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For Sir Ronald Syme the Historia Augusta is a garden of delights.
Long time taken 'seriously' by historians, this work of six biographers of Roman emperors was unmasked by the German classical scholar H. Dessau as the fabrication of one impostor.
Sir Ronald Syme gives us a highly entertaining characterization of the author and his work, together with a sketch of the literary, social and religious context.
By comparing it with the Historiae of Ammianus Marcellinus he puts the probable publication date between 392 and 395.
This was a period of serious religious upheaval, because emperor Theodosius forbade all public exercises of pagan cults in 391, which provoked a demolition of pagan shrines (e.g. the Serapeum in Alexandria).
The author was a pagan traditionalist reflecting the beliefs and prejudices of the aristocracy, but he had no special political or social beliefs. He was certainly not an aggressive anti-Christian: 'Serapis or Christ, what did it matter? Money is the only god in Egypt.'
He can be characterized as cynical and subversive, perhaps a decayed aristocrat.
He preferred to use unpretentious Latin, the spoken word of his own time.
The content of his work is audacious in the tradition of Juvenal.
For Sir Ronald Syme, it is a historical fiction about gods and bad emperors. The author chose to pass himself off as six biographers. He invented a whole school of precursors as rivals to cite, to confute, to mock and to expose. His work became a parody of imperial biographies. He became a master of historical romance.
As Marguerite Yourcenar said: 'the emperors here became really human.'
For Sir Ronald Syme, this work was considered in his time as a welcome strain of humour and irreverence against the coming grey new world of Christian dictatorship.
This from time to time scrappy text is indispensable for the comprehension of the Historia Augusta.
A basic knowledge of Latin is needed because not all excerpts are translated.
This book will only please Latin scholars and all those fascinated by the Historia Augusta.