Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.08.38

Stefan Priwitzer, Faustina minor - Ehefrau eines Idealkaisers und Mutter eines Tyrannen quellenkritische Untersuchungen zum dynastischen Potential, zur Darstellung und zu Handlungsspielräumen von Kaiserfrauen im Prinzipat. Tübinger althistorische Studien Bd. 6.   Bonn:  Dr. Rudolf Habelt, 2008.  Pp. xv, 233.  ISBN 9783774935488.  €79.00.  

Reviewed by Jörg Fündling, Aachen University, Germany (
Word count: 2494 words

On his way towards the present volume, his Ph. D. dissertation, Priwitzer has lived through every postgraduate's nightmare, the death of his original supervisor. Let it be said in advance that the cumulative advice both of the late Hildegard Temporini-Gräfin Vitzthum and afterwards of Mischa Meier has been put to a highly creditable use.

There are more 'Untersuchungen' to Priwitzer's book than the table of contents discloses at first sight. Three large sections, linked by the person of the Younger Faustina, enquire into Hadrian's settlements of succession in A.D. 136 and 138 (pp. 15-93), Commodus and Faustina (96-174), and -- somewhat more condensed -- the circumstances of the Avidius Cassius usurpation and Faustina's subsequent death in A.D. 175 (175-207; by some lucky twist this chapter begins on just the right page). Yet from each of the longer sections another separate study may be detached without effort: an excursus on the topos of how bad rulers may owe their rule to the wily help of their (step)mothers (pp. 31-57) and, in the second case, an even longer insertion on the 'Tyrannentopik' directed against Commodus and on contradictory evidence (108-170). Both of these sections are a definite gain for the book and lend welcome support to Priwitzer's lines of argument; they could easily stand on their own as independent entities, though, and cause some detrimental blur of structure in their present positions. In the second case a fine and succinct study of the motif of Commodus the Gladiator and his adulterous mother (95-108; 170-73) is all but overshadowed by the decision to have it merely flank the loosely related essay on tyranny. But that is a weakness of presentation, not at all of the underlying scholarship. One reason may be the tendency of some German faculties to consider dissertations on 'Studien zu' a minor performance, compared to one-topic theses (or, at least, titles), and the consequent defensive strategy of forming as large blocks of text as possible.

After an introduction on dynastic policy and the empresses' role therein (1-6) the three narrative pillars of Antonine history -- Cassius Dio, Herodian and the Historia Augusta (HA) -- are briefly presented (7-14); Priwitzer's focus is on the respective author's point of view or 'Kaiserideal'. A few words on the vastly varying qualities of the pertinent HA lives would have been appropriate -- Priwitzer has studied the tangle of attested or conceivable sources and treads warily when using the secondary lives (among them Aelius and Avidius Cassius), but he passes no general warning to his readers that they are facing a text of intentional playfulness and some criminal energy. His own approach, in fact, is at times more positivistic than the HA's literary aspects seem to allow for.

Priwitzer's first study, "Die Nachfolgeregelungen Hadrians und die Verlobung der Faustina minor", tackles a cat's cradle of hotly disputed questions: Hadrian's reason for choosing L. Ceionius Commodus, Aelius Caesar, in A.D. 136; the nature of his relation to and plans for Marcus Annius Verus; the debate whether Marcus (arguments are presented on pp. 22-63) or the future Lucius Verus (63-83) was Hadrian's actual choice for the second generation of successors. The conflicting theories are presented in all clarity; this includes a handy, reliable overview of the attested relations of both Marcus and Antoninus Pius (22-29). One does miss a line of explanation for the two stemmata on pp. 23 and 29 and some help (like consular dates or PIR numbers) to identify homonymous characters, but these and others are minor desiderata.1

We temporarily leave the Antonine question on p. 31 for the excursus on bad rulers and their shady accessions ("'Schlechte' Kaiser, ihre Mütter und ihr Herrschaftsantritt"). This part goes a long way back, even to Olympias and Tanaquil, but will be a most welcome reference on that topic. For reasons of economy the father-son relationships, here treated apart from the corresponding mother-son chapters (and in inverse order), should have been appended to them.

The resumption and end of the Hadrian part from p.57 onwards prepares for the statement that neither Marcus (62-63) nor Lucius (89) or their modern supporters can claim any cogent arguments to have been preferred in A.D. 138 or even 136. In the process Priwitzer betrays a most commendable distrust when confronted with stemmata that abound with mutually exclusive lines of descent and question marks (63). But the keystone to his analysis is a most remarkable attempt to prove that the betrothal of Faustina minor to Lucius in Hadrian's lifetime in fact never happened (72-83). From Priwitzer's point of view Hadrian preferred Marcus in A.D.138 at the latest, out of mere personal conviction and possibly encouraged by the qualities of his praefectus urbi M. Annius Verus, Marcus' grandfather; Lucius was taken over and adopted by Antoninus to keep him down instead of in (89-92) because there was no way just to ignore him (209). An (early?) Antonine date is preferred for the "Parthian Monument" from Ephesus, often quoted in favour of Lucius (pp.83-89); Priwitzer meets the difficulty of explaining the battle scenes by the suggestion that they show generic images of the victorious emperor -- in fact, that there may be no Parthians on them at all. As for the betrothal, Priwitzer has our only witness, the author of the HA, fall victim to two undisclosed sources for Pius 6,9-10, each of whom telling the self-same fact -- the betrothal of Marcus to Faustina after Hadrian's death -- but using different names for Marcus (p.76-77). As the critical item, "Verus" for Marcus, returns in the HA version of Marcus' dream known from Cassius Dio, Priwitzer suggests Dio, or at any rate "eine exakte Vorlage der Historia Augusta" (77), as a possible source. Any evidence for two distinct main sources in the Vita Pii, hitherto seen as homogeneous and almost boring, will have momentous consequences for the controversy on the early HA vitae as a whole, if adopted.2 The pattern of events certainly fits the policy chosen by Antoninus when emperor; it still leaves unexplained why the Ceionii ever came in if Marcus was to have been Hadrian's long-term choice even in A.D.136 (p.21).

One flaw of Priwitzer's tempting hypothesis is his quick assumption that the hotchpotch of name elements in HA Marcus 1,3 and Verus 7,7 comes from an ill-informed source, the faultiness of which the author "als solche nicht erkannte." (72) The same would apply to the massive resulting contradictions. The HA works at times shoddily but can hardly be credited with such ingenuousness, given their record of fictitious or happily distorted names. There is a definite answer to Priwitzer's belated question whether its author really took the pains to come up with a confusing variety of names (75 n. 495), and to call the mode of compilation "unbedarft" without further qualifications (ibid.) amounts to a grave misjudgment.3 Nor can a mere act of cut-and-paste from sources explain why "Annius Verus" in Hadr. 24,1 is certainly Lucius as opposed to "Marcus Antoninus" -- the author must have intervened here. He might have modified the names in more than one single spot and without a systematic pattern, including even the crucial Pius passage. Nonetheless Priwitzer's proposal as a whole has the makings of a major discovery and one can but sincerely congratulate him on his observation.

"Der Tyrann Commodus und seine Mutter Faustina" (96-174), as sketched above, is composed around the Tyrannentopik excursus (108-170). To present this core section first, it will be an asset to both future biographers and studies on imperial stereotyping. Priwitzer gives a comprehensive list of character traits, political mishaps, subordinates and decisions that have been quoted against Marcus' heir. The passage on tyrants murdering relatives (122-124) might have been enriched by Hadrian's killing of Julius Servianus and Pedanius Fuscus Salinator or even, if close friends count, by the downfall of Licinius Mucianus when Titus took over from Vespasian. These acts had at least the potential to cast a suspicion of tyranny -- not its full shadow, perhaps, but certainly a penumbra -- on those concerned. Priwitzer's perceptive suggestion that the identification of Commodus with Hercules may well go back to A.D. 176 (153) will find an eager audience if he should choose to further expound it in the future. His collection of pro-Commodian testimonies, both later and contemporaneous (159-170), amounts to a treasure trove; his call for corrections of the distorted picture, as our senate-centered sources draw it, is inevitable.

In the flanking passages (96-108; 170-174) Faustina's role is made out to be that of a scapegoat for Commodus' failure to meet the expectations that he would continue his father's policy; hence the stories of infatuation or even adultery with a gladiator -- a chapter rich in material on "Der Gladiator Commodus" (101-108) fills in its turn half of those pages. Priwitzer could have immensely profited from Peter Weiss's fundamental paper on Antoninus and the marital ideology of his dynasty that, alas, appeared while the present book was already in print. At long last there is an answer to the question why Marcus and Faustina ran the mortal risk of pregnancy and childbirth more often than any other imperial couple -- the dying away of their male heirs could explain only part of it. What is more, the official insistence on the spouses' concordia and virtuous conduct might account for at least some of the sexual rumours about both of the Faustinae. 4

To the final chapter, "Die Usurpation des Avidius Cassius" (p. 175-207) and Faustina's alleged role in it. Here Priwitzer recognizes structures that are by now familiar from the story of Commodus' gladiatorial parentage: sympathies for Avidius outlived his destruction, maybe among a few discontented members of the Senate (201-203), so Faustina was blamed for egging him on. As an accomplice she seems highly improbable; out of the question, says Priwitzer. His analysis of what Faustina and her last surviving son might have done if Marcus had died in A.D.175 is pithy and to the point. A possible regency of the empress and an alliance with Claudius Pompeianus are both proposed and examined; the project of marriage to Avidius, as Dio reports it, would have been an option for Faustina but not for Commodus, who would most probably have been superseded if not done away with in the long run. Priwitzer's comparisons to Julia Domna facing Macrinus in A.D. 217 and especially to Agrippina minor in 38/39 will hopefully also attract the notice of those interested in the Julio-Claudian epoch as they develop into far more than just a well-drawn parallel. Here, as in many other cases, Priwitzer betrays a fruitful tendency to pursue even byways and subordinate questions until he arrives at some presentable conclusion. The possibility that Marcus' ill health favoured rumours of his death is ruled out as well as the alleged suicide of the empress soon after the crisis (Priwitzer decides on the autumn of 175 for Faustina's demise); a question mark is set over the praise for Marcus' clementia towards participants in the coup (203-205) -- the disappearance of the praefectus Aegypti Calvisius Statianus and the treatment of the surviving Avidii tell a different tale anyhow. In response to the failed usurpation, Commodus, who is shown as already undergoing presentation as Marcus' successor ("in der Vorstellungsphase als Nachfolger", 181) in 175, was hurried through the remaining stages and towards the rank of Augustus.

This leaves Avidius Cassius as the only instigator of his own revolt, maybe because he hoped that his extraordinary command and the loyalty of the eastern provinces would carry him to Rome, or else because he feared demotion and death like a second Corbulo (206-7). Two pages are not quite enough to advance such a pair of interpretations. If Cassius wanted the purple and was ready to make a bid for it, why did he do it in 175 and not in one of the previous years? So as not to stab the efforts on the Danube from behind? Then again, if Marcus threatened or even prepared to eliminate Cassius, why leave him in a paramount position for civil war? After Priwitzer's creditable spell of sounding options and possibilities on pp. 189-195 this would have been another rewarding opportunity -- but perhaps we shall hear more from him in years to come. Hopefully not about the letters of the HA's Vita Avidii. They are fictitious, not only falsified and distorted as Priwitzer seems to imply ("in der vorliegenden Form eindeutig Fälschungen": 177). There is simply not the faintest hint that any original or even pseudepigraphic letters were accessible to the author of the HA, but there are overwhelming parallels in structure and vocabulary, line by line, to bogus letters and anecdotes throughout the corpus. The Avidius letters should have been dismissed from the beginning.5

After the impressive fifteen-page bibliography, a monument of application (there is far more in the footnotes), the agreeable bonus of an index awaits systematic users (names, places and subjects all combined). It is still less than one might have hoped for; the very scope of Priwitzer's volume calls for an index of sources, since it will be of material importance in many respects for years to come, both as an easy reference and as a starting-point for further studies. We must do without it, unless some day it might materialise as an on-line supplement.

The parting assertion that new light in every respect has been shed on Faustina ("in einem völlig neuem Licht", 210) seems exaggerated and, given the numerous merits of the book, superfluous. What we have been given is a remarkable number of clarifications and stimulating in-depth studies, not a brand-new Faustina hitherto unknown. Her beginning and end as a political figure -- maybe a pawn rather than a queen when it comes to her range of influence and action -- are outlined more clearly than ever; the decades in between, when she actually was the "wife of an ideal emperor" as Priwitzer's title proclaims, do not figure in these pages, nor do the few words on her we have from Marcus Aurelius himself. But as a reading instruction to chapter-skimming, page-skipping reviewers and grant committees, let those words stand; they advertise a book that is well worth lasting attention.

Priwitzer's transparent if subdued language makes the volume quite accessible to users from abroad; it abounds with well-disciplined footnotes, some of which might have been amalgamated for the sake of economy. His decision to quote from the bibliography by short titles, not dates of publication, leads to a few additional pages' length. The overall reliability and scarcity of misprints is very satisfactory.6 Advanced students will find the book a boon when concentrating on single chapters; it may exceed their stamina to follow from beginning to end, because of the sheer amount of ground it covers. Readers beyond that stage will gladly welcome it as a diligent, well-informed collection of high quality, part of it downright exciting and decidedly an advance. Priwitzer has acquitted himself beyond expectations.


1.   Nerva, Trajan and Hadrian in Stammbaum 1 (p.23) ought to be linked by broken lines for adoption. 27 n. 96 omits the wilful swap of Domitius Tullus and Lucanus, as natural and adoptive fathers of Domitia Lucilla maior, by F. Chausson, "Variétés généalogiques: Numa Pompilius ancêtre de Marc Aurèle", in: Historiae Augustae Colloquium Perusinum 2000 (HAC 8). Bari: Edipuglia 2002, 109-147, proposed p. 112 n.8. Licinius Sura as a possible testator of the Testamentum Dasumii (p. 30) is not really on a par with Domitius Tullus and has few advocates outside his native Spain.
2.   On potential traces of Dio in the HA see J. Fündling, Kommentar zur Vita Hadriani der Historia Augusta. (Antiquitas 4.3.) Bonn 2006, 1, 128-137. To the appearance of Marcus as μᾶρκος Ἄννιος οὐῆρος in Cass. Dio 69,21,2 add βῆρος in 70,2,2. Marcus Aurelius is μᾶρκος throughout all that remains of Dio's Books 71-72 which unfortunately weakens Priwitzer's argument.
3.   R. Syme, "The Bogus Names in the Historia Augusta." BHAC 1964/65, 252-272 = id., Emperors and Biography. Studies in the Historia Augusta. Oxford 1972, 1-16.
4.   P. Weiss, "Die vorbildliche Kaiserehe. Zwei Senatsbeschlüsse beim Tod der älteren und der jüngeren Faustina, neue Paradigmen und die Herausbildung des 'antoninischen' Prinzipats." Chiron 38 (2008), 1-45. -- One disclaimer pro domo: in my Marc Aurel (Darmstadt 2008, 49-50) I have ventured to look for the consequences ("Folgen") of an arguable eating disorder in Marcus' life but have known better than to pinpoint any single key event ("Auslöser", Priwitzer's p.107 n.95) or, for that matter, any specific illness.
5.   R. Syme, "The Secondary Vitae." BHAC 1968/69, 285-307 = Emperors and Biography 54-77. The links between the various pseudo-documents in the HA are far from being exhaustively studied so far.
6.   Only potentially troublesome errors are listed.

p. 8 "seit Generationen wieder" read "als erster seit Generationen wieder"
p. 29 Stammbaum 2 "Mindus" read "Mindius"
p. 34 n. 174 "die Zeitzeugen und nicht weniger kritischen" read "die nicht weniger kritischen Zeitzeugen"
p. 48 "äussert" read "äusserst"
p. 76 "wissen wir nur aus der Historia Augusta" should be at the end of the sentence
p. 204 n. 211 "Amm. Aur." read "Amm. Aur." -- this probably happened when Priwitzer changed "Hist. Aug. Marc." to "Hist. Aug. Aur.". The use of "Plu." for Plutarch throughout is somewhat idiosyncratic.
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