Carus, Pax Augusta antoninianus, 282-3, obverse

Selections from Historia Augusta, Life of Carus, Numerian and Carinus


The so-called Historia Augusta is a series of biographies of Roman emperors and usurpers from Hadrian (117-138 CE) to Carus, Numerian, and Carinus (collectively 282-285). The Lives present themselves as having been written by six different authors, who refer to persons and events of Diocletianís and Constantineís reigns as contemporary (284-305 and 306-337, respectively). In fact, it is more likely the Lives are all by one man, otherwise unidentified, writing almost a century later. Some parts of some of the Lives furnish excellent historical information; others contain much pure fiction - including, alas, the "grandfather" who figures here. Nonetheless, the fictions provide tailor-made examples of the sort of detail late antique readers might look for in imperial biography.

The Life of Carus, Numerian, and Carinus, from which two passages are extracted here, constructs portraits of three classic types of imperial figure: the soldier-emperor, the bookish boy-emperor (relatively speaking), and the dissolute scoundrel of a bad emperor. It is well worth reading in its entirety. These passages, however, pay brief tribute to the ostensibly reigning emperor, Diocletian. They illustrate recurring concerns of the whole collection with imperial ambitions and legitimacy.


For purposes of clarity, proper names and some background information have been inserted into the following translation.

copyright Jacqueline Long, 1999.

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[12] Numerian accompanied his father Carus on his campaign against Persia. After Carus died, Numerian began to feel pain in his eyes: that type of malady is very common when one is weakened by too little sleep. While Numerian was being carried in a litter, he was killed by the agency of his father-in-law Aper. He was trying to usurp imperial power.

Over the course of several days, the soldiers made inquiry after the emperorís health. Aper issued a public statement that he could not be seen because he was keeping his sick eyes out of the wind and sun. Nevertheless, the stench of the corpse betrayed the truth. They all fell upon Aper, whose agency could not be hidden. They dragged him before the standards and the officersí tents. A huge public assembly was held, and a tribunal was set up.

[13] The question was raised of who would be the right person to avenge Numerian: whom might the state receive as a good ruler? With inspired unanimity, they all named Diocletian Augustus [the title for a reigning emperor with full authority]. It is said many portents had already forecast imperial power for him. He was then commanding the House Guards of the emperor, a prominent and experienced man. He loved the state, loved his family, and was ready for everything the occasion demanded. His intentions were always deep, occasionally audacious, yet such as to repress the impulses of his restless heart by prudence and extreme steadfastness.

When he had ascended the tribunal and been named Augustus, the question was asked how Numerian was killed. Diocletian drew his sword, pointed out Aper, the praetorian prefect [Aper held the command of the emperorís military guard-cohort], and ran him through. He spoke the words, "This man is responsible for the murder of Numerian!" Thus Aper, whose life was marked by a dishonorable life-style and odious intentions, met the death-penalty his habits deserved.

My grandfather reported he was among the assembly when Aper was killed by Diocletianís hand. He used to say Diocletian said, when he struck Aper, "Boast, Aper, Ďyou fall by great Aeneasís handí!" [a quote from the great national epic of classical Rome, Vergilís Aeneid, 10.830] I am amazed at this in a military man; although I am perfectly well aware that military men make their own use of the sayings of comic and suchlike poets, both in Greek and in Latin. The comic playwrights themselves bring on soldiers in this way, and make them quote old sayings. The old "youíre a hare yourself, and youíre hunting game?" is a line from Livius Andronicus, and Plautus and Caecilius have served up many others.

[14] I do not think it too far out, nor yet commonplace, to insert a story about Diocletian Augustus that fits in with this passage. It was given to him as an omen of imperial power. My grandfather told me he learned it from Diocletian himself. He said Diocletian was spending some time at a cook-shop near Tungri in Gaul, back when he was working his way through the ranks. He was reckoning up his daily tab with a certain woman, a Druid. She said, "Diocletian, you want too much and you donít pay enough for it." Diocletian supposedly answered -in jest, not seriously- "Iíll be generous when Iím emperor." After that utterance the Druidess supposedly said, "Diocletian, donít joke. You will be emperor when you have killed a Boar." Diocletian in his heart always held the desire for imperial power, and Maximian and my grandfather knew it. Diocletian himself recounted to him what the Druid said. At the time, since he was deep, he laughed and kept silent. Yet on hunts, when he had the opportunity, he always killed the boars with his own hand. In the end, when Aurelian received imperial power, then Probus, then Tacitus, then Carus himself, Diocletian said, "I always kill the boar, but another man gets the meat." Now, the remark has been known generally, that when he killed Aper the praetorian prefect, Diocletian supposedly said, "At last I have killed the fated Boar." ["Aper" is not only a Roman name, but also the Latin word for "boar."] My same grandfather used to say Diocletian himself had said he had no other cause for killing by his own hand except in order to fulfill the Druidís utterance and fix the imperial power as his own. For he would not want to get the reputation for such cruelty, especially in the first days of his reign, if it were not Necessity dragging him to this murderous atrocity.

... [18] Carinus, when he found out that his father Carus had been destroyed by a thunderbolt, his brother Numerian done away with by his father-in-law, and Diocletian named Augustus, came out with greater vices and crimes, as if he was now free and released from the reins of domestic reverence by the deaths of his relations. And yet he did not lack the energy of mind to claim the empire for himself. He contended with Diocletian in many battles, but at the last skirmish, which was joined by the Margus river, he was conquered and fell.

This was the end of three rulers, Carus, Numerian, and Carinus. After this the gods bestowed Diocletian and Maximian as rulers, joining to them Galerius and Constantius. The one of them was born to annul the disgrace received by Valerianís captivity [the emperor Valerian was captured by the Persians while campaigning against them in 259, and died in captivity], the other to return the Gauls to Roman laws [from foreign invasions, local revolts, and the usurpation of Carausius]. They are indeed four leaders of the world who are brave, wise, kind, and liberal in high degree. They share a single sentiment toward the state, they are thoroughly respectful toward the Roman Senate, they are moderate, they are friends to the populace, thoroughly religious, serious, reverent, and such as we have always prayed for. Claudius Eusthenius, who was Diocletianís correspondence-secretary, has written their biographies in individual books. I mention the point so that no one may seek such a great thing from me, especially since biography, certainly of living rulers, is not related without censure.


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This file last updated 18 February 2006.