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This webpage reproduces a section of
The Roman History

C. Velleius Paterculus

published in the Loeb Classical Library,

The text is in the public domain.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Velleius Paterculus, Roman History


"Dicere enim solebat nullum esse librum tam malum ut non aliqua parte prodesset." Pliny, Ep. III.5.10, quoting a saying of his uncle.

Velleius Paterculus does not rank among the great Olympians​a of classical literature either as stylist or as historian. But, as Pliny the elder says, no book is so poor that one cannot get some good out of it, and there is much in this comparatively neglected author that is worth reading once, at least in translation. In its aim to include all that is of value and interest in Greek and Latin literature from the days of Homer to the Fall of Constantinople​b the Loeb Library is performing what is perhaps its most valuable service in making more generally available the content of those comparatively unknown authors who, for stylistic or other reasons, are not to be reckoned among the great classics or do not deserve a careful study in the original.

A compendium of Roman history, hastily compiled by an army officer as a memorial volume to commemorate the elevation to the consul­ship for the year A.D. 30 of his friend and fellow-Campanian, Marcus Vinicius, could hardly be expected to rise to the level either of great history or great literature. And yet, taken for what it is, a rapid sketch of some ten centuries of history, it is, in spite of its many defects, which will duly be pointed out, the most successful and most readable of all the abridgements of Roman history which have come down to us. Abridgements are usually little more than skeletons; but Velleius has succeeded, in spite of the brief compass of his work, in clothing the bare bones with real flesh, and in endowing his compendium with more than a mere shadow of vitality, thanks to his own enthusiastic interest in the human side of the great characters of history. The work, after the large lacuna in the first book, covers uninterruptedly the period from the battle of Pydna to A.D. 30, a period which practically coincides with that covered by the final 97 books of Livy for which no manuscript has come down to us, and one which is but partially treated in the extant portions of the works of other Roman historians of first rank. It is therefore valuable, if for nothing else, in that it furnishes us with a connected account of this period which is at any rate much more readable than the bare epitomes of Livy. Besides, it has certain excellences of its own in the treatment of special subjects, especially the chapters on literary history, in which the author has a genuine if not very critical interest, the chapters on the Roman colonies, and those on the history of the organization of the Roman provinces, and in some of the character portraits of the great figures of Roman history. Even in the treatment of Tiberius, in spite of its tone of adulation which historians have so generally condemned, we have a document which must be considered along with the famous delineation by Tacitus, as representing the psychological attitude toward the new empire of the group of administrative officers of the equestrian order who ardently supported it without any of the yearnings felt by the senatorial class for the old régime as it existed in the days before the empire had shorn them of their former governmental powers.

As has already been said, the work is a commemorative volume as well as an historical abridgement, and under this pardonable pretext the author feels free to depart from historical objectivity and give his work a personal note. Thus he honours Vinicius not merely by the dedication, but by addressing him frequently in the vocative case, by bringing the more important dates into chronological relation with his consul­ship, and by bringing into prominence the ancestors of Vinicius who had played any historical role worthy of consideration. Vinicius, who like the author himself was an official of the administration, would also lend sympathetic ears to his rhapsodic eulogy of his old commander, now the emperor Tiberius, and of his prime minister Sejanus, then in the heyday of his power and the virtual head of the government. In doing the honours, in this commemorative volume, he also takes occasion to mention, as something in which his friend would be interested, the participation of the author's own ancestors in the events which he is narrating, and, when he reaches his own times, like the painters of the Renaissance he sees no harm in introducing himself into the canvas as one of the minor participants in the historical pageant.

To this naïve and innocent egotism we owe all our information in regard to the author and his family, since the sparse references in later literature contribute nothing to our knowledge of either. We thus learn that he reckoned among his ancestors on his mother's side Decius Magius, a distinguished citizen of Capua who remained loyal to the Romans when Capua went over to Hannibal, and Minatius Magius, who raised a legion and fought on the Roman side in the Social War, for which service he received Roman citizen­ship; that his father served in Germany as prefect of horse; that his father's brother Capito supported Agrippa in his indictment of Cassius for the murder of Caesar; that his paternal grandfather C. Velleius Paterculus served as praefectus fabrum under Pompey, Marcus Brutus, and Tiberius Nero, the father of the emperor; that he was chosen as one of the judges by Pompey in 55 B.C., and that in 41 B.C. he killed himself because he was physically unable to follow Nero in his flight from Naples. The historian himself, C.​1 Velleius Paterculus, also played the role of loyal officer, seeing service as military tribune in Thrace and Macedonia, and accompanying Caius Caesar in A.D. 1 on his visit to the eastern provinces. While there he was an eyewitness of the conference between Caius and the son of the Parthian king on an island in the Euphrates. Later he served under Tiberius for eight consecutive years, first as prefect of horse and then as legatus, participating in his German and Pannonian campaigns. In A.D. 6 he was elected quaestor, and while still quaestor designate he led a body of troops to reinforce Tiberius in Pannonia on the occasion of the great mutiny. As quaestor, in A.D. 7, he gave up the privilege of a provincial appointment to become a legatus under Tiberius in Pannonia. In the winter of A.D. 7‑8 he was one of the legati in charge of winter quarters. His brother, Magius Celer Velleianus, was also a legatus of Tiberius and distinguished himself in the Dalmatian campaign. Both were decorated with military honours at the triumph of Tiberius in A.D. 13. Both were praetors for the year A.D. 15 and were proud of the distinction of having been the last to be nominated to the praetor­ship by Augustus and the first to be named by Tiberius. Here the chapter of his military career apparently closes. He does not seem to have risen higher than the praetor­ship in the fifteen years which intervened between the holding of that office and the consul­ship of Vinicius, though he may have held provincial appointments. He must have enjoyed some leisure in these years, since he hints at having in preparation a more comprehensive historical work, and his genuine enthusiasm for literature, and his familiarity with the rhetorical studies then so much in vogue, must postulate some time for their development, even though his literary work still shows many marks of the novice.

His compendium​2 is divided into two chronologically unequal parts. The first book, preserved in a fragmentary condition,​3 began with the times immediately preceding the fall of Troy, dealt rapidly with the early history of Greece in the first seven chapters, reached the founding of Rome in chapter viii, and ended with the fall of Carthage in 146 B.C. The second book covers the period from the time of the Gracchi to the consul­ship of Vinicius in A.D. 30, and is on a much fuller and more comprehensive scale, especially from the consul­ship of Caesar to the end. This greater fulness as he approaches his own times is to be explained partly as a traditional proceeding, and partly because, as he himself says, he had in preparation a more comprehensive work covering the period from the beginning of the Civil War between Caesar and Pompey down to his own day, and in consequence he had larger amount of material to assimilate. Here and there he checks the rapidity of his narrative to dwell at greater length upon topics in which he had a personal interest, as for example the references to literary history, the two digressions upon the colonies and provinces of Rome, the participation of members of his own family in historical events, and his own share in the events of the last fifteen years of the reign of Augustus.

Both the virtues and defects of Velleius as an historical writer can be best explained on the supposition that until the year A.D. 15, when he was about thirty-five years of age, all his time had been absorbed in his military duties, and that it was only in the period of comparative leisure which followed that he discovered a new hobby in literary and biographical studies. These he approached with all the fresh interest and naïve enthusiasm of the amateur. His outlook is still the uncritical attitude of the dilettante. Nil admirari had not become his motto. He is still, at the time of writing what is apparently his maiden book, in the stage of appreciation and admiration, and, while his critical faculties are still untrained he has at any rate not become cynical or blasé. He can still find romance in the history about which more mature writers had ceased to wonder. In the new rhetorical tendencies of Silver Latin he found a medium well adapted to give expression to his enthusiasm and admiration. As an historian he has not learned to weigh evidence; he has made no close study of the sources;​4 in giving his chronological references he unwittingly mixes up the dates of the Catonian and the Varronian eras;​5 in his haste he over­looks events and is obliged to insert them out of their proper order. In fact his attitude is rather that of the journalist than of the historian. There is little evidence, however, of deliberate falsification. Even his extravagant eulogy of Tiberius for which he has been so severely censured may be explained at least in part as an example of the soldier's uncritical, but loyal and enthusiastic devotion to his old commander, which reflects the attitude toward the emperor of the military and official, as opposed to that of the senatorial class and of the sympathisers with the old republic. At the worst it is an interesting example of court history. His interest in history is biographical rather than strictly historical. He is particularly fond of making portraits of the personages of history, which he does with a considerable degree of success. The second book, in particular, is one long gallery of such portraits which are brought into relation to each other by a slender band of historical data. In fact the book is a sort of illustrated Who's Who of Roman history. Nor does he confine himself to the great figures such as the Gracchi, Marius, Sulla, Cicero, Pompey, and Caesar; he is equally fond of portraying the characters of deuteragonists like Clodius, Curio, Lepidus, and Plancus. Some of these portraits are among his best. While these characterizations tend to destroy historical proportion they add greatly to the human interest.

We have said that Velleius gives the impression of having been an amateur who took to historical writing as a new hobby somewhat late in life. Signs of this are not wanting in his style. It has all the pretentiousness of the novice. He desires to soar before he has completely learned to fly. Writing in an age when rhetoric was the vogue, and contaminated poetical as well as prose writing, he cannot refrain from bringing in all the rhetorical figures and producing all the rhetorical effects. All the colours of the poet and the rhetorician are applied with lavish hand where he aspires to fine writing; rhetorical questions, exclamations, and even apostrophe; rhetorical rhythm, laboured antitheses, glittering epigrams, sometimes far-fetched, and excessive hyperbole. For this reason his use of superlatives in his praise of Tiberius has perhaps been taken too seriously. The superlative is used with almost as much frequency in eulogizing other historical personages including Pompey, in spite of author's ardent imperialism. In fact the superlative had already suffered so much rhetorical abuse​6 that it had come to have little more value than a positive. Furthermore his style is lacking in the clarity, the ease, and the poise of the experienced writer. This is especially the case in the interminable periods which crowd his work. Some of them are veritable labyrinths. The periods of Cicero, no matter what their length, are architectural units; in Velleius the nucleus of the period is often so overloaded with phrases, clauses, and incidental parentheses that the period bears much more resemblance to a stone almost completely hidden by parasitic barnacles than to a structure developed on a logical and artistic plan. This is partly due to the attempt to condense into a single sentence the content of whole chapters which he finds in his sources. In consequence these periods are the despair of the translator, and there is frequently nothing for it but to break them up into smaller units which can be more readily handled in an uninflected language. And yet, with all his faults, Velleius is an author whom, as Norden has said in his Antike Kunst-Prosa, one reads with interest from beginning to end; and if readability is the real test this quality carries with it its own apology. Were it not for the difficulty of his intricate periods, his work, by reason of its content, its biographical trend, and its human interest, would be the ideal first reading-book for beginners of Latin. Macaulay, who does not admire his style and condemns his flattery, says: "Velleius seems to me a remarkably good epitomist. I hardly know​c of any work of which the scale is so small and the subject so extensive,"​7 a historian's testimony to the measure of success which he has achieved in the task which he undertook, namely, that of writing a multum in parvo of historical condensation.

The Text

The text of Velleius depends upon a single manuscript found by Beatus Rhenanus in the Benedictine monastery of Murbach, in Alsace, in the year 1515. This manuscript has long since disappeared. Rhenanus in describing it testifies to the almost hopeless state of corruption of the text: "so monstrously corrupt that no human ingenuity could restore all of it"; "I am ready to swear that the scribe who copied it did not understand a word"; "there is no portion of it that is not corrupt." Not satisfied with a copy hastily made by a friend, he resolved to delay publication until he should have a chance to consult a better manuscript said to have been found in Milan by Georgius Merula. Disappointed in this hope, he brought out the ed. princeps at Basle in 1520. The edition while still in proof was compared with the Murbach manuscript by Burer, one of the secretaries of Rhenanus, who also noted many of its variant readings in an appendix to the edition. The editio princeps, with Burer's readings appended, was the sole source of our knowledge of the text until 1834 when Orelli brought to light in the library of the Academy at Basle an independent copy of the Murbach MS. made in 1516 by Bonifacius Amberbach. From this copy is missing the first fragment of Bk. I beginning at tempestate distractus ch. 1 and ending with raptus virginum Sabinarum ch. 8. The absence of this fragment would seem to indicate either that in 1516 it had not yet been found or at any rate that it had not yet been recognized as part of the text of Velleius. Amberbach's copy is of great importance, in conjunction with the readings of Burer, in enabling the critic to restore the original readings of the Murbach MS. But while modern scholar­ship has made progress in solving the enigmas, the text of Velleius, unless some long-hidden manuscript shall unexpectedly come to light, will always continue to be one of the most corrupt among the surviving texts of classical authors.

The text of the present volume is a composite. While chiefly indebted to the editions of Halm and Ellis, I have frequently followed older editors, particularly in the most corrupt passages, where the interpretations of these scholars seem to be nearer to the tradition of the Murbach manuscript or to the sense demanded by the context. The critical nomenclature given in the sigla is that of Ellis. I have occasionally altered the punctuation, and, for the convenience of the reader, have made more frequent use of the paragraph.



Among the older editions after the ed. princeps (see chapter on text) the following are most frequently mentioned in the notes on the text: J. N. Schegkius, Frankfort, 1589; Acidalius, Padua, 1590; J. Lipsius, Leyden, 1591, Antwerp, 1627; Gruter, Frankfort, 1607 (first systematic division into chapters); Riguez, Paris, 1675 (Delphin ed. with word index); N. Heinsius, Amsterdam, 1678; P. Burman, Leyden, 1719 and 1744. More modern editions are D. Ruhnken, 2 vols., Leyden, 1779; reprinted by Frotscher, Leipzig, 1830‑9; J. C. H. Krause, Leipzig, 1800; N. E. Lemaire, Paris, 1822; J. C. Orelli, Leipzig, 1835; Halm, Leipzig, 1863 and 1875; Ellis, Oxford, 1898. An annotated edition in English by Frank E. Rockwood, Boston, 1893, will be found useful for the period of Julius Caesar, Augustus, and Tiberius. There is an English translation by J. S. Watson in Bohn's Classical Library. For a complete bibliography, especially of monographs and periodical literature concerning the numerous special problems which arise in Velleius, see lists in Schanz, Geschichte der römischen Litteratur.


A = Amberbach's copy of the lost Codex Murbachensis completed in August 1516, now in the library of the Academy at Basle, A.N. ii.8.

P = Editio Princeps, printed in 1520.

B = Burer's readings from the Murbach Codex, which are printed at the end of the Ed. Princeps. Halm indicates these readings by the letter M.

The Editor's Notes to the Introduction:

1 His praenomen is uncertain. Priscian calls him Marcus. Publius is the praenomen on the title-page of the ed. princeps, probably through an error of Rhenanus in identifying him with P. Velleius of Tac. Ann. III.39. At the beginning and end of Book I his praenomen is given as C.

Thayer's Note: This is not the only evidence for Caius. A milestone has been found in North Africa (CIL VIII.10311, for the brief text of which see this page at Livius.Org). It's hardly conclusive, since it is undated and we have no other reason to believe that Velleius ever served in Africa — but still, it doesn't read Marcus.

2 The title of his work as it appears in the heading of Book I in the ed. princeps is: C. Vellei Paterculi historiae Romanae ad M. Vinicium Cos. prius volumen mutilum. But, as the first part of this book was missing from the Murbach MS., this title may simply be the work of a scribe. Most modern editors have adopted the title: Vellei Paterculi ad M. Vinicium libri duo.

3 The beginning, containing the title, the dedication to Vinicius, and a page or two of text, is missing. There is also a large lacuna extending from the reign of Romulus to the battle of Pydna.

4 Apart from Cato and Hortensius, Velleius does not specifically mention any of his sources. The others are purely a matter of conjecture. For his purpose he needed a chronological table and a collection of biographies. It is likely that he made use of the abridgement of Atticus and the chronological data of Cornelius Nepos. For the Civil Wars he may have used the work of Messala Corvinus. For the reign of Augustus he probably used the autobiography of that emperor. For the reign of Tiberius he of course drew largely on his own experience. If he used Livy, he at any rate frequently disagrees with him.

5 The dates, however, in so far as they are given in Roman numerals are often hopelessly corrupt. Consequently the dates which I have given in the notes are those established by students of chronology.

6 e.g. in Cicero's De imperio Pompei the choice between positive and superlative is frequently a mere matter of sonorousness and rhythm.

7 The Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay, by George Otto Trevelyan. Longmans, Green & Co., 1913, vol. I p475.

Thayer's Notes:

a This disfiguring tautology in the opening salvo of the barrage of stylistic criticism Dr. Shipley quite rightly levels at his author just cried out for a footnote until I could stand it no longer: as we criticize someone else's style, we who write things gotta be very careful. This said, the editor's own style improves after this, and yes, his translation is much more readable, at least to modern tastes, than the pretentious writing of Velleius.

For what it's worth, my own assessment of Velleius' work is a bit higher than Professor Shipley's. While I agree completely as to the style, there is a fresh, living quality — as with many first-time authors — which Prof. Shipley himself has brought out nicely in the English by ignoring as much of the mannered writing as a translator can. The great flaw is the fulsome flattery of Tiberius, but even then, it is by no means as nauseating as Pliny the Younger's panegyric of Trajan or even in some respects Procopius' views on Justinian in the Buildings.

On the other hand, for a thoroughly hostile assessment of the man and his work, neatly complementing the above Introduction, and with additional facts and conjectures, see the article in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.

b The Loeb Library's aims appear to have contracted since this was written; at any rate, the cadence of new editions has markedly slowed, and in the parlance of the Boston Consulting Group, the Loeb Classical Library is now a "cash cow". The fault is not entirely, or even maybe mostly, that of the parent Harvard University Press: diminishing returns set in, and there are few people who want to read the Myrobiblion or Constantine Porphyrogenetus, who cannot read them in the original.

Yet a classical education, now pretty much itself a thing of the past, is useful. We now live in a world where we think we've invented everything and things have never been seen before: past mistakes? what past mistakes? — and sure enough, we're condemned to repeat them.

c And I in turn wonder whether Macaulay ever read Jane Austen's "History of England from the reign of Henry the 4th to the death of Charles the 1st", written 9 years before he was born. She has Velleius beat in both condensation and style.

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