BMCR 2021.11.34

La Rhétorique du blâme dans l’Histoire Auguste

, La Rhétorique du blâme dans l'Histoire Auguste. POLEN: Pouvoirs, lettres, normes, 20. Paris: Classiques Garnier, 2021. Pp. 445. ISBN 9782406106104. €34,00.

It would seem that Syme’s so-called “rogue grammarian” got what he wanted. What the anonymous publisher of the Historia Augusta, a series of biographies of second- and third-century emperors and usurpers by six pseudonymous “authors,” supposedly cast before their audience of Roman literati at the close of the fourth century as a sort of toy or game, has been recast again and again before modern scholars as an apple of discord. The resultant competition, ignited by Dessau’s 1889 bombshell of a single-author theory, has revolved around issues of the HA’s authorship, date, sources, and, what is ultimately treated in the present monograph, the intentions behind this mysterious work of literature that, while structurally modeled on Suetonian biography, defies consensus over even its classification of genre. Defiance, it turns out, is central to Chazal’s conclusion, namely that our rogue grammarian marshalls the inherently defiant rhetoric of invective, ostensibly against “bad emperors,” but ultimately against the canon of classical historiography and its bogus claims to veracity.

The introductory chapter opens with a brief discussion of the development of Greco-Roman historiography, and its dual aims of preserving the memory of great deeds with attention to both rhetorically matching their grandeur and adhering to the truth of what actually happened. Biography evolved alongside historiography with similar aims with regard to exemplarity. Without telling the reader, Chazal here anticipates the conclusions of this volume, namely that the “anonymous publisher” weaponizes biography and invective rhetoric in an artful assault on rival historiographers who either pretend not to lie to their audience or are ignorantly lying to themselves. Signaling these conclusions in the introduction and/or throughout the monograph, rather than reserving it as a belated punchline, may not have been what our rogue grammarian wanted, but would have nevertheless been helpful to modern readers. This minor quibble aside, the rest of the introduction provides a decent summary of the main questions and problems debated, resolved, and still debated by scholars over the past century and a quarter. The most pertinent of these concern the HA’s programmatic commitments to historical truth or deliberate fiction. This is followed by a brief history of the art of rhetoric, leading to the scholastic prescriptions and functions of epideictic oratory under the Roman Empire, importantly noting and accounting for the disproportion of encomium to its often riskier counterpart, invective, which had fewer appropriate occasions and was relatively neglected in progymnastic manuals. Chazal then sets the stage for the primary and most original contribution of this book, namely that the HA regularly, even systematically deploys the full arsenal of invective rhetoric, by arguing that biography is eminently compatible with epideictic’s focus on illustrating the moral character of its subject through a host of topoi. Finally, the introduction supplies a roadmap to the volume, though, as noted above, still wrapping Chazal’s ultimate conclusions over the author’s intentions in the very “voile de mystère” that are his prologue’s final words.

Part I of this tripartite analysis (“Le prisme moral de l’Histoire Auguste) considers the moralizing elements of the text, especially the criteria on which the HA sorts its subjects into three basic categories: “good,” “bad,” and “neither good nor bad.” In its use of the first two categories, the HA functions, according to Chazal, as a speculum principis that could present an imperial reader with a gallery of positive models of rulership to imitate and negative models to avoid. This dimension of exemplarity, I note, is not unique to biography, but is a key aspect of classical historiography as well, as spelled out in Livy’s preface. With the third, ambivalent category, Chazal demonstrates the text’s capability of more nuanced takes on complex figures such as Hadrian, Septimius Severus, and Aurelian beyond the binary assortment of everyone into stock types of principes optimi and pessimi. Since the HA’s editorializing is more explicit than in prior biographers such as Suetonius, so Chazal focuses on common traits, often drawn from prior literary models such as Suetonius and shared with late antique authors such as Lactantius and Aurelius Victor. This section concludes with three “portraits ambivalents,” where Chazal demonstrates that the HA presents consciously as such, going so far as, for example, exaggerating Hadrian’s cruelty in order to ambiguate his overall moral evaluation. Disappointingly, Chazal does not venture to answer precisely why these ambivalent portrayals are constructed, other than to eschew a traditional good-bad binary by creating “une nouvelle catégorie, intermédiaire.” This claim needs more qualification, seeing that complex biographical subjects possessing mixtures of virtues and vices are surely familiar among Plutarch’s Lives. This might have been a suitable place to connect the various case studies within the monograph more explicitly to the conclusions reached at the very end.

Part II (“Figures, thèmes et motifs emblématiques de la rhétorique du blâme”) demonstrates how typical elements of invective rhetoric, which have long been present in various other genres of ancient and late antique literature as marks of despotic, un-Greco-Roman rulers, are employed throughout the HA. These include operation as a princeps clausus bastioned within a court of evil counselors and social infames, the employment of informers, and the emulation of Near Eastern and Hellenistic models (or rather, stereotypes) of absolutism. This theme, though Chazal does not put it in such terms, amounts to becoming an orientalized Other, encompassing behaviors such as the desire to be worshipped like a god, luxuriating in riches and the extremes of debauchery, and the commission of incest and parricide. Next come strategies of characterizing bad emperors that are particular to the biographical genre, including the (invented) quotation of direct speech. The most fascinating portion of this chapter is Chazal’s entertainment of the notion that the author of the HA drew from the contemporary pseudo-science of physiognomy in order to interpret their subjects’ moral character by way of their physical attributes, along with comparisons to various animals.

Part III (“Procédés de la rhétorique du blâme et enjeux du texte”) addresses more directly the links between the rhetorical strategies of invective and the political and literary programs of the HA. Beginning with the political, Chazal identifies the primary targets of the HA’s invectives. First are the tyranni, whose full semantic range in late antiquity, between an oppressive autocrat and a man who seizes power illegitimately (i.e. a “usurper”), is demonstrably in play in the HA. The arguably intentional ambiguity of tyrannus intimates the notion examined next, that the real target of the HA’s invective is the very political institution that gives rise to tyranni, the Principate itself (a term which for Chazal encompasses the Dominate of the HA’s present). Regardless of whether power transferred through heredity or adoption, monarchy is the monstrum that not only puts bad people in power, but even destroys good people such as Didius Julianus, whom the HA uniquely portrays sympathetically as a victim of an inherently vicious system. Yet while the implicit message is to hate the game, and not necessarily the player, the HA maintains the standard senatorial line that, despite its flaws, one-man rule is a necessary evil to best guarantee peace and security.

Chazal then proceeds to deduce the HA’s overall literary program. This includes a final set of analyses of rhetorical and poetic tactics such as hyperbole, appeal to (often fictive) authority, inter- and intratextuality, and irony. The deployment of this arsenal in particular prepares us for the climax of Chazal’s 400-page epic, the declaration that the serious moral and political lessons of the HA are, like the six authorial masks the author wears, but a façade before its literary and philosophical mission. The HA, Chazal concludes, is a parody of historiography, born of the epistemological problem of how anyone could claim to represent any past person or event truthfully. This is a compelling conclusion that makes sense of all the HA’s myriad contradictions.

In a rapid denouement, the conclusory chapter rather mechanically synopsizes the arguments under every major and minor heading in the book. This in itself would not have been a dissatisfying postlude, if I had not been expecting a more sustained discussion of how Chazal’s conclusions about the HA resonate with, and react to, the political and intellectual developments and milieux of the final years of the fourth century. Likewise, an historical survey of the pagan, senatorial aristocracy at Rome in relation to the regimes of Theodosius I and his sons would have provided helpful context for the rather piecemeal references to contemporary events throughout the monograph, such as the pairings of Elagabalus and Alexander and of Constantine and Julian (p. 398), the resonance of the motif of the princeps clausus with the courts of Honorius, Arcadius, and Valentinian II (p. 161), or that of the theme of usurpation with the so-called pagan revolt of Eugenius (p. 295).

Other missed opportunities pertain to primary literature. For a book ostensibly about invective rhetoric in the HA, comparative discussion of invective oratory and similar literature in the later fourth and early fifth centuries is surprisingly meager. Claudian’s poetic fulminations Against Rufinus and Against Eutropius deserved more than a single sentence each (p. 352), while Julian’s satire The Caesars is not some simple catalogue of boni principes comparable to a series of contorniate medallions, as Chazal characterizes it (p. 51), but offers biting criticism even of canonical “good emperors” in abundance. Actual invective orations, such as Gregory of Nazianzus’ speeches Against Julian, are entirely overlooked.

As for Chazal’s interaction with secondary literature, including of course the fruits of the annual Historia Augusta Colloquia, he frequently engages with numerous scholars, and his discussion of them by name in the main text helps the reader access the many and varied strands of thought he weaves into his own work. A cursory reading of his bibliography, however, reveals a serious oddity: excepting two works in English, two in Spanish, and French translations of Shakespeare, Mommsen, Strauss, and Burkert, it is entirely in French. The depth and richness of the francophonic contribution to the study of the HA is certainly evident in this monograph; but to exclude important works in German, Italian, Spanish, and English, seems foreign to a philological monograph of this length. Works relevant to this topic in other languages, for instance Rohrbacher, Brandt, and Burgersdijk, are conspicuously absent. If this monoglottism is by design, I cannot deduce a good reason for it.

All criticisms aside, La Rhétorique du blâme dans l’Histoire Auguste was a worthy read that enriched my appreciation of the text, as it may for other specialists. Chazal’s French prose is lucid and unpretentious, fitting the sober elegance of the Garamond typeface bound in a sturdy paperback. The monograph overall is well organized by clear headings and subheadings, which makes for easy reference.