Sententiae in Antiquitatem: Johnson on Augustus

“He observed of Lord Bute, ‘it was said of Augustus, that it would have been better for Rome that he had never been born, or had never died.'”

-Boswell, Life of Johnson, p. 605 (New York: The Modern Library)


NOTE: I do not know off the top of my head from whom Johnson pulled this notion. If anyone happens to recall an ancient sentiment roughly approximating this one, please let us know in the comments!

3 thoughts on “Sententiae in Antiquitatem: Johnson on Augustus

  1. I suspect the assessment ultimately goes back to a reconfiguration of what the so-called Historia Augusta has to say about Septimius Severus: “De hoc [sc. vitio crudelitatis] senatus ita iudicavit illum aut nasci non debuisse aut mori, quod et nimis crudelis et nimis utilis rei publicae videretur” (Vita Sept. Sev. 18.7). At any rate, the French historian Louis Sebastien Le Nain de Tillemont already said of Augustus in his Histoire des empereurs et des autres princes qui ont regné durant les six premiers siècles de l’eglise of 1688: “Il suffice de remarquer ce qu’on a dit, que il ne devoit jamais naître à cause des maux qu’il a faits pour se rendre maître de la Republique; ou qu’il ne devoit jamais mourir, à cause de la sagesse et de la moderation avec laquelle il la conduisit lorsqu’il fut venu à bout de ses desseins.” (For the quotation, see JGA Pocock, Barbarism and Religion, vol. 3 p. 335.) The Tillemont quote certainly sounds like an elaboration of the HA’s remark about Severus (and not the vagueness of “ce qu’on a dit”).

    1. This sounds plausible! Johnson was known for recommending the habit of discursive reading, and even disingenuously claimed that he had never read a book through to completion. Perhaps, though, this also contributed to a confused attribution of the senate’s judgment on Severus.

      Thanks for the excellent find!

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