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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 10 November 2007
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.
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Ronald Syme (1903-1989) was a classical scholar. Although born in New Zealand, he lived most of his adult life in England. He was Camden Professor of Ancient History at Brasenose College, Oxford University, from 1949 until he retired in 1970.

He is the author of several books. His main work The Roman Revolution was first published in 1939. Since then it has been reprinted several times. Among other works I can mention Tacitus (2 volumes, 1958), Sallust (1964), and History in Ovid (1978).

In the 1960s, Syme began to focus on the controversial Historia Augusta (HA). He wrote two books and several articles on this topic:

(1) "Ammianus and the Historia Augusta" (1968)

(2) Emperors and Biography: Studies in the Historia Augusta (1971)

(3) Historia Augusta Papers (1983; a collection of fifteen articles written since 1971).

"Ammianus and the Historia Augusta" (which is under review here) was reprinted by Sandpiper Books in 2001. It is still in print and not expensive. The main text is divided into 30 short chapters, including an introduction and an epilogue. At the end of the book we find a bibliography, an index of names (but no topics), and an index of HA passages discussed in the book.

It is an academic work: quotations from ancient sources are given in the original language (usually Latin), and in most cases they are not translated into English. Quotations from modern scholars are also given in the original language (sometimes German or French). In addition, the author assumes the reader has a basic knowledge of Roman history.

For these reasons this book is not recommended for the beginner. If, on the other hand, you are already familiar with ancient history, and if you wish to learn more, this book might be just the right one for you.

What is the Historia Augusta? It is a collection of imperial biographies which covers emperors, princes, and usurpers. According to the text, these biographies were written by six different authors during the reign of Diocletian and Constantine the Great, i.e. around the year AD 300.

Syme does not accept this. He thinks there is only one author, although he is not able to provide his name. Moreover, he wants to move the date of publication to the reign of Theodosius, i.e. about one hundred years later. To more specific, he believes the HA was published in 395.

Syme is not the first to make this claim. Hermann Dessau - a German scholar, who lived 1856-1931 - first presented this theory in an article published in 1889. Dessau's pioneering work on the HA is mentioned several times. Syme gives credit where credit is due.

Modern scholars often mention or quote a passage from the HA. When this happens, they usually issue a warning, such as: "This source is unreliable and should be used with extreme caution." But in most cases they do not go any further than that. While the warning is justified, it is not really helpful, because we are not told how or why this source is considered unreliable.

Syme can tell us. He is ready to face the problems and the questions which are connected with the HA. He is ready to approach the HA from many different angles in order to determine the authorship and the date of publication. He is prepared to study every single statement in order to find out what is true and what is false, in order to sift fact from fiction. It is a difficult process which demands patience and knowledge. Fortunately, Syme had both these qualities.

In general, the early biographies are relatively reliable, because the author had several sources he could follow. He did not have to invent much. The later biographies, on the other hand, are relatively unreliable, for two reasons: the author was running out of sources, and at the same time he was getting more experienced. He had learned the tricks of the trade. He knew how to invent what he needed: names, places, events, even official sources.

Spurious characters are equipped with inverted commas in the text as well as in the index. There are many of them. To give just two examples, we have 'Ceionius Postumus' and 'Clodius Celsinus' on page 155. This system is very helpful, because it reminds the reader how many bogus names there are in the HA.

Ammianus is mentioned in the title of the book. Who is he and why is he mentioned? Ammianus Marcellinus (born 320/325/330) was a soldier in the Roman army. He was from the eastern part of the empire and his first language was Greek, but he also knew Latin. When he retired from the army, he decided to become a historian and wrote an account of the Roman Empire in Latin - Res Gestae - in 31 books. The early books are lost, but the later books are preserved. We do not know exactly when these books were written, but modern scholars agree that it was somewhere between 382 and 397. To be more specific, Syme believes the RG was published in 392.

Ammianus is mentioned because maybe he or rather his work can help us when we wish to determine when the HA was published. If a key point in the RG can be found in the HA, we have proof that the HA was written and published after the publication of the RG. Syme can show several parallel points, but he says we cannot be sure of them. They could be explained in another way. We do not have proof, he says, but we are close. It is possible and likely that the author of the HA read the RG, that he remembered some of the points made there and used them in his own work.

Among modern scholars, who study Roman history, Syme is considered one of the most important in the twentieth century. When you read this book, you will understand why. When you read this book, you will see a great scholar in action.

He has his own distinct style of writing. His sentences are not long and complicated. He likes short statements. He likes to say: "So far so good."

He likes the odd word. The word "sundry" appears more than ten times.

[Pages 2, 4, 11, 20, 21, 78, 79, 103, 161, 177, 181, 210]

He likes the odd phrase. He says "not but what" instead of "nevertheless."

[Pages 84, 122, 161]

He is not afraid to make strong statements about ancient sources. On page 86 he says: "The scholia on Latin poets tend to be ignorant or silly on points of history." On page 110 he returns to this topic and says: "The scholia on the Latin poets are a sad chapter in the history of scholarship."

What is important is that his word carries a lot of weight. Why? Because he is a careful and methodical scholar, who knows his topic very well: not merely the ancient sources but also relevant modern scholarship.

When he wants to make a case, he presents his arguments and his evidence. You can see what he does. Step by step. If there is no proof, he will say so himself. As regards the authorship and the date of publication of the HA, there is no proof, but he is right when he says his theory is possible and likely; and if you ask me, his arguments are very convincing.

Perhaps some modern scholar wants to disagree with him. If so, I think it must be about how to interpret a minor detail. As far as I can see, there are no factual mistakes in this work.

The HA is a controversial source. We should not believe everything in it. On the other hand, we should not reject the whole work, just because it is difficult to evaluate. On page 205 Syme says: "Features of that genre in any age may be adduced for comparison. It is a mixture of fact and fiction."

In this review I would like to mention three recent examples from the world of journalism:

** Janet Cooke (born 1954) worked for the Washington Post. A story published in that paper in September 1980 won the Pulitzer Prize in April 1981. Later that year her story was exposed as a fraud.

** Stephen Glass (born 1972) worked for the New Republic. In 1998 it was revealed that much of his work was based on his imagination. He reported events that never took place, and interviewed persons who did not exist. He made (almost) everything up, and managed to make it seem credible (for a while). His sad career is described in a movie called Shattered Glass (2003).

** Jayson Blair (born 1976) worked for the New York Times. In 2003 he resigned from the paper after it was revealed that much of his work was based on fraud.

The anonymous author of the HA worked much in the same way as these modern reporters. He invented and added details when he needed them in order to make his account seem more credible. He transformed himself into six different authors and transported the whole package about one hundred years into the past. Syme explains not only how but also why this was done.

"Ammianus and the Historia Augusta" is great work by a great scholar. If you want to know how history could be written in antiquity and how it should be written in our own times, you should read this book. It is highly recommended.
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