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Roman Imperial Chronology and Early-Fourth-Century Historiography. The Regnal Durations of the So-called “Chronica urbis Romae” of the “Chronograph of 354.” Richard W. Burgess Historia Einzelschriften 234. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2014. Pp. 208. ISBN 9783515107259

The subject of this meticulous study is a short, acephalous account of the rulers of Central Italy, Alba Longa and Rome from Picus to Licinius (325). The reference in the title of the book to the “so-called” Chronica urbis Romae underscores Burgess’s displeasure with the characterization of the work as a “chronicle.” In his view, it falls more properly into the category of “breviarium.” If the work once had a name, it is now lost. Origo gentis Romanorum, the name sometimes applied to the work, is not a formal title; these are simply the first three words of the first of several rubricated manuscript headings. The common identification of the work as the Chronograph of 354 is an equally misleading description. Originally both independent of and earlier than the Chronograph, it probably became part of a compendium only because copyists found it expedient to [End Page 294] incorporate this little work into a larger collection of texts. To differentiate the work both from the chronicle genre and from the Chronograph of 354, Burgess prefers to call it either Breviarium Vindobonense (named after the most complete manuscript) or simply Breviarium.

In choosing the content for this “strange miscellany” (15), the author of the Breviarium favored sensational tales (for example, a piglet resembling an elephant) and empirical data. Included in the latter class are reports about the size of an imperial largesse, the size and number of building projects, the quantity of food consumed by a polyphage, and, most notably, the duration of the reigns of Roman rulers, typically calculated down to years, months, and days. Because of the outward precision of its chronology, scholars have tended to be uncritical in their use of the work. This is especially true of the third and early fourth centuries, where, virtually by default, the Breviarium has emerged as something of a gold standard.

Burgess’s study is the first to subject the Breviarium to a thorough-going analysis of its chronology. By his own admission, he initially had little confidence in its numbers. As the investigation progressed, however, his overall assessment of the quality of its data improved, albeit modestly. Lacking either the means or the temperament to evaluate his sources critically, the author of the Breviarium was, in Burgess’s judgment, an amateur historian (112). By Burgess’s calculations, over two-thirds of the reigns of the pre-Roman kings of Italy and Alba are incorrect. His verdict on the regnal durations of the third and early fourth centuries ce is equally restrained. Given the manifold possibilities for error, he writes, it is “really quite surprising that the Breviarium is as accurate for the third century as it has turned out to be” (118). While advising against uncontrolled use of the work, he allows that, if used judiciously and in conjunction with other sources, the Breviarium can assist in the creation of “a sort of composite of the early fourth-century view of the chronology of the third century” (117). Among his many other findings, a few deserve special note. The impression of precision created by the inclusion of day numbers is apparently illusory. Many are pure fabrications, supplied at random by the compiler in order to avoid leaving gaps in the data. Another notable observation has to do with the uneven distribution of errors from one section to the next, which is in his view suggestive of the use of several sources of variable quality. Although the regnal durations of the Breviarium sometimes parallel data from Eusebius and the long-hypothesized breviarium conventionally known as the Kaisergeschichte, Burgess concludes that differences in their testimony rule out the supposition of common sources.

The conduct of the study is, of necessity, mechanical, beginning with the pre-Roman kings of Italy and Alba and working down to the early fourth century, one ruler at a time. Readers unfamiliar with the relevant texts will benefit from the painstaking inventory of primary sources found in chapter two. Helpful discussions of Roman reckoning of time and artfully placed summaries and conclusions make it easier to digest the sometimes dense statistical analysis. As a supplement to his running commentary on the Breviarium, Burgess includes four appendices, the first of which explores the competing dating systems underlying the imperial chronologies of Cassius Dio (App. 1). Appendix 2 is a close examination of the various [End Page 295] witnesses to the imperial chronology of the lost Kaisergeschichte: Aurelius Victor, Eutropius, Jerome, the Historia Augusta, and the Epitome de caesaribus. Postulation of a single source underlying all of them is put to the test by the numerous and confounding variations in their numbers. The third appendix contains a new critical edition and English translation of the Breviarium, based on a fresh reading of the three surviving manuscripts. In the final appendix, Burgess examines at some length verbal parallels between the Breviarium and parallel Greek and Latin histories. While allowing for the possibility of indirect influences from Greek historical sources, he concludes that the proximate sources of the work were in all likelihood Latin. But because the Breviarium was, in Burgess’s words, a “sub-literary” work whose influence on literary sources from Antiquity and the Middle Ages was negligible, he acknowledges that all conclusions about its sources are at best provisional.

Burgess’s initial plan was to assess the accuracy of the Breviarium and publish his conclusions as an appendix to volume one of Mosaics of Time (Turnhout, 2013). We are grateful that he elected to publish the results of his investigation under separate cover. A single appendix would do scant justice to his fine-grained study of this curious text. Burgess obviously has a real aptitude and patience for painstaking statistical and source critical analysis. His findings should set future study of the chronology of the Breviarium on a much sounder foundation. Towards the end of his study, he invites others to “apply the epigraphic, numismatic and papyrological evidence and break these literary figures down into more accurate year and month figures” (118). We can only second that appeal.

William Adler
North Carolina State University

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