Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.09.16 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.09.16

Andrew G. Scott, Emperors and Usurpers: An Historical Commentary on Cassius Dio's 'Roman History' Books 79(78)-80(80) (217-229 A.D.). American classical studies.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2018.  Pp. xviii, 191.  ISBN 9780190879594.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Barbara Saylor Rodgers, The University of Vermont (


After an hiatus of over a decade, we are fortunate now to be able to add Scott's work on the last books of Cassius Dio's Roman history to the ongoing Dio Project begun over thirty years ago under the auspices of the APA. A series preface shows the completed works and the books still lacking an English commentary. This volume covers the end of the rule of Caracalla, the reigns of Macrinus and Elagabalus, and the accession of Alexander Severus, and provides an invaluable resource for the study of Roman historiography and the Severan age.

The final books of the history, beginning with the death of Marcus Aurelius, offer the best contemporary narrative source for the time, and much of 79(78) survives directly in Codex Vaticanus Graecus 1288 whereas much of the original history is not extant and one must make do with the eleventh-century epitome of Xiphilinus and various excerpted fragments. Scott notes that one can in these final books both judge the historian's method of writing up one reign (Macrinus') and attempt to explain the change in Dio's approach to Elagabalus, for in that portion he focuses almost entirely on the young ruler's misbehavior, not on what happened in the Senate or anywhere else.

The introduction offers a brief biography of Cassius Dio. Given the scholarly attention to Dio in recent decades, Scott can offer a summation with copious annotation. He uses Boissevain's text, explains the "reformed" and "standard" numbering of the books, and describes the state of the transmission. His keen observations on Dio as historical guide are set forth in the third section and recur throughout the commentary: the historian reveals senatorial disdain for the "fickle and capricious" crowd, easily led astray (63, 66), yet the people of Rome have a function in the narrative as a medium of the gods' will (8, 43) and when their reaction or protest corroborates Dio's statements about a ruler or action (8). The historian disapproves of the influence of the military (9, 67, 81, 91-2, 94-5, 114, 151) yet reveals himself as participant to be complicit in actions of which he cannot approve, as he recognizes that the army has more power than the Senate. He often contradicts imperial propaganda, and with the close gaze of the interested and involved reporter he can disregard or substantially supplement official reports (4, 92-3). Scott believes that one of Dio's aims in the contemporary history was to offer a corrective to the received view of a former ruler as influenced by his successor, as was very likely the case for Macrinus and possibly Elagabalus.

Scott makes a fair argument that Dio composed the contemporary part of the history after his retirement in 229. Other narrative sources for Macrinus and Elagabalus are Herodian, the Historia Augusta (HA) and Marius Maximus. Dio seems not to have used latter's biographies much if at all and Herodian probably consulted Dio, who is independent of him. Late Roman epitomes are too brief to be illuminating. There is little modern scholarship on Macrinus: this commentary offers careful scrutiny within the scope of Dio's narrative, supplemented with information from other sources. More scholars have studied Elagabalus, yet Scott notes little consensus among them on reconciling extant literary sources with documents (coins, inscriptions, papyri) from the reign. The book contains an excellent bibliography, extensively cited and discussed when appropriate, and indices of citations and names.

Scott gives each book of the history an introduction, adding a short preface to each major section within. Book 79(78) contains the end of Caracalla, Macrinus' accession with domestic matters, Macrinus' military activity and his end with the rise of Elagabalus. Its introduction has two sections: structure of the narrative shown in outline and discussion of chronology of the reign, and sources. The introduction to Book 80(79) on Elagabalus has four additional sections; so little remains of 80(80) that Scott offers only a brief introduction before the commentary. In keeping with the practice of earlier volumes, there is no Greek text. Each comment begins with a lemma, which Scott translates along with its wider context, explaining events, locations, actors, different possible interpretations, and, when necessary, problems with the text (e.g., 125 on Boissevain's ordering of chapters) and possible solutions. He carefully compares Dio's version with the narratives of Herodian and the HA to elucidate, if possible, what happened (e.g., 17, 71, 141). The discussion of alternate versions of Caracalla's end (38-9 on 79(78).5.5-6.1) offers a good illustration, where Scott's sorting out of the pronouns in the passage shows that the tribunes killed not Caracalla but the Scythian who had just killed Caracalla's assassin Martialis. Here, as often, the translation is part of the explanation.

Dio's dichotomous treatment of Macrinus receives much attention, as it ought: the historian's approval of Macrinus' administrative skills and attempted military reforms (82) was tempered by his firm belief that people should neither aspire nor be appointed to positions above their station (see also 59, 123-4, 135), and Macrinus was of equestrian status when he became emperor. See 48-50 for Scott's careful discussion of Macrinus' antecedents, earlier career, and status at the time of Caracalla's death. It is hard to say whether the cowardice to which Dio attributes Macrinus' wish not to engage the Parthians at Nisibis is any more than racial stereotype (Μαῦρος ὤν); Scott cites more favorable reports from both Herodian and the HA. The fighting at Nisibis serves as transition to the conspiracy surrounding Elagabalus.

Scott discusses what is known of the deity Elagabal (87), first mentioned at 79(78).31.1, and the future young emperor's association with him. Sources other than literary, i.e., coins and inscriptions, do not show an early empire-wide embrace of the deity, but rather a localized effort to secure initial support around Emesa. There is much to unravel, including identities and relationships, in the people around Elagabalus. Here especially, the prosopographical notes illustrate and occasionally correct Dio's judgment of persons high and low. Following a detailed exposition of the family of Julia Maesa (83-85), Scott explores at length the identities of Comazon, Eutychianus, and Gannys (86-87), concluding that the last two are the same person, Gannys probably being a nickname (cf. 46, 111). There follow a number of other identifications (89, 93-5, 99, 115, 118-123): family, supporters, victims. Dio's obituary notice for Macrinus at the end of the book reinforces the mixed message that good qualities cannot make up for overstepped boundaries (101).

The fall and rise of rulers is a notable theme of Book 79(78) (25), and Scott's observation on Dio's obituary notices rings true (41): longer and more detailed life summations are reserved for a number of contemporary rulers whom one can call good (or not bad), and shorter entries suffice for Commodus, Didius Julianus, Caracalla, and Elagabalus, allowing the historian to avoid a tradition of imperial encomium at an emperor's death. Within this book there is a brief, negative obituary for Caracalla (47) and a longer and on the whole favorable discussion of Macrinus (100-101).

The introduction to Book 80(79) includes not only structure and sources, but other narrative aspects that deserve the attention Scott gives to them. He offers the intriguing suggestion (102) that the lack of important civil or military happenings gave scope to a tired and disillusioned historian to explore the revulsion he felt toward this new ruler, and notes that the historian was not present for much of the action related, often relying on hearsay. Scott argues that since Dio does not complain about sources of information on this reign, he must have thought he had enough, and focuses on scandals not from lack of better information but because those best characterized Elagabalus' time as emperor. Dio's narrative begins with murders and continues on to violations of tradition regarding the consulship, religion, Syrian dress, marriages, barbaric singing, an accusation of child sacrifice, sexual perversions and escapades, and the promotion of unworthy individuals.

It is difficult to be sure of the truth in a narrative so similar in content to those of Herodian and the HA that Scott believes, "we seem to receive a depiction of the emperor that was substantially constructed after his fall". Elagabalus' religious practices, his untoward dress and behavior may be well described in our sources, but it is unclear how accurately, yet Scott believes that there were other aspects of the reign that bothered the Senate, people, and praetorians (106-109). Dio was more interested in Elagabalus as a type of bad tyrant than in details of religious observances in the cult of Elagabal. Despite the timing of the creation of the anecdotes, many of which may be posthumous, Scott notes one common element in the sources: Elagabalus did not endear himself to the army and the praetorians (110). And in Dio's time, that was failure enough. Scott observes (130) that Dio names the lowly non-senators copiously in this book, unlike elsewhere, to make a point about those exercising influence during the reign. When the wrong people are promoted, and even become senators (123), the world has indeed been turned upside down: even potential usurpers are nobodies, and worse (124, 135).

Elagabalus' end begins with the adoption of his cousin Bassianus as Alexander (138); Scott's detailed discussion of the accounts in Dio, Herodian, and the HA affirms the general agreement of our literary sources (138-141). In the narrative of downfall, Dio continues a parallel with the demise of Macrinus, especially because of the role of Severan women in the coup (146). There are a number of other parallels that Scott identifies to earlier rulers, especially when an emperor of whom Dio disapproves can be linked to an unsatisfactory predecessor: Dio calls Elagabalus τὸ παιδίον, as he had called Caligula on his accession (91); Elagabalus as well as Caligula is described as ἐρώμενος, not ἐραστής (133); echoes of Commodus in description of effeminacy (137) (cf. 4 on Commodus and Caracalla).

In the commentary to Book 80(80) Scott discusses the probable extent of the narrative, the grim circumstances of Dio's withdrawal from Rome and retirement, and the historian's view of the state of the empire, truly an "age of iron and rust": if Dio can neither observe nor participate, his role as an historian is severely curtailed, and he ends with his own second consulship (150). One of the most important features of Scott's treatment is indeed Dio's role. If the weak Senate is unable to assert its authority (114-15) and sycophantic (123), Dio as a senator is equally at fault: see 95-6 for examples of Dio's inaction or complicity. The historian as both observer (44, 103) and participant has a lot of explaining to do. That Alexander has to send Dio from Rome to save him illustrates the tension between honor and self-preservation (152), as he shows by the citation of Homer at the end of the work (Il. 11.163-4).

Dio adorns his history with omens, prophecies, and portents, dreams and foreshadowing (8, 34, 41, 56, 76-7, 96, 99-100, 100, 130), granting supernatural validity to the narrative future by familiar means. Of particular interest is Dio's assertion that the appearance of a pseudo-Alexander foretold the eventual succession of Alexander Severus and explained how divine guidance led Elagabalus to choose that name for his heir. As Scott observed, the historian thus becomes interpreter of the future as well as of the past (143). But aside from such moments, Dio's gaze remains almost exclusively on the past, with little guidance for the empire's future (151).

This excellent commentary on the last three books of Dio's history brings the reader to a better understanding of the historian's focus, methodology, and the system of personal experience and belief that inform the whole.

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