BMCR 1996.11.13

1996.11.13, Liber de Caesaribus of Sextus Aurelius Victor

Sextus Aurelius Victor, H. W. Bird, Liber de Caesaribus. Translated texts for historians ; v. 17. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1994. xxx, 228 pages : maps ; 21 cm.. ISBN 9780853232186 $17.95 (pb).

At the end of De Caesaribus, Aurelius Victor praises the emperor Constantius II by saying, “he is aware that the tranquillity of state is governed by the lives of good emperors.”

Whatever Constantius may have thought, Aurelius Victor had no doubts on the matter. De Caesaribus is focused on the peculiar virtues and vices of the emperors from Augustus to Constantius (who died in A.D. 361, the year in which Victor wrote) and attributes all the movements of imperial history to the characters of these rulers.

In his biographical emphasis, Aurelius Victor was not unusual, either in his own century or in the Roman tradition of historiography as a whole. Victor lived in a period when, after long neglect, Latin writers began composing history again. None of the mid-fourth century historians, however, were interested in a full-dress treatment in the style of Livy or Tacitus. They wrote for what must have been impatient audiences who wanted no more than the basic facts: the lost Kaisergeschichte, Eutropius, Victor, and the anonymous Epitomator all reduced Roman history to a brief reign-by-reign account. Nor were any of these writers first- rate investigators. The similarities between the three surviving works are so striking that modern historians have long attributed them to the writers’ reliance on a single source, the Kaisergeschichte, which itself must have been a rather unambitious composition. In the case of Aurelius Victor, there is no reason to think that he consulted any other source than the KG while writing his own imperial history.

Of what interest, then, are these histories? Obviously, they provide a certain amount of data about the ill-documented third-century, a period of political upheaval and literary eclipse. More interesting is the light that the works cast upon the time in which they were written. De Caesaribus covers imperial Roman history in a mere 54 pages (in this English translation). In this space Victor not only described what he thought important about the past, but exactly what he thought was good and bad about the present. Indeed, he provides us with a vivid miniature portrait of himself.

Victor was born in North Africa of relatively humble parentage. Somehow, he acquired a first-rate literary education. This education helped Victor to get a foothold in the imperial bureaucracy; he rose through it until at the end of his life he had achieved the highly prestigious post of urban prefect of Rome.

His own background and career instilled in Victor the notion that next to inborn virtue, the best qualification for office or even rulership was the culture one gained through a good education. This point is illustrated repeatedly in De Caesaribus. Although the martial achievements of good emperors are duly noted, Victor was clearly wary of military pre-eminence in the state. Too often the soldiers when given too much influence had proven ignorant, brutal and grasping, while military emperors were often personally guilty of savage behavior. Cultured emperors were not necessarily paragons, but it was among their ranks that the best rulers were found.

In De Caesaribus, Victor presented himself as an example of an educated man aware of the moral dimension of statesmanship. He was clearly influenced by Sallust, and meant his work not simply to give the facts, but to point out the lessons of the past. They were direly needed. He believed his own time to be one “when the integrity of public office is despised, the ignorant are confused with the good and the inept with the capable” (c. 9), when honest public servants were rare, when “just as no one is more outstanding than the emperor himself, so nothing is more frightful than the majority of his subordinates” (c. 42).

De Caesaribus allows us to see the self-image of one part of the Roman ruling class in the mid-fourth century: the learned men of urbane tastes who believed that traditional moral and cultural values were the key to “the tranquillity of the state” and that they themselves embodied those values. The work also gives us a glimpse of a transitional period when a prominent imperial functionary could write contemporary history without either mentioning Christianity or naming the new capital, Constantinople.

H.W. Bird, who has translated De Caesaribus for the Liverpool University Press series, Translated Texts for Historians ( TTH), is an excellent guide to Aurelius Victor and the historical writing of his period. Bird is the author of a full treatment of Victor ( Sextus Aurelius Victor: A Historiographical Study (Liverpool: Francis Cairns, 1984) and has translated Eutropius for TTH. His learning in this area is made available here through a short introduction and copious notes. His translation is very accessible. As Bird himself points out, Victor’s overwrought style was too much for most Latin readers even in antiquity, and led to his work being neglected in favor of the more economical Eutropius. Bird’s English translation does not attempt to duplicate the effect of the original prose. Only hints of the difficulties of Victor’s Latin remain.

This translation of De Caesaribus will bring to a wider audience an example of the historical culture of the fourth-century empire. It will be most useful to students of Late Antiquity and those medievalists who find the fourth-century empire an important prologue to later developments.