Some modern historians probably feel like they have a calling for history, but their sense of purpose may not be as intense as that of Cassius Dio (c. 163-235), a Roman historian of Greek descent from Bithynia, who lived through the reigns of some of the most notorious emperors, such as Commodus and Caracalla. Although we know Dio mainly as a historian, he was also a very successful politician—he held two consulships and served as governor of several provinces. Yet, during the reign of Septimus Severus (c. 193-211), Dio took on a job that would set him on the path to cementing his name firmly in history.
In typical Roman fashion, Emperor Septimus Severus achieved power by winning a civil war with an army loyal only to himself. Around this time, Cassius Dio became suddenly inspired to write a biography about Severus, focusing especially on the prophetic dreams that the new emperor allegedly experienced, which prompted him to seize power. When Dio’s biography was published, Emperor Septimus Severus was impressed by what he read—he personally sent Dio a congratulatory letter, praising his work.
Thankfully for us, Cassius Dio did not shy from writing about his own life. We can, therefore, read in Dio’s own words about the profound impact the emperor’s letter had on the emerging historian:
“I had written and published a memoir about the dreams and portents which led Severus to hope for the imperial power, and after he had read the copy I sent him he wrote me a handsome acknowledgement. Receiving the letter in the evening, I soon went to sleep, and as I slept the divine power commanded me to write history. Thus I came to compose the present account [The Roman History].”
The Roman History (73. 23. I-3, 5) by Cassius Dio, translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert (Penguin Classics, 1987).
Spurned on by whatever forces drove him to write history, Cassius Dio literally created a work that attempted to describe the entirety of Roman history. He started by writing an account of the civil wars that brought Septimus Severus to power. When the document received praise, Dio found the encouragement he needed to continue writing. And write he did—Cassius Dio wrote an eighty-volume history, beginning with Aeneas’ arrival in Italy after the Trojan War, and ending with his own age in the Roman Empire of the 3rd-century. Dio claimed that completing the history was a twenty-two year endeavor, with ten years of research and twelve years of composition.
Unfortunately, much of Dio’s history has been damaged and lost, but his account of events from around 69 BCE to 46 CE, thankfully, remains remarkably whole. In particular, Dio’s volumes on the reign of Emperor Augustus (c. 27 BCE- 14 AD) are still regarded as one of the most comprehensive Augustan histories from the ancient world.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Top picture attribution: (Cicero Denounces Catiline (zoomed and cropped) painted by Cesare Maccari (1840–1919), c. 1889, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Roman History by Cassius Dio, translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert. New York: Penguin Classics, 1987.