1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Augustan History
AUGUSTAN HISTORY, the name given to a collection of the biographies of the Roman emperors from Hadrian to Carinus (A.D. 117-284). The work professes to have been written during the reigns of Diocletian and Constantine, and is to be regarded as the composition of six authors,—Aelius Spartianus, Julius Capitolinus, Aelius Lampridius, Vulcacius Gallicanus, Trebellius Pollio and Flavius Vopiscus—known as Scriptores Historiae Augustae, writers of Augustan history. It is generally agreed, however, that there is a large number of interpolations in the work, which are referred to the reign of Theodosius; and that the documents inserted in the lives are almost all forgeries. The more advanced school of critics holds that the names of the supposed authors are purely fictitious, as those of some of the authorities which they profess to quote certainly are. The lives, which (with few exceptions) are arranged in chronological order, are distributed as follows:—To Spartianus: the biographies of Hadrian, Aelius Verus, Didius Julianus, Septimius Severus, Pescennius Niger, Caracallus, Geta (?); to Vulcacius Gallicanus: Avidius Cassius; to Capitolinus: Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, Verus, Pertinax, Clodius Albinus, the two Maximins, the three Gordians, Maximus and Balbinus, Opilius Macrinus (?); to Lampridius: Commodus, Diadumenus, Elagabalus, Alexander Severus; to Pollio: the two Valerians, the Gallieni, the so-called Thirty Tyrants or Usurpers, Claudius (his lives of Philip, Decius, and Gallus being lost); to Vopiscus: Aurelian, Tacitus, Florian, Probus, the four tyrants (Firmus, Saturninus, Proculus, Bonosus), Carus, Numerian, Carinus.
The importance of the Augustan history as a repertory of information is very considerable, but its literary pretensions are of the humblest order. The writers’ standard was confessedly low. “My purpose,” says Vopiscus, “has been to provide materials for persons more eloquent than I.” Considering the perverted taste of the age, it is perhaps fortunate that the task fell into the hands of no showy declaimer who measured his success by his skill in making surface do duty for substance, but of homely, matter-of-fact scribes, whose sole concern was to record what they knew. Their narrative is unmethodical and inartificial; their style is tame and plebeian; their conception of biography is that of a collection of anecdotes; they have no notion of arrangement, no measure of proportion, and no criterion of discrimination between the important and the trivial; they are equally destitute of critical and of historical insight, unable to sift the authorities on which they rely, and unsuspicious of the stupendous social revolution comprised within the period which they undertake to describe. Their value, consequently, depends very much on that of the sources to which they happen to have recourse for any given period of history, and on the fidelity of their adherence to these when valuable. Marius Maximus and Aelius Junius Cordus, to whose qualifications they themselves bear no favourable testimony, were their chief authorities for the earlier lives of the series. Marius Maximus, who lived about 165-230, wrote biographies of the emperors, in continuation of those of Suetonius, from Nerva to Elagabalus; Junius Cordus dealt with the less-known emperors, perhaps down to Maximus and Balbinus. The earlier lives, however, contain a substratum of authentic historical fact, which recent critics have supposed to be derived from a lost work by a contemporary writer, described by one of these scholars as “the last great Roman historian.” For the later lives the Scriptores were obliged to resort more largely to public records, and thus preserved matter of the highest importance, rescuing from oblivion many imperial rescripts and senatorial decrees, reports of official proceedings and speeches on public occasions, and a number of interesting and characteristic letters from various emperors. Their incidental allusions sometimes cast vivid though undesigned light on the circumstances of the age, and they have made large contributions to our knowledge of imperial jurisprudence in particular. Even their trivialities have their use; their endless anecdotes respecting the personal habits of the subjects of their biographies, if valueless to the historian, are most acceptable to the archaeologist, and not unimportant to the economist and moralist. Their errors and deficiencies may in part be ascribed to the contemporary neglect of history as a branch of instruction. Education was in the hands of rhetoricians and grammarians; historians were read for their style, not for their matter, and since the days of Tacitus, none had arisen worth a schoolmaster’s notice. We thus find Vopiscus acknowledging that when he began to write the life of Aurelian, he was entirely misinformed respecting the latter’s competitor Firmus, and implying that he would not have ventured on Aurelian himself if he had not had access to the MS. of the emperor’s own diary in the Ulpian library. The writers’ historical estimates are superficial and conventional, but report the verdict of public opinion with substantial accuracy. The only imputation on the integrity of any of them lies against Trebellius Pollio, who, addressing his work to a descendant of Claudius, the successor and probably the assassin of Gallienus, has dwelt upon the latter versatile sovereign’s carelessness and extravagance without acknowledgment of the elastic though fitful energy he so frequently displayed in defence of the empire. The caution of Vopiscus’s references to Diocletian cannot be made a reproach to him.
No biographical particulars are recorded respecting any of these writers. From their acquaintance with Latin and Greek literature they must have been men of letters by profession, and very probably secretaries or librarians to persons of distinction. There seems no reason to accept Gibbon’s contemptuous estimate of their social position. They appear particularly versed in law. Spartianus’s reference to himself as “Diocletian’s own” seems to indicate that he was a domestic in the imperial household. They address their patrons with deference, acknowledging their own deficiencies, and seem painfully conscious of the profession of literature having fallen upon evil days.