Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.03.21


H. W. Bird, Aurelius Victor, De Caesaribus. Translated Texts for Historians, 17. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1994. Pp. xxx + 228. ISBN 0-85323-218-0. $17.95.


Reviewed by Clifford Ando, University of Michigan (cando@umich.edu).

As a companion to his Eutropius, B(ird) now offers a translation of, and commentary on, the History of (Aurelius) V(ictor). It is timely: though Victor has been translated into English several times in this century, none of these efforts received commercial publication.1 Unfortunately, the book contains a mind-boggling array of typographical errors, which will confuse most of the student audience for which the book is intended (Preface).

The introduction is divided into 6 sections: "V.: his life and career"; "The date and tradition of the De Caesaribus"; "The sources and influence of the De Caesaribus"; "Method and Procedure"; "Style and Language"; and "Conclusions." In the second section B. refers to the "editor of the corpus" before he has explained what that corpus is, or when it was assembled: some reference ought to have been made to Momigliano's classic article in JRS 48. He uses the Teubner edition of Pichlmayr as revised by Gruendel2; the reader might have been cautioned that none of the modern editions of V. is completely satisfactory.

In the section on "Method and Procedure," B. adopts from Momigliano the assertation that pagan historians were not concerned with "ultimate values," though B. singles out V. as an exception for his stress on the need for "education, culture, honesty and respect for tradition" (xv). In B.'s introduction and commentary, therefore, V. resides in a splendid but stifling isolation: he is connected to his literary peers almost exclusively through their shared use of Enmann's Kaisergeschichte. Momigliano had appealed to the "social and political earthquakes of the third century" to explain the fourth century's love of potted histories; though Momigliano labels them "pagan" he argues that their "characteristic neutrality presented no danger to the Christians."3 But fourth-century literature in general was deeply preoccupied with the continuity of the present with the past: orators and letter-writers used exempla to create images with which to discuss contemporary figures and events; in this way they could stress the shared history of the governing class while avoiding explicit mention of politically sensitive issues. Such a method of political communication was especially suited to exponents of a scholarly culture whose interests were frequently directed towards what had already become the classical past. Thus histories such as that written by V. provide a map to the concerns and rhetorical tropes of fourth-century political and cultural discourse. In the dialogue which develops between the pagan Roman aristocracy and the Christian barbarian court -- generalizations which, for better or for worse, were operative in the fourth century -- the dedication of a textbook to an emperor may be seen as inviting him to join educated society, by suggesting that he view the past as the glorious history of a pagan empire. When, therefore, pagan histories are compared with the Christian historiography of the age, they provide a means of examining this conflict between pagan and Christian not only in moments of crisis but also in the struggle for the curriculum of the schools, that is, for the mind of the next generation. Augustine's aspiration to be "something more than a mere writer of history" set him apart; Orosius was far more typical in desiring to debate with pagan historiography on its own terms.4 After all, even Christians had conceded that Julian's early proficiency in his studies had singled him out as capax imperii (Socrates, 3.1).

The section on "Style and Language" is reproduced almost verbatim from B.'s earlier book (Liverpool: 1984; 96f.); one wonders how Latinless students will benefit from lists of Victor's favorite words. More importantly, B. urges that Victor was "intent upon writing history rather than biography" (xxi). That is true -- V. was undoubtedly influenced in this by Tacitus -- though it is open to debate to what extent Victor succeeded in maintaining that distinction. Late-antique readers quite sensibly tended to see all imperial history as imperial biography: Jerome claimed that Tacitus had written the "Lives of the Caesars" in thirty books, and the MSS describe the Epitome as a set of biographies abridged from the books of Victor.5 The modern division of V. into chapters, which devotes roughly a chapter to each emperor and was established in the editio princeps by A. Schott (1579), strongly emphasizes the History's biographical nature; but the paragraphing in the MSS is quite different.6 If B. wishes on this point to correct a long-standing injustice in V.'s reception,7 why use the title de Caesaribus? It is a description, perhaps, but not a title; it is nowhere attested in the MSS. It was undoubtedly coined to parallel the title of the work which precedes it in the corpus, the de viris illustribus -- but that title is itself attested only in the later MSS. de Caesaribus is not employed as a title in any edition until the first edition of Pichlmayr (1892). The only indication given by the MSS is the heading Aurelii Victoris Historiae abbreviatae.

The translation is quite satisfactory, but an editorial decision greatly reduces its usefulness: no paragraph numbers are given, though B. refers to the text by chapter and paragraph number throughout the introduction and commentary. Since the traditional numeration of V. results in several long chapters -- the longest occupying 5 Teubner pages and containing 48 paragraphs -- the absence of those numbers seems inexplicable. The commentary is frequently helpful. The notes generally begin by listing other ancient sources relevant to the topic at hand; for instance, at 39.43, B. writes: "Cf. Eutrop. 9.25; Oros. 8.25.12; Pan. 4(5).1 [sic]; 8(5)5 [sic]; Jord. Rom. 299; Get. 16.91; Chron. Min. I.230, 295; Ammianus, 28.1.5; Lact. De Mort. Persec. 13.2; 18.6...." (173 n. 28). In commenting on a text which covers so much ground, such compression may be a regrettable necessity. But citation in this fashion may give the impression that all these sources simply iterate or confirm the information in V., and that is not always the case.

This quotation raises another difficulty: a commentary which cites so many different sources is only useful when students can find their way to the passages in question. B. describes his practice in the Preface: "In order to accomodate students the Loeb editions of classical sources were used when available" (p. v; cf. Bibliography, p. 222). Even when a Loeb does exist, however, the bibliography is frequently unhelpful. Loebs, however, are easily located; more troublesome is the absence in the bibliography of works which are frequently cited in the commentary and which do exist in translation in less familiar locales: Malalas and Zosimus in another fine series, Byzantina Australiensia; Orosius in the Fathers of the Church; Socrates and Sozomen in NPNF; the Theodosian Code in the translation by Pharr. Absent as well are B.'s own translation of Eutropius and the Whitbys' Chronicon Paschale in this series. No edition is listed for de rebus bellicis, Festus, Jordanes, Peter Patricius, Philostorgius or Rufinus, though these are frequently cited.

The need for brevity in the commentary demands the frequent use of abbreviations; those abbreviations must somewhere be expanded for the book's intended audience. Students are likely to find the commentary confusing in this respect as well. Sometimes B. cites the actual work in Mommsen's Chronica Minora; sometimes he cites only by page number: this volume is absent from the bibliography. Can students be expected to know that Pan. and Pan. Lat. both refer to the Panegyrici Latini -- and these texts are sometimes cited in the traditional, and sometimes also with chronological numeration? Students may know CIL and ILS; will they also be familiar with FHG and HGM? Will students know that "Hieron. ab Abr. 2214"; "Hieron. Chron. p. 223"; "Hier. Chron. A. D. 334"; "Hieron. Chron. 315"; "Hieron, Chron. Ann. 344-345"; "Jerome, Ann. 165, p. 205 [Helm]"; "Jerome, G.C.S. 47.215"; and "Euseb.-Hieron. Chron. CCLVIII Olymp., CCLVIII Olymp., 220" all refer to the same text? A large number of additional sources are cited, almost always by abbreviation; none of these is explained.

The textual errors begin with the Table of Contents, where the Introduction and Translation have been transposed, and continue through the Bibliography, where for "Lindorf" read "Dindorf" or "L. Dindorf." Some errors are relatively harmless: Marron for Marrou, Laet. for Lact. But errors in citations also abound: "Plat. Rep. 5676" requires legwork, and "Eus. H.E. 13" even more (I think he wants 7.13). In the Commentary I counted approximately one typographical error every other page.

It should be obvious from the range of sources listed in the previous paragraphs that B. has devoted considerable effort to the production of this commentary. We can only hope that Liverpool will consent to the immediate publication of a corrected edition.


NOTES

  • [1] Two of these included commentaries on all or part of the text: B. T. Moss, dissertation U.N.C. (1944), and C. E. V. Nixon, dissertation U. of M. (1971). P. Dufraigne included a full commentary in his Budé edition (1975). B. has made extensive use of these.
  • [2] Teubner has now (1993), in a most bizarre decision, republished the uncorrected edition of Pichlmayr in paperback.
  • [3] A. Momigliano, The conflict between paganism and Christianity... (Oxford, 1963), 85-86.
  • [4] See de civitate Dei III.18; Orosius, Prol. 9-10 and II.3.8-10.
  • [5] The MSS describes the Epitome as a libellus de vita et moribus imperatorum breviatus ex libris S. Aurelii Victoris; Jerome on Tacitus apud Comm. ad. Zach. III. 14: Cornelius Tacitus, qui post Augustum usque ad mortem Domitiani vitas Caesarum triginta voluminibus exaravit.
  • [6] See the works by S. D'Elia: Studi sulla tradizione manoscritta di Aurelio Vittore (Naples, 1965), and in particular his essay in RAAN 43 (1968), at 162ff.
  • [7] Gibbon, for example, referred to Victor either by chapter number, or by the name of the emperor (cf. Chapter X, nn. 77, "Victor , c. 33" and 85, "Victor in Caracal.").