Evaluations of the threads of peculiarity that run through the Historia Augusta (HA) have focused primarily on personal details of the emperor’s life and on court politics (e.g., the commonalities of all HA vitae listed in White). These are far from being the only aspects of imperial history covered by the HA. Especially overlooked—and ripe for study--is how the HA, taken as a whole, treats imperial economic action. As a test case for a larger study, I focus on the four major Lives that form the pivot of the HA’s turn from mostly credible to mostly fictional: the Lives of Septimius Severus (r. 193 - 211), Caracalla (r. 198 - 217), Elagabalus (r. 218 - 222) and Severus Alexander (r. 222 - 235). These four Lives allow for two different comparative groupings: one by self-proclaimed author (the first two are signed by Aelius Spartianus, the others by Aelius Lampridius), and one by source (the first three, but not the fourth, are believed to derive faithfully from a lost collection of biographies by Marius Maximus). The factuality of the HA’s economic history is not on trial here; rather, I attempt to address whether the HA’s treatment of economic policy, like that of emperors' personal habits, should be considered a useful point of analysis when discussing the HA's value as a historical source.
In order to compare the selected lives, I first identify the areas of imperial economic activity that appear throughout the HA: (1) maintenance of the food supply, (2) the pay and provisioning of the military, (3) the construction and maintenance of public works, (4) the state of the imperial treasury, (5) public donatives, (6) taxes. I do not examine the personal expenditures of each emperor; rather, I look only at those activities that directly affected the Roman public.
Each Life reveals its own quirks. The Life of Septimius Severus includes vague mentions of Septimius’s concern for domestic economic conditions, but few specifics are given. Caracalla’s Life contains very little of an economic nature beyond the physical legacy he left behind with his Baths. Elagabalus’s Life contains more specifics than either of the previous two, but even the most mundane of economic actions is explicitly treated as a manifestation of Elagabalus’s moral and sexual perversions. The Life of Severus Alexander, however, is unique both in the positive portrayal of the emperor’s economic activity and in the sheer amount of discussion of real policy regarding the common people as active agents in the economy. Nowhere else do we get a sense of the imperial budget at work.
What we see in the Life of Severus Alexander is unlikely to be the result of Alexander’s government being dramatically more economically sophisticated than those of his predecessors in actuality. Instead, the new economic information in Alexander’s vita represents a change in the kinds of historical questions asked and answered by his biographer. Whereas the older Lives fall neatly into the category of traditional Roman history inasmuch as they maintain a deliberate aristocratic remove from the vulgar reality of finance, the Life of Alexander contains new aspects—social and economic ones—that represent a changing historiography, at least for one ancient historian. Because the most marked difference in the Lives coincides with the death of the biographer Marius Maximus, I conclude that the removed and vague attitude toward economic activity represented in the Lives of Septimius and Caracalla must directly echo Maximus’s. The economic vitality in the Life of Severus Alexander is a reflection of the freedom allowed by the absence of an authoritative preexisting source, while the mixed character of the Elagabalus vita may reveal that the HA author’s personal interest in imperial economic policy occasionally bled through even in the overshadowing presence of Maximus’s narrative.