BMCR 2020.11.10

Valerius Maximus ‘Facta et dicta memorabilia’, book 8

, Valerius Maximus 'Facta et dicta memorabilia', book 8. Text, introduction, and commentary. Untersuchungen zur antiken Literatur und Geschichte, 141. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2019. Pp. xii, 268. ISBN 9783110664249 €99,95.


Valerius Maximus’ Facta et dicta memorabilia, a work long deemed unworthy of independent study, has, over the past thirty years, increasingly come to be acknowledged as literature in its own right. Rather than continuing to scan Valerius’ collection of historical exempla for random titbits of information, recent scholarship has been willing to consider the work as a deliberately composed text and started to scrutinise its moral, social, and intellectual significance at the time of the early Roman Empire. In light of this development, a modern commentary, able to bring together the different strains of research and to highlight what makes Valerius’ text unique and worthy of attention, is highly desirable. With a comprehensive commentary on the entire work still a long way off, however, separate commentaries on individual books seem to be the next best alternative. And so it is to be commended that John Briscoe, editor of the standard Teubner text of the Facta et dicta and author of several commentaries on Livy, has decided to build on the two existing modern commentaries by David Wardle (Oxford 1998; book 1) and Andrea Themann-Steinke (Trier 2008; book 2) and to write a commentary on book 8 and ‘its variegated subject matter’ (p. v). As the subtitle indicates, Briscoe’s book consists of three major parts: an introduction to Valerius and his work (pp. 1-30), a revised text of book 8 (pp. 33-65), and the commentary itself (pp. 67-239).

The introduction covers in its five chapters most of the topics one would wish to find addressed. Chapters 2 (‘The Time of Writing’) and 6 (‘The Text’), both revised versions of material first published more than two decades ago, represent studies of the highest scholarly diligence and remain compulsory reading for anyone interested in Valerius’ work. Briscoe’s arguments in favour of dating the work to the late 20s and very early 30s ce have lost nothing of their validity, and his discussion of the textual transmission (including the important indirect tradition) is still unsurpassed. A useful new addition is chapter 7 (‘Editions of Valerius Maximus’), which provides an overview of all relevant editions of the text, from the editio princeps (1470) to Shackleton Bailey’s Loeb (2000). Unfortunately, not all introductory chapters show the same academic rigour. Chapters 1 (‘The Author’) and 3 (‘The Work’) are rather superficial sketches, the latter being particularly insubstantial. Thus Briscoe’s extraordinarily brief comments on the literary purpose of Valerius’ work and the organisational principles of book 8 raise more questions than they are able to answer, and his case is not helped by his reluctance to engage critically with the latest scholarship.

Chapter 4 (‘Valerius’ Sources’) is dedicated to the issue of Valerian Quellenkritik. Briscoe offers his readers a convenient bibliography of the most important publications between 1865 and 1992, before summarising what can be said about Valerius’ sources for book 8 (mainly Cicero and Livy). In chapter 5, he turns to Valerius’ language and style, which he labels ‘highly rhetorical and often overblown’ (p. 9). The largest part of this chapter consists of lists of ‘linguistic and stylistic phenomena’ (p. 10) as found in book 8: lexicological ‘innovations’ (pp. 10-12), ‘words or usages found in Cicero and/or Livy, but rarely or never in other writers before V.’ (pp. 12-13), ‘words or usages found before V. but not in Cicero or Livy’ (pp. 13-14), as well as two further short lists of ‘matters of lexicological, syntactical, and stylistic interest’ (p. 14). While the tabular approach is indeed useful in illustrating the originality of Valerius’ expression and the impact Cicero and Livy had on his written language, it does not become entirely clear how a catalogue of words used by Valerius and already attested in earlier writers, but ‘avoided’ (p. 14) by Cicero and Livy, is supposed to help define Valerius’ particular style. It also needs to be asked to what extent it is worthwhile to list stylistic devices without any reference to the immediate context. How, for instance, does it advance the reader’s understanding of Valerius’ style to point out (p. 14; on Briscoe’s method of citation, see below) that exemplum 8.2.2 contains an alliteration (libidinosam liberalitatem), when even the commentary ad loc. provides no further explanation as to its effect (‘deliberate alliteration’)?

The final chapter of the introduction outlines the methods of citation used. Since Briscoe’s slightly revised text of book 8 has line numbers that differ from those in his Teubner edition, his decision to refer to text passages by their line numbers does not always appear to be the most practical approach. To give just one example, the aforementioned alliteration libidinosam liberalitatem, which most scholars familiar with the traditional reference system would easily be able to find in exemplum 8.2.2 (i.e. book 8, chapter 2, exemplum 2), is referred to as 2.16 (i.e. chapter 2, line 16) by Briscoe (p. 14). Despite his claim that ‘line numbers are much more convenient’, given the length of some exempla (p. 29), it might have been more sensible to retain the traditional reference system throughout the entire commentary and, if necessary, to adopt Shackleton Bailey’s approach of subdividing particularly long exempla.

The text itself is, as Briscoe himself readily admits (p. v), in large parts identical with that of his 1998 Teubner edition. Apart from the correction of errors and omissions (for a list, see pp. 241-2) as well as minor changes to the punctuation (mainly through the deletion of commas), Briscoe’s new text of book 8 incorporates (as far as I am aware) only two revised readings, both reasonable alterations. In 8.2.2, Briscoe now follows Shackleton Bailey in printing quod si eadem formula Varro et damnari et aduersariae absolui potuisset, a reading in support of which the latter cites Cic. Verr. 2.2.22 (hunc hominem Veneri absoluit). In 8.3.3, Briscoe now prints abscisa, the reading of G, to which he previously gave a fort. recte. Welcome as these improvements are, however, Briscoe’s revised text unfortunately also introduces a series of (apparently careless) new mistakes: 8.1.damn.6: Aquilio instead of Aquillio (a particularly regrettable oversight, as the case for Aquillio is argued on two occasions: p. 17 and commentary ad loc.); 8.2.1: comodorum instead of commodorum; 8.3.2: Bucconis instead of Buccionis (see commentary ad loc.); 8.6.3: Popilio instead of Popillio; 8.7.ext.12: studi instead of studii; 8.10.praef.: motum instead of motu; 8.11.ext.4: Syrasusis instead of Syracusis; 8.13.6: apparauit instead of apparuit; 8.15.praef.: iudicanda instead of iucunda (the latter being the reading now preferred by Briscoe, as apparatus and commentary suggest). Consider also 8.7.7, in the commentary on which Briscoe seems to be arguing in favour of the reading inserit, while he prints inseruit, to which his apparatus gives a fort. recte. Why, on three occasions (8.2.1; 8.13.ext.6; 8.14.6), Briscoe sees it necessary to change his own reading iis back to Kempf’s his does not become clear from either the apparatus or the commentary. Equally curious are the unexplained changes of perterritus to per<ter>ritus (8.11.1) and of honorati to ho<no>rati (8.15.9).

As a commentator, Briscoe sets himself an ambitious goal. Thus, in his preface, he states his intention ‘to give equal attention to content, textual criticism, language and style, and literary matters’ (p. vi). In reality, however, Briscoe’s commentary is far from balanced, instead focussing to an exceptionally large extent on textual criticism and stylistic features. Briscoe goes to great lengths to justify his own readings (even where they do not seem to be a matter for dispute) and to explain the idiosyncrasies of Valerius’ language. In both of these areas, he undeniably reveals the philological expertise he has developed in more than 30 years of writing commentaries. Nonetheless, in light of the more recent scholarly approaches to Valerius outlined above and the increased interest in the moral, social, and intellectual significance of the Facta et dicta during the early Roman Empire, a commentary with a primary focus on textual and linguistic issues seems somewhat limited.

Where the actual content of book 8 is addressed, Briscoe’s notes generally revolve around prosopographical matters and the historical ‘reality’ of each exemplum. Relevant biographical details of Valerius’ exemplars are provided, historical events and institutions explained. Whenever possible, Briscoe names Valerius’ sources, often drawing attention to alternative versions. Here, his excellent knowledge of Livy is a tangible advantage.

Regrettably, however, Briscoe shows little interpretative ambition in his dealings with the ‘literary’ (as opposed to the ‘historical’) side of Valerius’ work. Consequently, readers interested in Valerius’ historiographical approach (i.e. the processes guiding the selection, arrangement, and modification of his source material), but also in the socio-cultural relevance and educational objective of his exempla during the Tiberian period – arguably the two fastest-growing areas of research within the field of Valerian studies in recent years – may be disappointed, as Briscoe’s commentary pays little attention to these issues. And so, some of the key questions regarding the Facta et dicta remain unanswered. Discussing Valerius’ representation of the iudicium populi, for instance, Briscoe observes (p. 69): ‘In V.’s time, of course, controversial tribunician legislation and trials before the people were things of the past and V. neither understood nor cared about the details.’ Correct as this observation may be, one cannot help but wonder whether it might perhaps have been more rewarding further to reflect upon the question of what Valerius did do rather than what he did not do: if it was the case that Valerius did not care about historical accuracy, what were his actual literary motives?

Given his convincing dating of large parts of the Facta et dicta to the late 20s and early 30s ce, it is also rather peculiar that Briscoe makes almost no attempt to locate and explain Valerius’ text within the social and cultural context of this period. While it is to be commended that he seeks to avoid exccessive conjecture, book 8 contains a number of passages which might have profited from a more audacious interpretative approach. Take, for instance 8.1.praef., where Valerius states his intent to prepare his readers’ minds for ancipites iudiciorum motus, ‘unpredictable turns of trials’. Would it stretch the interpretation too far to assume that Valerius was implicitly commenting on Rome’s judicial system under Tiberius and Sejanus? After all, Valerius himself identifies the accused in his exempla as invidia laborantes, ‘individuals impacted by ill will’, a turn of phrase which may suggest that the cases he has selected do not solely revolve around the question of guilt, but are also motivated by personal or political enmity. It therefore seems tempting to read this as a direct reference to the notorious delatores of the Tiberian period, who sought personal gain from accusing their enemies. Other chapters, such as those on quaestiones quibus aut creditum non est aut temere habita fides est, ‘trials during which testimony was not believed or trusted far too quickly’ (8.4), and on the significance of witnesses (8.5) could have been examined in a similar way.

One final aspect which it seems surprising not to see addressed at all is Valerius’ engagement with the theoretical side of Roman virtue ethics, whether at a proper philosophical level or a more popular one. In light of recent studies on Stoic tendencies within the Facta et dicta memorabilia (e.g. Lawrence, Antichthon 49 (2015), 135-55; Wardle, RhM 161 (2018), 22-8), it might, for instance, have been worthwhile to examine – at least in passing – how much the values illustrated by Valerius’ exempla on topics such as leisure time (8.8), old age (8.13), or glory (8.14) have in common with the views expressed by the philosophers and moralist writers of the late Republic and the early Empire.

In summary, Briscoe’s commentary is likely to satisfy those seeking clarification on textual issues or with an interest in the idiosyncrasies of Valerius’ language. Readers looking for essential background information on the historical events or exemplars portrayed are also well served. Given this substantial starting point, one may now hope for future scholarship offering new insights into Valerius’ literary techniques and motivations, his attitudes towards early imperial ideas and institutions, as well as the socio-cultural relevance of his exempla during the reign of Tiberius.