Monday, July 16, 2012


François Paschoud (ed.), Histoire Auguste - Tome IV, 3e partie: Vies des Trente Tyrans et de Claude. Collection des universités de France. Série latine. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2011. Pp. xlv, 367. ISBN 9782251014609. €60.00 (pb).

Reviewed by David Rohrbacher, New College of Florida (

Version at BMCR home site

This volume is Paschoud's third contribution to the multi-authored, slowly appearing Budé edition of the so-called Historia Augusta, the imperial biographical collection which purports to be written by six different authors in the early fourth century, but which was in fact almost certainly written by a single author many decades later. Paschoud's two volumes on the lives attributed to the pseudonym "Flavius Vopiscus" surpass in comprehensiveness and insight the other volumes of the collection,1 and this volume of the final lives attributed to "Trebellius Pollio" offers another densely packed and illuminating commentary on all aspects of the HA.

The unusual book entitled Lives of the Thirty Tyrants comprises the short biographies of thirty-two figures who, the author claims, attempted to usurp the throne during the reigns of the emperors Gallienus and Valerian. The historical record failed to produce such a large number of actual usurpers, and so the author has included in the collection historical figures who did not in fact revolt, historical figures who revolted under other emperors, and finally entirely fictional figures. The book is repetitive and mostly imaginary, but because the author does depend at times upon more sober lost sources (Dexippus and the biographical collection known as Enmann's Kaisergeschichte), this section of the HA is important to the reconstruction of the otherwise poorly documented third century. Paschoud offers the historian a detailed and accurate guide through the difficulties of the text, with extensive citation of parallel passages in the late Latin and Byzantine sources.

The Life of Claudius, according to Paschoud's calculations, is the book of the HA that contains the second smallest percentage of factual material (14%), outdone only by the book on the usurpers Firmus, Saturninus, Proculus and Bonosus, which contains not a single true piece of information. The few facts in the Life are diluted by the inclusion of many tedious false letters which are little more than enumerated lists of military supplies or gifts, and similarly tedious false reports of acclamations and oracles associated with the emperor. Still, the discursive introduction and the panegyrical treatment of Claudius as the ancestor of the supposed dedicatee, Constantius Caesar, are of some interest as literature, if not as biography.

Paschoud's occasional changes from Hohl's text, for which he makes good use of the prose rhythm studies of Zernial and the better suggestions of Soverini, are clearly explained and reflect his good judgment.2 The commentary is particularly strong in its discussion of the challenging late and technical diction and syntax of the work, which are the source of some of the many textual problems. These lives have been translated into French fairly recently by André Chastagnol.3 Chastagnol is more elevated and formal, Paschoud more colloquial and somewhat more literal. As a result, Chastagnol is more pleasant to read, but Paschoud better represents the generally low register of the Latin of the HA.

The introduction is slim, since most of Paschoud's broader theorizing about the nature and purpose of the HA can be found in the introductions to his commentaries on "Vopiscus." The one new emphasis is on a number of passages from the Thirty Tyrants in which the author himself eulogizes usurpers or (fictitiously) portrays figures in the work praising or celebrating usurpers. These passages, Paschoud claims, violate one of "les règles les plus infrangibles de l'historiographie romaine d'époque impériale, qui constitueraient pour l'auteur des crimes de lèse-majesté et lui vaudraient une mise à mort brutale et immédiate." He further claims that "faire l'éloge d'un usurpateur équivaut à se rebeller contre le souverain légitime!" As a result, he asserts that the HA could not have circulated openly while the western empire still survived. Has Paschoud truly identified an inviolable rule of historiography? Speyer's catalogue of censorship in the late empire seems limited to books that were heretical or magical. 4 It was certainly a crime to praise usurpers—Symmachus, for example, risked execution for personally pronouncing a panegyric before the usurper Magnus Maximus, although Theodosius pardoned even this (Soc. HE 5.14). But support for a contemporary usurper is far different from praising a usurper of more than a century earlier. In the case of the Thirty Tyrants, the offense becomes even more attenuated. Would our author really risk punishment for the "crime" of possessing a manuscript written by a certain "Trebellius Pollio" which claims to have been written many years earlier and which praises usurpers under Gallienus? The notion that the expression of such sentiments was equivalent to treason is contradicted by passages of Eutropius (which directly or indirectly represent the ultimate source of the HA), which state forthrightly that praiseworthy usurpers preserved the state under Gallienus' disastrous rule.5 The HA-author has only pursued his usual course of exaggerating and expanding on his model to a ridiculous degree, by praising a larger number of usurpers and doing so more vigorously.

The greatest challenge for the commenter on the HA is the separation of wheat from chaff in the identification of allusions. In the history of the study of the HA, the identification of allusions to authors who wrote after the putative date of the work served first to demonstrate the falsity of the work's self-presentation and then to pinpoint its actual date of composition. But the proliferation of modern studies of allusion in antiquity allows the reader of the HA to use allusion to understand the literary sensibility of the author and his audience.

Exploring the connections between Ammianus and the HA has been a staple of scholarship.6 Paschoud detailed many allusions to Ammianus Marcellinus in his previous volumes; there are fewer here. Den Hengst has demonstrated the use of Ammianus book 31 in the Life of Aurelian,7 and Paschoud adds evidence for the use of that book in chapter 8 of the Life of Claudius: the two thousand ships of Amm. 31.5.15 are found again in Claudius 8.1, the unusual term carrago of Amm. 31.7.7 is found at 8.2 and 8.5, and the words campi ossibus latent tecti evoke the famous description of the battlefield at Ad Salices described by Ammianus (31.7.16), albentes ossibus campi. Paschoud rejects without comment, or was unfamiliar with, other connections that Birley pointed out between chapter 13 of the Life and book 29 of Ammianus.8 Some of these come from Ammianus' account of Constantia, the granddaughter of Constantine (29.6.7). The HA-author, who in the Life of Claudius tiresomely restates the claim that Claudius was the progenitor of the Constantinian house, can thus be seen retrojecting elements from an adventure of the last member of the family into the life of the first. Birley also notes that Ammianus relates how, in late March, after a fire at the temple of Apollo (23.3.3), Julian celebrated the rites of the Magna Mater (23.3.7). The HA-author falsely claims that Claudius assumed power in late March, and then portrays the senate, having abandoned the rites of the Magna Mater, assembling in the temple of Apollo (4.2). The numerous allusions to Ammianus in the HA, incidentally, render impossible Cameron's recent attempt to place its date of publication in the 370s.9

Chastagnol's attempts long ago to demonstrate the use of Claudian by the HA have rightfully met with little favor,10 so it is provocative to see Paschoud offering what he considers a "preuve assez convaincante" of dependence. But Paschoud's evidence —the coincidence of names of some barbarian tribes in an invented list in the Claudius (6.2-3) with names in two separate works of Claudian (in Eutr. 2.153-4, cos. Stil. 1.94)—does not seem to me to be convincing. The names could be derived from any number of imaginable lost sources, and there is no obvious purpose or meaning conveyed by such a borrowing.

Paschoud holds the traditional understanding of pagan/Christian interactions at the turn of the fifth century, which imagines an atmosphere in which pagan intellectuals, driven underground by aggressive Christianity after the triumphant defeat of the pagan forces of Eugenius at the Frigidus River, are forced to express their antipathy to Christianity surreptitiously, through veiled references in literature. This volume was prepared prior to the appearance of Cameron's Last Pagans, which convincingly demolishes these traditional ideas about the prevalence of paganism and the existence of a pagan reaction. As a result, some of Paschoud's comments about Christianity need to be rethought. For example, while the crucifixion of the (invented) usurper Celsus (tyr. trig. 29) might evoke Christianity , there is no reason for the details to represent "allusions...malveillantes" to the Passion, especially since Celsus is not a portrayed as a villain but a good man with an admirable sense of justice betrayed by supporters of Gallienus. The extreme continence of Zenobia, who is said to have had sexual intercourse with her husband only for the purpose of procreation, may also evoke Christianity to the audience of the HA, particularly because of the use of the Christian scire to mean coire, as Paschoud notes. But in no sense need this be "polémique antichrétienne," nor should we accept Zenobia as a kind of pagan heroine who demonstrates that chastity is not only for the devout Christian. Zenobia is otherwise hardly portrayed as a wholly admirable figure, after all. Instead, the HA-author mocks the flamboyant chastity of contemporary radical Christians by associating it with a prodigious easterner. This same mockery of what Cameron calls "strong" Christians, which was the province not only of pagans but of average Christians as well, can be detected throughout the HA.

While I have focused on some areas of disagreement, I conclude by repeating that this volume represents a model for how the HA should be read and studied. It will be an indispensable starting point for historians of the third century and students of late Roman historiographical literature.


1.   None has been reviewed in BMCR. Paschoud's previous volumes: V.1, 1996, and V.2, 2001. Volume I.1 (J.-P. Callu, A. Gaden, O. Desbordes, 2002) is marred by an eccentric introduction on the origins of the HA, and volume III.1 (Robert Turcan, 1993) would benefit from the more sustained attention to the literary sources that we see in Paschoud's volumes. Volume IV.2 (O. Desbordes and S. Ratti, 2000), on the other hand, is provocative and detailed in the Paschoud tradition.
2.   H.L. Zernial, Akzentklausel und Textkritik in der Historia Augusta (Bonn: Rudolf Habelt, 1986); P. Soverini, Problemi di critica testuale nella Historia Augusta (Bologna: Pàtron, 1981).
3.   A. Chastagnol, Histoire Auguste (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1994).
4.   W. Speyer, Büchervernichtung und Zensure des Geistes bei Heiden, Juden, und Christen (Stuttgart: Anton Hiersemann, 1981).
5.   Eutr. 9.9, Tum desperatis rebus et deleto paene imperio Romano Postumus in Gallia obscurissime natus purpuram sumpsit et per annos decem ita imperavit ut consumptas paene provincias ingenti virtute et moderatione reparaverit, and cf. Eutr. 9.11.
6.   E.g., J. Straub, Studien zur Historia Augusta (Bern: A. Francke, 1952); R. Syme, Ammianus and the Historia Augusta (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968).
7.   D. den Hengst, "Verba, non res. Über die Inventio in den Reden und Schriftstücken in der Historia Augusta," in J. Straub, ed., Bonner Historia-Augusta-Colloquium 1984/5 (Bonn: Rudolf Habelt, 1987) 157-74.
8.   A. Birley, "Further echoes of Ammianus in the Historia Augusta," in G. Bonamente and N. Duval, eds., Historiae Augustae Colloquium Parisinum (Macerata: Boccard, 1991), 53-8.
9.   A. Cameron, The Last Pagans of Rome (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 743-82.
10.   A. Chastagnol, "Le poète Claudien et l'Histoire Auguste,"Historia 19 (1970): 444-63; "Trois études sur la Vita Cari," in A. Alföldi, ed., Bonner Historia-Augusta-Colloquium 1972/4 (Bonn: Rudolf Habelt, 1976), 75-90. Against the use of Claudian: S. Ratti, "394: Fin de la Rédaction de l'Histoire Auguste?", Antiquité Tardive 16 (2008): 335-48.

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