Tales of Ancient Kings
Historia Augusta trans. by David Magie; revised by David Rohrbacher. 3 vols. Harvard University Press, 2022. $30.00. Vol. I: pp. i-liii, 1-471; Vol. II: pp.1-463; Vol. III: 1-562, reviewed by Darrell Sutton
Wading through the mound of scholarly matter on ancient Latin texts is a daunting task. Numerous opinions need to be considered. Historia Augusta (HA), so-called presently because communis opinio presumes it to be a work authored by only one writer, was handed down to modern readers in manuscripts dating from the Caroline revival to the Renaissance era. For a long time none of the texts were accurately reported. Within the MSS, notations and emendations by various hands are noticeable; but identifying the emendators is harder still. The HA remains crucial to studies of the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD.
From the inception of research on HA, it was thought that the MSS contained the lettering of six writers who composed biographies of various rulers;
I: Aelius Spartianus (Hadrian, Aelius, Didius Iulianus, Septimius Severus, Pescennius Niger, Caracalla, Geta); II: Iulius Capitolinus (Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, Verus, Pertinax, Clodius Albinus, Opilius Macrinus, Maximini duo, the Gordiani, Maximus et Balbinus; III: Vulcacius Gallicanus (Avidius Cassius); IV: Aelius Lampridius (Commodus, Diadumenus, Heliogabalus, Alexander Severus), V: Trebellius Pollio (Valerianus, Gallienus, Thirty Tyrants, Claudius Gothicus); and VI: Flavius Vopiscus Syracusanus (Aurelianus, Tacitus, Probus, Four Tyrants, Carus, Carinus and Numerian).
The period covered ranges from AD117-284. Each memoir purportedly was written during the reigns of Diocletian and Constantine I. Numerous documents and items of public record and recollection are used to support the profiles. Disagreement abounds. All the sketches do not exhibit the same literary qualities. Therefore debates on HA’s authorship teem with all sorts of claims. Scientific discussion of the texts originate in 1889 with Hermann Dessau’s paper, Über Zeit und Persönlichkeït der Scriptores historiae Augustae (Hermes Vol. 24, No.3). Dessau (1856-1931) was a pupil of Mommsen and an able text critic. His prosopographic research informed his theories regarding the HA. He rejected nearly all of what was commonly believed about it, eschewing popular beliefs of the day.
Naturally enough, interpretative methods shifted when scholastic discussions made such progressive turns. Ancient practices came to be understood through lenses that aided readers in reimagining a writer’s traits: for advances in this genre of study, see edd., D.W.P. Burgersdijk, A. van Waarden, Emperors and Historiography: Collected Essays on the Literature of the Roman Empire by Daniël Den Hengst (Brill, 2010). In these forums, the notion that HA was a production of multiple hands and serial invention lost its credibility. People who once subscribed to this view abandoned it due to the pressure of studies of documentary sources. The scholarly consensus regarding single authorship persists. Recently A.M. Kemezis, in his paper ‘Multiple Authors and Puzzled Readers in the Historia Augusta’ (in edd. M. Baumann and V. Liotsakis, Reading History in the Roman Empire, DeGruyter, 2022), uncritically, and without further examination, propagated once more the scholarly view derived from the late 1800s (p.223). Ronald Syme (1903-1989) concurred. It is upon his foundations that all recent literary constructs for understanding of HA are built (vid. Syme, ‘The Composition of the Historia Augusta: Recent Theories’, JRS 62, 1972). Yet A. Momigliano (1908-1987) identified weaknesses in his theories. Syme’s positions were innovative but only true based on the evidence he advanced in their favor. He believed a number of texts from Ammianus, specifically books XIV-XXII, resonated in HA, and he argued this point cogently in his book Ammianus Marcellinus and the Historia Augusta (1968).
His conjectures, however, are assailable. He was an expert in the historical criticism of certain Latin texts. But strangely he assumed that the employment of the ‘science’ of source criticism tools in the study of HA in effect disabled its user’s receptivity to truth. In this respect his ingenuity misled him, and DR too, (see p.xxx ‘Conclusion’) believing that ‘The poet and the novelist show the way to understanding’ the HA, not the ‘historians or copyists’: see Syme’s paper noted above, ‘The Composition of… p.124. Conversely, in the face of his intuitions, there seems little doubt that these biographies are a collection of writings composed by several authors, each with peculiar literary styles. Long ago E. Wöfflin (1831-1908) and E. Kleb’s (1852-1918) made persuasive arguments for this position (for a summary of their stances see AJP, 1894, Vol.15, No.3, p.382). Their 19th century research into HA’s languages stood up to scrutiny then and now. The best way to approach this topic is by perusing T.D. Barnes, The Sources of the Historia Augusta (1978). In my own inspection, the details noted down in HA’s biographies are true in more points than they are false. And the writers are fascinated by historical factors and their effects upon their subject. Titulary designations in the MSS aside, the modern headings employed usually signal a contemporary scholar’s belief. The use of Historia Augusta shows one’s belief in the single author theory; but Scriptores Historiae Augustae indicates an acceptance of multiple authorship.
Dr. David Rohrbacher (DR) is Professor of Classics at New College of Florida and is not new to this field of studies. He published The Historians of Late Antiquity (2002) and The Play of Allusion in the Historia Augusta (2016). Those volumes are valuable and of a different class, and unlike most other accepted publications in HA research. Much more interesting for establishing his opinions in this field is his review of ‘Historiae Augustae: colloquium Genevense in honorem F. Paschoud septuagenarii’, Bryn Mawr Classical Review, 2011.04.41. Or for tracing the development of his thinking on this topic, see his paper ‘The Sources of the Historia Augusta Re-Examined’, Histos, 7, 2013. These revised volumes will be helpful to students whose grasp of Latin is not extensive. Additional classical aids, to be sure, will be needed when scanning this multi-volume set. The revival of Loeb editions continues. In truth, every Loeb currently coming into the marketplace is not a critical edition despite how each one is marketed, although in several of the latest editions the revision of older translations bolsters the claims made for the use of the labes ‘groundbreaking’ or ‘critical’.
His ‘Introduction’ is basic enough, but too short, divided into sections: Sources, The Techniques of Fabrication, Purpose, Date, History and Constitution of the Text. A three-volume work of roughly 1500 pages needs a technical assessment of 90 pages or more. Penetrating analyses of claims and counterclaims are pre-requisite. The tone of the Introduction is infelicitous. Readers are inundated with descriptive labels of the HA which refer to it as fantasy, frivolity, fictive, fictitious, fake and not trustworthy. No clear purpose for its composition is presented. Despite DR’s best effort, more than a century later, critics will continue to wonder ‘why someone wrote an extensive biographical work with fictionalized date and authorship’ (p.xxiv). There are sheaves of comments and new insights in the Introduction on connections between works of literature. He believes HA interacts with, depends on, or alludes to Suetonius, Plutarch, Aurelius Victor, Eutropius, Ammianius Macellinus, Jerome, Enmann’s Kaisergeschicte, Marious Maximus, Herodian, Dexippus, Zosimus, John Zonaras, Nicomacus Flavianus, Eunapius, Cicero, Sallust, Martial, Virgil, Horace, Pliny, Juvenal, Aulus Gellius and Livy; but ‘invented historians or biographers’ are quoted in abundance (p.xxi).
DR maintains a synoptic view of HA that is consonant with prevailing attitudes. However, in concert with ‘a smaller group of scholars’, DR believes HA was written ‘in the first or second decade of the fifth century’ (xxix). This section could have been improved by addressing A. Cameron’s article ‘Momigliano and the Historia Augusta’ in edd. T. Cornell and O. Murray, The Legacy of Arnaldo Momigliano (2014). Cameron’s observations were original, proposing new questions and solutions.
THE ENGLISH TRANSLATION
Despite the claim made in the Preface (p.viii), there is much unrevised material. References in this paragraph, which relate to volume I, refer explicitly to texts in Hadrian because similar weaknesses in translating the Latin therein are pervasive throughout each biography. At 2:4, mathematico may contain several nuances, but it’s gist should not be restricted to mean ‘astrologer’, as it is also in Deified Claudius 1.2.4, vol. III. It certainly refers to a diviner or conjurer whose predictions or conclusions are thought-out, based on evidence interpretable by him or her. But the powers of divination used by a mathēmaticus are not limited to celestial studies. Some liberties are taken with 2.7, fuitque in amore Traiani… Gallo favente <fatio> defuit, where I was unable to turn up the underlying Latin for his translation ‘and yet palace intrigue was not lacking’. In 2.9-10 all the personages are assumed to be real while Apollonius of Syria is presumed to be made-up. I thought he was a platonic philosopher, so says Spartianus. Why not write similarly as he did of Gallus in fn.19: ‘…uncertain, as is the identity of this man’ (see 2.7 above). And in the Preface DR says that ‘I also translated more clearly certain passages of a sexual nature that the conventions of Magie’s time had obscured’ (p.viii). But on familiarius prosecutus est (3.2) Magie and DR remain united on over-translating that phrase’s sense to denote ‘on terms of considerable intimacy’, a subtle but archaic expression which clever readers today well might misinterpret. At 5.9, having described a tumult put down in north Africa area of Mauretania, Post haec is glossed ‘after taking these measures’. One suppose that the narrow conversion of meaning from one language into the next, in a strict sense, is less exciting than paraphrases.
In volume II, at Alexander Severus 1.2, one finds ‘…erasum est—ad remedium generis humani Aurelius Alexander,’ which he translated ‘expunged… Aurelius Alexander received the [imperial power?], for the healing of humanity.’ (my brackets). In the same book at 13.1.3-4 where it has quo nominee mater Alexandri appellata est. Why insert in this manner, the note ‘(this was also the name of the mother of Alexander the Great)’, parenthesized in the English text but not in the Latin one? As for how he substantially revised Magie’s English, here is a longer extract from Volume II The Three Gordians 6-7.
In height he was characteristically Roman. He was becomingly gray, with an impressive face, more ruddy than fair. His face was fairly broad, his eyes, his countenance, and his brow such as to command respect. His body was somewhat stocky. In character he was temperate and restrained; there is nothing you can say that he ever did passionately, immoderately, or excessively. His affection for his kin was remarkable, for his son and grandson beyond the ordinary, for his daughter and granddaughter most devoted…
He was sparing in the use of wine, very sparing in the use of food. His dress was elegant. He was fond of bathing ; indeed, during the summer, he would bathe four or five times a day, in the winter twice. His love of sleep was enormous ; he would doze off even at table, if he were dining with friends, and without any embarrassment. This he seemed to do at nature’s bidding and not because of intoxication or wantonness. VII. But all his virtuous behaviour profited him nothing. For this old man, worthy of respect as such a life had made him, who passed his days with Plato and Aristotle, Cicero and Vergil, finally suffered an end other than that he deserved.
He was of a height normal for a Roman. He was attractively gray, with an impressive face, more ruddy than fair. His face was broad, and his eyes, his mouth, and his brow commanded respect. His body was somewhat stocky. He was so temperate in his character that there is nothing you can say that he ever did lustfully, immoderately, or excessively. He was very affection [sic] toward his family, extraordinarily so for his son and grandson, and with great devotion to his daughter and granddaughter….
He was sparing in his use of wine, and ate very sparingly. His dress was elegant. He was so fond of bathing that during the summer, he would bathe four or five times a day, and in the winter twice. He slept very often, and would doze even at dinner, if he were dining with friends, without embarrassment. He seemed to do this naturally, not because of intoxication or gluttony. 7 But all his virtuous behavior did not benefit him at all. Despite his way of life, worthy of respect, this man who passed his days with Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Virgil, and other ancients, finally suffered an undeserved death.’
This revision of wording is typical with DR. Reading hundreds of these pages, one has the feeling that the reviser’s confidence in Magie’s translation is overwhelming. Or, that in this enterprise, fresh translations from Latin were never attempted.
The renderings in volume III scarcely diverge from Magie: e.g. see The Two Valerians, Tacitus, all the letters in Probus, and Four Usurpers 12-13. The majority of DR’s novel translations merely change a word. Indeed in other places his representations of Latin keep us from knowing his views on the syntax of select phrases. H. S. Stuart called attention to Magie’s inaccurate translations in The Classical Review Vol.38, (1924), p.181; Vol.41, (1927), p.89; Vol.48, (1934), p.41. By closely scanning, misunderstandings of Latin grammar become visible quickly’ although he did clear up a few obscurities in HA. The unevenly punctuated texts need to be revisited entirely; but thankfully an extensive Index of Names supplements volume three (pp.439-562). New historical notes written by DR are not without merit. Foreign terms or ideas frequently appear in HA and could become the basis for original studies.
On page xx, in the list of Latin historical sources used by HA, for some reason ‘Martial’ is listed twice. In the area of text-criticism, DR does not make confident strides toward textual solutions. What is given on the history of the constitution of the text is insignificant (pp.xxx-xxxi). There is nothing on the transmission of MSS. Although the app. crit. was not assembled in a haphazard way, the most helpful aspect of the volume are the variants placed in the apparatus and the record of who proposed specific conjectures.
Too much of David Magie pervades this volume. The need for a true scholarly edition of HA from Loeb is manifest. To enhance this edition, the translator’s notes on alternate renderings and other grammatical features should be prepared and listed in the marginalia like the textual and historical matter or placed in appendices.
Naive or extraneous statements appear. Citing Plutarch as an influence on the author of HA, DR says ‘Biography is traditionally more concerned with facts and accuracy, and less concerned with style and elegance’ (p.xii). Also DR argues that ‘The author uses geographic, ethnic and bureaucratic terms that are proper to the late fourth century, not the early fourth century,’ (p.xiv). With the ancient inscriptions and witnesses now on hand, how could DR know, in a comprehensive way, the vast nomenclature of rural areas in early fourth century Roman Empire?
The attempt to discover the meaning of the name of the last author, [Flavius] Vopiscus, was unhelpful. He cites Pliny the elder’s definition that the term signifies one baby of twins born alive after the other baby of the same set has died. DR then poses a question that is neither here nor there (p.xvi), ‘Is the author teasing us with this name which seems to present Vopiscus as the last of a series of authors who die and are reborn, all “twins” of the single author?’
DR complains about HA’s use of fake documents (p.xxiii). But non-extant evidence is more likely than not to have existed, even if it is not available today. On page xxxi he says ‘In general, the text has been prepared in accordance with contemporary consensus,…’. Such agreement harmonizes views, but it offers no firm foundation of truth. He discards J. Stover’s rejection of the widespread consensus on HA’s MS tradition.
Modern Loeb introductions and texts since the editorship of G.P. Goold (1922-2001) were making headway in the areas of historical criticism and text-critical science. In this edition progress has slowed down. Sadly, and in spite of its deficiencies, Magie’s 1921 Introduction still should be read along with DR’s initial remarks. And at first glance, Magie’s is authoritative, better written, and shows more than a respectable control of the overall history of the HA’s composition. When the series was inaugurated, numerous Loeb editions became famous because of their exact translations, which followed closely the original sources. After 75 years, several editors that were equally gifted as translation-stylists have been commissioned. Hopefully, the Loeb foundation is not pursuing a new course, one that favors loose translation over closely edited texts exhibited on the opposite page of English renderings that clearly reflect what the original language says.
Making best use of one’s time is imperative when studying classical literature. Every set of texts may not be as stimulating as the tales of Homer or the myth and folklore of the Bibliotheca of Apollodorus. Yet reading them may bring all kinds of personal satisfaction. Ovid was once the text of choice in America for teachers who tutored youth. Instructors prefer him over Virgil and other poets even now. Its content appeals to adolescent minds in key respects that are not unlike what is acquirable in select writings of Caesar and Cicero. HA casts light on the later Roman Empire but is best suited for mature pupils, especially those who bring to its reading a love of Latin syntax, an appreciation for Roman lives, letters and polity, and a desire to disentangle fact from fiction.
Classicist Darrell Sutton contributes reviews and papers to QR