BMCR 1993.06.15

Eutropius: Breviarium

, Eutropius: Breviarium, translated with an introduction and commentary.. Translated texts for historians 14. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1993. lvii, 186 pages. ISBN 9780853232087 $15.95.

Eutropius has not, to my knowledge, been translated into English in almost a century and a half. Bird’s effort, then, is not out of place. Eutropius can be read in several ways: as a historical narrator, he offers a rapid survey of Roman history, one whose brevity required of its author concision and selectivity; as a fourth-century pagan author he gives precious insight into a particular view of the past current in his day. To a large extent B. addresses the first side of Eutropius in his commentary and the latter in his introduction.

Eutropius writes in a straight-forward and readable style, and offers the translator little difficulty. B.’s translation is perfectly serviceable. As the narrative covers such a broad chronological span, the book could have been made more user-friendly by printing relevant dates and book numbers in the margins, and by printing book numbers in the heading in the commentary. Some words might with profit have been devoted to the text: for all that Eutropius is preserved by numerous MSS, some gaps remain, and several of these have traditionally been filled by reference to the Greek translation of Paeanius. This practice has not been discussed critically since the edition of Droysen (1878), but if Schulze is correct (as he seems to be) that Paeanius has supplemented the account of Eutropius with references to Dio, then perhaps we ought to regard the practice with some circumspection.1

In commenting on a text which covers eleven hundred years, B. has set himself a formidable task. He has met the challenge with some industry, writing 100 pages of notes for 70 pages of text. B. divides his introduction into several sections: (1) Eutropius’ life and career, (2) the situation in A.D. 369 and the aims of the Breviarium, (3) Eutropius’ assessment of the emperors, (4) the sources of the Breviarium, (5) chronology, and (6) the popularity of Eutropius. The positions taken are for the most part uncontroversial. The commentary is on the whole thorough and provides useful lists of cross-references to other ancient historians; but some will find the citation of epigraphic evidence rather limited.

Some minor concerns may here be registered. B. refers rapidly to Constantine’s conversion as founding a “world of transformation in which E. spent his boyhood” (viii), but does not draw attention to E.’s position in the historiography of Constantine. Indeed, his later analysis of E.’s position on Constantine makes no mention of the complexities in the historiographical traditions surrounding Constantine, most of which were caused by his own ambivalent self-presentation. Similarly, B. suggests that E.’s successful career in the East indicates that he was fluent in Greek (viii); in fact, Libanius complains rather often that high-placed Roman officials knew no Greek at all.

More importantly, the suggestion by Momigliano (adopted by B., p. xix), that Eutropius proved too long for Valens and thus provided him with an excuse to turn to Festus, ought to be laid to rest. Breviarium seems to be used to designate two different genres: an historical summary (e.g., Suet. de Gramm. 10), or a brief overview, as in the breviarium totius imperii left behind by Augustus (Suetonius, Aug. 101). Such a document, no doubt generated by the imperial bureaucracy, must lie behind Tac. Ann. IV. 5. The production of Festus may be historical, but in its organization it reveals the strong influence of a bureaucratic mind. If Eutropius really did fail to satisfy Valens, perhaps he gave him the wrong sort of breviarium. Similarly, references to Victor’s “epitomator” should be deleted (e.g., p. 143); the Epitomator drew directly on Victor’s sources, and continued his history 30 years after the end of Victor. The attachment of Victor or Pseudo-Victor to the title is an accident of the transmission of its text, and is misleading.

While B. places E. in a social and historical context, he says disappointingly little about E.’s history in its literary context. In the section entitled “Eutropius’ Assessment of the Emperors,” B. makes occasional reference to Victor, but does not substantively discuss the development or even the existence of a historiographical tradition on the virtues of previous emperors. Thus in his commentary he concentrates on those sources which can yield “facts” about emperors, but avoids mentioning the Caesares of Julian and Ausonius, or the singling out of good emperors by Ammianus (16.1.4) and Symmachus (ep. I.13.3). Similarly, for the Republic sources are listed (such as one might glean from MRR), but literary connections are missed: which figures singled out by Eutropius also appear in the exempla of Ammianus, in the letters of Symmachus, and above all in the panegyrics? To this end we might rather have wished for less commentary, but additional translations of Festus, the Victor corpus, and the Epitomator (and none of which has benefitted from translation into English). After all, on any dating of the KG, Eutropius and the Epitomator appended several years of contemporary history to their collation of literary sources; for that effort they deserve, and would repay, more careful study.

The greatest failing of the introduction, as of the commentary, is bibliographical: in the commentary especially, few if any works published after 1976 are ever cited. B. states in his Preface that the book “is intended for students of the late empire who have little Latin and less Greek and no reading knowledge of German or Italian. Accordingly I have elected to use the Loeb editions … and restrict the secondary material in general to books and articles in English.” Yet books and articles in Italian and German are repeatedly cited, even where thorough and reputable treatments of the same material have appeared in English more recently; 2 similarly, books which have recently benefitted from second (or third) editions are cited in the pre-1976 editions. (An exception is the fourth edition of Scullard’s History of the Roman World, 753 – 146 B.C. [London, 1980], but it is difficult to see what audience is benefitted by the repeated references to this work.) The bibliography at the end of the book lists several more recent works, but some of them I find nowhere cited in the introduction or the notes. I cannot escape the suspicion that the translation and the notes (and possibly the introduction) were drafted before 1975 and only very haphazardly updated.

For all his popularity in antiquity and later, Eutropius has had some difficulty finding an audience in the modern world. Similarly, I have some trouble finding an audience for this volume. Eutropius can no longer be used as a textbook for Roman history: for all its virtues and failings, the commentary is restricted to the sorts of issues raised by E., and they fall within a narrow range. For a typical undergraduate history class, whose textbooks will cover these events in greater detail, E. may prove too dry and too late, especially when for the price of this volume a teacher could assign Penguins of Livy and Tacitus. For students of the fourth century, a period with which B. in other publications has shown himself most familiar, this book sadly does not satisfactorily situate its text in what is, on any evaluation, a complex and fascinating milieu.

  • [1] Schulze in Philologus 29 (1870) 285-299, at 296ff. He compares Paeanius 1.12.2 and 2.4.7 with Dio fr. 17.13 (Boissevain) and I.11.1 with Zonaras 7.13. If correct, Schulze would also have found a reader for Dio, a conspicuously un popular author in the fourth century. [2] E.g. at Book IV n. 23 he cites Simon, Roms Kriege in Spanien (Frankfurt, 1962). Why not J.S. Richardson, Hispaniae (Cambridge, 1986)? On the province of Asia he cites Thomes, La rivolta di Aristonico… (Turin, 1968). Why not Sherwin-White, Roman Foreign Policy in the East (Norman, 1984)?