Book Review: Lucius Verus and the Roman Defence of the East


by M. C. Bishop

Barnsley, Eng.: Pen & Sword / Philadelphia: Casemate Publishers, 2018. Pp. xvi, 208. Illus., maps, appends., notes, biblio., index. $32.95. ISBN: 1473847605

A Revisionist Look at Lucius Verus

Archaeologist and historian Bishop has written the first biography of Marcus Aurelius’ adopted brother and co-emperor Lucius Verus (r., A.D. 161-169). He challenges the traditional picture of Verus as inept and dissolute, an image largely derived from the only surviving ancient account of his life, in the notoriously unreliable Historia Augusta (HA).

By careful examination of all other surviving mentions of Verus – Marcus’s Meditations, the letters of Fronto, the histories of Cassius Dio and Lucian of Samosata, etc. – Bishop argues, effectively, that Verus was intelligent, well regarded, stable, and fairly able. Parsing the evidence, he notes, for example, that the HA’s claim Verus scorned learning, is refuted by a discussion of Thucydides in a letter to Fronto. Similarly, the HA berates Verus for failing to take action about certain events, which Bishop demonstrates he could not possibly have known about when they occurred, as he was weeks away. The charge in the HA that while commanding against the Parthians, Verus spent his time in debauchery at Antioch rather than at the front comes up against the question of where else could a theatre commander be when running operations on such widely separated fronts, as Mesopotamia, Media, and Armenia?; after all, Marcus ran his German wars from Vindobona (Vienna), rather than roughing it with the troops in Marcommania or Boihaeum.

Bishop is on less firm ground, however, when he argues that Verus’s bad reputation is the result of a deliberate effort to smear him, because of his marriage to Lucilla; the older sister of the maniacal Commodus, Marcus’s successor, she plotted a coup against her brother. This seems a reach; Verus had been a dozen years dead at the time of Lucilla plot, and moreover her second husband, Pompeianus was spared, not having been a party to the conspiracy.  

One of the most valuable parts of the book is Bishop’s second appendix, in which he gives a critical analysis of Verus’s biography in the HA, identifying passages which can be confirmed from other sources, those clearly false, and those of uncertain validity.

This is a valuable read for anyone with an interest in Roman history. It not only offers a more nuanced account of the life of Verus and his campaigns, as well as a survey of the history of the defense of the Roman east from the late Republic, but also provides a valuable example of how to make good use of a source as notoriously unreliable as the Historia Augusta.


Note: Lucius Verus and the Roman Defence of the East is also available in several e-editions

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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