Barbara Levick, Vespasian. London: Routledge, 1999. Pp. xli + 310, 34 plates + 9 maps. ISBN 0-415-16618-7 (Hb).
Anthony R. Birley, Septimius Severus: The African Emperor. London: Routledge 1999. Pp. xii + 292, 25 plates + 3 maps. ISBN 0-415-16591-1 (Pb).
Review by Mark Humphries
National University of Ireland
?It takes and emperor to rule an empire.? So says a petulant Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) in Ridley Scott?s Gladiator. Popular opinion seems to agree with him: for many, the history of the Roman Empire is simultaneously and primarily the history of its emperors. Even in scholarly writing the deaths and accessions of emperors provide convenient points at which to break up history into a series of epochs (?the age of Augustus?, ?the golden age of the Antonines? etc.). Little wonder, then, that studies focusing on the lives of individual Roman emperors should prove perennially popular. No series of such studies seems to flourish more vigorously than the ?Roman Imperial Biographies?, now being reissued and continued by Routledge. Its scope is impressive, stretching from Augustus to Justinian; in between volumes cover not just the Caesars, but also imperial princesses (Agrippina the Younger), native rebels (Boudica), and usurpers (Carausius and Allectus). The two volumes considered here are good representatives of the series as a whole. Not only have both authors contributed others to the series (Levick on Tiberius and Claudius, Birley on Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius), but their approaches represent different ways of tackling the task of imperial biography.
In terms of presenting a sympathetic portrait of an attractive character, Levick?s is perhaps the easier task. Vespasian is very much the emperor with the common touch, a man who (so Suetonius would have us believe) made jokes about genitals, accepted them about his own appearance of constipation, and even managed a quip on his deathbed. Levick applies her scholarly rigour to sorting out fact from fiction, propaganda from policy: the deathbed joke, alas, is one of the casualties (p. 197). Her study is also a model of organisation. Much as in her studies of Tiberius and Claudius, Levick has eschewed the straight narrative, from cradle to grave, in favour of a number of analytical chapters embedded within a chronological framework. Thus here, immediately after recounting Vespasian?s rise to power, we get chapters on imperial ideology, political factions, and fiscal policy; later comes one on policies of regeneration in Rome (including Vespasian?s important architectural programme), Italy, and the provinces. Detailed (sometimes very detailed) though these analyses are, they draw attention to the emperor?s major areas of activity.
Levick?s book is a new piece of scholarship. Birley?s Septimius Severus boasts a longer gestation. It was first published in 1971 and revised in 1988. This 1999 paperback version represents a reprint of that revised edition together with annotated bibliographical addenda. Like Vespasian, Septimius Severus was an emperor who seized power through victory in civil war. Unlike Vespasian, however, Septimius has not enjoyed a favourable reputation, and this provides Birley with one of his chief concerns. Septimius? dying words (notably joke-free, and given by Cassius Dio claiming to quote them verbatim) contained advice to his sons to enrich the troops and disregard everyone else. For many, this reveals an emperor who was self-consciously creating a naked military autocracy. In consequence, the role of the armies in the anarchic decades after Septimius? death could fairly be blamed upon him. Birley, rightly, has no time for such argument from hindsight. For him Septimius is no military tyrant, but a conscientious emulator of Marcus Aurelius (unquestionably a good emperor) in terms of energy and sense of duty. Moreover, in Septimius? reign, the central government was still strong enough for indulgence of the army not to provoke an immediate slide into chaos. Birley?s assessment has much to recommend it, but it also demands much of its reader. There are no separate thematic chapters like those in Levick?s Vespasian. Birley?s book is more or less straight narrative, with excursus on thematic topics deeply embedded within it, and thus difficult to find if that is all you are after. Readers of French may profit therefore from reference to Anne Daguet-Gagey?s Septime Sévère: Rome, l?Afrique et l?Orient (Payot: Paris, 2000), whose chapters 13-16 provide comprehensive treatments of the emperor?s architectural programmes, administrative reforms, legislation, and religious policies.
Writing the biography of an ancient statesman is a tough business. The salient problem is one of sources. As Robin Lane Fox has remarked (Alexander the Great, Allen Lane: Harmondsworth, 1973, p. 11), it is probably impossible to attempt a biography of any ancient with the exception of Augustine of Hippo, Cicero, and, possibly, the emperor Julian: only they have left enough personal writings to make psychologically penetrating biography in the modern sense possible. Neither Vespasian nor Septimius left us a sheaf of personal papers full of insights into what made them tick, so what is marketed as biography is more often a ?life and times?. For such reasons, some might doubt the wisdom of undertaking ?Roman Imperial Biographies? of Vespasian and Septimius Severus. That said, both Levick and Birley perform well within the limits that their sources impose. In terms of literary accomplishment and as introductions to emperors and their ages, Levick and Birley are impressive defenders of the genre.