BMCR 2024.07.06

An age of iron and rust: Cassius Dio and the history of his time

, An age of iron and rust: Cassius Dio and the history of his time. Historiography of Rome and its empire, 18. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2023. Pp. viii, 258. ISBN 9789004541115.



Cassius Dio’s work has long been used as a repository of information on crucial periods of Roman history, used to either confirm, contradict, or complicate narratives from other ancient sources. The historian’s methodology has been variously scrutinized and criticized, but only with scholarly work in the past few decades has his reputation seen something of a rehabilitation as Dio has been the object of various studies that approach his work from different angles. This minor resurgence in recent scholarship is clear from other entries in the Historiography of Rome and Its Empire series, which focus on facets of Dio’s career, identity, and works, as well as Brill’s companion, a standout of this scholarly revitalization.[1]

Andrew G. Scott’s present work on Dio follows upon his 2018 commentary on the final books of Dio’s history.[2] In An Age of Iron and Rust, Scott homes in on Dio’s career and how the senator-historian writes the history of his own time (Books 73(72)–80(80)). The introduction sets out Scott’s study, the state of scholarship on Dio, and the matter of approaching Dio’s later books in their received state. The main interlocutor for Scott’s work is Fergus Millar’s 1964 study, which covers similar ground, if much more briefly and dismissively.[3] Unlike Millar, Scott posits a strong continuity between Dio’s earlier books and the contemporary history. Yet, building on more recent studies that position Dio’s work as a reaction against Severan messaging,[4] Scott argues that Dio clearly crafts these books as a continuation of the themes and goals of his larger project. Even with the later books’ epitomized form, Scott makes a convincing case for this continuity, showcasing Dio’s consistent methodology yet more pronounced presence in the events he describes.

The first three chapters set the stage for Scott’s analysis of the contemporary books by examining Dio’s literary career, his place in the historiographic tradition, and the writer’s treatment of the Roman monarchy in the earlier portions of his history. In Chapter 1, Scott discusses Dio’s two other known works and how they relate to the composition of the History. He argues that a pamphlet on dreams as well as a work on the wars following the reign of Commodus both reflect Severan messaging. The important consideration here is how Dio incorporates the work on wars into his larger history, as he claims (73(72).23.3). Scott suggests that the revision and incorporation of this apparently praiseworthy work do not reflect a falling out between Dio and the emperor. In fact, Scott’s later dating of the History, with research beginning after the death of Severus in 211 and writing continuing into the 230s, shows how the work is not a reactionary one. Counter to his earlier works, Dio’s authorial persona in the History is more detached, likely in order to avoid charges of bias.

Dio’s place in the historiographic tradition is the topic of Chapter 2. In a nutshell, Scott makes the case that the History embodies a Thucydidean concern with governmental forms and change put within the ab urbe condita tradition. Like Livy, Dio looks to Rome’s beginnings to understand changes occurring in the present. Scott then rightly spends some time fleshing out the risks of writing under autocracy; when commenting upon present governmental systems, how is the historian meant to address the emperor (if at all)? Scott’s comprehensive discussion here shows how, during the principate, contemporary histories tend to focus on events just prior to an emperor’s reign, functioning as an apparent guide for the reigning emperor by reckoning with recent momentous events.

Dio’s History differs from these and his own earlier works as it is not directed at a particular emperor. Instead, his project traces the development of Rome’s monarchical system, which for Dio is the ideal form of government that has been corrupted in his own time. Chapter 3 provides an overview of Dio’s narration of the Roman monarchy up to the late second century, showing how the system established and perfected under Augustus experiences a cyclical pattern of decline and renewal—predominately through civil wars and political stasis—until its disruption during the Severan period. Dio’s monarchist slant is clear in his narration of Augustus’s reign, with the emperor managing a system balanced between democracy and tyranny (56.43.4). By Dio’s reckoning, Augustus’s success hinges upon his division of powers with the senate as well as on a unique persona that allows him to sidestep perils, because, unlike democracy, a monarchy only relies on the virtues of a single person (44.2.3). The implied and direct references to an Augustan ideal, the inconsistent nature of the emperors’ relationship with the senate, and Dio’s apparent preference for adoptive succession in these sections inform Scott’s analysis of the contemporary history that follows.

In Chapters 4–8, Scott offers close readings of the contemporary books, treating the events of the emperors’ reigns more or less in order. The sections covering Marcus Aurelius and Commodus lay the groundwork for the themes of Dio’s contemporary history. In addition to Dio’s signposting in Book 73(72), in which he describes his eyewitness status to the events that follow, the historian famously uses Marcus’s obituary to describe how the empire entered an age of “iron and rust” (σιδηρᾶν καὶ κατιωμένην). (72(71).36.4). Dio goes out of his way to forgive Marcus’s foibles (including his decision to make Commodus his successor), elevating him to a special status in the text clearly meant to contrast with Commodus.

These clear contrasts seem to break down during the reign of Septimius Severus, who is the subject of Chapters 5 and 6. Dio’s depiction of Severus has received the brunt of criticism for its apparently inconsistent and “mixed” portrayal. Scott takes this criticism head-on by showing how this section fits into Dio’s wider project. With Augustus and Marcus in the background, Severus comes across as an imperfect ruler whose reign is full of pretense. In Rome, Dio is on the ground reporting on the emperor’s public acts, and abroad, while Severus claims success in the ongoing civil war, Dio writes about both Severus’s absence from these battles and his savagery toward the enemy. By undercutting Severus’s claims to military glory as well as his ability to keep his household in order with questionable plans for succession, Dio presents himself as the superior interpreter of the situation’s reality. Read together with the reigns of Pertinax and Macrinus, Dio’s “intentionally ambiguous interpretation” (158) of Severus is clear. In Scott’s reading, all three resembled good emperors who could not resolve certain structural limitations of the monarchical system.

Dio treats Caracalla with more overt hostility (Chapter 7), imbuing the emperor with Severus’s faults but with less redeeming ambiguity. Dio contradicts Caracalla’s self-presentation by showing that the emperor’s overreliance on the military and isolation from the senate are his ultimate undoing. Coupled with Caracalla’s murder of Geta, Scott argues that Dio’s stretching of Caracalla’s reign into several of the later books further delegitimizes Severus’s attempts to create a stable dynasty. Caracalla’s negative presence in other emperors’ narratives haunts these books as each imperfectly emulates earlier emperors and has fraught relationships with the senate.

Chapter 8 picks up this final thread as Macrinus and Elagabalus both look back to the Severans for legitimation. Macrinus links himself to Severus, finding a middle road in his treatment of Caracalla’s legacy by casting his son as a new successor in the mode of the previous emperor. Elagabalus in turn positions himself as Caracalla’s son to legitimate his own reign, though by Scott’s reading Julia Domna is the true link in Dio’s text between these two emperors. Finally, in Dio’s estimation, Severus Alexander’s reign was another period of instability, as “none of these three looked (or knew to look) further backwards than Septimius Severus himself” (202). Yet, despite the especially scandalous stories of Elagabalus’s reign, Dio’s methodology remains consistent in these sections through his interpretation of official records and firsthand experience of public events.

Scott makes a persuasive argument about Dio’s final books fitting into a comprehensive historiographic project, and some of the most intriguing claims come from how the themes of shifting governmental systems around the emperor and of senatorial culture fit into this scheme. For instance, Scott shows how Dio uses senatorial careers to comment on the state of decline. The Augustan settlement and the emperor’s productive relationship with the senate is a watershed moment for the monarchical system. Scott argues that, two centuries later, senators prominent during Marcus’s reign who meet various fates under Commodus reflect how drifting from this idealized relationship can precipitate structural change in the History (95­–99). Scott’s analysis shows that when the governmental system breaks down, Commodus’s megalomania can more easily emerge.

Dio’s own status as a senator informs his narrative, and Scott’s discussion of the historian’s methodology is eminently useful for understanding Dio’s larger project (99–111). As Scott shows, the nature of Dio’s monarchical content does not differ substantially in his narration through the second century. Instead, Dio showcases the selective nature of his evaluating and using public records, an ability which rests upon his status as a senator. This senatorial viewpoint allows Dio to hone his ability as an observer and historian, effectively interpreting the accounts of those who saw and heard these events, which eventually include his own experiences. Scott argues that Dio, while not necessarily directly involved in all the events he describes, is able to use his participation in Roman political life to craft a vivid narrative in these sections. For example, Scott’s discussion of Dio’s use of public records for Caracalla’s reign, including letters to the senate as well as Caracalla’s own writings about his campaigns abroad, demonstrate such an approach (173–79).

Since Scott makes a strong case for reading Dio’s work as a product of the third century, more discussion of contemporary circumstances influencing Dio’s project could expand some of the book’s claims. There is an admirable effort to fit the History into the larger historiographic tradition, yet apart from Herodian, little is said of other Severan authors, especially those less clearly aligned with the historical tradition (e.g., Philostratus, Aelian, Diogenes Laertius). Furthermore, Dio’s detached persona yet clear presence in the text is a careful line to walk argumentatively, but seems generally to apply to Dio’s project, at least in the later books. With this in mind, Scott’s lack of concern for Dio’s Greek and Roman identity or his status as an “exile” in both Rome and in Bithynia is somewhat perplexing (57–59). Still, this book is a valuable addition to studies on Dio Cassius and should prove highly useful to scholars of the historian, as well as those interested in the Severan period and its literary production more broadly.



[1] Jesper Majbom Madsen and Andrew G. Scott, eds., Brill’s Companion to Cassius Dio (Leiden: Brill, 2023).

[2] 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: Oxford University Press, 2018).

[3] Fergus Millar, A Study of Cassius Dio (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964), 119–73.

[4] E.g., Adam M. Kemezis, Greek Narratives of the Roman Empire under the Severans: Cassius Dio, Philostratus and Herodian (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).