You are here

The Historia Augusta’s “Audacity to Invent”: Biography and the Ancient Novel in the Late Empire

Kathryn Langenfeld

Although the series of imperial biographies known as the Historia Augusta purports to be the collective work of six biographers writing during the reigns of Diocletian and Constantine, general consensus holds that it is the work of a single author writing in the mid- to late fourth century CE (Dessau, Cameron). Since this authorial “hoax” was discovered, the Historia Augusta (hereafter HA) has long been considered a forgery “artificially constructed” by a “rogue scholar” who intended to deceive his readers into accepting the HA’s fictional premise and fabricated documents at face value (Syme, Pausch). However, based on recent arguments that original readers of the ancient novel would have been attuned to metaliterary parodies of historical authentication strategies (Feeney, Morrison, Ní Mheallaigh), this paper challenges the idea these characteristics of the HA were meant to be intentionally deceptive.

By demonstrating that these “suspicious” elements of the HA have direct parallels with the fictional narrators and pseudo-documentarism in the works of Apuleius, Petronius, Dictys, Lucian, and the Alexander Romance, this paper argues that the HA is a sophisticated pseudo-history that incorporates elements of the ancient novel. Since many characteristics of the HA can be understood as self-referential commentary on historical fictitiousness, this paper concludes that intentional deceit is not an apt paradigm for interpreting the reception and motives of the HA. Instead, this paper suggests that the HA and its original fourth-century audience functioned within a spectrum of fictive belief and historical truth found in the ancient novel.

This paper first argues that ancient audiences were conditioned by rhetorical educational practices, such as progymnasmata, prosopopoeiae, and ethopoeia, to anticipate conflations between authors and the narratorial personae they impersonate, such as at the heart of the HA (Peirano). By analyzing passages from Lives of Aurelian, Probus, and the Thirty Tyrants attributed to purported biographers Vopicus and Pollio, this paper demonstrates that invented autobiographical information about the biographers’ social contacts and literary patrons situates the individual imperial biographies within a larger frame narrative.  This paper argues that the biographer-narrator premise of the HA functions similarly to how the first-person narrations of Lucius and Encolpius provide the overarching frame in which individual episodes take place in Apuleius’ Golden Ass and Petronius’ Satyricon (Whitmarsh). Furthermore, this paper demonstrates that the HA’s fabricated source materials, such as the apocryphal linen journals of Aurelian and a fictitious senaltus consultum signed by emperor Tacitus (Aurel. 1.7-10; Tac. 8.1), serve as exaggerated parodies of verisimilitudinous detail. These fabricated documents are foundational to the HA’s historical narrative and function similarly to the embedded letters of the Alexander Romance and the apocryphal Greek manuscript, supposedly found in a funerary chest in an unearthed tomb, at the outset of Dictys’ Ephemeris (Rosenmeyer, Horsfall).

Lastly, by analyzing passages within the HA that directly comment on historians’ ability to invent, this paper argues that the HA openly invites its readers to question the fictitiousness of its narrative. In the Life of Aurelian 2.1-2, the purported biographer Vopiscus asserts that no historian has “not made some false statement,” and he claims this licenses him to write as he wished, since Livy, Sallust, and Tacitus are his “companions in falsehood” (mendaciorum comites). At the outset of his True History, Lucian likewise claims that “I see no reason for resigning my right to that inventive freedom which others enjoy” and explains that he does not need to signal his “parodies of the cock-and-bull stories of ancient historians” because he could rely on his readers to recognize them (1.1-4). Lucian’s assertions suggest that the Author of the HA could expect his readers to perceive statements like those in the Life of Aurelian and the conventions discussed above as self-referential commentary on the HA’s own conflation of fact and fiction. In conclusion, rather than a deceptive historical forgery, this paper suggests that the HA should be reinterpreted as an innovative example of novelistic pseudo-history in the Late Empire.

Session/Panel Title

Truth and Untruth

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy