfort with him as a source. Although he furnishes our most detailed narrative history of events from 35 B.C. (where Appian ends) to the death of Augustus in A.D. 14, Dio remains relatively little-studied.1 Historians who consult him for particular passages often have little idea of the general context of his work, his methods and aims or even his factual reliability. P.M. Swan's extremely thorough and useful new commentary should help greatly to remedy this situation.

S.'ss work is the third volume in an ongoing serial commentary, the "Dio Project," that has been in progress for nearly twenty years through the American Philological Association. Taking the first two volumes in that series, along with two other commentaries published separately, there now exists a nearly continuous commentary on Dio's history from the end of the Civil Wars to the death of Domitian.2 Although the general level of these commentaries has been admirable, S.'s work sets a new standard.

This volume is targeted toward historians of the Augustan period to whom Dio is of interest primarily as a source of facts rather than as an author in himself. Although S.'s contributions to our understanding of Dio are considerable, what stands out about this work is the wide range of Augustan topics for which S. provides both original scholarship and extensive consideration of other ancient and modern sources. Anyone starting research on, for example, Augustus' marriage-laws or the Balkan wars of A.D. 6-9 will find in this volume the equivalent of a review article whose scope goes far beyond explicating the text of Dio. S. is to be commended on a work that will prove an asset to a much wider range of readers than the words "commentary on Cassius Dio" might ever lead one to expect.

As has been the case with previous volumes in the APA series, S. has not produced a new text of Dio, largely because the current standard text by U.P. Boissevain (Berlin 1895-1901), leaves so little room for improvement.3 After a very informative 40-page introduction on Dio and his work, S. moves straight into his commentary, followed by 15 appendices, mostly on specific points of historical detail.

The introduction does a great deal to give readers a picture of Dio's specific position in the Rome of the Severans and his sometimes idiosyncratic view of the state of the Empire in his time. While S. makes clear that Dio is an author who brings a great deal of his own contemporary concerns to his history, he also makes clear that this is a process of conscious adaptation rather than unthinking anachronism. If Dio's Augustus sometimes sounds like he belongs in the third century rather than the first, that is not because Dio does not know the difference, but because he is seeking to make Augustus useful for a contemporary project, much as biographers today seek to give us a "twenty-first-century" version of iconic figures from the past.

In his introduction, S. shows Dio to be a deeply conservative aristocrat who believed in a providential destiny for Rome (8-13). He saw his own time as one of decline, but decline that would be arrested if emperors returned to an enlightened style of government. Dio's role is to present emperors with a paradigm, in the shape of Augustus, of what enlightened government should be (13-17). This view of Dio builds on S.'s own previous work with Meyer Reinhold, and has now, rightly, become the near-unanimous view among those concerned with the subject.4 One might, however, quarrel with S.'s use of such terms as "Augustan gospel" and "evangelical fanfare" to describe Dio's project. Few scholars give Dio the credit S. does for systematic thought about cosmology and teleology, and those who do generally find him considerably more pessimistic than S. does.5 This is not to say S.'s argument lacks merit, but to be convincing it would need to be set out in greater detail than he is able to in this volume.

Historiographical scholars of Dio will also find the introduction valuable for its discussion of Dio's methodology and approach to earlier annalistic sources (17-26), again building on S.'s earlier work.6 S. very wisely abstains from much delving into the identity of Dio's sources, a question on which recent work has reached conclusions either negative or highly speculative.7 Instead, S. presents a model of Dio's methodology in which Dio, equipped with one or more detailed annalistic histories, sets about condensing them with relatively little addition from other sources.8 In addition, S. puts forth his own addition to the large number of proposed chronologies of Dio's life and work. He basically sides with the current majority view that what we have now is mostly a product of the 200s and 210s.9 He adds the thesis (34-36) that the first 76 of Dio's 80 books were put out in something like their current form as an "editio princeps" to coincide with the start of Alexander Severus' reign in 222. This is in some ways an attractive idea, and S. argues well for it, but it seems very unlikely that it will ever be really proven or disproven on the available evidence.

The format of the commentary is a very well adapted to the kind of piecemeal consultation mentioned above. Within each of the two relevant books of Dio, the commentary is broken down, as the text is, into annalistic years, and under the heading of each year is included a sketch of Dio's content and structure for that year. S. then moves on through the annalistic material, and gives each episode -- "Tiberius adopted by Augustus," "The war in Dalmatia" -- its own heading and section with a separate introduction, sometimes as long as the line-by-line commentary itself, and overall bibliography before moving on to line-by-line entries.

The true value of this commentary is in explaining how modern scholars get from the text of Dio to their narrative of Augustus' reign. Thus S. often talks as much about Suetonius, Velleius, Tacitus and the Res Gestae as he does about his own author. As a historical narrator, Dio can be extremely sparing of factual details and vague in his chronology, and one often gets the feeling that S. is writing the narrative he wishes Dio himself had written. This is particularly notable in such episodes as Dio's list of all existing Roman legions and their locations in his own day (Dio 55.23.2-24.8). The anachronism of Dio's list makes it more useful for Severan than Augustan historians: S. reproduces the whole list with all available pertinent information for the Augustan age (158-172). In general, anywhere that Dio provides any information on a topic at all, S. expands on the point to give the reader a summary of all available ancient evidence and major modern scholarship. Since the number of topics on which Dio touches briefly is very considerable, the potential audience who could find this book useful is a broad one indeed.

The number of topics covered by S. is too wide to allow for consideration of each or even most, but a few points generally stand out. No area of Augustan history that Dio touches is ignored or skimped on by S., but military history is especially favored in this regard. Swan works up major excursuses on Gaius Caesar's eastern expedition of A.D. 1-4 (112-20 and 125-34); the Illyrian wars of A.D. 6-9 (195-203; 210-16; 221-22; 235-250 -- the breaks happen because Dio's annalistic structure does not allow for continuous narration of a war that lasts more than two years.); and Varus' disastrous campaign of A.D. 9 (250-74). The numerous smaller wars described by Dio are also treated in considerable detail. In each of the three cases cited above, S. presents his own reconstruction of events, which in all three cases are highly contested, along with extensive modern bibliography and summaries of major disputes. His presentation of views other than his own is consistently full and fair-minded.

Also admirable is S.'s handling of the art-historical portion of his task. Dio as a historian is remarkably conscious of the propaganda value of architecture and spectacle, especially in the Augustan era. This is one area in which Dio seems to resemble his modern counterparts more than do most of his contemporaries. Once again, S. provides a thorough background to the issues involved and bibliography. The best example is his excursus on the Forum of Augustus and Temple of Mars Ultor (93-101), but many smaller instances exist. In general, any time Dio happens to mention that an event occurs in a given location in Rome, S. takes the time to explain the architectural history of that site in the Augustan period, as with the Circus Flaminius (45), Porticus Liviae (72) and Porticus Octaviae (74).

The remainder of the commentary covers a daunting range of topics in consistently painstaking fashion. In several cases S. has new contributions to make to old cruces, notably that of the Lex Papia-Poppaea, the second of Augustus' marriage-laws, and its relation to the considerably earlier Lex Julia (233-34). It is difficult to tell from our sources whether the second law mitigated the first or made it harsher; S.'s intriguing theory, based on Dio's comments elsewhere about Augustus' legislative practice, is that the second law was indeed more rigorous, but that before enacting it Augustus canvassed an even more severe version, which generated the protests we hear about in our sources, so that the final law, although more severe than the existing one, was less so than the first draft. In many other cases, particularly those regarding the various family and succession struggles, S. has no new theory to add, but leaves the reader with a full and useful summary of existing ideas. The only topics where S. cannot help are those where Dio himself is missing because of lacunae that have no fragments to fill them, most notably the exile in A.D. 8 of the younger Julia. In some instances, one feels that S. has a great quantity of information on the Augustan age in general that he wants to get down on paper somewhere, and he will use any textual hook that Dio will give him, as in his art-historical digressions, or his discussion of the will of Augustus (309-19). For another author, this might seem like overkill, but since there is no demand for concise inexpensive commentaries on Dio for language classes or the casual reader, one is inclined to say that the best commentary is the widest-ranging and most thorough, a principle evidently adopted by S., though at no sacrifice of quality to quantity.

Many useful details on specific problems can be found in S.'s 15 appendices on topics including imperatorial acclamations in Augustus' family, an emendation in Velleius (2.115.4, on the Dalmatian War of A.D. 9) and Dio's perception of the value of the aureus. One case in which one could ask for better is that of the maps. They are relatively few in number (six), crowded, and of a rudimentary black-line format that makes it hard to tell rivers, coasts and roads apart. In particular, the military narratives of Gaius Caesar and of the Dalmatian Wars are quite complicated and would have benefited greatly from more generous visual aids. One would like to be able to expect more in a book at this price. In addition, while S.'s bibliography is remarkably thorough, it does tend to thin out notably after about 1999, due doubtless to the very long time such a book must have taken in publication.

It should be noted that this work takes seriously its title advertisement that it is a "historical commentary." Details of language and textual problems are analyzed only when there is a real problem in comprehending Dio's meaning, or in the many instances where our text of Dio has lacunae. These need to be filled out of Byzantine epitomes and compilations, meaning that ordering and locating the various fragments has been the most difficult task of Dio's editors. S. has a well-trodden path, however, and his disputes with Boissevain's text are few but well-chosen (e.g. 111-12 [dating of a fragment from the expedition of Gaius] and 217-18 [an epitomator has combined two widely separated passages of Dio into one sentence]). S. has helpfully listed in his index all readings that he disputes or discusses in detail.

The strict historical focus does also mean that considerably less attention is given to the purely literary aspects of the work than is the case in comparably thorough commentaries on Tacitus or Livy. S. does pay great attention to Dio the historian as distinct from his text, but it generally takes the form of trying to derive one consistent set of opinions and beliefs that apply uniformly throughout the text: Dio is credulous of omens, suspicious of women, loathes popular unrest and so forth. In describing Dio's curious "double assessment" of Augustus after his death -- first through the mouth of Tiberius and then in propria persona -- S. has much that is intelligent to say about the contradictions between Dio's statements at that point and the clear purport of his earlier narrative but less to say about the literary effect and purpose of constructing a narrative in such an eccentric fashion (325-39; 345-50). In this, S. is following the practice of the vast majority of modern writers on Dio. In large part, this is surely because Dio is simply not the literary artist that Tacitus and Livy are. Nevertheless, he is far from a naive or transparent writer. On the contrary, the literary form of his history as a whole has many curious aspects. S. has a recurring habit, when he encounters an odd literary choice on Dio's part, to speculate briefly on his reasons for it in the form of a rhetorical question.10 It may be that sometimes the answers to those questions are both more attainable and more interesting than S. gives them credit for. On the whole, however, literary scholars of Dio are few, and Augustan historians are many, and clearly S.'s priorities were dictated by that fact. Moreover, the state of literary analysis of Dio is such that someone who knows Dio as well as S. does cannot help but contribute greatly to our understanding, even in a work whose main purpose lies elsewhere.

This commentary has achieved its objective very well indeed. Scholars on a very wide range of topics within Augustan history have a valuable and well-designed new resource. Thanks to the generous scope S. has given himself, this work is one of those commentaries that is a historical reference work in itself, above and beyond the purpose of explicating a given text. Anyone who needs to consult the relevant books of Dio for even a small reference ought certainly to consult S. as well.


1.   Major exceptions are, for an excellent survey of Dio's entire work, Fergus Millar, A Study of Cassius Dio. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964); for Dio's treatment of Octavian-Augustus specifically, two book-length studies: Bernd Manuwald, Cassius Dio und Augustus (Wiesbaden: Steiner, 1978) and Alain Gowing, The Triumviral Narratives of Appian and Cassius Dio (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1992)
2.   The volumes, in order of the material they cover, are: Meyer Reinhold, From Republic to Principate: An Historical Commentary on Cassius Dio's Roman History Books 49-52 (Atlanta: Scholars' Press, 1988); J.W. Rich, Cassius Dio: The Augustan Settlement (Roman History 53-55.9)(Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1990); J.C. Edmondson, Dio: The Julio-Claudians, Selections from Books 58-63 of the Roman History of Cassius Dio (London: LACT, 1992); Charles Leslie Murison, Rebellion and Reconstruction, Galba to Domitian: An Historical Commentary on Cassius Dio's Roman History Books 64-67 (A.D. 68-96)(Atlanta: Scholars' Press, 1999). The volumes in the APA series are Reinhold's and Murison's. It should be noted that Edmondson's volume represents substantial selections rather than the complete text of Dio, and that it is keyed to a translation rather than the Greek texts. Its notes are nevertheless of considerable value for historical purposes.
3.   It should be noted, however, that a new Budé text of Dio, by Marie-Laure Freyburger-Galland and Jean-Michel Roddaz, is available for Books 50-51 (1991); 48-49 (1994); and 41-42 (2002; Freyburger-Galland alone).
4.   Reinhold and Swan, "Cassius Dio's Assessment of Augustus" in Kurt Raaflaub and Mark Toher, eds., Between Republic and Empire: Interpretations of Augustus and his Principate (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1990) 155-73.
5.   The most detailed attempt I know of to construct a teleology for Dio's history is Rosemarie Bering-Stachewski's Römische Zeitgeschichte bei Cassius Dio (Bochum: Brockmeyer, 1981), which argues that Dio saw the Empire as in a state of irreversible decline.
6.   See Swan, "How Dio Composed His Augustan Books" in ANRW 2.34.3, 2524ff. and "Cassius Dio: A Poverty of Annalistic Sources?" in Phoenix 41 (1987) 272-91.
7.   In particular, two books published almost simultaneously, Manuwald (see n. 1 above) and Giuseppe Zecchini, Cassio Dione e la guerra gallica di Cesare (Milan: Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, 1978), have independently refuted the long-standing consensus that Livy was a major source for either the Dio's Augustan books or his account of the Gallic Wars.
8.   See Swan in Phoenix 1987 (n. 6) for references on the contrary view.
9.   For detailed references, see Swan 29 n. 127.
10.   For example, at p. 158 (does Dio's account of extended privileges for freedmen's children anticipate his dislike of later powerful Imperial freedmen?) or 242n. (does Tiberius' fear of concentrating his forces in A.D. 9 foreshadow the legion mutinies five years later?).

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