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Readings at a Funeral: Dio's Obituary for Augustus and the Historiography of the Monarchy

Adam Kemezis

University of Alberta

In his extended description of Augustus' funeral (56.34-47), Dio provides several layers of post-mortem evaluation of the first emperor, from Tiberius' extended direct-discourse speech (§35-41) to the anonymous comments of his contemporaries (§43) to the narrator's own propria persona assessment (§44). This paper will examine the structure and content of these various assessments alongside the narrative to which they are a coda: my contention is that Dio is offering us a model for how to understand the various ways in which subjects in the post-Augustan monarchical state can comment on and react to the version of events put forward by their rulers.

The funeral-speech and its associated events have been much commented on in existing literature in Dio, but the aim has usually been to divine Dio's authentic view of Augustus (Manuwald 1979) or to derive from the episode his view of an ideal monarchy (Giua 1983). Efforts have also been made to establish the relationship of the speech to the parallel episode in Tacitus (Ann. 1.9-10, see Swan 2004) as well as to the larger sub-genres of laudatio funebris (Kierdorf 1980) and Thucydidean-style epitaphios. But just as Dio's Augustus is in many ways paradigmatic for future emperors, so the post-mortem assessment of him should be seen as a pattern for the interpretive acts to which those emperors will be subject, both from their own contemporaries, from Dio's narrator and ultimately from his readers. These kinds of contextual or meta-literary readings of Dio's speeches have not been common but have started to become more so of late (e.g. Davenport and Mallan 2014) as more attention has been paid to Dio's literary artistry.

Consideration of how emperors are evaluated in Dio, and of political discourse under the emperors, needs to begin with his observations earlier in Augustus' reign (53.19) about the difficulty of obtaining accurate information about events in a monarchical state. Dio explains his account will thus consist of describing events "just as they were publicly reported, whether they really happened that way or some other way" (ὥς που καὶ δεδήμωται φράσω, εἴτ’ ὄντως οὕτως εἴτε καὶ ἑτέρως πως ἔχει). This lack of a straightforward informational basis for judgement requires that imperial subjects instead generate a hidden (though still accessible) transcript in reaction to the public version of events put out by emperors.

The first part of the paper will consist of an extended reading of this episode from Dio, with the parallel passages in Tacitus used for contrastive purposes. This starts with Tiberius' version of events, in which the speaker uses standard funerary tropes to establish a model of reception based on the audience's supposed intimate knowledge of Augustus' actions. This model runs contrary to Dio's narratorial statements about information under the monarchy, and indeed the content of Tiberius' speech is highly tendentious and frequently contradicted by material from Dio's own narrative. This in turn is interpreted by contemporaries based on anecdotal reflection and on immediate contrast with Tiberius. Dio's narratorial comments, while no better informed as to the facts of Augustus' life, are informed by a longer historical perspective.

After examining these various phases of the funeral narrative, the paper will address various places in Dio's remaining books where such a layered perspective is also in evidence, such as Dio's comparison of Caligula with Tiberius (59.5) and Titus with Augustus (66.18), and his final verdict Pertinax (74.73.10). Consideration will also be given to how the dynamics of this interpretive process change for the portions of Dio's narrative in which he is himself a contemporary witness.

Session/Panel Title

Episodes, Portraits, and Literary Unity in Cassius Dio

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