Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.02.08

Ulrich Schmitzer, Velleius Paterculus und das Interesse an der Geschichte im Zeitalter des Tiberius.   Heidelberg:  Bibliothek der klassischen Altertumswissenschaften: Reihe 2; N.F. Bd. 107, 1999.  Pp. 346.  ISBN 3-8253-1033-7.  Kt 78.  

Reviewed by John Alexander Lobur, University of Michigan (
Word count: 3518 words

The "universal history" of Velleius Paterculus falls within the great lacuna of Roman history between Livy and Tacitus and includes material contemporary to the writer. His career, moreover, spans an important period of transition, that of the first princeps to the second. This should be enough to spark a serious interest in his work. Nevertheless, Tacitus' negative assessments of both the Tiberian period and the historians of that time did much to discourage this. Over the past two decades or so, a few scholars have made serious attempts to rehabilitate Velleius' integrity and properly contextualize his apparently unadulterated flattery. Nevertheless his most inflexible detractor, Syme, could not resist a parting shot that exposed factual errors to be explained only by Velleius' mendacity. This flaw (and it is questionable whether, all things considered, it really is a sign of a warped character) should not, by itself, prevent one from viewing the opuscule from a cultural-historical perspective.

"Velleius was anything but a plain man," writes Syme. "He enjoyed a good education and imbibed happily the persuasive arts of the rhetoricians." His work is important because "above all, he illustrates the language and attitudes now in normal usage towards ruler and government." The field is lucky to have a document that shows how an elite municipal winner of the revolution (and thus defender of the status quo and its imperial spokesman) felt, thought, and went about enhancing his prestige with a foray into the literary world. His background and the genre of his work set it above many other cultural productions of the time. Scholars have noticed some of the structural, rhetorical and literary mechanisms at play in it, but this has occurred on a limited scale. Its artifice has not been fully appreciated.

S. attempts to fill this gap and looks at V.'s opus as a literary text to be interpreted in its own right. His research is comprehensive and very enthusiastic. The introductory sections (pp.9-36) contextualize the investigation in an exhaustive and interesting way, tracing the history of attitudes towards V. from the editio princeps (1520/21) up to the present day. This includes an impressive and useful summary of the international scholarship on the subject. S. then observes that the Tiberian period lacks a comprehensive view which integrates not just state and social history but also literary and cultural developments. He asserts that a less historical, isolated approach to V. which takes into account strategies and techniques of representation and treats history as an art form that borrows from other genres could fill this deficit in our understanding of the intellectual and cultural climate.

To achieve this goal, S. proposes the exemplary analysis of five connected passages: V.'s introduction, his treatment of the Gracchi, Julius Caesar, the clades Variana and Sejanus. These are to be supplemented by the explication of three thematic cross-sections that act, in a way, like leitmotifs: Velleius' literary-historical exegeses, his treatment of suicide and his conception of fortuna. From these different perspectives, the author hopes to attain a "Gesamtbild von Velleius' Werk und Weltsicht."

The introduction ends with an interesting proposal that is a bit misguided: Velleius' oft deprecated "mediocrity" may work to the cultural historian's advantage by providing a representation of the zeitgeist of the author's milieu. This has interest because it concerns what this text can tell us, but answering this question has little to do with the concept of mediocrity. One could study the utilization of assimilated cultural goods by an agent endowed with a certain competence and look towards the reception of his work in the contemporary context. To do this, one would need to map out the cultural field at the time and show how and why Velleius chose to write what he wrote in the way that he did. In Velleius' day, declamation was still all the rage. Yet, as L. Sussman has astutely perceived,1 the Elder Seneca indirectly suggests to his sons that men of real learning and ability do not declaim for show. They write history or poetry. In fact the declamatory topic of the death of Cicero (present as well in Velleius in very declamatory form) is more erudite for Seneca when it is embedded in these genres. S. does not engage in this type of investigation. He tries to reconstruct ancient views of mediocrity yet soon lapses into a discussion of τὸ πρέπον and then investigates V.'s selection of the compositional method of festinatio. This chapter (and much of the next) is really about V.'s place in the historical tradition. Lengthy quotations are enlisted from all over the classical canon to demonstrate themes of ancient thought that are perhaps amenable to summary. He contests that the choice of free-restriction, operative in festinatio, implies a valid renunciation of high literary claims and should be taken into account in an assessment of his mediocrity. This is certainly misleading for Velleius doubtless intended an erudite and virtuoso performance.

S.'s main contribution to the field lies in his sensitivity to connections between the content and presentation of V.'s work and the current literary, political and cultural atmosphere. Throughout the study, various observations are made that relate to these issues, some of them interesting and valid, others less so. Several flaws recur.

The study proper begins with an investigation into the structure and content of V.'s first book (ch.2). This section operates under the premise that V.'s dependence on didactic poetry demonstrates his openness to influences outside of his genre and his desire to adjust his work to his own creative will. Yet the search for precedents in structure and occasion sometimes leads to erroneous conclusions. The prooemion of Virgil's Georgics (1, 24-5) should have prevented S. from contending that V. addresses Tiberius only in the third person (even in the closing prayer on his behalf) out of deference to formal elements of didactic poetry. The historical purposes, too, of Polybius, Sallust, et al. are enlisted to explain V.'s intentions as a writer without drawing solid and necessary connections of approach.

At times, however, S. is very keen. For example, he astutely observes that Aeneas, an undeniably important element in imperial state mythology, is conspicuously absent in the history, despite mention of the Iliou Persis and Dido. The temptation to explain this phenomenon by referring to the political situation at Rome at the time is reasonable. Tiberius, a member of the proud Claudian family, would perhaps be less interested in the Julian account, and V.'s inclination to underplay this connection is demonstrated later in S.'s treatment of theme of translatio imperii (pp.66-71, with respect to the lineage of Romulus). S., however, sometimes indulges his sensibilities too far and infers conclusions based on tenuous connections that V. never explicitly states. Frequent mention of Hercules, for example, supposedly reminds one that he sacked Troy twice (the second time indirectly through the presence of his bow). Odysseus retrieved the bow, thus associating himself with this figurative sack as well. The gens Claudia had Odysseus as an ancestor, and so the whole arrangement was a gesture to Tiberius. The author maintains this despite the fact that V. does not mention Odysseus or the bow of Hercules at all in his extant account. Unfortunately, this type of reasoning occurs frequently in S.'s work.

He moves on (pp.43-64) to observe several parallels between figures in V.'s early history and members of the imperial family (and Sejanus). That such elements could serve as coded references to political figures contemporary to V.'s time is not implausible and is in fact corroborated by Dio's evidence (58, 24, 3) that Tiberius took offence at such things. S. does at times state things very persuasively. The correspondence observed between Velleius' Orestes and Octavian, for example, has much to support it. Yet the argument for such similarities, on the whole, is a hit or miss affair (usually miss), and probing the author's mind to such a degree yields few substantial results. S. argues, for example, that Hercules was included out of deference to Sejanus, and that, on the whole, V. intends to support the Claudian faction (including Sejanus) in the Julio-Claudian rift. This rift did not exist, but S., to support his contention that it did, cites an article that argues exactly the opposite.2

With the topic of V.'s literary-historical excursus, the third chapter introduces the first of the three cross-sectional themes that S.investigates. This topic is important not only because it illustrates contemporary tastes but also because it involves one of the earliest attempts to canonize Roman literature. After citing (again, instead of summarizing) the precedents for the use of digressions in historical accounts, the study proceeds to investigate V.'s assessment of Homer, Archilochus and Hesiod. Although the author makes a good attempt at explaining the relevance of word order and vocabulary, there is a tendency to overemphasize such things. Nevertheless, he usefully contextualizes V.'s judgements on the historical and literary aspects of these early poets within the frame of the ancient debates and attitudes about them. Useful observations are made about the other digressions as well. It is rightly shown, for example (p.87), that V. does not include Greek literary achievements in the digression concerning the middle republican period (despite the fact that four out of six of them are dominated by Greeks) because it occurs after the fall of Carthage, when world history became Roman history. Again, his discussion is somewhat weakened at times by his tendency to over-interpret and find allusions in the sources that do not necessarily exist or are taken out of context.

S.'s foray into textual criticism here typifies this lack of judgement (p.94). In V.'s catalogue of Augustan writers, he believes that suscepti, in the phrase, neque ullo in suscepti operis sui genere minorem Catullum (2, 36, 2) should be restored to suspecti, because Catullus' genre was devalued for its triteness (even by the poet, who called his poems nugas in 1. 4). He then uses this to explain the significant fact that Horace does not appear on the list. Syme suggests that Tiberius was annoyed that Drusus came off better in Carm. 4,4 and 4, 14. S., on the other hand, clearly underestimates the poet (the author of the Carmen Saeculare) by asserting that his work belonged to the same trite genre as Catullus, and therefore was viewed as too insignificant to be included.

The fourth chapter (pp.101-4) briefly situates V.'s account of Rome's rise to power in the Mediterranean and describes how the author thematically introduces the problematic political and social implications of her introduction to Greek culture. The theme resumes in the next chapter, which deals with the time of the Gracchi and Rome's moral decline after the fall of Carthage, which, for V., continues until the establishment of the principate. S demonstrates (as before) how moral and cultural matters are integrated into the account of events and tries again, with varying degrees of success, to relate these judgements to the historians' current environment. V.'s pronouncements, for example, on publica magnificentia and privata luxuria are meant to distinguish the policies of Augustus and Tiberius (in Tiberius' favor).

The analysis of the Gracchan affair (pp.110-129) which follows is rather good in that it shows how V., uninterested in social or economic issues, modifies the traditional accounts to suit his own agenda, mixing anecdotes and versions which, on closer examination, can contradict each other. Contemporary politics exerts its effect. Even distant ancestors of Tiberius (for example M. Livius Drusus) are treated with caution. S. pinpoints several elements of artifice and narrative economy utilized in this interpretive account of the origin of the civil wars. Nevertheless, he betrays a certain over-eagerness to utilize concordances and find echoes of phrases in earlier works. He seems, moreover, inexplicably selective in the types of allusions he does draw and the importance attached to each.

Chapter six presents the theme of suicide (as proof of a vir vere Romanus) in V.'s work, which is full of such deaths, much more so than the works of other, comparable authors. S. provides an outline of the theme according to time, method and person. They are mostly Roman, and they are grouped around troubled areas of history, where it was sometimes difficult to make a clear moral separation between sides. Suicide tends to ennoble even those historical figures whom V. otherwise vituperates, like Brutus, Cassius and Varus. S's summation usefully highlights how this thematic element symptomatically accents the tragedy of Roman civil conflict, naturally ending with the reign of Tiberius. The motif also carries a certain significance for V. because his grandfather, unable to follow his amicus Ti. Claudius Nero (the father of Tiberius the emperor) after the Perusine war, killed himself, thus proving his devotion to the republic and the current regime.

Chapter eight concerns V.'s treatment of Caesar, important because it is the earliest transmitted account in the tradition. After giving a structural and thematic analysis of a long introductory period of 123 words (2, 41, 1-2), S. closely investigates V.'s version of Caesar's capture by the pirates. In the search for possible prototypes for the story, S. uses the Homeric Hymn to Dionysus to explain V.'s statement ita (sc. Caesar) se per omnium spatium, quo ab his retentus est, apud eos gessit, ut pariter his terrori venerationique esset. This would lend Caesar an aura of divinity at an early age. The idea is interesting but S. should tie the relationship between the two accounts more closely (if, in fact, that is possible) before drawing the conclusions and implications that he does. As things stand, S. bases the connection on two words, and the only parallels are (possibly) those of theme. The reader sometimes has difficulty seeing the necessity of the implications involved. This flaw infects S.'s conclusion that one observes the adaptation of a literary, romantic source from Strasburgur's "C" tradition for the Caesarian account.

The remaining sections of this chapter offer a close reading of V.'s depiction of the first triumvirate and the civil wars up to the death of Cicero. S., as always, is sensitive to the problematic nature of this period and emphasizes V.'s transferal of Caesar's monarchic designs to Antony (who increases his odium by offering him the crown at the lupercalia). He concludes with the observation that V.'s praise of Cicero's conservatism and efforts on behalf of concordia would have suited Tiberius' general attitude. S. could, however, have explored the relationship to the near contemporary literary attitudes on the death of Cicero in Seneca the Elder.

Chapter nine explores the concept of fortuna in V. It does much to compare and contrast the different issues in their Greek and Roman historiographical and cultural aspects but misses such important evidence as Tacitus (Ann. 6, 22). There then follows an investigation into V.'s use of the concept in single instances and then as a personification. S. could, again, be less sensitive to the possibilities of allusion. For example, his contention that V. depends on Livy's phraseology for the varia fortuna of military struggles tends to overstrain the evidence a bit. When so much is missing from Roman literature, it is somewhat dangerous to say that an author, who uses a word in a certain way for the second time, alludes to the author and context of the first attestation. It is even more tenuous to say that the use of such a phrase (by itself) recalls Livy's Hannibalic war (in which context, among others, it occurs). Nevertheless, an interesting and solid analysis of V.'s depiction of Caesar's personal fortuna offers insight into the development of such a concept for members of the imperial family. It is interesting, too, to observe V.'s various uses of the personified concept to mediate the depiction of the civil wars and events of the recent past. It allows him to explain the pre-eminence of Pompey as well as his downfall and to depict his death sympathetically. The summation of V.'s manipulation of the concept does elucidate how the contemporary situation colors its usage and enters into the narrative economy. As with suicide, it is an element that reconciles republican sentiments with imperial realities.

The next chapter demonstrates the various ways in which the author (often through historical misrepresentation) defends Octavian's actions in the civil war and stresses the natural continuity of the traditional republic, his policy, and Tiberius' legitimate succession. An account of the narrative technique in the clades Variana follows (ch.11). S.'s willingness to read poetic resonances in the introductory section accipe nunc, M. Vinici, tantum in bello ducem...(2, 113, 1), points to an interesting resonance with epic meter, but his contention that the depiction of Tiberius' Balkan campaign alludes to Vergil's Italian catalogue cannot be substantiated and strikes the reader as odd. For the rest, S. treats the section in a manner that is now typical. His evaluation of the portrayal of Varus' character, and that of the Germans under Arminius, offers an interesting account of how V. rationalizes the disaster's occurance. But, again, the author displays his standard weakness in drawing parallels that are insubstantial but nevertheless milked for phantom implications. A prudent reader is hard pressed to restrain the torrent of objections he feels at every turn. To indulge one among several: because V. states that the clades equaled the battle of Carrhae in magnitude does not mean that he depended on accounts of the latter in his presentation of the former. S., in assuming the opposite, follows every possible lead his imagination prompts him to in this rather frustrating and mythical venture (pp.252-62).

The twelfth chapter handles the depiction of events contemporary to the author, using his treatment of Germanicus and Sejanus as model-cases. S. prepares his investigation by citing and discussing modern historical theory on the pros and cons of depicting contemporary events and, true to form, moves on to the ancient accounts. As we know, the political situation made truthful contemporary history difficult at V.'s time, which, of course, probes the heart of the biggest controversy in Velleian scholarship. S. does a very good job of providing a detailed analysis of the political situation in a way that makes V.'s choices clear. The accomplishments of Germanicus are devalued, and this reflects the current official opposition towards his wife and children. S.'s treatment of the panegyric for Sejanus follows current opinions that the historian tempers his praise with considerable caution.

The final chapter handles V.'s treatment of the Tiberian period and returns to the connection with didactic poetry to explain the nature of his purpose here. The connection, again, is perhaps a little overemphasized, but the implications S. draws does illuminate V.'s compositional technique. With his interpretation of Augustan architectural programs, he also offers an interesting approach to framing the problem of writing an abbreviated universal history up to the present when the historical tradition, whether represented by Livy or Sallust, was one of continual decline. S. then considers some of the quasi-divine aspects of V.'s portrayal of Tiberius and other such elements of panegyric. He offers an interesting explanation for why V. relates some of the negative aspects of Tiberius' reign by reference to such figures as Aeneas, whose labor is a heroic element.

The usefulness of S.' study, as a whole, is very sporadic. What he offers in scope he loses in clarity, precision and accuracy. Useful points occur here and there, but the work meanders quite a bit. As his monstrous bibliography and excessive use of footnotes suggest, S. often has trouble controlling the relevance of what he includes and getting to the point. One is truly astonished to read in his preface that "Das Ursprünglich Manuskript wurde für die Veröffentlichung erheblich gekürzt." His observations repeatedly fail to cross the bounds of conjecture into proof. The fact that he does not translate his frequent (and often needless) citations makes his work inaccessible to the non-expert. Sometimes, too, he does not accurately record them, necessitating referral to an outside source: p.37 ἀποσαοῦντι read ἀποσαφοῦντι, p.67 n.172 κατεεῖχον read κατεῖχον, p.92 adiecti read adiecit, p.197 feris read foris, p.230 Iuliam read Iulia, p.241 lene read lenem, p.274 n. 59 fuerit read fuerint, p.298 mediocriatis read mediocritatis , ille read illo.

The main text contains a few typographical errors: p.49, ist; p.197, n. 61 andernfalls; p.148 wenn es; p.194, n.32 1992; p.229 n.23 Tiel; p.279, begrundeten; p.284, n.122 et. p.287, footnote 9 is incomplete; p.290, zugrund; p.295 footnote 60 is missing.

In at least two instances, S. makes errors of translation that affect his argument. They ignore very basic rules of grammar and are not known only to the pedant. On p.258 n. 140, he cites Florus (2, 30, 35) to corroborate the statement "...Florus...datiert die clades Variana auf den Tag der Schlacht von Cannae." The text reads Varus perditas res eodem quo Cannensem diem Paulus et fato est et animo secutus. On p.275 n.62 he cites Suetonius (Cal. 48, 1) as evidence that Caligula decimated the German legions which had mutinously besieged him and his father in Germany. The Latin does not say that. Instead, the emperor consilium iniit....legiones contrucidandi....vixque a tam praecipiti cogitatione revocatus, inhiberi nullo modo potuit quin decimare velle perservaret.


1.   Sussman, Lewis A. "Arellius Fuscus and the Unity of the Elder Seneca's Suasoriae." RhM 120 (1977) 303-323.
2.   Levick, B. "Julians and Claudians," Greece and Rome 22 (1975) pp.29-38.

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