Jesper M. Madsen
Like many of his ancient predecessors (Herodotus 1.8, Thucydides 1.22, and Polybius 12.27.1–3; see further Schepens 1975; Marincola 1997, 63-86), Cassius Dio believed that he was best when writing contemporary history (73.18.4; trans. Cary, Loeb Classical Library):
“And, indeed, all the other events that took place in my lifetime I shall describe with more exactness and detail than earlier occurrences, for the reason that I was present when they happened and know no one else, among those who have any ability at writing a worthy record of events, who has so accurate a knowledge of them as I.”
As a member of the Senate and as someone several emperors from Septimius Severus to Alexander Severus chose to rely on for their consilium principis and as a trusted magistrate (Millar 1964, 17-27), Dio was well placed to observe how Roman politics developed and changed its nature from the death of Marcus Aurelius to the moment in 229 CE when he withdrew himself from the political scene. Yet, I hope to show in this paper what, exactly, Dio was able to do better when he worked on the history of his own time compared to when he and other historians treated earlier periods.
The discussion falls in to parts. First, I consider if Dio was more reliable when he wrote about his own time, compared to the parts of the Roman History that were devoted to earlier periods. Here, I will argue that the analyses in the non-contemporary parts of his work are more nuanced than the ones offered for his own lifetime. The lack of evidence and little reliable knowledge of what went on behind closed doors at the court, and his strong bias against most emperors of his lifetime, encouraged Dio to write an often tendentious and hateful portrait of his contemporary emperors (cf. Gleason 2011, Davenport 2012).
The second part of the paper is devoted to what Dio does well. The focus is here on a number of episodes where he felt abused, humiliated and threatened by the emperors he experienced first-hand (e.g., 73.21.1-2, 74.12.2-3, 76(75).4.2). The reliability of eyewitness reports depends on the witness in question; how he or she experienced the event and understood the situation; on the accuracy of their recollection; and on their bias towards people involved (Woodman 1988, 17-22). What Dio offers are glimpses into how members of the political elite experienced the political climate in early third century. Compared to Herodian’s account of the same period – a document that is better preserved but also more detailed and nuanced – Dio’s analysis is considerably less thorough and significantly more biased. Yet, his personal experiences offer the reader an extra dimension in comparison to the less biased Herodian, who did not have the same first-hand knowledge from the court to add to his account. In this way, Dio’s first hand reports from his dealings with the emperors of his time and the tendentious views they generated, offer both the strength and the weakness in our attempt to understand the turbulent times of early third century.
Contemporary Historiography: Convention Methodology and Innovation