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Truth, autopsy and the supernatural in Cassius Dio

Julie Langford

University of South Florida

In his influential work, A Study of Cassius Dio, Fergus Millar defends the senatorial historian from the “scorn which some have poured on” Dio’s work because of his interests in the supernatural (1964, 77). For Millar, Dio made no effort to rationalize supernatural events, “as was common with his time,” even those events he claimed to have witnessed: “To him, they were significant events in his life whose nature required no elucidation” (180). Ultimately, Millar concludes that Dio’s supernatural episodes are “harmless” (77). Contrary to Millar’s claims, Dio frequently inserted interpretations of dreams and omens both in those that occurred before his own day and those he claimed to have seen himself.

How to interpret these insertions? Recent cultural studies studies, in particular William Harris’ Dreams and Experience in Classical Antiquity and Kimberly Stratton’s Naming of the Witch, demonstrate the manner in which the Roman elite men claimed authority for deciding upon the validity or proper interpretation of supernatural phenomena; they do so by demonizing or mocking any experiences with threaten their own authority or position. With these and like studies in mind, this paper will compile and analyze the most obvious instances in which Dio employs his authority both as a senator and an historian to offer his politically motivated interpretations of the supernatural manifestations.

Dio’s reports of supernatural phenomena do not consistently offer explicit interpretations. In some instances, he breaks into the narrative of supernatural manifestations to offer his interpretations so that the reader cannot misunderstand them. For example, after listing a number of fearsome prodigies that Nero experiences after murdering his mother, Dio authoritatively remarks, “One might surely have recognized the hand of Heaven” (61.16.5 καὶ ὅ δὴ καὶ μάλιστα ἄν τις ἐτεκμήρατο ἐκ τοῦ δαιμονίου γεγονέναι). This is clearly a statement meant to trump any other possible interpretations.  In others reports, however, Dio “merely” reports dreams or omens. Like a two-bit huckster in the forum, he lures his audience to supply their own oneirocritical interpretations to the narrative. This invitation causes the reader to become more invested in Dio’s project, to become complicit in his narratives, interpretations and senatorial bias. Yet even Dio’s “mere” reports of supernatural phenomena are suffused with his political agenda and his senatorial class, gender and ethnic biases to subtlety shape his readers’ opinions. This is most obvious when Dio reports public spectacles such as political demonstrations in the Circus Maximus in which the crowd shouts in unison or the emperors’ adventus. When he wishes to cast aspersion on the crowd’s judgment or behavior, he describes the event without additional editorial interpretation, but he refers to the observers by the derogatory terms such as ὅμιλος or ὄχλος. For example, Dio describes the crowd lifting one another aloft at Severus’ adventus after the completion of his civil war with Albinus as an ὅμιλος and quickly follows this vivid image with his judgment that the crowd was deluded: (ὥσπερ τι ὐπο τῆς τύχης ἠλλοιωμένου), as if his Tyche had changed (but it hadn’t) (76.1.4-5). By contrast, the crowds that shout in unison to protest against Dio’s whipping boys, Didius Julianus and Plautianus, do so “as if moved by divine inspiration” (75.4.6 οὕτω μὲν ἔκ τινος θείας ἐπιπνοίας ἐνεθουσίαν) called δῆμος or πλῆθος, far more neutral words. This signals Dio’s approval of their behavior and their proper interpretation of the event.

The passages that I will discuss in this paper will thus illuminate the ways in which Dio harnesses the supernatural in order to bolster his authority as an historian and promote his own political agenda. In many of these supernatural manifestations, Dio claims autopsy. As such, these episodes not only support his boast that was the only man living who could write history with such an accurate knowledge (78.18.4).  They also demonstrate the inferiority of any rival narratives or supernatural interpretations, including those of the soldiers, plebeians and most especially the emperors’.

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Episodes, Portraits, and Literary Unity in Cassius Dio

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