BMCR 2004.06.56

Valerius Maximus. Memorable Deeds and Sayings. One Thousand Tales from Ancient Rome

, , , Memorable deeds and sayings : one thousand tales from ancient Rome. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2004. xxxi, 361 pages : maps ; 24 cm. ISBN 0872206750 $16.95 (pb).

Walker (henceforth W.) offers a readable and accessible translation of Valerius Maximus at a price well within the reach of students. This, the second English translation of the whole of Valerius to have appeared in recent years, after a gap of over 300 years,1 is further evidence of the revival in Valerian studies and may make its own contribution in further opening up Valerius to the Latinless reader.

It is regrettable and somewhat puzzling that W. bases his translation on the 1888 Teubner of Karl Kempf, which since 1998 has been completely superseded by J. Briscoe’s new Teubner.2 While many of the changes in Briscoe’s text relate to orthography, his is the first edition to make proper use of the readings of G. Consequently, those tempted to use W.’s translation in professional discourse will need to keep a careful watch on the text behind the translation.

W.’s introduction is slim and unpretentious. No-one will read it for a fully argued statement of Valerius’ intentions in writing, his methods, his sources, etc.,3 but W. does bring out Valerius’ contribution to our understanding of status consciousness in Tiberian Rome. Some of his other claims are less convincing and betray perhaps a lack of familiarity with recent developments in research. For example, his assertion that homosexual relations in Rome, except those between masters and slaves, were carefully concealed appears a little odd in the light of more detailed studies of Roman homosexuality.4 Moreover, the notion that Valerius ‘uncovers a whole tradition that revered the memory of these reforming political leaders’ (p. xvii) disappears when one examines the sources of the exempla W. cites — the titbit about the man who suffered for his attachment to Saturninus (8.1 Damn. 3) was a cause célèbre that Cicero could use in a popular speech ( Rab. Perd. 24), while the success of the False Marius was part of the mainstream historiographical tradition (cf. Livy, Per. 116). The general claim that ‘Valerius introduces us to a new Rome’ (p. xviii) is not only false, in that it ignores the whole pattern of his reading, but also contradicts Valerius’ own modest and reasonably accurate statement about his aims, that he has made a selection from the most famous authors (1 Praef.).

On Valerius’ respective treatment of Greek and Roman exempla, W. rightly emphasises Valerius’ desire to prove the superiority of Rome, but perhaps underestimates the importance of the entertainment function (cf. 1. 6 ext. 1, 2.10 ext. 1), because delectatio was an important element of persuasion.5

The aspect of W.’s project on which the most important judgement should be rendered is his translation. W. rightly calls it a challenge and wisely states (p. xxv) that he does not aim to emulate Valerius in his creation of long and complicated sentences, but adopts a variety of sensible devices to make the English more readable, e.g., splitting up sentences and clarifying sense by replacing Valerius’ pronouns with nouns.6. Two examples from the beginning of Book VI can suffice as general illustrations. The prefaces to Valerius’ individual chapters, where his style is mostly his own rather than that of his sources and where he is seeking to impress the reader, offer the stiffest challenge to the translator. A comparison of the translations of W. and Shackleton Bailey’s recent Loeb illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of W.’s method:

Vnde te uirorum pariter ac feminarum praecipuum firmamentum, Pudicitia, inuocem? tu enim prisca religione consecratos Vestae focos incolis, tu Capitolinae Iunonis puluinaribus incubas, tu Palatii columen augustos penates sanctissimumque Iuliae genialem torum adsidua statione celebras, tuo praesidio puerilis aetatis insignia munita sunt, tui numinis respectu sincerus iuuentae flos permanet, te custode matronalis stola censetur: ades igitur et cognosce quae fieri ipsa uoluisti. (6.1 praef)

From what place should I summon you, Chastity, the chief support of men and women? You live in the fires of Vesta, which have been consecrated by ancient religious custom; you keep watch over the couch of Juno on the Capitol; you are constantly on guard at that pillar of the Palatine, the august household and sacred marriage bed of Julia; the lockets of boyhood are under your protection; the beauty of youth is kept pure by its respect for your divinity; the dress of a lady is respected because it is under your guardianship; so come and acknowledge these actions that you yourself have brought about. (W.)

Whence should I invoke you, Chastity, chief buttress of men and women alike? You dwell in the hearth consecrated to Vesta by ancient religion, you watch over the sacred couch of Capitoline Juno, you never leave your post on the pinnacle of the Palatine, the august habitation, and the most holy marriage bed of Julia. By your protection the emblems of boyhood are defended, by reverence for your divinity the flower of youth remains intact, under your guardianship the matron’s robe is appraised. Come therefore, and hear of things that yourself ordained. (S. B.)

W. succeeds in economically conveying Valerius’ meaning, but sacrifices the rhetorical aspects — it would be easy in English to imitate Valerius’ emphatic placing of tu and its cognates at the start of each clause, as Shackleton Bailey does, without contorting the language and thus convey to the reader better the elevation and structure of the original. The translation does, however, betray something of the problems faced by a translator of a text which requires a very broad knowledge of Greco-Roman history and culture, who (with some justification) may miss what is not obvious: although columen can bear the meaning of pillar, its sense here in the context of the imperial house on the Palatine is, as Shackleton Bailey has it, ‘pinnacle’.7 I would prefer the translation of te custode matronalis stola censetur to make it plain that matronalis relates specifically to a married woman. In the following exemplum, on Lucretia’s chastity, W. translates per vim stuprum pati coacta as ‘she was violently forced to have sex’, but this modern expression conveys nothing of the moral outrage of Valerius’ stuprum; and the neatness of Valerius’ imperium consulare pro regio permutandi becomes the more cumbersome ‘replace the monarchy with government by consuls’.

Consideration of a more extended piece of translation, the first four chapters of Book II, can illustrate further W.’s strengths and weaknesses. There are occasions where W. captures Valerius’ meaning far better than Shackleton Bailey’s stilted version, e.g., ‘where everyone was in good spirits and had come to promote reconciliation’ (2.1.8), or ‘from this training in modesty’ as opposed to ‘by respectful practice of fatigue’.8 However, W.’s handling of Valerius’ frequent constructions involving ut appears problematic, because W. breaks up the long periods and does not introduce the relevant shorter sentence with any English connective that would suggest that its contents are the consequence or intention of the previous sentence.9 A similar problem is the omission in translation of simple connectives like nam (2.1.7), quia (2.1.5), ideoque (2.3.1) or itaque (2.4.4) which illuminate the logic of Valerius’ prose.

With any translation a reviewer can quibble endlessly, but the most important question is whether the translation is appropriate for its intended audience. Although W. does not, in the introduction at least, indicate his audience, his prefatory comments to the concluding thematic guide target ‘teachers of Roman history who might like to use this work as a sourcebook’ (p. 355). For these and their undergraduate (or school) pupils a straightforward translation with basic explanatory notes would seem appropriate; if the aim is to enable such to acquire quickly and easily a broad sweep of Classical exempla, W.’s translation is adequate. More advanced students and those desiring a more nuanced translation that conveys something of Valerius’ style and personality will prefer Shackleton Bailey. Although Valerius himself might regret that his work is not now used for the purpose of moral education, he would be delighted that W. has given him the opportunity to resume the role he played through to the Renaissance in popularising and illuminating Roman history and culture.


1. After the Englished version of Samuel Speed, printed in 1678, and not without its own charm, W.’s rival is the Loeb text and translation by D. R. Shackleton Bailey, Valerius Maximus: Memorable Doings and Sayings (Cambridge, Mass. and London, 2000). D. Wardle produced a translation of Book I only, Valerius Maximus. Memorable Deeds and Sayings. Book I (Oxford, 1998).

2. For a review see D. Wardle, BMCR 99.09.25.

3. Notable absentees from the bibliography cited in the introduction are C. J. Skidmore, Practical Ethics for Roman Gentlemen. The Work of Valerius Maximus (Exeter, 1996), A. Weileder, Valerius Maximus. Spiegel kaiserlicher Selbstdarstellung (Munich, 1998) and Hans-Friedrich Mueller, Roman Religion in Valerius Maximus (London, 2002). All appeared in good time for W. to have used them and they each would have contributed to a more nuanced view of Valerius.

4. E.g., C. A. Williams, Roman Homosexuality: Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity (New York, 1999). Rabun Taylor, ‘Two pathic subcultures in Ancient Rome’, Journal of the History of Sexuality 7 (1997), 319-71 provides a good study of the cinaedus.

5. See Skidmore (note 3), 89-92.

6. This may find critics (cf. W.M. Bloomer, JRS 91 (2001), 248), but for W.’s intended audience it is preferable to the archaic prose of Shackleton Bailey which, while it does replicate some of the features of Valerius’ style, also misfires and misrepresents what Valerius was attempting.

7. Cf. Mueller (note 3), 23: ‘peak of the Palatine’ and his surrounding discussion.

8. Valerius’ Latin: ‘inter hilaritatem animorum et fautoribus concordiae adhibitis tolleretur’ (2.1.8) and ‘ verecunda laboris meditatione’ (2.1.9).

9. in ius vocanti matronam corpus eius attingere non permiserunt, ut inviolata manus alienae tactu stola relinqueretur (2.1.5) is rendered ‘if anyone summoned a married woman to court, he was not allowed to touch her. Thus her dress was left untainted by the touch of another man’s hand’. ‘Thus” permits some link with the previous sentence, but not necessarily what Valerius intended. The omission of ut in 2.1.8 completely removes the motivation for the Romans’ institution of the Caristia; the force of ne in 2.1.9 is lost by W.’s paratactical sentences ‘they would carefully inquire …; they did not want to rush ahead’; at 2.1.10 ‘quo … redderent’, a purpose clause is rendered as a result clause, ‘This made the young men all the more eager to rival those deeds’; at 2.2.6 ‘ut a luxu … transgrediar’ is not well rendered by ‘But I must move away from the decadent and abandoned morals’. At 2.4.2, although the text is badly corrupted, ut scilicet … esset is clearly a purpose clause (as Shackleton Bailey recognises) although W. renders ‘presumably the senate wanted the natural manliness of the Roman nation to be well known so that we should stand even when relaxing our minds’.