BMCR 2016.09.10

L’Histoire Auguste: Les païens et les chrétiens dans l’Antiquité tardive​

, L’Histoire Auguste: Les païens et les chrétiens dans l’Antiquité tardive​. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2016. 346. ISBN 9782251445762. €27.50.

1 Responses

Until 2005 Stéphane Ratti engaged in fairly traditional research into late antique historiography, especially the Historia Augusta and the irresistible (because entirely lost) Annales of the elder (Nicomachus) Flavian(us). Then in 2005 he had a revelation: the HA and Flavian’s lost Annales were one and the same. Both mysteries were solved at a single stroke. This is now the third book in which Ratti has maintained this thesis.1 It consists entirely of unrevised previously published articles and reviews.

The “discovery” (as Ratti always terms his identification) has dominated his subsequent research, treated throughout as established fact, a solid basis for further and more extreme assertions about pagan polemic. Given Flavian as author (he assumes) the HA = Annales can be treated as an outright attack on Christianity and used to flesh out Flavian’s activities in a variety of other areas as well. He turns out to have been a lawyer, a neoplatonist and a rhetor (apparently every word of the HA reflects Flavian, despite the obvious stylistic and compositional differences between different parts of the work). He reprints a 2008 article in which he claimed to have “refuted” all actual and even potential criticisms, but since he doesn’t update any reprinted work he omits all mention of later criticism. For example, at p. 40 and 322 he repeats his “proof” that Jerome compiled the Mosaicarum et Romanarum legum collatio, ignoring the decisive objection that the Biblical citations do not reflect Jerome’s translation.

What is the basis for this startling “discovery”? Both the HA and Flavian’s lost Annales (he claims) were divided into seven books. That is the totality of his argument. Even if this were true, the coincidence would fall infinitely short of proving their identity, but it is not true, for either work. Despite an obviously corrupt number in the Palatine MS, the HA is unquestionably divided into (at least) 30 separate books, a division confirmed by the numerous surviving prefaces and dedications. Ratti offers no explanation of the conflict between his postulated seven books and the 30 books of the transmitted text. As for Flavian, while parentesque suos imitatus, said of Symmachus cos. 485 ( Anecdoton Holderi 10), might (despite the plural) refer to Flavian’s Annales, historiam quoque Romanam septem libris edidit cannot be held to imply that the Annales too were in seven books.2

If Flavian’s supposed seven books have some mystic pagan significance, why did the Christian Symmachus’s history also have seven books? All we know for certain about Flavian’s Annales is that they were dedicated to Theodosius “by his quaestor and prefect” (ILS 2948), and so obviously under his own name, not six pseudonyms.

Ratti also continues to maintain that, as quaestor that year, Flavian was the author of a 390 law forbidding male prostitution ( Collatio 5.3), and argues that verbal parallels between this law and HA Vita Cari 16 confirm that Flavian was the author of, not just the Vita Cari, but the entire HA : “Ces parallèles sont indiscutables et d’ailleurs n’ont jamais été contestés.” Both claims are false. The HA passage is not even about homosexuality. It is an attack on Carus’s son Carinus, a debauchee and adulterer, “who also made evil use of the pleasures of his own sex.” There is nothing about male prostitutes, and the verbal “parallels” are far too tenuous to justify the postulate of common authorship.3 Ratti’s argument reflects a superficial reading of the work of Honoré, whose only concern was identifying the style of successive quaestors. There is no evidence before the fifth century that quaestors were responsible for the content of laws issued during their term of office.4

Ratti’s thesis is not built on the evidence. He began with the conviction that Flavian was a militant pagan and read this into the evidence. There is in fact far less than the chapter heading in his 2012 book “Nicomaque Flavien senior, cible des attaques chrétiennes” implies. Flavian’s cursus inscription names only one priesthood, pontifex Vestae. Yet plenty of late fourth-century pagans held multiple priesthoods. Then there are Symmachus’s published letters to Flavian, which we are bound to assume carefully selected. No fewer than three ( Ep. ii. 34, 36 and 53) reproach him for missing either a pagan festival or a meeting of the pontifical college to which they both belonged. In the eyes of his closest pagan friend, Flavian apparently took a rather casual interest in cult matters. The Christian Rufinus represents Flavian predicting victory for Eugenius before the Frigidus by extispicy. But read in context this scene balances the description of Theodosius preparing for battle with prayer, Theodosius with Christian, Flavian with pagan ritual. Neither scene should be taken literally.

The only text that could possibly justify describing Flavian as “cible des attaques chrétiennes” is the Carmen Contra Paganos (CCP), an anonymous invective on an unnamed pagan prefect—if the prefect is identified as Flavian. The now dominant alternative identification, Vettius Praetextatus, received decisive support from Dolbeau’s discovery of an eleventh-century library catalogue entry ( Damasi episcopi versus de Praetextato praefecto urbis), evidently a title for the CCP, casually dismissed by Ratti as an invention, without explaining why anyone would invent it. Without adducing any specific argument, Ratti rejected Praetextatus because “le profil de Nicomaque Flavien, d’après ce que nous savons de lui par ailleurs, correspond parfaitement aux éléments dispersées dans le portrait au noir que trace de lui le Carmen ” (2012, p. 121). Again untrue. Nothing in the CCP points specifically to Flavian. To start with, its prefect was clearly a devotee of multiple oriental deities, like Praetextatus, while nothing we know from elsewhere about Flavian suggests that he was. Second, Flavian died by suicide, whereas the prefect died a lingering death ( poenas scelerum tracta vix morte rependat, 27), of dropsy ( hydropem, 121). According to Ratti (p. 121), ( hydrops, is metaphorical and line 27 means “paid for his crimes with a death that was not long drawn out,” i.e., rapid. But why would a hostile Christian writer emphasize the (painless) rapidity of his death? This is in any case excluded by lines 28-29, stating that it was three months before the prefect “metas ( tandem pervenit ad aevi.” As Ratti himself acknowledges, the metaphorical sense of dropsy is greed, and what would be the point of introducing a new vice unconnected to paganism at the climax of the poem?

Third, “on a depuis longtemps remarqué que la médiocre qualité de la versification dans le Carmen ” is far below the standard of Damasus. Yet again false. In style, metre and even literary models they are to all intents and purposes identical, and Ratti ignores my discovery that the author of the CCP and Damasus are the only known Latin poets who, incredibly, prefer que or ac to et, thus systematically avoiding the commonest word in the Latin language! The author must be Damasus5 and the prefect Praetextatus—or at any rate quite certainly not Flavian, who died ten years after Damasus’s death. Despite the central importance of the Flavian identification for Ratti, his “proof” consists of no more than a handful of frivolous “parallels” from the HA, that is to say depending on rather than confirming the “discovery.” The same is also true of Flavian’s alleged philosophical expertise.6

The new book develops further Ratti’s fantastic claim that Flavian forged a pseudo-Quintilianic declamation ( Decl. mai. 3), supposedly to illustrate the playful literary persona revealed in his authorship of the HA. This can be definitively ruled out on several grounds. These declamations are undoubtedly the work of professional rhetoricians,7 and while senators like Symmachus won high praise for their oratory, it is unthinkable that any aristocrat would play the lowly role of professional rhetor. There is certainly no evidence that Flavian did. Ratti argues that the Major Declamations did not appear in a collected edition until the 380s, edited by pagan protégés of Flavian. But there is no evidence that the Dracontius and Hierius named in subscriptions were either pagans or associates of Flavian—or that they produced a new edition rather than a personal copy, simply reproducing the contents of an existing edition.8 All competent philologists are agreed that the actual declamations date from the second century.9 A recently published analysis of clausulae by L. Håkanson argues that Decl. 3 is actually the earliest in the collection, dating from 80- 100 AD.10

But the decisive objection is that all the Decl. mai. are written in standard early imperial rhetorical prose, with metrical clausulae. From the third century on, budding declaimers cutting their teeth on the Decl. mai. composed their responses and variations in the cursus mixtus. For example, Ennodius’s clever response to Decl. 5. As quaestor, Flavian naturally wrote the cursus mixtus of late imperial bureaucrats, illustrated by the 390 law to which Ratti attributes so much importance in other contexts. On this ground alone Flavian cannot possibly have written Decl. 3.

No less improbably Ratti also argues that declamation was a pagan “weapon” against Christianity (2016, 48), ignoring the fact that the Quintilianic declamations are quoted often and enthusiastically by fourth-century Christian writers: Lactantius, Firmicus Maternus, and especially Jerome. Jerome indeed proudly refers several times to the pleasure he took in declamation as a student.11 The pious deacon Ennodius revelled in producing declamation after declamation on all the traditional themes (pirates, tyrants, stepmothers, parricides etc. etc.).12 An amusing example is his response (363 Vogel) to Decl. mai 5: a father ransoms only one of his two sons from pirates; that son dies, the other one escapes and then refuses to support his ailing father. Pseudo-Quintilian took the father’s side, Ennodius the surviving son’s.

As for the pin-pricks against Christianity Ratti detects, not only are they utterly far-fetched and unconvincing in themselves. If put together they would amount to no more than half a dozen out of the 550 pages of the HA.13 They could not possibly be the raison d’être of the entire work. More important, there is no evidence that pagan criticism of Christianity needed to be so veiled and indirect.14 Everyone knew that Flavian was a pagan.

Ratti writes throughout as though his “discovery” has revolutionized the field, but nobody inside it seems to have noticed. In ten years it has contributed nothing credible to the story of the elder Flavian and the pagan reaction. Unless he can produce serious new arguments it is perhaps time to declare one more simplistic theory about the HA dead and buried.

[For a response to this review by Stéphane Ratti, please see BMCR 2016.09.22.]


1. Antiquus Error: Les ultimes feux de la résistance païenne (2010), with JRA 24 (2011), 835-46; Polémiques entres païens et chrétiens (2012) with M. Kahlos, BMCR 2012.05.44.

2. For more detail, Alan Cameron, The Last Pagans of Rome (Oxford 2011), 836-37.

3. Collatio 5.3.1: contaminatione / SHA Carinus 16.1 contaminatissimus (where only the first refers to homosexuality); Collatio 5.3.2, SHA Carinus 16.1: pudet dicere (!); Collatio 5.3.2, SHA Carinus 16.1: alieni sexus/sexus sui. It has to be said that intertextuality is Ratti’s weakest suit: a couple of shared words are enough.

4. Jill Harries, JRS 78 (1988), 148-72.

5. See too Consolino in The Strange Death of Pagan Rome, ed. R. Lizzi Testa (Turnhout 2013), 85-107.

6. It is not true that John of Salisbury ascribes a philosophical work to “Nicomaque Flavien.” He says only Flavianus, and since that name is not uncommon, the identification is by no means certain. Nothing in John suggests Neoplatonism (see Cameron 2011, 387 and 544).

7. See M.T. Dinter et al. (eds.), Reading Roman Declamations: The Declamations Ascribed to Quintilian (Berlin, 2016).

8. For full discussion, Cameron 2011, 842-44.

9. For full bibliography and discussion, see now A. Stramaglia, “Le ‘declamationes maiores’ pseudo-quintilianee,” in E. Amato (ed.), Approaches de la Troisième Sophistique (Brussels 2006), 555-88.

10. L. Håkanson, Unveröffentliche Schriften: Studien zu den pseudoquintilianischen Declamationes Maiores (Berlin, 2014) at 95.

11. J.N.D. Kelly. Jerome (London, 1975) 15.

12. S.A.H. Kennell, Magnus Felix Ennodius. (Ann Arbor, 2000) esp. 72-79 and 152-62.

13. See D. Rohrbacher, The Play of Allusion in the Historia Augusta (Madison 2016).

14. See my contribution to M. Salzman et al. (eds.) Pagans and Christians in Late Antique Rome (Cambridge, 2016). ​