Historia Augusta

The Scope and Literary Character of the Historia Augusta

Among the remnants of Roman literature preserved by the whims of fortune is a collection of biographies of the emperors from Hadrian to Carinus — the Vitae Diversorum Principum et Tyrannorum a Divo Hadriano usque ad Numerianum Diversis compositae, as it is entitled in the principal manuscript, the Codex Palatinus of the Vatican Library. It is popularly known, apparently for convenience' sake, as the Historia Augusta, a name applied to it by Casaubon, whereas the original title was probably de Vita Caesarum or Vitae Caesarum. The collection, as extant, comprises thirty biographies, most of which contain the life of a single emperor, while some include a group of two or more, classed together merely because these emperors were either akin or contemporary. Not only the emperors who actually reigned, the "Augusti," but also the heirs presumptive, the "Caesares," and the various claimants to the empire, the "Tyranni," are included in the series.

According to the tradition of the manuscripts the biographies are the work of six different authors: some of them are addressed to the Emperor Diocletian, others to Constantine, and others to important personages in Rome. The biographies of the emperors from Hadrian to Gordian are attributed to four various authors, apparently on no principle whatsoever, for not only are the lives of successive, or even contemporary, princes ascribed to different authors and those of emperors widely separated in time to the same writer, but in the case of two of the authors some lives are dedicated to Diocletian and some to Constantine.

In the traditional arrangement the biographies are assigned to the various authors as follows:

  • Aelius Spartianus: the vitae of Hadrian, Aelius, Didius Julianus, Pescennius Niger, Caracalla, and Geta. Of these, the Aelius, Julianus, Severus, and Niger are addressed to Diocletian, the Geta to Constantine. The preface of the Aelius contains mention of the Caesars Galerius Maximianus and Constantius Chlorus, and from this it may be inferred that vitae of the Diocletian group were written between 293, the year of the nomination of these Caesars, and 305, the year of Diocletian's retirement. In the same preface Spartianus announces that it is his purpose to write the biographies, not only of the emperors who preceded Hadrian, but also of all the princes who followed, including the Caesars and the pretenders.
  • Julius Capitolinus: the vitae of Pius, Marcus Aurelius, Verus, Pertinax, Clodius Albinus, Macrinus, the Maximini, the Gordiani, and Maximus and Balbinus. Of these, the Marcus, Verus, and Macrinus are addressed to Diocletian, while the Albinus, the Maximini, and the Gordiani are addressed to Constantine, evidently after the fall of Licinius in 324. Like Spartianus, Capitolinus announces his purpose of composing an extended series of imperial biographies.
  • Vulcacius Gallicanus: the vita of Avidius Cassius, addressed to Diocletian. He too announces an ambitious programme — the composition of biographies of all who have worn the imperial purple, both regnant emperors and pretenders to the throne.
  • Aelius Lampridius: the vitae of Commodus, Diadumenianus, Elagabalus, and Severus Alexander. Of these, the last two are addressed to Constantine; according to the author, they were composed at the Emperor's own request, and they were written after the defeat of Licinius at Adrianople in 323. Lampridius claims to have written the biographies of at least some of the predecessors of Elagabalus and to cherish the plan of composing biographies of the emperors who reigned subsequently, beginning with Alexander and including in his work not only Diocletian but Licinius and Maxentius, the rivals of Constantine.
  • Trebellius Pollio: the vitae from Philip to Claudius; of his work, however, the earlier part, containing the biographies from Philip to Valerian, has been lost from the collection, and we have only the vitae of the Valeriani (in part), the Gallieni, the Tyranni Triginta, and Claudius. Pollio's biographies were dedicated, not to the emperor, but to a friend, apparently an official of high degree. His name has been lost, together with the preface which must have preceded the vita of Philip. The only clue to his identity is a passage in which he is addressed as a kinsman of an Herennius Celsus, a candidate for the consulship. The extant biographies were written after Constantius' nomination as Caesar in 293, and, in the case of the Tyranni Triginta, after the commencement of the Baths of Diocletian in 298. The collection was finished, according to his successor and continuer Vopiscus, in 303.
  • Flavius Vopiscus: the vitae of Aurelian, Tacitus, Probus, Firmus and his three fellow-tyrants, and Carus and his sons. These biographies, like those of Pollio, are not dedicated to any emperor, but to various friends of the author. Vopiscus wrote, he declares in his elaborate preface, at the express request of his friend Junius Tiberianus, the city-prefect. Tiberianus was city-prefect for the second time in 303‑4, and even granting that his conversation with the author as well as his promise of the documents from Trajan's library are merely rhetorical ornaments, this date is usually regarded as marking the beginning of Vopiscus' work. It is confirmed by an allusion to Constantius as imperator (305‑306) and to Diocletian as iam privatus (after 305). This collection was completed, according to internal evidence, before the death of Diocletian in 316, perhaps even before that of Galerius in 311. The series written by Vopiscus has been preserved in its entirety, for it was his intention to conclude his work with the lives of Carus and his sons, leaving to others the task of writing the biographies of Diocletian and his associates.

The plan to include in the collection not only "Augusti," but also "Caesares" and "Tyranni," has resulted in a double series of biographies in that section of the Historia Augusta which includes the emperors between Hadrian and Alexander. To the life of a regnant emperor is attached that of an heir-presumptive, a colleague, or a rival. In each case the minor vita stands in a close relationship to the major, and, in many instances, passages seem to have been transcribed bodily from the biography of the "Augustus" to that of the "Caesar" or the "Tyrannus."

In the composition of these biographies the model used by the authors, according to the testimony of two of them, was Suetonius. The Lives of Suetonius are not biographies in the modern sense of the word, but merely collections of material arranged according to certain definite categories, and this method of composition is, in fact, employed also by the authors of the Historia Augusta. An analysis of the Pius, the most simply constructed of the series, shows the general scheme most clearly. The vita falls naturally into the following divisions: ancestry (i.1‑17); life previous to his accession to the throne (i.8‑v.2); policy and events of his reign (v.3‑vii.4); personal traits (vii.5‑xii.3); death (xii.4‑9); personal appearance (xiii.1‑2); honours after death (xiii.3‑4).

A fundamental scheme similar to this, in which the several sections are more or less clearly marked, serves as the basis for all the biographies. The series of categories is compressed or extended according to the importance of the events to be narrated or the material that was available, and at times the principle of composition is obscured by the elaboration of a particular topic to an altogether disproportionate length. Thus the mention of the peculiar cults to which Commodus was addicted (the category religiones) leads to a long and detailed list of acts of cruelty, while nearly one half of the life of Elagabalus is devoted to an enumeration of instances of his luxury and extravagance, and in the biography of Severus Alexander the fundamental scheme is almost unrecognizable as a result of the confused combination of various narratives.

It was also characteristic of Suetonius that he amplified his biographies by means of gossip, anecdotes, and documents, but nowhere in his Lives are these used as freely as in certain of the vitae of the Historia Augusta. The authors take a peculiar delight in the introduction of material dealing with the personality of their sides. Not content with including special divisions on personal characteristics, in which are enumerated the individual qualities of an emperor, they devote long sections to elaborate details of their private lives, particularly before their elevation to the throne. For this more intimate detail there was much less material available than for the narration of public events. The careers of short-lived emperors and pretenders afforded little of public interest, and consequently their biographies were padded with trivial anecdotes. In fact, a comparison between a major vita and its corresponding minor biography shows that the latter contains little historical material that is not in the former. The rest is made up of amplifications, anecdotes, speeches, letters and verses, and at best these minor vitae represent little more than a working over of the material contained in the major biographies with the aid of rhetorical expedients and literary embellishments.

The model for the emphasizing of the private life of an emperor seems to have been not so much Suetonius as Marius Maximus, the author of a series of imperial biographies from Nerva to Elagabalus or Severus Alexander. Not content with the narration of facts in the manner of Suetonius, Maximus sought to add interest to his biographies by the introduction of personal material. His lives are cited by the authors of the earlier vitae of the Historia Augusta as their sources for gossip, scandal, and personal minutiae, and he is probably justly referred to as homo omnium verbosissimus qui et mythistoricis se voluminibus implicavit. In gossip and search after detail, however, Maximus seems to have been outdone by Aelius Junius Cordus, cited in the vitae of Albinus, Maximinus, the Gordiani, and Maximus and Balbinus. He made it a principle to describe the emperor's appearance in public, and his food and clothing, and the citations from him include the enumeration of the amounts of fruit, birds and oysters consumed by Albinus. Readers who desire further information on trivial or indecent details are scornfully referred to his biographies.

The manner of Marius Maximus and Cordus is most clearly represented in the lives attributed to Vopiscus. The more pretentious biographies of Aurelian and Probus especially contain a wealth of personal detail which quite obscures the scant historical material. After an elaborate preface of a highly rhetorical nature, there follows a description of the character of the emperor in which the emphasis is laid on his noble deeds and his virtues. These are illustrated by anecdotes and attested by "documents," much to the detriment of the narration of facts. No rhetorical device is neglected and the whole gives the impression of an eulogy rather than a biography.

The method employed by Marius Maximus and Cordus was, however, productive of a still more detrimental element in the Historia Augusta — the alleged documents which are inserted in many of the vitae. Suetonius, as secretary to Hadrian, had had access to the imperial archives and thus obtained various letters and other documents which he inserted in his biographies for the illustration or confirmation of some statement. His practice was continued by his successors in the field of biographical literature. Thus Marius Maximus inserted documents, both speeches and letters, in the body of his text and even added them in appendices. Some of these may have been authentic; but since the references to them in the Historia Augusta are very numerous, and since there is no reason to suppose that Maximus had access to the official archives, considerable doubt must arise as to their genuineness. Cordus, too, inserted in his biographies letters alleged to have been written by emperors and speeches and acclamations uttered in the senate-house, but, to judge from the specimens preserved in the Historia Augusta, these "documents" deserve even less credence than those of Maximus.

The precedent thus established was followed by some of the authors of the Historia Augusta. The collection contains in all about 150 alleged documents, including 68 letters, 60 speeches and proposals to the people or the senate, and 20 senatorial decrees and acclamations. The distribution of these, however, is by no means uniform. Of the major vitae from Hadrian to Elagabalus inclusive, only the Commodus and the Macrinus are provided with "documents," and these have but two apiece. On the other hand, the group of vitae of the Maximini, the Gordiani, and Maximus and Balbinus contains in all 26 such pieces, and Pollio's Valeriani, Tyranni Triginta and Claudius have together 27. It is, however, Vopiscus who heads the list, for his five biographies contain no less than 59 so‑called documents of various kinds.

In a discussion of the genuineness of these documents a distinction must be drawn between the speeches, on the one hand, and the letters and senatorial decrees and acclamations on the other. Since the time of Thucydides it had been customary for an historian to insert speeches in his history, and it was an established convention that they might be more or less fictitious. Accordingly, none would question the right of the biographer to attribute to the subject of his biography any speech that he might wish to insert in his narrative. With the letters and decrees, however, the case is different. Like those cited by Suetonius, these claim to be actual documents and it is from this claim that the question of their authenticity must proceed. In spite of occasional expressions of scepticism, the genuineness of these documents was not seriously questioned until 1870, when C. Czwalina published an examination of the letters contained in the vita of Avidius Cassius. He showed that various letters, professedly written by different persons, show the same style and tricks of expression, that they were all written with the purpose of praising the clemency and generosity of Marcus, and that they contain several historical errors. He thus reached the conclusion that they were forgeries, but not composed by the author of the vita since his comments on them are inconsistent with their content.

A similar examination of the letters and documents in the other biographies, particularly in those attributed to Pollio and Vopiscus, reveals the hand of the forger even more plainly. They abound not only in errors of fact that would be impossible in genuine documents, but also in the rhetorical bombast and the stylistic peculiarities that are characteristic of the authors of these series. The documents cited by Pollio, moreover, show the same aim and purpose as his text — the glorification of Claudius Gothicus as the reputed ancestor of Constantius Chlorus and the vilification of his predecessor Gallienus, — while the documents of Vopiscus show the same tendency to sentimentalize over the past glories of Rome and over the greatness of the senate that is characteristic of his own work, and, like those cited by Pollio, they too have a purpose — the praise of Vopiscus' hero Probus.

An entirely different type of spurious material is represented by the frequent interpolations in the text. These consist of later additions, of passages introduced by editors of the whole series, and of notes added by commentators, presumably on the margins, and subsequently incorporated in the body of the work. Frequently they are inserted with utter disregard to the context, so that the continuity of a passage is completely interrupted. They vary in size from passages of several pages to brief notes of a few lines. The most extensive is a long passage in the vita of Marcus, which is inserted between the two main portions of the biography. It consists of an epitome of the events of the latter part of his reign, enumerated again and at greater length in the second main portion of the vita. That this epitome is an interpolation is evident not only from the double narrative of certain events, but also from the fact that it agrees closely with the narrative of Marcus' reign which is found in Eutropius.

An extensive interpolation has been made also in the Vita Severi. Here, however, the problem is less simple. The detailed narrative of the earlier part of Severus' reign is followed by a brief summary of the events of the whole period of his rule, closing with a long address to Diocletian. This summary is little more than a duplicate of the account of Severus' reign as given by Aurelius Victor in his Caesares, and either it has been taken directly from Victor or it is a parallel excerpt from his source, the "Imperial Chronicle." It, in turn, is followed by a section containing the narration of single incidents, frequently repetitions of what has preceded, forming a loosely composed and ill connected appendix to the whole.

Similar additions are to be found in the vita of Caracalla; they contain repetitions and elaborations of previously narrated incidents and are evidently not the work of the writer of the bulk of the life. Besides these longer and more obvious interpolations there are countless others of varying extent, consisting of entries of new material and corrections and comments of later writers. Many of these have been inserted in the most inappropriate places, to the great detriment of the narrative, and the excision of these passages would contribute greatly to the intelligibility of many a vita.

The literary, as well as the historical, value of the Historia Augusta has suffered greatly as a result of the method of its composition. In the arrangement in categories of the historical material, the authors did but follow the accepted principles of the art of biography as practised in antiquity, but their narratives, consisting often of mere excerpts arranged without regard to connexion or transition, lack grace and even cohesion. The over-emphasis of personal details and the introduction of anecdotal material destroy the proportion of many sections, and the insertion of forged documents interrupts the course of the narrative, without adding anything of historical value or even of general interest. Finally, the later addition of lengthy passages and brief notes, frequently in paragraphs with the general content of which they have no connexion, has put the crowning touch to the awkwardness and incoherence of the whole, with the result that the oft-repeated charge seems almost justified, that these biographies are little more than literary monstrosities.

The Tradition of the Historia Augusta

In spite of its defects in style, its deliberate falsifications, and the trivial character of much of its content, the Historia Augusta has always been a subject for scholarly research and an important source for the history of the second and third centuries. At the beginning of the sixth century it was used by Aurelius Memmius Symmachus, the last member of a famous family, in his Historia Romana, the sole extant fragment of which cites at considerable length the vita of the Maximini. Later, several selections from it were included in the elaborate Collectaneum, or collection of excerpts, made at Liège about 850 by the Irish scholar Sedulius Scottus, and citations from the Marcus, the Maximini, and the Aurelian are contained in Sedulius' Liber de Rectoribus Christianis, written about 855.

During the period in which Sedulius was compiling his Collectaneum there was copied at the monastery at Fulda our chief manuscript, the Codex Palatinus, now in the Vatican Library (No. 899). This manuscript, written in the ninth century in the Carolingian minuscule of that period, represents a recension of the text which is somewhat different from that of the excerpts preserved in the Collectaneum. As early, then, as the ninth century there were two editions of the Historia Augusta, depending, of course, on a common original, but exhibiting minor differences in the text.

Such was the interest in Germany in the Historia Augusta that not long after this Fulda manuscript was finished a copy of it was made, now preserved in the library at Bamberg, written in Anglo-Saxon characters and dating from the ninth or tenth century. About the same period, also, another manuscript was made either from the original of the Fulda manuscript or from this codex itself. This was contained in the library of the Abbey at Murbach in the eleventh century, in the catalogue of which it is listed as Codex Spartiani. It was the fate of this manuscript to be sent to Erasmus to be used in the preparation of the Froben edition of the Historia Augusta, published at Basel in 1518. The first half of the biographies, however, had been printed before its arrival, and accordingly it could be used for this portion only as a source for variant readings, while for the later vitae, from the Diadumenus onward, it served as the basis of the text. Unfortunately, however, it then disappeared, and as early as 1738 no trace of it could be found.

At some time between the latter half of the tenth and the beginning of the fourteenth century the Fulda Codex was taken to Italy and was placed in the library of the Cathedral of Verona. Here it was used by Giovanni de Matociis in the preparation of his Historia Imperialis, written at Verona at the beginning of the fourteenth century, and in the de Originibus Rerum of Guglielmo da Pastrengo of Verona. Moreover, excerpts from it were included in the so‑called Flores Moralium Auctoritatum, transcribed in 1329, and still preserved in the Cathedral library.

While in Verona the codex containing the Historia Augusta came to the notice of Petrarch, presumably through Pastrengo, his friend and correspondent. That it came into the actual possession of the great humanist and formed part of his library has been asserted and denied with equal vehemence. It is conceded by all, however, that he inscribed on its margins many notes and comments, and that he had a copy of it made at Verona in 1356, to which he later added many a comment and correction. The results of his study of the biographies, furthermore, appear in his works. Thus in his letter de Militia Veterum, he cites the Hadrian, the Pescennius, the Avidius Cassius, the Maximini, and the Probus; and in the de Re Publica bene administranda he quotes from the Hadrian, the Avidius Cassius, the Elagabalus, the Alexander, and the Aurelian.

After the death of Petrarch, the Fulda Codex, it has been maintained, came into the possession of Coluccio Salutati, and many of the marginal corrections which it bears are said to be his. On the other hand, it has been asserted with equal vigour that Coluccio did not even see this manuscript. However this may be, the Historia Augusta was well known to Coluccio, and his letters written in the years 1381‑93 cite the vitae of Hadrian, Pius, Marcus, and Alexander; moreover, the fact that in one letter he names the six authors of the Historia Augusta in the order in which they are contained in the manuscript seems to indicate that he had a first‑hand acquaintance with the text.

In the fifteenth century the famous codex passed into the hands of the merchant and theologian Giannozzo Manetti (1396‑1459). His possession is attested by the presence of his name on the first page, and he too is supposed to have shown his interest in the Historia Augusta by inscribing many a note on the margins. Later, probably in 1587, with other of Manetti's books, the codex containing the Historia Augusta passed to the Palatine Library at Heidelberg, there to be known as the Codex Palatinus and there to remain until, with the rest of that famous collection, it was sent to Rome in 1623 by Maximilian of Bavaria, and placed in the library of the Vatican.

The general interest in the Historia Augusta in the fifteenth century is well attested by the number of manuscripts that were made in that period. Among them was the copy of the Codex Palatinus which was made by the famous Poggio Bracciolini with his own hand and is still preserved in Florence.

The same interest in the Historia Augusta that led to the multiplication of the manuscripts was responsible for its early appearance in printed form. One of the recent copies of the Codex Palatinus came into the hands of Bonus Accursius and from this was made the Editio Princeps, published in Milan in 1475. This was soon followed by an Aldine edition published Venice in 1516, and by the more famous text edited by Erasmus, and published by Froben in Basel in 1518.

In these early editions the emphasis had been laid on the Latin text, but in the seventeenth century the work of the editors included not only textual emendation, but comment and illustration. Of these editions the first was that of Casaubon, published in 1603. It was not unnatural that these biographies should have attracted the editor of Suetonius and Polybius and the scholar who wrote in the preface to his edition of the Historia Augusta that "political philosophy may be learned from history, and ethical from biography."

Casaubon's edition was soon followed by that of Gruter, published at Hanover in 1611. As professor in Heidelberg, Gruter had access to the Codex Palatinus and based his text on this manuscript. It is therefore not unnatural that he should have concerned himself most of all with text. Yet his notes are by no means confined to a discussion of the readings of his manuscript, but include comment on the narrative and the citation of parallels from other classical authors. Yet his commentary lacks the scope of Casaubon's, and in many a note he refers the reader to the work of his great predecessor, amicissimus noster, as he calls him.

The work of Casaubon and Gruter was carried on by the great Salmasius (Claude de Salmaise) in his edition published in 1620. His contribution consisted, not in the text, which was merely a re-publication of Casaubon's, but in his commentary. As might be expected from one of his great learning, he included in his edition notes of wide scope and vast erudition, and little was left unnoticed that the knowledge of his age afforded.

So far, the Historia Augusta had been a subject for textual criticism and comment rather than a source for Roman history. The historical researches of the humanistic period dealt almost exclusively with the Roman Republic, or, at the latest, with Augustus, and left these imperial biographies untouched. Besides Giovanni de Matociis and Guglielmo da Pastrengo, only Benvenuto Rambaldi da Imola in his Romuleon, a compendium of Roman history from the founding of Rome to the period of Constantine, written soon after 1360, seems to have been largely dependent on the Historia Augusta for the history of the second and third centuries. In the later Renaissance, when the interest of scholars concerned itself with antiquarian, rather than strictly historical, research, the biographies would be valuable only for incidental information rather than for historical material. In the seventeenth century, on the other hand, they received serious attention. The de Historicis Romanis of G. J. Vossius, published in 1627, devoted considerable space not only to the six biographers themselves, their respective dates, and the problem of the distribution of the various vitae among them, but also to the authors cited by them, especially Marius Maximus and Junius Cordus. Of much more importance, however, was their use by Lenain de Tillemont in his Histoire des Empereurs et des autres Princes qui ont régné durant les six premiers Siècles de l'Eglise. In spite of his general denunciation of the biographies as unworthy of the name of historian, and his occasional strictures on their self-contradictions, the chronological inexactness of Spartianus, and the crime-inspiring character of Lampridius' work, the Historia Augusta was a main source, together with Cassius Dio, for that part of his work which dealt with the second and third centuries.

Similarly important was the place that the Historia Augusta occupied among the sources used by Gibbon. Although his critical acumen detected many an instance of historical inaccuracy, and although he did not hesitate to score single instances with characteristic vigour, he accepted in general the information that it offered and even the point of view of the biographer.

In the nineteenth century the work of the biographers was still accorded respectful, though not uncritical, consideration. Thus Merivale held that "we may perhaps rely upon them generally for the account of the salient events of history and their views of character; but we must guard against the trifling and incredible anecdotes with which they abound," and, true to his principle, he constantly cites them as sources. Schiller, too, while observing that the later biographies are inferior to the earlier ones and that the value of their information varied with the source employed, regarded the material that they afford us as useful for the political history of the empire, and used them as sources, considering them, apparently, as important as Dio and Herodian. Even Mommsen in his Römisches Staatsrecht does not disdain these biographies, but cites them among his authorities in his reconstruction of the public law and administration of imperial Rome. It was left for the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth to bring the charge of utter spuriousness against the Historia Augusta and to assert that it is the work of a forger — a charge which, in return, has led to a somewhat fanciful attempt to trace through many of the biographies the purple thread of an otherwise unknown historian of prime importance.