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Cassius Dio's depiction of Septimius Severus: context and implications

Andrew Scott

Villanova University

Cassius Dio's depiction of Septimius Severus is a crucial part of the author's Roman History, as it informs questions of the historian's relationship with the Severan regime, his overall goals in writing his history, and even the process of composing the history itself.  Difficulties of interpretation arise because of Cassius Dio's seemingly critical stance toward the emperor throughout much of his narration of Severus' reign, in contrast to the generally positive obituary that Severus receives at the end of book 77[76].  The nature of Dio's comments on Severus' way of life and accomplishments has led scholars to understand Dio's view of the emperor as largely positive, and at worst "mixed" (e.g., Millar 1964: 138-150; Alföldy 1968: 113; Manuwald 1979: 283; Hose 1994: 408; Murison 1999: 11-12; cf. Bering-Staschewski 1981: 75).

This apparent inconsistency has generally been addressed by examining how Dio composed the history of Severus' reign.  In particular, scholars have stressed Dio's two earlier literary compositions, which detailed the signs that foretold Severus' rise to power and the civil wars following the death of Commodus (73[72].23.1-3[Xiph.]), and how they might be reconciled with Dio's first and possibly second drafts or editions of his history.  As such, it has been argued that where Dio's depiction seems to be a reflection of Severan propaganda, the inconsistencies are a product of Dio's attempt to rectify them in his finished text (e.g., Rubin 1980: 42).  Another view suggests that Dio wrote a first draft or edition of his history, which was largely positive toward Severus.  Dio then edited his work, adding in more negative material about the emperor, which some believe can be detected at certain points in the epitome (Eisman 1977: 667-673; cf. Swan 2004: 378-380, Rantala 2016: 162).

These views are largely similar and understand Dio's Severus narrative as a rather ramshackle conglomeration of material.  Yet in his contemporary history, Dio sketches two other mixed depictions, of Pertinax and Macrinus, and his three mixed depictions contrast overall with the decidedly negative portrayals of Commodus, Didius Julianus, Caracalla, and Elagabalus.  A better approach, therefore, is to investigate these mixed depictions within Dio's overall portrayal of his own time, as well as in concert with his views on Roman monarchy.  Although an avowed monarchist, Dio believed that the structures of Roman government could overcome a bad ruler and maintain stability (cf. 44.2.1-5).  Within this model, Dio judged emperors by their actions as such, not in absolute terms (Kemezis 2014: 139-140).  Because Dio considered his own time a period of iron and rust, there should be little expectation that the reader will encounter an ideal princeps similar to Augustus or Marcus Aurelius.  Rather, the contemporary history is an extended consideration of the structural problems of Dio's own time, including the lack of best men in the Senate, the expansive power of the military, and the problems of legitimation and succession.

Through an analysis of Dio's portraits of Pertinax, Septimius Severus, and Macrinus, this paper will explore Dio's praise and criticism of each man.  It will then situate this analysis within Dio's overall view of Roman monarchy. This paper will ultimately argue that even potentially good emperors were hampered by the failure of these structures.  While moral and ethical considerations should not be completely thrown aside, it seems that, in Dio's view, regardless of the his positive qualities, the emperor was hard pressed to correct the ills of Rome in this period.  Thus, Dio's "mixed" depictions highlight the structural breakdown of Roman government that he observed in his own age.

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Texts and Contexts: Learning from History

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