Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Augustan History

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AUGUSTAN HISTORY is the title bestowed upon a collection of the biographies of the Roman emperors, from Hadrian to Carinus, written under Diocletian and Constantine, and usually regarded as the composition of six authors, Ælius Spartianus, Julius Capitolinus, ^Elius Lampridius, Vulcatius Gallicanus, Trebellius Pollio, and Flavins Vopiscus. Upon investigation, however, there appears good reason for reducing these writers to four. The distribution of the respective biographies among them, according to the arrangement of the MSS., is supported by no extraneous authority, and depends upon no intelligible principle. Without entering into detail, for which space fails us, it must suffice to state that up to and including the biography of Alexander Severus, the authorship of the various memoirs is interchanged among Spartianus, Lam pridius, and Capitolinus, in a manner only explicable upon the hypothesis of a division of labour among these writers, or on that of their having selected their subjects entirely at random. The latter is contradicted by their own affirma tions, and no trace of any mutual concert is discoverable, neither is there any perceptible difference of style. When, therefore, we find the excerpts in the Palatine MS. assigning all the biographies preceding that of Maximin to Spartianus alone, and remark that his prsenomen and that of Lam pridius are alike given as ^Elius, we cannot avoid suspecting with Casaubon and Salmasius that the full name was ^Elius Lampridius Spartianus, and that two authors have been manufactured out of one. We further find Spartianus observing, at the commencement of his life of ^Elius Verus, that having written the lives of all the emperors who had borne the title of Aug -. ; tus from Julius Csesar down to Hadrian, he purposes irom that point to comprise the Caesars also. This excludes the idea of his having written without a plan, or in concert with any colleague. His biographies are regularly dedicated to Diocletian down to that of Pescennius Niger, after which, with one exception, probably due to the corruption of the MSS., they are inscribed to Constantine, as would naturally be the case with a work continued under this prince s reign after having been commenced under his predecessor s. We may also with probability ascribe to Spartianus the life of Avidius Cassius, attributed in the MSS. to Yulcatius Gallicanus, but whose author describes his undertaking in terms almost identical with those employed by Spartianus. No biography subsequent to that of Alexander Severus is attributed to Spartianus by any MS., and tho next series, comprising the Maximins, the Gordians, and Maximus and Balbinus, is undoubtedly the production of Julius Capi tolinus, who addresses his work to Constantine, and pro fessedly proceeds, in some respects, upon a different plan from his predecessor. The work of Spartianus must have remained incomplete, and Capitolinus must have proposed to fill up the interval between him and Trebellius Pollio, who dedicates his life of Claudius Gothicus to Constantius Chlorus, and whom we know, from the testimony of Vopiscus, to have written the lives of the Philippi and their successors up to Claudius, some years before 303 A.D. In that year (and not 291 A.D., as supposed by Salmasius and Clinton) Vopiscus was solicited by the urban prefect, Junius Tiberianus, to undertake the life of Aurelian; this biography appears from internal evidence to have been published by 307 A.D., and the lives of Aurelian's successors down to Carinus were added before the death of Diocletian in 313. We may therefore reduce the Augustan historians from six to four, and assign their respective shares as follows: To Spartianus, the biographies from Julius Cæsar to Alexander Severus, all anterior to Hadrian being lost; to Capitolinus, those from Maximiu to the younger Gordian; to Trebellius Pollio, the lives of Valerian, Gallienus, the " Thirty Tyrants, " and Claudius Gothicus, those of the Philippi, the Decii, Gallus, ^Emilianus, and part of Valerian's being lost; to Vopiscus, the remainder, from Aurelian to Carinus. Some difficulty is created by the mention of Capitolinus, the latest biographer in order of composition, by his predecessor Vopiscus, but the passage may be an interpolation, or may refer to some other work.

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 con fessedly low. " My purpose," says Vopiscus, " has been to provide materials for more eloquent persons than myself." Considering the perverted taste of the age, it is perhaps fortunate that the task fell into the hands of no showy declaiiner, who measured his success by his skill in making surface do duty for substance, but of homely, niatter-of-fact scribes, whose sole concern was to record what they knew. Their narrative is most 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 Junius Cordus, to whose qualifications they themselves bear no favourable testimony, were their chief authorities for the earlier lives of the series. For the later they have been obliged to resort more largely to public records, and have thus preserved matter of the highest importance, rescuing from oblivion many imperial rescripts and senatorian 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. 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.

The first edition of the Augustan History was printed at Milan in 1475, by Bonus Accursius, along with Suetonius. Being based upon the best MSS. it is superior to any of its successors until Casaubon s (1603). Casaubon manifested great critical ability in his notes, but for want of a good MS. left the restoration of the text to Salmasius (1620), whose notes are a most remarkable monument of erudition combined with acuteness in verbal criticism and general vigour of intellect. Little has since been done for the improvement of the text, which is still in a very unsatisfactory state. The most accurate edition is that by Jordan and Eyssenhardt (Berlin, 1863), grounded on a collation of the Bamberg MS. with the Palatine (now the Vatican) used by Salmasius. The most important separate dis sertations on the Augustan historians are that on the sixth volume of Heine s Opuscula Philoloyica; Brocks s essay on the first four of them (Kijnigsberg, 1869) ; Dirksen s elucidation of their references to Roman jurisprudence (Leipsic, 1842) ; Peter s critical emenda tions (Posen, 1863); Bruimer s monograph on Vopiscus in the second volume of Biidinger s Untersuchungen zur Romischen Kaiser- geschichte, and J. Miiller s disqui it ion in the third (Leipsic, 1863-69V There is no English translation.

(r. g.)