Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.12.15 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.12.15

J. C. Yardley, Anthony A. Barrett (trans.), Velleius Paterculus. The Roman History: From Romulus and the Foundation of Rome to the Reign of the Emperor Tiberius.   Indianapolis; Cambridge:  Hackett Publishing Company, 2011.  Pp. xlvii, 174.  ISBN 9781603845915.  $14.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Eran Almagor, Ben Gurion University (


The translation under review of the history of Velleius Paterculus is part of what Yardley and Barrett call with justification ‘something of a renaissance’ for this intriguing work, after the distressing effect of Teuffel’s and Syme’s denigration (pref., p. xxxi, xxxvi). The translation is supplied with a convenient map, a glossary of terms and a useful index of people and places in Velleius’s text. The translators also provide helpful notes and a clear and concise introduction (with a brief sketch of the Roman political system). Its aim is to make the work ‘available to as wide a range of readers as possible’. This indeed corresponds to Velleius’s own awareness of his readership and his professed intention not to be too specific in his present account (cf. 2.48.5, 2.89.6, 2.129.1). Just as Velleius himself refrains from relating many details on certain occasions (cf. 1.16.1, 2.29.2, 2.52.3, 2.114.4, 2.119.1), presumably because a larger volume was in his mind (2.99.3; pp. xxiii-xxvi), so is this translation generally not burdened by lengthy footnotes, and reference to other ancient sources is usually kept to a minimum. The scholarly readership is not forgotten, however, and an appeal to a different kind of audience is perhaps marked with appendix C, which lists differences in Latin from the text edition used, that of W. S. Watt (Teubner). A compromise between the two audiences is noticed with the limited employment of editorial symbols (angled brackets).

A complete new English translation is certainly needed to replace that of F. W. Shipley in the Loeb Classical Library series, which occasionally follows Velleius’s lengthy Latin sentences. A handful of examples should suffice to display the different approach Yardley and Barrett adopt. While Shipley translates 2.99.4 as one lengthy sentence, Yardley and Barrett split it in two; they maintain the original order of the sentence (‘During his seven-year stay on Rhodes, all proconsuls or legates who set off for overseas provinces’), put the next words (‘came to see him and on meeting him’) in angled brackets to indicate that the transmitted text is corrupt or that some words are missing, and put one clause in brackets (‘though such majesty never belonged to a private citizen’) to assist the ease of reading. Addressing Tiberius’ career at 2.94.3 they do not neglect to translate the phrase ‘as a quaestor, when he was in his nineteenth year’, which Shipley’s translation ignored. At 2.6.3, preserving the Latin term ‘500 jugera’ is more accurate than Shipley’s ‘five hundred acres’. Julius Caesar’s priestly office in 74 BC is surely ‘pontiff’ rather than Shipley’s erroneous ‘pontifex maximus’ (2.43.1). At another place (2.105.3), Yardley and Barrett prefer to render ‘(hiberna)… princeps locaverat’ as ‘the commander had placed’ while Shipley has ‘the first Roman’ (to winter)’. Both are clever attempts to save Velleius from the error of using ‘princeps’ in its technical sense before Tiberius succeded Augustus. Yet, the solution of the new translation would seem to be more elegant. The same goes for the translation of 2.81-2. Shipley has ‘it happens not infrequently that’ (for ‘plerumque’), puts the subject as ‘soldiers’ (for ‘exercitus’) and following Halm’s suggested emendation, inserts the words ‘by placing veterans on the lands of that colony’ in the lacuna. Yardley and Barrett, however, have ‘the army... often...’, and in the lacuna only include ‘<agri>’ (<...lands>) as proposed by several editors (Ruhnken, Woodman). At 1.9.1, however, where the text notoriously resumes in midsentence, Shipley refrains from restoring it, given the absence of subject for 'expetit', while Yardley and Barrett attempt to reinstate the missing words and to provide the general sense of the sentence (inserting ‘The Romans demanded punishment for Perses’ actions that was more severe’ before ‘than the enemy had feared’).

The bibliography is useful and updated (excepting the papers in Cowan, 2011, which were unavailable to the translators: p. xxxvi). Brief descriptions of the content of the paragraphs are included in the translation to aid the reader. The notes accompanying the translation fill an apparent gap in English scholarship on Velleius, since the emphasis of Woodman’s commentaries is stated to be ‘upon textual and literary, rather than historical, matters’ (Woodman, 1977: ix), and there is no commentary for sections 1.1-18 and 2.1-40. The notes vary in character, but they mostly alternate between supplying details where Velleius or his extant text are lacking (generally without indication of where they come from) and giving short biographies of the persons mentioned in the text (or allusions to highlights of their lives). In the last aspect, the translators seem to be following Velleius’s ostensible biographical interests (see Woodman, 1977: 35-54; Starr, 1980: 292. Cf. Pelling, 2011 on Caesar). Other concerns of the translators are contexualization with regard to chronological or historiographic debates ([I] nn. 1, 2, 4, 23, 31-4, 35, 40-41 [II], nn. 136, 235, 321), explanation of concepts or phrases ([I] nn. 22, [II] , nn. 44, 206, 222, 250, 260), internal cross references ([II], nn. 46, 48, 60, 118, 125, 274-5, 366), notable omissions ([I] nn. 47-8, 50, [II] 145, 216, 218, 227, 244, 303, 354) and errors and imprecisions ([I] nn. 25, 41, [II], nn. 6, 39, 259). Some notes deal with matters of composition ([I] nn. 30) or the arrangement and nature of the description (e.g., [I] nn. 29, 49, [II], 27, 105, 107, 189, 191, 204, 213-4, 217, 220, 225) but very few with textual matters (e.g., [I] nn. 6, [II], 109, 120, 146, 170, 262, 313, 329, 369).

Several ‘compromises’, as defined by the translators, make their appearance in the book, which aim at either an easier reading of the text or an easier contextualization of it for a wider audience. The first concerns the title. Choosing to call the work a ‘Roman History’ is regarded as an act that Velleius ‘almost certainly’ would not have done (pref.). Though the opus (‘work’) Velleius refers to (2.48.6) seems to have embraced Greek as well as Roman history, and reached as far back as the mythic past of the Trojan War, only a very small section of this part survives in the extant version. The resulting text deals almost exclusively with Roman history, and hence the title Historia Romana, which the translators follow, was given to it at some point (its first printed edition: p. xxi). Yet, the predominance of Roman affairs in our text is perhaps not accidental. If we follow the logic of the work as a whole, and see the apparent shift of focus from east (the returns of the Trojan War heroes) to west (1.1, 1.2), the constant emphasis on ‘our’ country or history (1.12.6, 1.13.5, 2.1.4) distinct from that of ‘external peoples’ (1.7.2, cf. 2.119.1), the decision to break the work into two books at a point relevant to the history of Rome, and the disproportional part allotted to Octavian/Augustus and the eulogy of Tiberius (2.59-131), we might arrive at a conclusion that Velleius’s focus was indeed Rome-oriented in both books (but see p. xxviii; cf. Kramer, 2005: 153-9, Rich, 2011: 78-80). We cannot be certain about the space given to Greek history within the original design, nor to that assigned to ‘other peoples’ (cf. p. xxvi-xxvii). Nor should the translators feel the need to defend another aspect of the title. While Romulus as a starting point of the work is not clearly attested (the fragments we have go further back), the subtitle ‘from Romulus and the foundation of Rome to the reign of the Emperor Tiberius’ succeeds in capturing an important aspect of the composition, perhaps more than any other edition or translation made of Velleius’s text. The work as we have it generally progresses from one person to another (cf. p. xxxv), culminating with Caesar, Octavian/Augustus and Tiberius, with a clear interest in the acme of the persons mentioned, their highest titles, achievements and, when relevant, their way of death (almost in a manner reminiscent of Cornelius Nepos). Thus, corresponding indeed to the subtitle, the work does give the impression of highlighting historical persons within a Tiberian hall of fame.

The translators have decided not to insert the section dealing with Greek history in the place usually consigned to it from its first edition onwards, namely, at the beginning of the work, before the surviving continuous long portion. As another ‘compromise’, it is placed at the end, as two appendices, A and B, echoing the two fragments (in the primary edition and Priscian). One might say that Velleius would not have been pleased with such an arrangement, especially given his explicit words at 1.14.1, 2.38.1, and his marked inclination to join discussions, rather than split them. This presentation, however, does enhance one aspect of Velleius’s work, and this is the use of the rhetorical devices of antithesis and comparatio, by which two persons or phenomena are compared or contrasted (p. xxii). This device runs through the work (Woodman, 1983: 53, 83-4, 115, 127-8, 128, 144, 219, 246, 271). It appears in the tacit contrast between the foundation and rise of cities on the one hand, and their demise and destruction on the other. Indeed, it may have to do with the decision to split the material into two books (rise- acme; crisis- rise again? Cf. p. xxxv). The change in the fortune of cities is a motif known from Herodotus (1.5.4) onwards, and openly stated by Velleius (1.4.2). With the structure Yardley and Barrett give to the work, the reader can easily compare, for instance, the point where Corinth and Carthage were founded (1.3.3, 1.6.4) with the point they were destroyed (1.12.2, 5-7, 1.13.1, 2.1.1, 2.4.2-3). It is an arrangement which sets the work again in two sorts of sections (main text and Appendix), as Velleius’s work was originally composed (in two books).

Certain issues in the rendition of the text, as for instance the spelling of Roman names, in Latin or normal nomenclature, the use of the name ‘Caesar’ for both Julius and Octavian/Augustus, the employment of the appellation ‘Nero’ for Tiberius (which, one may add, does not carry with it the overtones it does for Tacitus), retaining Velleius’s spelling and sentence structure or the use of standard English names and legible sentences – all are decided by the translators in various (sometimes ‘arbitrary’: pref.) ways. Even in this aspect, however, the translators splendidly echo Velleius, for these questions are presented by Yardley and Barrett as a matter of ‘loyalty’ to either the author or the reader. Interestingly enough, this is not far off from how Velleius presents the dilemma, namely, between his promise to the reader to be brief and his wish to dwell on certain events (2.55.1: promissae... fides). Yardley and Barrett succeed in remaining loyal to their own aim, to their readers and to Velleius himself. Laudable is their claim that Velleius should not be dismissed as a historian: ‘[t]here are aspects of his writing that deserve some praise’ (p. xxxiii). The result is a book which is a must for all students of the period and of Roman historiography, and an engaging annotated translation by two expert scholars, who give Velleius’s interesting text the attention it merits.1


1.   Bibliography:

Cowan, E. (ed.) (2011), Velleius Paterculus: Making History, Swansea: Classical Press of Wales.
Kramer, E. A. (2005), 'Book One of Velleius' History: Scope, Levels of Treatment and Non-Roman Elements', Historia 54: 144-61.
Starr, R. J. (1980), 'Velleius' Literary Techniques in the Organization of his History', TAPA, 110: 287-301.
Pelling, C. (2011), 'Velleius and Biography: The Case of Julius Caesar' in Cowan (2011), 157-176.
Rich, J. (2011), 'Velleius' History: Genre and Purpose' in Cowan (2011), 73-92. Woodman, A. J. (1977), Velleius Paterculus: The Tiberian Narrative (2.94-131), Cambridge: CUP.
Woodman, A. J. (1983), Velleius Paterculus: The Caesarian and Augustan Narrative (2.41-93) , Cambridge: CUP.
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