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Imaginary Roman Emperors Grace the Pages of the Historia Augusta

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Imaginary Roman Emperors Grace the Pages of the Historia Augusta

The Historia Augusta presents a carnival of outlandish stories that have puzzled historians for centuries. But these bizarre fabrications are not limited to irrelevant details. The ancient collection of Roman imperial biographies even invented emperors, blurring the lines between fact and fiction in the annals of Roman history.

The Historia Augusta and its Fabricated Rulers of Antiquity

The Historia Augusta is a collection of biographies of Roman emperors and usurpers, covering a time frame from 117 AD to 285 AD. While the collection itself claims to have been written by a group of six authors between 305 and 325 AD, historians believe it was actually written in the late 4th century AD by an unknown author or group of authors.

Among the myriad of Roman emperors chronicled in the  Historia Augusta, several stand out as glaring fabrications who never existed. One such emperor is Firmus Saturninus, purported to have reigned during the Crisis of the Third Century, a ******* marked by political instability and civil strife. Another is Florianus, whose reign is said to have lasted a mere 88 days before his untimely demise.

The imaginary emperors in the  Historia Augusta raise intriguing questions about the motivations behind their inclusion. Some scholars speculate they served as cautionary tales or moral exemplars. Others suggest that they may have been added to fill gaps in the historical record or to create parallels with real emperors, enhancing the narrative of the text. In  The Play of Allusion in the Historia Augusta, David Rohrbacher suggests that these parodies were actually jokes intended for an informed audience.

The cover of a 1698 edition of the Historia Augusta from the Ettal Abbey in Germany. (

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Deciphering Deceptions: Fake News in the Historia Augusta

Within the  Historia Augusta, fabrications extend beyond invented emperors to include extravagant and improbable anecdotes. There are also several forged documents, including letters and speeches. These tales, often bordering on the fantastical, challenge historians’ efforts to discern truth from fiction within the annals of Roman history.

One such instance is the account of Emperor Carinus, who ruled from 283 to 285 AD, supposedly swimming in pools filled with floating apples and melons, a whimsical depiction of decadence that strains credulity. The scandalous behavior of Elagabalus, who ruled as Roman emperor from 218 to 222 AD, is said to have included cross-dressing, multiple marriages and bizarre rituals in a questionable and sensationalized depiction.

Similarly, the Historia Augusta recounts the tale of Proculus, a purported usurper who briefly claimed the imperial throne in the third century AD, although there is no historical evidence of his existence. The text alleges that Proculus deflowered a hundred virgins in just fifteen days, a story of remarkable audacity that stretches credulity.

Such instances of fake news within the Historia Augusta blur the lines between reality and myth. This has complicated scholars’ attempts to construct an accurate portrayal of ancient Roman society and culture during an era for which there is a dearth of material.

Top image: Representational image of an ancient Roman historian. Source: 

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By Cecilia Bogaard

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Historian, literature, Roman Emperors, Roman Empire, fake news
#Imaginary #Roman #Emperors #Grace #Pages #Historia #Augusta

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