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Evaluating Criteria for Fictitious Lacunae

Martin P. Shedd

Hendrix College

This paper evaluates stylistic criteria employed to prove that certain lacunae in historical works are intentionally fabricated gaps by investigating the applicability of these criteria to other sections of the same works and to contemporary historical writings.

Recent scholarship on the lacunose texts of the Historia Augusta and Ammianus Marcellinus’s Res Gestae has suggested that the authors of both works falsified the extent of their project, creating the illusion of missing material. For the Historia Augusta, references both to lives preceeding that of Hadrian and to material filling the gap between the death of Gordian III (244 A.D.) and the capture of Valerian (260 A.D.) have been dismissed as fictions of a clever author (Meckler 1996; Birley 1976 and Den Hengst 1981). R. Rees (2014) has recently employed parallel reasoning to argue that Ammianus likewise never wrote the books that supposedly preceded the surviving materials. Two major criteria that these scholars apply to the works are that authors capitalize on the first opportunities for digressions and ration their factual material economically. Violations of these principles in passages relating to the lacunae prompt these scholars to question their veracity.

Although both criteria have merit as organization principles, it is unclear whether Late Antique authors of history in general—and Ammianus and the HA in particular—actually follow them in their works, a supposition that has gone unproven. This paper will look briefly at digressions and repetition of information in Ammianus, the HA, and Orosius’s roughly contemporary history to determine whether the passages scrutinized for evidence of falsification are indeed unusual in the context of historiographic writing.

For one example, Rees cites the digression on the decline of civil life in Rome in Ammianus 14.6.2 as evidence of forgery on the supposition that the author would not duplicate such a sustained commentary and would naturally have included this digression to comment on a tyrant prior to Gallus, had any such tyrant been mentioned. A broader look at Ammianus, however, shows that he is not averse to repeating talking points and that he times his moralizing digressions not by earliest opportunity, but by a broader sense of pacing and relevance to the historical arcs. At 22.4, for instance, descriptions of the decadence of the palace staff and military serve to elevate Ammianus’s favorite emperor, Julian, when they could easily have been employed instead to disparage Constantius II. Similarly, the digression on Phrynicus’s fine for composing a tragedy on recent history (28.1) could easily have served for tragedies prior to the spree of false accusations under the praefectus annonae Maximinus.

Birley, among others, notes that information about the emperor Philip appears scattered throughout the biographies, arguing that economy should prevent using this information more than once. The HA, however, contains repeated points of fact, particularly in the three biographies that immediately precede the reign of Philip, undermining the principle of economy.

The same patterns can be found in Orosius, who carefully spaces out his digressions for rhetorical sigificance and does indeed repeat certain arguments across books. He delays a digression on the anti-Christian jealousy of modern readers of history until the fourth of seven books, despite the relevance of the theme to the entire work. Had books one through three been lost, this would be grounds to argue that Orosius omitted his books of Greek history and intentionally feigned completion thereof, if we accept similar arguments for Ammianus. Furthermore, Orosius repeates the lesson to be drawn from understanding God’s powers of creation and the role of peace at the beginnings of books two and seven, neither employing the digression at the first possible moment nor deploying it with strict economy.

In reality, further losses in all three works would incorrectly reinforce the presumptions produced by the criteria of economy and first opportunity. We must remember that an absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

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Voicing the Past

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