Lives Of The Later Caesars

Written anonymously and translated from the original Latin by Anthony Birley


In his Philosophy Of History, Hegel claimed that history is recorded (in an extremely general sense) in one of three fashions:

  1. Original History - a small bit of history that has been recorded by a contemporary source.
  2. Reflective History - history on a grander scale (i.e. that of an entire nation or race) that has been recorded by a source reflecting on the past, hence the name.
  3. Philosophical History - the interpretation of history from a didactic point of view.

Although this is a greatly oversimplified rendering of Hegel's thesis, this is the essence of what he says, at least in as much as it relates to this matter. It's generally pretty common to find historical works that can be said to exist in more than one of these genres of historical study -- Gibbon comes to mind -- and Hegel concedes as much. However, what do you do when you really can't figure out which of these a given work is really supposed to belong to? You write about it, of course! Lives of the Later Caesars is one such work, and I honestly couldn't believe nobody had written about this tome on this site until now. I'll attempt to discuss the inner workings of this historical oddity and hopefully it will be of some use to somebody.


For much of the last 16 centuries, Lives of the Later Caesars was known by a different title: Historia Augusta, or the Augustan History. Ostensibly, it was meant to serve as a bit of a sequel to Suetonius's own masterful the Twelve Caesars, and the title somewhat reflects this: at the time of its presumptive authoring (the late fourth century), the name "Augustus" had come to be held in higher regard than that of "Caesar" (though for a brief period of time, Antoninus was even more beloved than either name), and as such, Augustus came to signify a higher imperial rank than Caesar. In very crude terms, "Caesar" was like "Prince" and "Augustus" was like "King." In the version of the book that I have, Anthony Birley added two brief biographies of the emperors Nerva and Trajan to fully bridge the gap between this work and its proclaimed predecessor, but Lives of the Later Caesars only encompasses the first half of the Augustan History. It's strange that the "real" book begins with Hadrian's life, given that Nerva and Trajan were the only two emperors unaccounted for between the end of Suetonius's book and this one, and Birley postulates that the original version may have actually included biographies of these emperors that simply did not survive antiquity. This is a reasonable hypothesis, I would say, given the fact that the source material is insubstantial (and by that, I mean tattered and torn) in some places. Birley's Lives are brief and every assertion is meticulously referenced so as not to add too much personal conjecture and also so as not to detract from the book itself. The actual work provides Lives of these Caesars:

If you're a Roman history buff, there's a good chance you're scratching your head over this list. I myself was just a bit confused when I viewed the table of contents and saw this list. Although there are many familiar names in evidence, there are just about as many names that seem either out of place or irrecognizable altogether. However, after reading a brief introduction, we discover that the goal of the work is to profile all those who either held or seriously contended for the title of "Caesar" from around A.D. 177 to the reign of either Diocletian or Constantine (or perhaps earlier or later, depending on whether or not you believe the theory regarding the possible loss of entire chapters of the book). For this reason, people who were never actually emperors receive biographies here. Brothers of emperors, sons of emperors who died before their ascensions, generals proclaimed 'Caesar' by their troops, and political opportunists pretending to the throne all receive their share of attention here. This is particularly strange, given the original title of the Augustan History, but the title Birley opted for seems more appropriate, and far be it from me to criticize someone who makes things more logical.


In this book, we learn many things. First and foremost, we learn "plagiarism is bad." Entire passages are simply stolen from other (and more reliable) authors, regardless of subjective propriety. For an example, a passage about the emperor Heliogabalus dressing in a cloak and starting fights with strangers in the streets is lifted directly from an account by Suetonius about Nero, with the appropriate names replaced where necessasry. Selections are likewise stolen from Marius Maximus and Cassius Dio in various other chapters, with similar regard to their accuracy (or lack thereof). And let's not be mistaken here: it doesn't say "Maximus tells us..." or "Herodian wrote..." Even in Ancient Rome, there was such a thing as "professional courtesy," and all historians at that time were "professionals." The only people with the time, money, and leisure to be historians in ancient Rome were members of the patrician aristocracy, given the immense amounts of all three aforementioned resources required to engage in historiography. No wonder it was written anonymously: how embarassing would it have been for any single person to lay claim to a work fraught with such academic theft? All educated patricians read what even in those days were considered "classics." It wouldn't have taken much to figure out what was stolen and what was not.

The next thing we learn is "facts aren't that important." Although few "original" accounts relating to the late second and early third centuries A.D. in Rome survive to this day, none corroborate many of the outlandish claims made in this work. When Suetonius makes an error in dating something, an annotation correcting it is listed at the bottom of the page in question; in the chapter on Avidius, Birley says from the outset that nearly the entirety of what is written there is false and actually reverses the process by making annotations for correct pieces of information! Similarly, the text steals from unreliable sources and repeats their mistakes in a classic example of either proof by repeated assertion or sheer laziness. There are likewise many errors in dating, but given that the Roman method of dating was based on consulships (for example, the year of Marcus Aurelius's birth is given as the year in which Domitius Tullus held his second consulship and Augur his the first, which correllates to 121 A.D.) and because errors of this nature are relatively common in dealing with works from Roman antiquity, I don't hold these against the author...too much. This is offset, however, by the realization that many "facts" in the text were simply created at the time of their authorship.

One of the things we don't learn, interestingly enough, is the identity of the author of the book. Though the book is purported to have been written by six "scribes," (four of which are named in this, the first half of the Augustan History: Aelius Spartianus, Julius Capitolinus, "the Right Honourable" Vulcacius Gallicanus, and Aelius Lampridius), it is generally agreed-upon today that all of the authors are actually the same person writing pseudonymously several times. Though this theory has its detractors for the obvious reasons, that all of the authors seem to steal-- I mean, cite all the same sources and that they all seem to write in more or less the exact same style lend credence to the notion. Likewise, there's one humorous slip-up where one author says something to the effect of "as I wrote in..." while making a reference to a chapter that was supposedly written by another author.

However, there's something that ought to be pointed out at this point: the book is funny. I'm personally of the opinion that the book was written to be something of a parody of the historical "genre." There's a bit of sly anti-christian humor in the book, including one little bit where the author refers to a bunch of "useless graves" in the Vatican. For this reason -- and some others -- some people believe the book was actually meant to be a bit of propaganda against the Chritianity of Rome under Constantine (to whom the book is addressed at various times) but I haven't really seen much to back up these claims, so I more or less treat the joking sentiment of this half of the Augustan History as just that: joking. There are a lot of extraordinary errors in this book that would have been apparent to any educated patrician of the time (that is to say the late fourth century A.D. or the early fifth) and I think the fact that no single person would lay his own name on the text itself is a testament to the fact that it was authored by someone fully cognizant of his own deception. I wonder how much humor goes over my head simply because it's been translated from Latin into English. Birley points out a few of these (for example, a pun made by Caracalla after killing and subsequently deifying his own brother was "better divus than vivus" doesn't sound nearly as clever when it's rendered as "better that he's a god than that he's alive") but I'm sure there are subtle things only people who lived in that day and age would pick up on that would never occur to me (or even Birley, apparently). I wonder if this book in its entirety was like The Onion or the Primary Colors of its day.

That being said, it's a fact that there was not very much contemporary history or literature of the period covered in the whole of the Augustan History that still exists now. I touched on this point earlier, but it's worth bringing up again because this work -- which may well have been written only half-seriously -- is one of the few resources we have to learn about what historiographers might rightly call Rome's version of the Dark Ages from a research point of view. Overall, I think this book is fascinating as a curiousity, but I only mildly recommend it as a real historical resource. Sure, it's got a lot of really truthful information in it, but at its heart, it's a work whose author might have benefitted from the ancient version of the "node for the ages" maxim.

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