Called “a “hoax,” “a fraud,” “an imposture” (Syme 1968, 1983), the series of imperial biographies known as the Historia Augusta has been the victim of a rather notorious reputation. Dessau first suggested that the Historia Augusta (HA) is the work of a single author from the mid- to late-fourth century CE instead of what it purports to be, the collective work of six biographers writing during the reigns of Diocletian and Constantine (Dessau 1889, 1892). Since scholars became aware of this problematic authorial attribution, the dominant interpretation of the HA remains as a purposefully deceptive text, “artificially constructed” to deceive its readers into accepting its forged documents and fictional premise at face value (Pausch 2010; Momigliano 1954; Jenkins 2010). For fourth-century readers to be deceived into believing the HA at face value, it is necessary that the HA was circulated anonymously or at least divorced from the actual Author’s name. The exact process by which the HA could have been distributed anonymously in its fourth century context, however, has never been adequately explained.
This paper challenges the assumption that the HA was circulated anonymously from the very beginning and intended to deceive readers with false claims of being written by six authors. By considering internal passages from the HA and external evidence for circulation in the High and Late Roman Empire, this paper proposes several scenarios through which the HA might have originally been circulated in the mid- to late-fourth century. This paper argues that it is highly unlikely that the HA could have been circulated anonymously, thereby invalidating deception as a major motivation of the text.
This paper first addresses passages in which the HA internally depicts its own reading audience and/or its envisioned circulation. These passages reveal that two of the purported biographers, Trebellius Pollio and Flavius Vopiscus, share and discuss work in unfinished form with their friends (Aurel. 1.1-10; Prob. 2.1; Firm. 2.1), endow their close associates with hard copies of their work with the request to circulate the biographies further (Tyr. Trig. 33.7-8), and are in dialogue with literary critics at the Temple of Peace (Tyr. Trig. 31.5-12). The process of composition and distribution depicted in these passages aligns with the external evidence we have for the process of book circulation and “publishing” in earlier periods of the empire (Starr 1987). The HA’s self-portrayal reaffirms several elements of the circulation process including the sharing of unfinished work in draft form with associates of the author, the initial distribution of hard copies of the text first to close associates or patrons, then further circulation through increasingly removed social connections (Iddeng 2006; White 2009).
By applying this process of composition and distribution to the HA itself, this paper then proposes several brief scenarios by which the HA could have been circulated in the mid- to late-fourth century. Considering the reliance of historians on social connections for access to necessary source documents, in addition to the well-established role that participation in reading groups played in construction of elite literati identity (Johnson 2010), this paper argues that an individual could not have written the HA without the knowledge of his associates. Whether or not the completed text was circulated initially with a preface explicitly naming the author (Meckler 1996), the reliance on social connections for the distribution of hard copies necessitates some form of “word-of-mouth” attribution for the first few stages of distribution. Addressing the socio-cultural context in the fourth century (Callu 1999; Festy 2007), this paper proposes that the composition of the HA occurred in the midst of an elite reading group akin to those of the biographers, Trebellius Pollio and Vopiscus, as described within the HA. By challenging the notion of an anonymous circulation of the HA and complicating the “deceptive” elements of its self-portrayal, this paper proposes a substantial shift in our interpretations of the HA within the literary output of the fourth century CE.