Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.9.19

M. Elefante (ed.), Velleius Paterculus, Ad M. Vinicium consulem libri duo. Zurich: Hildesheim, 1997. Pp. xxxii + 583. 118 DM. ISBN 3-487-10257-9 (pb).

Reviewed by David Potter, Department of Classical Studies, The University of Michigan.

"A poisoned fountain." So Syme on Velleius (Anatolica, 289), and with the best will in the world, it is difficult to rescue the reputation of Velleius, though several have tried in recent decades. This may not really be necessary. Velleius is not an historian in the tradition of Thucydides or Polybius, but his history is one of the most important documents attesting to the ideology of the Augustan and Tiberian ages, a critical source of information for Augustan self-presentation, and the shape of the Roman mentalité. A. J. Woodman's superb commentaries on the bulk of book 2 have done an enormous amount to draw this out. No study of the Augustan or Tiberian age can (or should) now begin without taking account of what Velleius tells us.

Velleius was one of the victors of the Roman Revolution. An ancestor was the Decius Magius who had fought for Rome against Hannibal, a great-great-great (?) grandfather, Minatius Magius, had remained loyal to Rome in the Social War. Velleius himself received the praetorship, along with his brother, as a candidatus of Augustus in 14 A.D. (2. 124.4). As Fergus Millar has recently pointed out, he is the model Augustan loyalist, with roots in both camps during the civil wars [JRS 83 (1993), 5]. His grandfather had supported first Pompey and then Brutus and Tiberius Nero (father of the future emperor) before commiting suicide; his uncle had participated in the prosecution of Cassius under the lex Pedia (2. 69.5). His eldest son was consul suffectus in 60 A.D.

Maria Elefante now offers a new text with extensive introduction and commentary. It is very good work. The long-standing debate over the transmission of the text should now be put to rest by her sagacious (if rather polemical) discussion in the introduction, and by the generally successful demonstration of her editorial principles throughout the text (see below for a few minor quibbles). The commentary, while weak in comparison with Woodman's on historical matters, lives up to the high standard that he set for the treatment of the Latin. The discussions of Velleius' use of demonstrative pronouns (a pronounced delight in hic where is might be expected), his chronological indications and style in the introduction are important advances (p. 13-16; 39-45).

The transmission of the text

Velleius had few readers in late antiquity, and he was the last classical author to be rediscovered in the Renaissance. A line from a part of the history (now lost) was quoted by Priscian, he was cited twice by a scholiast on Lucan, and he achieved a measure of fame in the Chronicle of Sulpicius Severus. Sulpicius admired him as an imitator of Sallust. Sulpicius' interest is important because it should place a text of Velleius in Gaul. Eginard, the advisor to Charlemagne who had a text, may be responsible for the codex (M), written in an eighth-century Carolingian hand, that was discovered in 1515. The codex takes its name from the place of its discovery, the Benedictine monastery of Murbach. The discoverer was Beatus Rhenanus, the friend of Erasmus to whom we owe the distinction between the classici and authors of media antiquitatis.

The story gets very complicated after 1515. Beatus arranged for a copy of M (known as R) but refrained from publishing the text because he had learned of another codex in Milan (it never materialized). In 1518 or 1519 he turned R over to J. Froben, a publisher in Basel with whom he and Erasmus had worked closely. Froben brought out the editio princeps in 1520 (P). While P was in production, one of Froben's scribes, J. Burer, noticed an error that led him to collate the editio princeps with M, resulting in an extensive appendix (ten pages) (B). While R was in Basel, it was copied by a member of another publishing family, B. Amerbach (A). M and R are lost; A, P and B are the source of the text as we have it. The reconciliation of these witnesses has proved trying. In the recent Teubner, W. S. Watt argued that uno quoque loco discrepantiae suis meritis iudicandae sunt; si nulla sententiae satisfacit, ad coniecturam vel ad obelum decurrendum est. Ellis, whose text is the basis for Shipley's Loeb, favored A (following Orelli, who discovered it). Woodman gave pride of place to P. Elefante, while being sharply (and justifiably) critical of Watt's results (see p. 11 nn. 4; 5; 6; 7), nonetheless agrees with his reading of the codicological issue (p. 8-9). She is surely correct; what sets her edition apart from Watt's is a greater sensitivity to Velleian Latin, which she generously attributes to the influence of Woodman (p. 12-13), and a distrust of conjecture.

The book

Velleius' two-book accomplishment appears to have been a summary universal history of Rome. The first book traces the history of the world down to 146 B.C., while the second book concentrates on Roman history from the Gracchi to Tiberius. E. notes the connection between Velleius' endeavors and various other Latin works of the late Republic (Nepos, Varro, Atticus, Aetius Philologus), as well as various Greek works, such as those of Castor of Rhodes and "Julius" Thallus. Not all of this is relevant. Castor of Rhodes (FGrH 247) is known for, amongst other things, a two-book Anagraphe of Babylonian history and Thassalocracies, a book on chronographic errors (Chronika agnoemata), and a five-book Epitome Chronikon. The Epitome Chronikon, to judge from the wording of fragments, was organized according to Olympiads, and thus has nothing formally to do with Velleius' effort. Thallus, whom E. confidently identifies as a freedman of Augustus or Tiberius, may in fact be rather later (Jacoby placed him after Josephus) (FGrH 256 T. 3).1

The suggestion that Velleius may have something in common with Nepos, Varro, or Atticus is rather more interesting. What little we know about these works -- in two or three books each, and thus of a similar size to Velleius' undertaking -- suggests a definite interest in precisely the kind of synchronism that appears in Velleius' accounts of culture (see esp. Nepos Fr 2; 46 Peter; Varro, Ann. Fr 1 Peter; Atticus, Ann. Fr 5; 6; 8 Peter). More could be said on this point. In Velleius' scheme, universal history becomes Roman history in 146 B.C. Is this also true of his Latin predecessors? Pompeius Trogus took a rather different line in his work, allowing that some peoples were still unconquered until the battle of Actium or later, a notion that can be detected behind Appian's histories over a century and a half later.

What did Velleius read? E. asserts that Velleius was not a simple compiler, but rather that he had exercised some critical judgment in his choice of sources (p. 32). Discrimination has been detected before in Velleius (especially against certain characters who were out of favor under Tiberius), but how much evidence is there that Velleius really thought hard about what he was doing when it came to other sorts of detail? If we had Nepos or Atticus, would some of the learning in book 1 look rather familiar? We simply do not know, but it is worth pausing to look at a couple of points.

At 1.6.1-2 Velleius records the end of the Assyrian empire as follows (in E's text): insequenti tempore imperium Asiaticum ab Assyriis, qui id obtinuerant annis MLXX translatum est ad Medos, abhinc annos ferme DCC<C>LXX. (2) Quippe Sardanapalum eorum regem mollitiis fluentem et nimium felicem malo suo, tertio et trecensimo loco ab Nino et Semiramide, qui Babilonia condiderant, natum, ita ut semper successor regni paterni foret filius, Arbaces Medus imperio vitaque privavit. There are numerous problems here. The number MLXX is a correction for ooLXX in P. But a duration of 1070 years for Assyrian rule makes no sense in terms of other chronologies for the Assyrians that can now be recovered from works roughly contemporary with Velleius. Pompeius Trogus comes closest with imperium Assyrii, qui postea Syri dicti sunt, mille trecentis annis tenuere (Just. Epit. 1.2.12). Diodorus, who says explicitly that he is quoting Ctesias, likewise offers: H( ME\N OU)=N H(GEMONI/A TW=N A)SSURI/WN A)PO\ NI/NOU DIAMEI/NASA TRIA/KONTA ME\N GENEA/S, E)/TH DE\ PLEI/W TW=N XILI/WN KAI\ TRIAKOSI/WN. Castor gave 1280 years, but began the sequence with Belus (FGrH 250 F 1) and seems to have made another Ninus the last king.2 Where does Velleius get thirty-three kings in succession from Ninus and Semiramis? He is clearly not reading Castor. The story is closest to Justin's epitome of Pompeius (which jumps from Ninus to Sardanapalus and features Arbaces the Mede). A simple correction to MCCC in the first number would yield sense here, while the tradition's LXX may be explained as a dittography from DCCLXX. If one would like to keep LXX, then it would makes sense to read Berndt's MCCLXX which would allow for a date of 145 for the beginning of Rome's world imperium -- a date that Velleius respects, and one that is in keeping with the numerology of Aemilius Sura that appears in 1.6.6. The rejection of 1.6.6 as a gloss is probably justifiable: Velleius names a source in no other place where we have him, though it might be possible to argue that we have so little of his earliest history that we cannot be certain that his practice was not different here. Thus we may either have Velleius telling us that his numerology is from Sura, or the relic of an informed reader who drew the connection and noted it in a margin. E. observes that there are accounts in Justin and Diodorus, speculates on a fragment of Duris (curiously identified as F 14 Mueller rather than FGrH 76 F 42), and provides good parallels to felicem malo suo. Rather more to the point is that there is no evidence here of careful, original, scholarship despite the apparatus of learning (years of rule, years from the present, number of kings in the line).

One of the most famous passages of Velleius is his list of Roman colonies. E. is aware that there are problems, and her notes on individual colonies are a helpful starting point for any study of the subject. But an unwillingness here, and elsewhere, to discuss the contents of alternative sources means that the notes can be no more than a starting point. More disturbing is that E. does not see that the problems with this excursus have implications for our understanding of Velleius as a scholar. The most glaring error is at 1.14.3 where he synchronized the foundation of Cales (332) with the consuls of 320 while placing the censorship of Publilius Philo and Spurius Postumius (331) in 319 (insequentibus consulibus). Not quite so bad (but influenced by a false synchronism) is the placement of the foundation of Sinuessa and Minturnae in 295 (one year late). In general terms, his foundation dates for the fourth century are hopelessly, and unsystematically, unreconcilable with other evidence. This is not an exercise in critical judgment, rather it looks like a pathetic effort to reconcile second rate research (possibly by someone else) with his chronology based on years back from 30 A.D. This is all the more troubling as the rhetorical structure of the last chapters of book 1 suggests that, with 146, Velleius is trying to paint a picture of a developed Roman Italy just prior to the years of crisis. The point he is making may be clear, but the way that he makes it does not compel confidence.

Velleius offers numerous portraits of famous Romans. These are rather interesting, and E. properly looks to Atticus' Annales as a model (30). The historiography of the late Republic is more problematic. E. suggests a dependence upon the history of Asinius Pollio for the civil war down to the death of Caesar, which is possible, but it is interesting that 146 B.C. seems to mark a real change in approach as well as theme, away from antiquarian authors, and in the direction of narrative historians, away from universal synchronism and devotion to parochial concerns. Perhaps most important, as Woodman has shown, is that the Augustan portion of book 2 is not only informed by conventional historiography, but also by a close reading of the Res Gestae of Augustus.

Text and Commentary

Editing Velleius is a thankless task, problems great and small litter the surviving testimonia like a minefield. On the whole, E.'s judgment strikes me as good, though at times overly conservative. The instances of disagreement or addenda offered below are illustrative rather than exhaustive. The commentary, while helpful does, in places, have a tendency to stop short of giving all the help that it might. 1.18.3: +et initalia+: eximiae alias attributed to Shipley in the apparatus, here as in Hellegouarc'h's Budé, is due to Faehse. The commentary should probably register Shackleton-Bailey's support (CQ 34 (1984), 445) of a proposal that certainly catches the sense of the passage. 2.40.4: scaenicis autem praetexta coronaque aurea; id ille non plus semel -- et hoc sane numium fuit -- usurpare sustinuit: Lipsius' laurea has found much favor, wrongly. The crucial parallel, Dio 37. 21.4: H)=N DE\ TAU=TA DAFNHFOREI=N TE AU)TO\N KATA\ PA/SAS A)EI\ TA\S PANHGU/REIS, KAI\ TH\N STOLH\N TH\N ME\N A)RXIKH\N E)N PA/SAIS AU)TAI=S, TH\N DE\ E)PINI/KION E)N TOI=S TW=N I(/PPWN A)GW=SIN E)NDU/NEIN is not cited. The E)PINI/KION is the golden corona triumphalis. More importantly, the discussion in Mommsen, Roemisches Staatsrecht 1.427-8 is missed. The significance lies in the later honors for Caesar attested by Dio 44.6.3: KAI\ E)PEIDH\ KAI\ TOU/TOIS H)RE/SKETO, OU(/TW DH\ E)/S TE TA\ QE/ATRA TO/N TE DI/FRON AU)TOU= TO\N E)PI/XRUSON KAI\ TO\N STE/FANON TO\N DIA/LIQON KAI\ DIA/XRUSON, E)C I)/SOU TOI=S TW=N QEW=N, E)SKOMI/ZESQAI KA)N TAI=S I(PPODROMI/AIS O)XO\N E)SA/GESQAI E)CHFI/SANTO and at the Lupercalia (Dio 44. 11): KAI\ E)PI\ TOU= BH/MATOS TH=| TE E)SQH=TI TH=| BASILIKH=| KEKOSMHME/NOS KAI\ TW=| STEFA/NW| TW=| DIAXRU/SW| LAMPRUNO/MENOS E)S TO\N DI/FRON TO\N KEXRUSWME/NON E)KAQI/ZETO, which aroused negative comment. This is significant for our understanding of Augustus. He was granted the right to wear the corona triumphalis, (Dio 51.20.2: TW=| TE STEFA/NW| AU)TO\N TW=| E)PINIKI/W| DIA\ PASW=N TW=N PANHGU/REWN XRH=SQAI), but preferred to wear the laurel crown instead, (see Dio 49.14.4 KAI\ TO\ E)F' I(/PPOU E)SELA/SAI TO/ TE STEFA/NW| DAFNI/NW| A)EI\ XRH=SQAI, Plin. NH 15. 137: ex ea (an eagle dropping a hen with a laurel branch in its mouth on Livia's lap) triumphans postea Caesar laurum in manu tenuit coronamque capite gessit, ac deinde imperatores Caesares cuncti). Velleius' et hoc sane numium fuit clearly reflects something of the ideology of the Augustan age, where the example of the headgear of Caesar was avoided, and an elaborate fantasy was concocted to justify Augustus' choice of a crown for himself. 2.41.2: cibo et somno (A) somno et cibo (P): Woodman followed P, supporting the order from Ov. Met. 14.424; Tac. Germ. 15.1. E. may be right, but she should acknowledge the support for P.'s reading. Neither E. nor Woodman take sufficient advantage of H. Strasburger, Caesars Eintritt in die Geschichte (Munich, 1938) = Studien zur Alten Geschichte 1 (Hildesheim, 1982). In concentrating on the parallel accounts of Suetonius and Plutarch for Caesar's youth, Strasburger relegated Velleius to the position of an "also-ran" for the tradition. In fact, the very close parallels indicate that Velleius is the earliest witness to the story. Who told it this way? We cannot, of course, know. But it is nonetheless important to see that whatever the original text was, it was there for Velleius to use. 2.47.2: +Septimo+ ferme anno Caesar morabatur in Gallia cum medium iam ex invidia pot<te>ntiae ta<m> male cohaerentis: po<te>ntiae: Lipsius, t<am>: Woodman, male: Rhenanus. Septimo is an obvious error, the only point in emending is to suggest that it is not Velleius' error. Given problems of the sort noted above, what is the point? 2.61.1: C. Caesar XVIIII annum ingressus: Chishull's egressus, adopted by Woodman, is surely correct here. The reading transmitted by the extant witnesses suggests that he was entering his 18th year, and thus refers to events prior to September 19, 44 B.C. The tradition that Augustus' great actions began after he had turned 19 goes back to RGDA 1.1: annos undeviginti natus exercitum privato consilio et privata impensa comparavi. It is unlikely that Velleius chose to vary the master's version of events. Ingressus and egressus also appear to be confused at 82.1 (though here it is the other way around), where Woodman reads ingressus (correctly), and E. retains egressus: egressus Armeniam ac deinde Mediam at per eas regiones Parthos petens suggests that he is leaving the area where he is seeking the Parthians rather than entering it (not likely). 2.78.1: quas magnis momentis Labienus concusserat: E. defends momentis as a synonym for motibus. Better to note that she has support from Livy 5.49.5; 8.19.8; 24.34.2 (viz. OLD s.v.). Here E.'s conservative instincts may be correct against Woodman and Watt among recent editors who despair. 2.79.4: ita inopinato classis adventu:

the reading of the surviving testimonia has been often questioned, with good cause. Graevius' classis (adopted by Watt on the basis of 2.112.2: circumdatus hostili exercitu) may be the best option. 2.124.2: ut stationi paternae succederet, illius, ut potius aequalem ciuem quam eminentem liceret agere principem: E. has an excellent note on the significance of statio, which may now be supplemented from the recently published inscription relating to the disposition of the case against Piso [W. Eck, A. Caballos, F. Fernández, Das senatus consultum de Cn. Pisone patre (Munich, 1996)], SCPP 29-30: omnem spem futuram paternae pr | r(e) p(ublica) stationis in uno repositam with the commentary ad loc.


Velleius' readers will always have to keep their eyes fastened on the apparatus criticus. E.'s work is welcome, and her's is arguably the best edition of the whole text that we have. Just as one cannot study the age of Augustus and Tiberius without Velleius, so too one must now take account of E's work for the same period. One regret that might be registered is that the binding job is so weak that my copy has already fallen apart.


1. The error is repeated in OCD3 s.v. Thallus -- the freedman of Augustus is known from Suet. Aug. 67: Thallo a manu, quod pro epistula prodita quingentos accepisset, crura fregit; while the freedman of Tiberius is the result of an emendation of Jos. AJ 18.162: KAI\ GA\R H)= A)/LLOS SAMAREU\S GE/NOS KAI/SAROS DE\ A)PELEU/QEROS. More attention in this context might be paid to IG 14.1297 (FGrH 252), a chronicle that appears to combine Roman and universal history.

2. For earlier Greek treatments of Assyrian chronology, and their connection with Lydia see now the important treatment in W. Burkert, "Lydia between East and west or how to date the Trojan war: A study in Herodotus," in S. Morris ed., The Ages of Homer. A Tribute to Emily Townsend Vermuele (Austin, 1995), 144-46 (I am grateful to Mr. J. G. Taylor for drawing this to my attention).