FROM DOT TO DOMESDAY
“The Historia Augusta is without question or rival the most enigmatic work that Antiquity has transmitted.”
Sir Ronald Syme ‘The Historia Augusta: a call of clarity’ (1971)
In 1603, French classical scholar Isaac Casaubon gave the name HISTORIA AUGUSTA to a collection of Latin ‘Lives’ of 2nd and 3rd century Roman emperors, heirs and usurpers. The work begins with Hadrian (117–138) – though this may well have originally been preceded by biographies of Nerva and Trajan (picking up from where Suetonius left off) – and ends with Carus, Numerian & Carinus (282–285). There is a lacuna where the ‘Lives’ of Philip the Arab, Decius, Trebonianus Gallus, Aemilian and the greater part of Valerian's ‘Life’ ought to be (the period 244–260).
SubjectAuthor
HadrianAelius Spartianus
Lucius AeliusAelius Spartianus
Antoninus PiusJulius Capitolinus
Marcus AureliusJulius Capitolinus
Lucius VerusJulius Capitolinus
Avidius CassiusVulcatius Gallicanus
CommodusAelius Lampridius
PertinaxJulius Capitolinus
Didius JulianusJulius Capitolinus
Septimius SeverusAelius Spartianus
Pescennius NigerAelius Spartianus
Clodius AlbinusJulius Capitolinus
CaracallaAelius Spartianus
GetaAelius Spartianus
MacrinusJulius Capitolinus
DiadumenianusAelius Lampridius
ElagabalusAelius Lampridius
Alexander SeverusAelius Lampridius
Maximinus ThraxJulius Capitolinus
Gordian I, II & IIIJulius Capitolinus
Pupienus & BalbinusJulius Capitolinus
Lacuna
ValerianTrebellius Pollio
GallienusTrebellius Pollio
Thirty pretendersTrebellius Pollio
Claudius GothicusTrebellius Pollio
AurelianFlavius Vopiscus
TacitusFlavius Vopiscus
ProbusFlavius Vopiscus
Four pretendersFlavius Vopiscus
Carus, Carinus & Numerian  Flavius Vopiscus
The biographies purport to have been written during the early-4th century (at various times, pre-305 to post-324), by six, otherwise unknown, authors (the Scriptores Historiae Augustae) who address remarks to the emperors Diocletian and Constantine. The last of these scriptores, Flavius Vopiscus of Syracuse, also refers to three of the previous authors (none of the others acknowledge their colleagues).
The debate continues, but the generally held belief is that the ‘Historia Augusta’ was written in the late-4th century, and that it is the work of just one author.* For what purpose it was written, though, is the subject of further debate. Replete with dubious personages and bogus documents, it appears to be an enormous prank* – a whimsical blend of fact and fiction* that has to be treated with caution.* Indeed, Flavius Vospiscus mischievously reports a discussion about his predecessor, Trebellius Pollio, between himself and one Junius Tiberianus:
“... Tiberianus asserted that much of Pollio's work was too careless and much was too brief; but when I said in reply that there was no writer, at least in the realm of history, who had not made some false statement, and even pointed out the places in which Livy and Sallust, Cornelius Tacitus, and, finally, Trogus could be refuted by manifest proofs, he came over wholly to my opinion, and, throwing up his hands, he jestingly said besides: “Well then, write as you will. You will be safe in saying whatever you wish, since you will have as comrades in falsehood those authors whom we admire for the style of their histories.” ”
‘Historia Augusta’ The Deified Aurelian Chapter 2 (translation by David Magie)
Nevertheless, the early major biographies – those of the emperors Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Marcus Aurelius, Lucius Verus, Commodus, Pertinax, Didius Julianus, Septimius Severus and Caracalla – are considered to be reasonably well based in fact*. The ‘Life’ of Elagabalus (called Heliogabalus by Aelius Lampridius) sets off in similar vein, but about halfway through turns into a work of fiction. The rest are predominantly figments of the anonymous writer's imagination.
Using computer analysis, Penelope J. Gurney and Lyman W. Gurney believe they have shown that the ‘Historia Augusta’ is the work of more than one author:
“This paper describes the completion of our demonstration that a primary source of historical knowledge of the Roman empire of the second and third centuries of our era - the Scriptores Historiae Augustae - is probably the product of a number of authors, perhaps six as the manuscript tradition claims, rather than that of a single author, as most scholarship of the past century has attempted to prove. This demonstration is based upon the results of a stylometric analysis of a fully lemmatized and disambiguated text of the SHA.”
‘The Scriptores Historiae Augustae: A Demonstration of Multiple Authorship’ (1998)
“Today most scholars accept that the work is a piece of deliberate mystification, written much later than its purported date, though the fundamentalist position still has distinguished support.”
Robert Browning ‘Cambridge History of Classical Literature’ (1982)
“... no good contemporary narrative survives for the critical middle fifty years of the third century, so that we must depend on the often fanciful and trivializing Historia Augusta, which reads rather like a gossip column in a tabloid newspaper, and once read is hard to forget.”
Averil Cameron ‘The Later Roman Empire’ (1993)
“The change in opinion over the past century, from viewing the HA as a quagmire to considering it a treasure trove of intriguing information about later Roman cultural sensibilities, is welcome. But as a historical source, this work must always be approached with caution. Indeed, one cannot escape the feeling that even if the author(s) did not intend it as a joke, the HA has nonetheless amounted to one played on posterity.”
Gavin A. Sundwall ‘Encyclopedia of Historians & Historical Writing’ (1999)
“... and contain a great deal of authentic information, much of it not provided by any other literary sources but confirmed by epigraphic evidence.”
Anthony Birley ‘Lives of the Later Caesars’ (1976)