- The Play of Allusion in the Historia Augusta by David Rohrbacher
It is no overstatement to say that the Historia Augusta (HA) remains one of the most vexed and hotly debated sources to survive from antiquity. In his seminal work The Last Pagans of Rome, Alan Cameron pulled no punches in describing the woefully problematic nature of the work: "It had always been obvious that these Lives were products of low quality. Not only are they full of errors, absurdities, and manifestly forged documents, they cite as authorities no fewer than thirty-five otherwise unknown and for the most part surely bogus historians and biographers."1 Following such a damning indictment, one could be forgiven for disengaging from the HA altogether, and thus avoiding the complex debate on its relative historical and literary value. In contrast, however, David Rohrbacher has elected to tackle this thorny collection of biographies head on, arguing from the outset that the HA "has much to offer anyone pursuing studies in allusion, genre, historiography and biography, late Roman religion, ancient humour and parody, reception theory, and more" (ix).
At the heart of Rohrbacher's monograph is not an apology for the HA, but a rereading of the work's fundamental character and purpose. Rather than an appallingly bad or seditious set of historical biographies, the author encourages us to see the HA as something altogether less provocative, namely as "literary fiction" (14). Far from fatal flaws or deliberate deceptions by the HA's author, Rohrbacher views the many shortcomings elucidated by scholars such as Cameron as features and challenges in a complex game of references and allusion that was never meant for a wide readership, but rather for a close circle of literati that were particularly interested in the biographical genre. The result is a monograph that is thought-provoking and pleasurable to read in equal measure.
The book begins with an introduction in which Rohrbacher offers his readers a concise yet thorough synopsis of the various trends and controversies in HA scholarship to date. He navigates the questions of the HA's authorship, its dating, the varying nature of the biographies within the HA, the importance of lacunae in the text, and the author's use of historical source material. While this might arguably seem excessive in a monograph that self-consciously moves on from these perennial debates, it is useful in situating the reader within the web of scholarship that Rohrbacher is trying to break free from. This is especially important because one of his explicit objectives is to "rescue" the HA and to render it comprehensible to "all those [End Page 470] interested in the ancient world" (ix). Furthermore, this allows Rohrbacher to outline points that prefigure the main thrust of his argument, namely that even the lacunae present in the work are by the author's design, and that the sources employed by the HA author are often used and manipulated in shifting ways.
In Chapter 1, we are introduced to the nature of the allusions present in the HA. Rohrbacher begins by noting factors that allowed authors to inject a high level of allusion into their texts, particularly in the late antique period, with a reasonable expectation that they would be identified by their readership. Following this, he identifies an interlocking range of literary references within the HA, from simple wordplay and invented names through to more complex allusions to pillars of classical literature, such as Virgil and Cicero. In the case of the latter, the apparently double allusion to a passage in the Pro Roscio found in both the Elagabalus and Alexander Severus is particularly intriguing (30–32). As Rohrbacher states, however, the search for any pattern or trend among these varied references is futile, since the HA's author provides no evidence of a systematic program "beyond a kind of comic anarchy" (21).
In Chapter 2, Rohrbacher moves on to consider the audience and readership of the HA. Once again, some grounding is provided, with a consideration of...