Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.04.07

Lavinia Galli Milić, Nicole Hecquet-Noti (ed.), Historiae Augustae: colloquium Genevense in honorem F. Paschoud septuagenarii. Les traditions historiographiques de l'Antiquité tardive: idéologie, propagande, fiction, réalité. Historiae Augustae colloquia. Nova series 11.   Bari:  Edipuglia, 2010.  Pp. 258.  ISBN 9788872285817.  €50.00.  

Reviewed by David Rohrbacher, New College of Florida (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

More than a century ago, Hermann Dessau demonstrated that the collection of imperial biographies known as the Historia Augusta, which purported to be the work of six authors writing at the beginning of the fourth century, was actually written by a single author at the end of the century. There has been steady progress in the understanding of the HA since then, but fundamental problems remain. The proceedings of the Historia Augusta Colloquium have been important as a forum for the dissemination of new insights into the HA since its founding in Bonn in 1962. The most important figures in the study of the Historia Augusta have participated, including Johannes Straub, Ronald Syme, André Chastagnol, and François Paschoud. This volume, the twenty-third, contains the papers of the colloquium held in Geneva in honor of the seventieth birthday of Paschoud, who has been a regular contributor to the HA colloquia since 1975, and more recently is the author of two very fine HA commentaries, with a third forthcoming.1 For the Festschrift, participants were encouraged to write not only on the HA, but on any topic in the broader world of late antique studies. As a result, HA-aficionados will be disappointed to find that only about half of the fifteen pieces are focused particularly on the Historia Augusta, two of which deal with the work’s Nachleben rather than the work itself. Given the limitations of space for this review, I will focus particularly on the HA pieces.

In “Marcus Aurelius’ northern wars in the Historia Augusta,” Anthony Birley surveys recent debates on three aspects of the wars: chronology, the lightning and rain miracles, and the purpose of the wars. At the end of the paper Birley analyzes the twists and turns of the mind of the HA-author in a close reading of the relevant passages, an approach which could be applied profitably to other early books of the HA.

In “Optimi principes – divi nell’Historia Augusta,” Giorgio Bonamente returns to a subject that he has treated before. The first half of the article discusses the evolution of Christian attitudes toward emperor-apotheosis in the period from Constantine to Theodosius. In the second half, Bonamente shows some correlations between the HA’s praise of certain emperors and their inclusion in the canon of the divi. This is a useful survey, but there are no surprises in the conventional list of emperors who are the objects of praise and posthumous divination.

“Alternatives historiennes: de l’Historia Alexandri à l’Historia Augusta” by Jean-Pierre Callu and Michel Festy has a provocative title. Although it could have been productive and interesting to look at two pieces of historical fiction from the later empire side by side, this article itself could be categorized as historical fiction. The authors’ explanation of the genesis of the Historia Augusta lacks both proof and plausibility. First, they assert that the Annales of Nicomachus Flavianus, which they understand to be an imperial history, was condemned and removed from public libraries after the author’s suicide. Second, they state that Nicomachus’ friends and family sought to perpetuate his memory by writing about the emperors, but that they differentiated their efforts from his by working in the biographical rather than the historical mode. Third, they claim that the younger Nicomachus, frustrated by repeated, failed attempts to rehabilitate his father between 394 and 399, defaced this biographical work in frustration, which resulted in the Historia Augusta as we now have it. There is need for boldness in explaining the unsolved problems of the HA, but this theory is both unlikely in itself and unsupported by evidence.

The contribution of Carole Fry is intriguing but flawed. She offers a welcome literary approach and is correct, I think, to suggest that the author’s allusions to Suetonius are often meant to be humorous rather than deceptive. But she limits her substantive discussion to only a single, much-discussed emulation of Suetonius.2 The rest of the paper is consumed by discussion of basic principles of classical rhetoric, and Fry is prone to the use of terminology (“echelles aléthiques” and “crédibilité évolutive,” for example) that mystifies rather than elucidates.

In recent years Stéphane Ratti has offered arguments for dating the Historia Augusta before 394 to support his unlikely hypothesis that Nicomachus Flavianus is its author.3 In “Un nouveau terminus ante quem pour l’Histoire Auguste,” he provides new evidence in the form of a few tenuous parallels between passages in various works of Sulpicius Severus and the HA, but these are best understood, I think, as coincidence rather than imitation. Even if this is a case of imitation, it would surely be more likely that the HA-author drew from Sulpicius, as he draws from Jerome and Ambrose, rather than the reverse.

Jörg Schlumberger contributes a good piece on source criticism, “Epitome, Historia Augusta und Marius Maximus?”. Schlumberger defends the traditional picture of Marius Maximus as an important biographical source for the early books of the HA against the skepticism of Paschoud.4 He demonstrates that parallels exist between passages in the Epitome de Caesaribus and the HA that do not derive from the one source they are known to share, the lost work known as Enmann’s Kaisergeschichte . These parallels are best explained by Maximus. His study adds circumstantial but valuable arguments that show how differently Maximus is treated by the HA-author compared to the other assuredly false “authorities” upon which the HA often relies.

The miscellany of topics covered in Domenico Vera’s “La tradizione annonaria nella Historia Augusta” will be of most use as a guide to the Historia Augusta for historians interested in the provisioning of Rome. He points out, for example, that naïve readers have been too accepting of the HA’s account of Aurelian and the distribution of wine (Aur. 48). Vera himself may read too much into the conventional and literary aspects of the passage in concluding that Aurelian is a mask for Valentinian I, scourge of senatorial wine-profiteering, but elements of his case are thought-provoking.

Hartwin Brandt has unearthed material from archives of the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, Preussischer Kulturbesitz, about the earliest stages of modern HA-research. In “Hermann Dessau, Otto Hirschfeld, Otto Seeck, Theodor Mommsen und die Historia Augusta,” he reproduces some letters between the scholars listed in the title that are of antiquarian interest but are not especially illuminating for modern research.

In “L’Historia Augusta da Memmio Simmaco a Paolo Diacono,” Giuseppe Zecchini considers the argument of A. A. Settia, that Paul the Deacon had made use of two passages from the Life of Aurelian in his Historia Langobardorum; he judges the use of the first to be inconclusive but the second likely.5 He insists that Paul must have used a full text of the HA, and devotes the rest of the short piece to speculating on where in Italy he may have found an HA manuscript. I find neither parallel especially convincing, but if we are to accept that Paul made use of two passages very near to each other in a single life, then surely Settia’s suggestion that he drew on an excerpt rather than the whole work makes the most sense. It seems imprudent to speculate, as Zecchini does, on the basis of one or two possible parallels, that it was Paul who introduced the Historia Augusta to the Carolingian court and was responsible for its ninth-century revival.

The remaining pieces cover subjects beyond the Historia Augusta. Baldini focuses on the much-studied question of the source(s) of Zosimus 2.29 and the anti-Christian version of Constantine’s baptism and trip to Rome; despite the title the HA only gets about a page of attention. His conclusion, that Zosimus clumsily transcribes Eunapius, who had himself depended upon a Latin source, perhaps Nicomachus Flavianus, does not seem to me to mark an advance on earlier work on the problem.6 Bowersock writes on iatrosophists, imperial doctor-rhetoricians who lectured and sometimes even operated on patients before an audience. He concludes by suggesting that a passage in the Life of Commodus (11.6-7) may reveal that the HA-author was familiar with public surgical displays. Bleckmann writes against attributing the Salmasian excerpts to the seventh-century historian John of Antioch, arguing that Salmasian and Constantinian John derive their material from different sources, and thus represent separate works. For the third and fourth century, he claims, the Salmasian excerpts use the Annales of Nicomachus Flavianus, and the two Salmasian passages set in the fifth century parallel Procopius and Prosper, while Constantinian John used Eunapius and Priscus for the fourth and fifth centuries.7 Brugisser contributes a piece on the Passio Acaunensium Martyrum. He shows that the Theban soldiers who refuse the orders of Maximian in the work articulate a new Christian vision of just war, according to which soldiers are forbidden to fight against other Christians and are ultimately responsible to God rather than to the emperor. Den Hengst, one of the Dutch commentators on Ammianus, provides a short piece on the regrettable editorial practices of Gelenius, our main witness to the now lost Hersfeldensis, which is the ancestor of our surviving manuscripts of the historian. Sabbah also writes on Ammianus, arguing that he was able to remain appropriately unbiased in the face of contemporary ideological divides, which he characterizes as civil/military, pagan/Christian, and (somewhat dubiously) patriotic/philanthrophic. In explaining Ammianus’ even-handedness, Sabbah might have put more weight on the genre and the audience than on Ammianus’ personal devotion to justice.

There are some pieces here which will be of interest to specialists, but little that is fresh or innovative. It is unfortunate that, despite the general interest in late antiquity and the importance and unusualness of the text, comparatively little work has been done in recent years on the Historia Augusta outside of the colloquium. In addition to the colloquium regulars, we need scholars with new perspectives and new methodologies to add to our understanding of this still-mysterious work.

Table des Matières

Lavinia Galli Milić et Nicole Hecquet, Avant-propos 7-8

Programme, 9-10

Gratiarum actio, 11-12

Antonio Baldini, Varie su Zosimo, 2,29 e la Vita Heliogabali della Historia Augusta, 13-36

Anthony R. Birley, Marcus Aurelius’ northern wars in the Historia Augusta, 37-50

Bruno Bleckmann, Der salmasische Johannes Antiochenus: Ein Versuch zur Bestimmung seines Profils für die Geschichte der Spätantike, 51-62

Giorgio Bonamente, Optimi principes – divi nell’Historia Augusta, 63-82

Glen W. Bowersock, Iatrosophists, 83-92

Hartwin Brandt, Hermann Dessau, Otto Hirschfeld, Otto Seeck, Theodor Mommsen und die Historia Augusta, 93-104

Philippe Brugisser, Un conflit de conscience dans le métier des armes: le plaidoyer des soldats thébains dans la Passion des martyrs d’Agaune selon Eucher de Lyon, 105-116

Jean-Pierre Callu – Michel Festy, Alternatives historiennes: de l’Historia Alexandri à l’Historia Augusta, 117-34

Carole Fry, Suetonianus quidam: l’auteur de l’Histoire Auguste en utilisateur de style Suétonien, 135-52.

Daniël den Hengst, Vir utriusque literaturae non vulgariter callens emunctaeque naris. Sur Ghelen, éditeur d’Ammien Marcellin, 153-64

Stéphane Ratti, Un nouveau terminus ante quem pour l’Histoire Auguste, 165-74

Guy Sabbah, Ammien Marcellin et les idéologies dominantes au IVe siècle, 175-94

Jörg A. Schlumberger, Epitome, Historia Augusta und Marius Maximus?, 195-210

Domenico Vera, La tradizione annonaria nella Historia Augusta, 211-28

Giuseppe Zecchini, L’Historia Augusta da Memmio Simmaco a Paolo Diacono, 229-35

Index locorum, 239-54

Index des auteurs modernes, 255-58


1.   Histoire Auguste V.1, Vies d’Aurélien, Tacite, Paris, 1996, and Histoire Auguste V.2, Vies de Probus, Firmus, Saturnin, Proculus et Bonose, Carus, Numérien et Carin, Paris, 2002. The preparation of a volume on the Lives of the Thirty Tyrants is mentioned in the preface, p. 8.
2.   In Suetonius’ Life of Gaius, 19.3, the biographer cites information his grandfather learned from imperial courtiers and told him when he was a boy. The device is adopted by the HA-author, who has his alter egos “Trebellius Pollio” and “Flavius Vopiscus” cite their own grandfathers more than a half-dozen times to validate absurd claims.
3.   “Nicomaque Flavien Senior auteur de l’Histoire Auguste,” in G. Bonamente and H. Brandt, eds,. Historiae Augustae Colloquium Bambergense, Bari, 2007, 305–17; “Nicomaque Flavien Senior et l’Histoire Auguste: la découverte de nouveaux liens,” Revue des Études Latines 85 (2007): 204–19; “394: Fin de la Rédaction de l’Histoire Auguste?”, Antiquité Tardive 16 (2008): 335–48.
4.   Paschoud’s skepticism: “Propos sceptiques et iconoclastes sur Marius Maximus,” inF. Paschoud, ed., Historiae Augustae Colloquium Genevense, Bari, 1999, 241–54. The traditional case is elaborated most fully by Anthony Birley, “Marius Maximus, the Consular Biographer,” Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischer Welt 2.34.3 (1997): 2678–757.
5.   A. A. Settia, “Aureliano imperatore e il cavallo di re Alboino. Tradizione ed elaborazione nelle fonti pavesi di Paolo Diacono,” in P. Chiesa, ed., Paolo Diacono, Udine, 2000, 487–504.
6.   Cf. F. Paschoud, “Zosime 2, 29 et la version paienne de la conversion de Constantin,” Historia 20 (1971), 334–53; G. Fowden, “The Last Days of Constantine: Oppositional Versions and their Influence,” Journal of Roman Studies 84 (1994): 146–70; F. Paschoud, “Zosime et Constantin. Nouvelles controverses,” Museum Helveticum 54 (1997), 9–28.
7.   Alan Cameron now offers a contrary argument on John in The Last Pagans of Ancient Rome, Oxford, 2011, 678–86.

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2011
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review
Bryn Mawr Classical Commentaries

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010
HTML generated at 07:42:27, Sunday, 03 April 2011