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Anonymous Verses in Notorious Lives: the Historia Augusta through the Mirror of Suetonius

Barbara Del Giovane

University of Florence

Ancient biographies of powerful men trigger reflections on power – sometimes in verses. This paper investigates how the ancient biographies of the Roman emperors engage with anonymous and fragmentary poetry, as in the cases of the Historia Augusta and Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars. Indeed, both works quote several anonymous verses (Blänsdorf, Courtney), which mostly convey satirical and mocking attacks against the emperors. In Suetonius, we find 59 verses covering the lives of Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligola, Nero, Galba, Otho and Domitian. The Historia Augusta quotes 56 verses addressed to Pescennius Niger, the tyrant Aureolus, Claudius II, Aurelianus, Severus Alexander, Commodus, Macrinus and Diadumenus.

In the last decades, important essays focused on the verses quoted by Suetonius, exploring the topic of anonymous poetic reactions to politics (Cupaiuolo) from a socio-cultural point of view (Richlin, Schubert, Morelli). From the milieu of the street we have evidence of genuine pasquinades, representing part of that «graffiti culture» on which fresh perspectives have recently been offered (Slater), and to which epigraphs can offer a crucial term of comparison. And the anonymous poetic quotations in the Historia Augusta have similarly received extensive treatment (Dessau, Cazzaniga, Baldwin, Espluga).

After providing a brief contextual perspective on the verses quoted by Suetonius I will sketch some crucial lines of interpretation. I shall focus firstly on the possible social background of the verses, since I am convinced that the use of the metre and his articulation in elegiac couplet, iambic senarius and trochaic septenarius is not sufficient to prove whether each poem conveys expressions belonging to a lower or upper class. Accepting Courtney’s division between the versus populares and the triumphales, I insist on considering more carefully the features of the versus populares and I shall stress the interpretation of the relation between popular and elite poetry as that of a «continuous osmosis» (Cupaiuolo), with constant contaminations within a wide spectre. Furthermore, I shall consider the relation between the biographer and the poetic material, providing a lexical analysis of the terms used by Suetonius to refer to the ‘poetic product’ in question and the material ‘support’ on which he sometimes says to have found it.

The second section of this paper engages with the Historia Augusta and with some problematic aspects raised by the verses quoted therein. While, in the case of Suetonius, we deal with an anonymous poetic tradition conveyed by a work boasting an authorial solidity, in the Historia Augusta instead we face a collection of biographies whose paternity is still a fluid topic of discussion. Thus the poems quoted by the Historia Augusta constitute a special case that I would define ‘anonymity squared’. The last tendency (Baldwin; Espluga-Velaza) has been to consider the poems fake products by the biographer(s). In many cases, after the poetic insertions, the biographer(s) affirms to have translated into Latin an original Greek poem and, according to Baldwin, these declarations are to be regarded as fictitious. A question is rising: is it truly impossible for the Historia Ausgusta to suppose an anonymous poetic tradition from which the biographer(s) has picked out some samples? Or are we ‘just’ dealing with an exceptional example of ‘invented’ anonymity? This is a topic worth of further investigation, and especially worth of more sustained comparisons with the Suetonian precedent. Indeed, many stylistic features and several topics are common to both works, including the presence of tracks of a carmina triumphalia or the presentation of the poem as an inscription under a statue of the Emperor. In providing evidence from a straightforward comparison between these two biographical experiences, I shall investigate whether it is possible to talk about another case of versus populares (despite being aware of the limits of such definition), or if we are instead dealing with a more creative personality, deeply inspired by Suetonius’ own approach to poetry and deeply imbued in Latin Poetic memory. 

Session/Panel Title

The Art of Biography in Antiquity

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