Saturday 18 June 2016

Written in Water #3: History, by Fiction

Maximinus the Thracian. 
The Augustan History, then.

The Twelve Caesars of Suetonius is one of the most beloved and widely read works  of the Silver Age of Latin. Twelve biographies, the first eleven Emperors of Rome (Augustus to Domitian) and Julius Caesar the Dictator as a prologue. Nothing in them about governance; plenty of gossip. If you want to read about how Augustus spent one day a year as a beggar because of a dream he had, or Caligula making his horse Prime Minister, or Vespasian's penchant for practical jokes, Suetonius is your man.

It only stands to reason that someone might try to continue where he left off. There were a lot of emperors, and a lot of stories. That continuation exists, a collection of biographies attributed to six authors who give it its title, The Writers of the Augustan History (Scriptores Historiae Augustae). It is one of the strangest documents ever written. Nearly all of it is a lie.

The six writers of these strange, contradictory biographical sketches of Emperors, heirs and pretenders (starting with Hadrian, ending with the Sons of Carus) appear to have lived in the time of Diocletian and Constantine. Their names were Aelius Spartianus, Julius Capitolinus. Flavius Vopiscus of Syracuse, Vulcacius Gallicanus, Aelius Lampridius, and Trebellius Pollio.

The authors of these biographies aren't divided in any reasonable way. References are made to things that suggest a much later date.

Speeches and letters and proclamations appear in quotation, but not one of these things is attested elsewhere. And the other thing: in style, they're remarkably similar.

Too similar. In fact, the thesis is that they are the work of one writer, writing much later. No sign exists in the text of an external editor who brought these works together. One author says he will start a series of biographies, another finishes it. Then, on the other hand, they might do the same things consistently, except they don't. For example, the lives attributed to Flavius Vopiscus of Syracuse reference some of the other attributed writers by name. None of the other supposed authors do that. I don't know, it could be that the alleged single writer only thought of having his fictional writers do that when he was composing the Flavius Vopiscus stories, which are the last ones in the collection.

The lives of Hadrian and the Antonines (Pius through Commodus) are largely based on known history, and don't resort to invention so much. But in a lot of ways, you can see a reflection of the collapse of Roman history in the ways the historiography also collapses; by the second half of the book, entire lives are entirely fictional. Several emperors and Caesars are misnamed and given fictional lives. Diadumenus bears no resemblance to anything in the real life of the unfortunate son of Macrinus, Diadumenian. Caracalla becomes Caracallus. Elagabalus becomes Heliogabalus. The Thirty Tyrants, a collection of usurpers and pretenders, aren't called that anywhere else, some are entirely made up, and some – Zenobia, for instance, the tragic and remarkable queen of lost Palmyra, who led Syria to secede for a while in the third century – had no designs on Rome at all.

The thing doesn't add up.

But then, one has to ask also, why would anyone do such a thing? Did it start as a genuine project that fell apart as it went on? Did a later compiler heavily rewrite a collection of biographies? Why would a Roman writer write a couple of biographies, leave a couple for someone else, and then pick up? Or did all of these men write full collections, the best of which were cherry-picked by a later anonymous compiler? The later lives mention an intention to compose biographies of Diocletian and Constantine which never happened.

And the invention tends to the romantic. Heliogabalus showers so many rose petals on his party guests, they drown in fragrant blossom. Macrinus, prefect of the Praetorian Guard, accidentally intercepts an astrologer's prophecy that he will succeed the brutal Caracalla and realises that he has to fulfil it if he wishes to live any longer. Caracalla and Geta, joint emperors, brothers, despise each other so much they build a brick wall down the middle of the Imperial palace. Valerian is given a fictional heir of the same name and grows old as a slave of the Persian king. Maximin the Thracian is eight feet tall.

I realise that for many people, even people familiar with the Roman Empire, these are just names, and it's my intention, as part of this project, to translate some of the best bits of the history as part of the sourcebook that's going to accompany the City of God project. The Penguin edition of the work stops at Commodus, avoiding the less historical lives. But you see, even for experts, that fiction-heavy part of the Augustan History is the only biographical source for many of the third-century Roman Emperors. Historians approach it with this extreme ambivalence, because it's a fiction, possibly even a hoax, a profound problem in literature, and it's all they have. It's one of my very favourite texts of antiquity for that exact reason.