Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.04.27


W.M. Bloomer, Valerius Maximus and the Rhetoric of the New Nobility. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992. ISBN 0-8078-2047-4.


Reviewed by David Potter, University of Michigan.

Valerius Maximus' Memorable Deeds and Words was far more popular in antiquity and the Middle Ages than it is now. For well over a century it has been regarded by the majority of scholars as little more than a source to be culled for anecdotes (not all of them reliable) about the Greeks and Romans. It is the great strength of Bloomer's book that it is now possible to see Valerius as a human being with some very interesting habits.

The age of Tiberius seems to have been the great age of canonization. Cicero says that Varro taught the Romans who they were, but it was Livy who gave them their history. T.J. Luce's recent study of the forum of Augustus ("Livy, Augustus and the Forum Augustum," M. Toher and K. Raaflaub, Between Republic and Empire. Interpretations of Augustus and his Principate [Berkeley, 1990], 123-38) and E. Gabba's excellent book on Dionysius of Halicarnassus have made this ever so plain (Dionysius and the History of Archaic Rome [Berkeley, 1991] esp. chap. 4). The publication, now more than a decade ago, of previously unknown sections of the senatorial decree detailing the honors for the dead Germanicus, and recent studies of the development of funerary honors have shown how the imperial house came to be regarded as a ideal model for the lives of all Romans, and the recently discovered text recording the senate's final disposition of the case against Piso in 20 AD provides an extraordinary summary of the specific virtues that the Roman people were to learn from each member of the family (W.D. Lebek, "Ehrenbogen und Prinzentod: 9 v. Chr.-23 n. Chr.," ZPE 86 [1991]: 47-78; W. Eck, "Das s.c. de Cn. Pisone patre und seine Publikation in der Baetica," Cahiers du Centre G. Glotz 4 [1993]: 189-208). One of the most interesting features of Valerius Paterculus' short history of Rome is precisely his interest in literary canons and the role of contemporary statesmen as exempla to all his contemporaries: all new men could now strive to be like Sejanus.

B.'s book enables us to see all of this even more plainly. Valerius, as B. shows, worked with a very limited group of texts (chiefly Livy, Trogus, Cicero and Sallust) to find examples that Romans could live and argue by. In this sense B.'s discovery of the mind of Valerius is of lasting value for the study of the intellectual history of the early principate. It was no easy task. The basic edition of Valerius is now over a century old (it is not very good), there is no commentary, the only English translation was done in 1678 and Valerius is not a particularly easy read.

B. did not overcome all the obstacles in his way with equal facility. The arguments against the use of Greek sources are far longer than necessary (though convincing), B.'s views on issues like the source tradition for Alexander the Great are hopelessly dated (he relies on German studies of Valerius that were done early in this century rather than more recent work on the question as a whole), and he has a tendency to rely a bit too much on what appears to be a rather limited reading of modern historical scholarship in his discussion of the civil wars. Some of the other discussion of source material (leading to the very important conclusions on p. 146) gets to be staggeringly dull. His strengths are those of the good (very good) philologist. It is impossible not to be impressed by B.'s capacity to pull passages of Valerius apart, and his sensitivity to Latin prose style. I wish that the final chapter was something other than a study of the place of Valerius in the development of silver Latin, and picked up more directly from the preceding chapter on civil war historiography to summarize the various suggestions made throughout the text about the ways that the Romans were redefining their past, but this decision is very much in keeping with B.'s philological outlook.

All things considered, this is not a book that can be ignored by anyone who is interested in Roman intellectual history. Even though there is more to be said on a number of points (and less on others) I think that very few people would even be aware that these issues existed if B. had not done his work as well as he did.