Lives Of The Later Caesars

When a work is the only complete historical account of an ancient period of time, it becomes of great importance. Trouble arises when one discovers inconsistencies within the work and discrepancies with fragments and references to other historical works on the same period. The shock becomes great when the apparent historian has made up parts of his work. It is partially fiction.

Fictional elements are not that uncommon in old works of history. The very first history by Herodotos contains a lot of folklore, legends and myths. Fortunately those are fairly easy to distinguish from the facts and at least that they have been written down provides insights into the cultures and peoples outside of Greek civilization. Intentional fiction that is hard to distinguish from real history is problematic. This is the case of the Historia Augusta (c. 370), a series of biographies of Roman emperors in the style of the famous Suetonius that continues his work, covering the period 117 to 285 (the two emperors in between are probably lost). At first sight it is a collection of five authors, but modern historians have discerned that it is the work of one man whose real name is unknown. If the translator kept a true translation than even by reading it one will notice a similarity in style and tone. It is not easy to distinguish the supposedly different authors.

The most trustworthy part of the work is the first half, covering the period 117 to 222. This part is also the version that I’ve read, under the title Lives Of The Later Caesars. Only due to fragments of other works and references to known historic works this has been proven. The author has been quite lazy and sloppy as the style often changes within a biography. The real sections are distinguishable by a more coherent style that is more factual. Even so, the author rewrote some parts or even moved or copied them around. Certain sentences are repeated and the order of events are not set up in a logical way. It is done almost randomly. Fortunately it’s not that bad that it’s not readable, just expect sudden jumps to other topics before suddenly returning to an earlier topic.

The author is also a fan of gossip and rumors. The phrase “some say” and “it is said that” is often used and what usually follows is pretty crazy or nasty stuff. The author likes to tell bad things about the emperors except for a few who are considered to be of exceptional status. Among the listed emperors are several who had a very bad reputation, in the style of Caligula and Nero, and one can only be baffled with how the Roman people let these things go on for many years. It was often a corrupt system that maintained itself until a certain limit was reached.

The most peculiar of this work are the biographies of several rebels who claimed the imperial title but failed. The author frequently mentions that they are quite obscure and because they had no lasting power and rebelled in far off provinces there is little known about them and that which is is doubtful. To the contrary of his own words he starts describing many details and anecdotes about them. Even more astounding is that he produces many letters by them or about them to prove the details. In one case he first writes about a vague claim which is followed by a letter that proves the claim. Instead of writing that he has a letter to prove the claim, he writes the opposite.

All in all this is an amusing work which combines historical facts with fiction. Aside from sloppiness in writing and coherency it is quite readable and enjoyable. My edition had careful notes to make clear which parts where probably fiction and which not, so it also allows the reader to recognize truth from fiction.

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