Historia Augusta

9 January 2012

Bust of Caracalla(Musei Capitolini)

The complete Historia Augusta has been up on LacusCurtius for seven years now, and in all that time the reader going to its orientation page will have read that there was an introduction by the Loeb editor, and a little section on the manuscripts — but that I hadn’t put them up, and would do so in the fullness of time.

Of course I quickly forgot about the missing items; yesterday must have been the fullness of time, and I had occasion to discover them again. They’re now up: Introduction and Manuscripts.

David Magie’s explanation of just how people consider the Historia Augusta a pack of lies is reasonably thorough and clear. But the more useful and interesting explanation is in fact on Livius; though less complete and technically detailed, that’s still the one I recommend.


Review: A. Cameron, The Last Pagans of Rome (1)

18 June 2011

[This is the first part of a review of Alan Cameron’s The Last Pagans of Rome (2011)]


Bacurius was an officer in the Roman army of the fourth century AD. The church historian Rufinus calls him a Christian. He may be right: the two men had met in Jerusalem. Bacurius’ friend Libanius of Antioch, however, considered the officer a pagan. There may be an easy explanation, like conversion, but that’s not my point. Far more interesting than Bacurius’ religion is the question what modern historians would have thought if only Rufinus’ History of the Church had survived and Libanius’ letters were lost. I am quite sure that no one would have suspected that Rufinus’ information might have been incorrect. Bacurius would have been considered a Christian.

This example illustrates the central problem of the study of Antiquity: there are not enough sources. Researchers are not able to check whether their information is correct. The problem is sometimes identified with a proverb from Roman law: testis unus, testis nullus. Disagreeing sources are, therefore, any historian’s dream: finally a way to contrast evidence and check information.

Usually, ancient historians have only one source. Of course they ask – or should ask – which information might refute that one source, whether that information has ever been around, why that information no longer exists, and by which miracle the surviving source has come down to us. The ancient historian who believes that he has done his job by merely quoting a source, uses a method that is often called naïve positivism.

In the eighteenth century, this was the best historians could offer. Edward Gibbon was sometimes incredibly naïve when he wrote his Decline and Fall; uncritically, he accepted the information from the Historia Augusta, never realizing that this source was a hoax, never asking which sources were used by its author, never preferring that information to the Historia Augusta. In a sense, it is to be regretted that the master of irony is still in print, because it has led generations of amateur historians to believe that “telling a story based on the sources” is all a historian has to do.

[to be continued]

The Early Career of Pertinax

8 December 2010

Replica of the Bruhl Inscription. Museum für Antike Schifffahrt, Mainz.

The first stages of the career of the emperor Pertinax are known from the opening lines of his biography in the Historia Augusta (“Pertinax“, 1.5-2.4). This information was confirmed by an inscription from Brühl near Cologne, which is interesting because – even though it is extremely damaged and only forty-nine letters survive – could be restored almost completely by the German scholar H.G. Kolbe. Having reconstructed the original wording, he even managed to add some details to the outline offered in the Historia Augusta.

You can read it here.

Historia Augusta – more than one author after all?

1 March 2010

Bust of Aurelian or Diocletian; Archaeological Museum of Istanbul

Ouch. The press release over here is written in Dutch, or perhaps not even that, because it contains a terrible Germanism in the headline. That’s not a recommendation for an article on linguistics. The fact that the author of the press release dates Diocletian to 284 Before Christ does not inspire much confidence either.

Yet the article is actually interesting. It’s about a Ph.D. thesis, Style and structure of the Historia Augusta, by classicist Diederik Burgersdijk; he argues that there are substantial differences between the various parts of the Historia Augusta, which he connects to the use of different sources. We already knew that, but if the press release is correct, Burgersdijk also argues that there were various stages of composition as well. And that is, as I said, quite interesting.