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An article from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, now in the public domain.
Any color photos are mine, © William P. Thayer.

Velleius Paterculus

Velleius Paterculus, Marcus (c. 19 B.C.-c. A.D. 31), Roman historian. Although his praenomen is given as Marcus by Priscian, some modern scholars identify him with Gaius Velleius Paterculus, whose name occurs in an inscription on a north African milestone (CIL VIII.10311). He belonged to a distinguished Campanian family, and early entered the army. He served as military tribune in Thrace, Macedonia, Greece and the East, and in A.D. 2 was present at the interview on the Euphrates between Gaius Caesar, grandson of Augustus, and the Parthian king. Afterwards, as praefect of cavalry and legatus, he served for eight years (from A.D. 4) in Germany and Pannonia under Tiberius. For his services he was rewarded with the quaestor­ship in 7, and, together with his brother, with the praetor­ship in 15. He was still alive in 30, for history contains many references to the consul­ship of M. Vinicius in that year. It has been conjectured that he was put to death in 31 as a friend of Sejanus, whose praises he celebrates in a most fulsome manner.

He wrote a compendium of Roman history in two, books dedicated to M. Vinicius, from the dispersion of the Greeks after the siege of Troy down to the death of Livia (A.D. 29). The first book brings the history down to the destruction of Carthage, 146 B.C.; portions of it are wanting, including the beginning. The later history, especially the period from the death of Caesar, 44 B.C., to the death of Augustus, A.D. 14, is treated in much greater detail. Brief notices are given of Greek and Roman literature, but it is strange that no mention is made of Plautus, Horace and Propertius. The author is a vain and shallow courtier, and destitute of real historical insight, although generally trustworthy in his statements of individual facts. He may be regarded as a courtly annalist rather than an historian. His knowledge is superficial, his blunders numerous, his chronology inconsistent. He labours at portrait painting, but his portraits are daubs. On Caesar, Augustus and above all on his patron Tiberius, he lavishes praise or flattery. The repetitions, redundancies, and slovenliness of expression which disfigure the work may be partly due to the haste with which (as the author frequently reminds us) it was written. Some blemishes of style, particularly the clumsy and involved structure of his sentences, may perhaps be ascribed to insufficient literary training. The inflated rhetoric, the straining after effect by means of hyperbole, antithesis and epigram, mark the degenerate taste of the Silver Age, of which Paterculus is the earliest example. He purposed to write a fuller history of the later period, which should include the civil war between Caesar and Pompey and the wars of Tiberius; but there is no evidence that he carried out this intention. His chief authorities were Cato's Origines, the Annales of Q. Hortensius, Pompeius Trogus, Cornelius Nepos and Livy.

Velleius Paterculus was little known in antiquity. He seems to have been read by Lucan and imitated by Sulpicius Severus, but he is mentioned only by the scholiast on Lucan, and once by Priscian. The text of the work, preserved in a single badly written and mutilated MS. (discovered by Beatus Rhenanus in 1515 in the abbey of Murbach in Alsace and now lost), is very corrupt. Editio princeps, 1520; early editions by the great scholars Justus Lipsius, J. Gruter, N. Heinsius, P. Burmann; modern editions, Ruhnken and Frotscher (1830‑39), J. C. Orelli (1835), F. Kritz (1840, ed. min. 1848), F. Haase (1858), C. Halm (1876), R. Ellis (1898) (reviewed by W. Warde Fowler in Classical Review, May 1899); on the sources see F. Burmeister, "De Fontibus Vellei Paterculi," in Berliner Studien für classische Philologie (1894), XV. English translation by J. S. Watson in Bohn's Classical Library.​a

Thayer's Note:

a For a totally different take on him — much more favorable, while recognizing his manifest shortcomings — follow the link below, which will take you to the Loeb edition of the History, onsite, and see the Introduction by Frederick W. Shipley, his translator in that edition, containing also additional information on the man, the work, and the manuscripts.

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Page updated: 18 Nov 17