New Book Explores Reasons Behind ‘Hoax’ of Roman Emperors
Much of what we know about the fall of the Roman Empire – the decadence of the emperors, their outlandish appetites for food and sex – comes from a book known as the Historia Augusta.
And a lot of it is complete nonsense.
Scholars have known that for many years, but why the author did this – why he wrote a fiction cloaked in a history – was a mystery. David Rohrbacher, professor of classics at New College, offers a new explanation in his book, “The Play of Allusion in the Historia Augusta,” published in January by University of Wisconsin Press.
Historia Augusta has been described as the most enigmatic work to survive from classical antiquity. It is a series of biographical portraits of the Roman emperors and other figures from the second and third centuries A.D., purportedly written by six authors, but later proven to be by a single writer.
Very few other surviving works describe that period, making it an important source, but it’s always been known to contain a lot of unreliable and untrustworthy material, Rohrbacher said.
As University of Wisconsin Press puts it, in its summary of Rohrbacher’s book: “Did the Emperor Carinus really swim in pools of floating apples and melons? Did the usurper Proculus really deflower a hundred virgins in fifteen days?”
“Throughout the twentieth century, there was an extensive debate over whether the work was, as it claims, written in the early fourth century, or whether it was written at the end of the century.” Rohrbacher said. “The consensus now is that it does indeed mislead the reader, and is a product of the later period… but the bigger question is, why? For what reason was such a bizarre, extensive hoax perpetrated?”
One theory was simply the profit motive – there were few books on the topic, so someone could make up stories and assemble a volume. Another theory was that it had a hidden religious or political agenda, a pagan work written in code, undercutting the Empire’s growing adoption of Christianity.
“But none of those arguments have satisfied everyone, certainly not me,” Rohrbacher said. In part, that’s because the book is huge, and too few passages fit those interpretations.
For his solution, Rohrbacher turned to the tradition of how literary and academic works were read at that time – aloud, in groups, with participants discussing and arguing about details of the book.
He also considered the book’s extensive use of allusion. That would make little sense, Rohrbacher said, if the authors were simply trying to pass off the work as a pure history. But it makes more sense in the period’s literary tradition.
“I came to believe that the work was in fact created not as a fraud but more as a fiction, a knowing fiction, that it’s meant as a game or an exercise for the discovery of these allusions,” he said, “by a knowing group of participants who would compete to discover the allusions, or engage in almost a game of a sort.”
He expects the academic community to be divided on his interpretation, as many scholars have focused on Historia Augusta as a source of historical information, and haven’t considered this literary angle. “I look forward to it being controversial,” he said.
So far, though, he’s seeing plenty of positive reaction.
Ellen O’Gorman, University of Bristol: “This lively and original analysis of the Historia Augusta successfully argues that it was a fictional work to entertain a fifth-century audience…”
Adam Kemezis, University of Alberta: “A valuable literary study [making an] intelligent argument about the literary milieu… The Historia Augusta has long needed a study like this one.”
While the praise of colleagues is satisfying, Rohrbacher said what he wants most is to encourage more people to read the ancient work. “One of my aims with this book is to rescue the Historia Augusta,” he said.
In his office, he points up to a long bookshelf. Every volume on it is on the Historia Augusta, almost all of them in German, French, Italian or Spanish, with article after article examining minutiae.
“It’s become really daunting, not just for students but even for scholars in related fields, to know what to do with it,” he said. “So my hope is that even people who don’t agree with my central argument will see a path into the Historia Augusta.”
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New College of Florida is a national leader in the arts and sciences and is the State of Florida’s designated honors college for the liberal arts. Consistently ranked among the top public liberal arts colleges in America by U.S. News & World Report, Forbes and The Princeton Review, New College attracts highly motivated, academically talented students from 38 states and 23 foreign countries. A higher proportion of New College students receive Fulbright awards than graduates from virtually all other colleges and universities.