BMCR 2021.10.41

Aurelius Victor: Historiae Abbreviatae

, , Aurelius Victor: Historiae Abbreviatae. Kleine und fragmentarische Historiker der Spätantike (KFHist), 2. Paderborn: Verlag Ferdinand Schöningh, 2021. Pp. xxx, 379. ISBN 9783506702753 €124,00.

Table of Contents

It offers tremendous pleasure to hold a beautifully made book in one’s hand, with the foil embossed title on the cover, Aurelius Victor. Historiae Abbreviatae. More than a quarter century after the question was asked in the pages of this review, ‘Why use the title de Caesaribus? . . . The only indication given by the MSS is the heading Aurelii Victoris Historiae abbreviatae[1], we finally have a volume containing the work of the fourth-century historian Sex. Aurelius Victor under this title, instead of the conventional De Caesaribus, in a new edition by C. Scardino and M. Nickbakht (S./N.). Any attention paid to Victor is very much to be welcomed—the last critical edition was the thoughtful but flawed Budé of Dufraigne (1975)—since heretofore his historical work has primarily been the domain of specialists and enthusiasts, most of whom have been scathing about its quality. This is a pity. Anyone willing to dip a toe into his text will find a rather idiosyncratic historian with a unique Latin style and a keen eye for irony, never afraid to share his own opinions: for example, and in no particular order,

-on the reason why laws against prostitution are ineffective (28.7, S./N. 98): avidius periculosa quibusque prohibentur mortales petunt, ‘more avidly do mortals seek out dangerous things and what is forbidden them’

-on how people from humble backgrounds are more likely to abuse power if they get it (39.6, S./N. 119): animus potentiae expers tamquam inedia refecti insatiabilis est, ‘a mind without experience of power is like someone suffering from starvation: it knows no limit of refreshment’

-on the greed of soldiers (18.2, S./N. 80):  quis exhausto iam perditoque orbe satis videtur nihil, ‘who remain unsatisfied even when the whole world has already been squeezed dry and left in ruins.’

-on quartermasters (33.13, S./N. 104): genus hominum, praesertim hac tempestate, nequam venale callidum seditiosum habendi cupidum atque ad patrandas fraudes velandasque quasi ab natura factum, ‘a class of people, which is, especially in these days, wicked, venal, cunning, mutinous, greedy to possess, and, so to speak, formed by nature to both perpetrate and conceal frauds.’

-on the public post (13.6, S./N. 70): quod equidem munus satis utile in pestem orbis Romani vertit posteriorum avaritia insolentiaque, ‘a useful public service, which the avarice and insolence of later generations turned into a plague on the Roman world’

Such delights, and many more besides, lie in store for the reader who cracks open Victor’s Historiae.

Due regard, however, ought to be paid to the traditional warnings regarding books and covers. The cover of the volume under review promises a long overdue rethink of the fundamentals of Victor’s text. Unfortunately, that is not exactly what one finds. The book consists of the familiar assemblage of introduction, text with facing (German) translation, and commentary. The introduction covers familiar territory: Victor’s life and career, the (surprisingly numerous) testimonia to his work, the manuscripts and editorial history, and his style of writing. The translation is on the whole accurate—no mean feat given Victor’s sometimes tricky Latinity—although at times (an example is given below) it glosses over some real difficulties in the text. The commentary is expansive, with an admirable coverage of textual issues and an adequate discussion of historical matters. Even so, it is all rather conventional, haunted by that spectre of late-antique Latin historiography, Enmann’s Kaisergeschichte, which has the unfortunate effect of attributing almost everything interesting in Victor to his entirely postulated source (e.g. S./N. 214-5, on Victor’s periodising of imperial history). In this respect, Dufraigne’s commentary is superior.

It is also far from comprehensive on Victor’s (nearly constant) allusions: for example, on Victor’s outburst about Constans’ dalliances with barbarian boys, who he pretended were hostages (41.26)—Quae tamen vitia utinam mansissent!, ‘But if only such vices had persisted!’—Scardino and Nickbakht comment, ‘der Ausruf ist singulär in den Historiae abbreviatae und drückt offenbar Victors persönliche Empfinden aus.’ (356). That may or may not be true, but surely what should be noted is the imitation of what Achaemenides said to Aeneas, about how he should have remained in poverty in Ithaca rather than sign on with Odysseus in book 3 of the Aeneid: mansissetque utinam fortuna! (3.615). Sometimes this leads to outright mistakes, such as at (39.6), where Scardino and Nickbakht do not mention the clear imitation of Sallust (fr. 2.62 Maurenbrecher / 2.51 Ramsay), and mistranslate habitus, which must refer to clothing, as ‘Verhalten’.[2]

The heart of an edition, however, is the text itself. The niggling concerns I have expressed with the translation and commentary are symptomatic of a larger tendency that has left a more profound impact: in some of the most important ways, this edition fails to break new ground with Victor’s text.

Take structure. The structure and numbering of the text we have—in its fundamentals, unchanged since the time of the editio princeps—mostly arose from an historical accident. When the enterprising Jesuit Andreas Schott first printed Victor in 1589, the Epitome de Caesaribus, also under the name of Victor, had already been in print for more than eight decades. The obvious and pressing question was: what did these two texts of imperial history, of similar scope and ambition attributed in the manuscripts to the same author have to do with one another? The fact that that they were related seemed assured by the overlaps in the first eleven chapters. Even so, there are pronounced differences: in the manuscripts, the Epitome is structured in a clear and obvious biographical fashion, but the manuscripts of the Historiae abbreviataepresent a much more varied and ambiguous arrangement. Now, in order to facilitate comparison, Schott imposed the Epitome’s structure on to the Historiae. The result was not entirely successful. Wherever the history becomes complicated, the chapter divisions become distracting and awkward. Ch. 25, for example, ends with Maximinus making his homonymous son Caesar, while 26 begins with their two years of uncontested rule, and the success of their German campaigns, and we do not actually get to their demise until 27.3. In the Epitome, by contrast, the whole (extremely scrappy) account of their reign is compressed into the two sentences of its ch. 25. So too the account of Carus, Carinus, and Numerian is awkwardly split into two chapters (38 and 39), solely based on the fact that Diocletian is introduced amid the funk of Numerian’s rotting corpse, where in the Epitome we have two neat chapters covering Carus and his sons (38) and Diocletian (39). The most extreme example is the division between ch. 14 and 15, which Schott inserted in the middle of a sentence. Scardino and Nickbakht are not shy when it comes to restructuring—in four places, they take the worrying decision to renumber some of the versus to bring them into accord with their understanding of the sense of the passage (caveant lectores of 15.4, 19.3, 20.1, and 39.44!), and yet they leave entirely undisturbed Schott’s chapter divisions, which ignore the structure transmitted in the manuscripts and are incompatible with the internal logic of Victor’s text. Indeed, their explanation of Victor’s modus operandi seems to fall prey to conceptual slippage between his text as he wrote it and the way it has been structured in the editions (8).

 I have discussed this one aspect at some length to stand for others: what Victor’s text needs is a fundamental reanalysis without preconceptions, and this is what Scardino and Nickbakht do not provide, beyond their courageous decision to print the manuscript title. Further examples of all sorts can be gleaned from throughout the text: at 15.3 they print Victor’s version of the famous Platonic dictum about philosopher-kings as fortunatas urbes fore, si regna sapientiae sunt and translate it as ‘Städte dann erst glücklich sein werden, wenn ihre Herrscher Weisheit besitzen’ (74). The translation absolutely reflects what Victor must have meant, or as the great Anne Dacier put it centuries ago in her note to this passage, hoc est, si sapientes tantum regnent. The problem is that there is no way that the nonsense si regna sapientiae sunt means that, and indeed, it is not even clear that one of the two manuscripts (P) actually reads sapientiae and not the much preferable sapientis or sapientum.

At other points, Scardino and Nickbakht accept untenable conjectures. For example, in their note on 16.12, data cunctis promiscue civitas Romana, Scardino and Nickbakht follow conventional opinion in chalking up to Victor (or his source) the error that Marcus Aurelius and not Caracalla was responsible for extending Roman citizenship to all the inhabitants of the empire (192). And yet that interpretation rests on Schott’s conjecture promiscue where the manuscripts read the impossible promissis (as they discuss in the directly preceding note). It is dubious in the extreme to introduce historical error into an historiographic text by conjecture. If we were to read something else equally plausible paleographically (pro meritis ?), Victor’s claim would take on quite a different complexion.

At other points, Scardino and Nickbakht prefer to stick with manuscript error against earlier emendation. For example, they do not follow Dufraigne (and the early modern editions) in giving the emperor Balbinus the accurate name Caelius, attested by coins and inscriptions, opting instead for the manuscript reading Caecilius at 28.7 and 27.6. What is more likely: that Victor who attests a remarkable grasp on rare nomenclature—he is, for example, the only Latin literary source to give Gallienus the nomen Licinius—got it wrong or that the late and corrupt manuscript tradition of Victor inserted an errant syllable, perhaps inspired by the name of Caecilius Balbus in the wildly popular Policraticus of John of Salisbury? Similarly, their text has Decius and son perish Bruti fraude (29.4), following the manuscripts, and ignoring Gruter’s palmary Abruti (Abryti Dufraigne), since they ‘ergibt einen guten Sinn’ (S./N. 230), and Abritus (the site of the battle where they were killed) is not trans Danubium. But there is no known person named Brutus on hand to perpetrate the fraud—by itself, reason enough to reject the manuscript reading—and Victor probably means that the Decii were pursuing the barbarians who were attempting to flee across the Danube, thirty miles north.

Let all these examples stand for many others. At points, Scardino and Nickbakht offer an incremental improvement to the text, and the solid handful of conjectures they propose ought to be carefully considered by future editors. At other points, they represent a step backward from Dufraigne. But most of the time, their text simply perpetuates the status quo.

It is a pleasure to spend some time in Victor’s company, one that too few Latinists and ancient historians have indulged in. It is doubly a pleasure to do it with a well-made volume, with a substantial complement of aids to understanding and supplementary materials. For that reason, this new edition of Victor is very much a welcome addition to scholarship, and will be essential reading for scholars of late Roman history and historiography. But it is still not the edition that Victor deserves. What Richard Tarrant wrote in his review of Dufraigne back in 1978 can be echoed: ‘This is not the text of Aurelius Victor that was looked for.’[3]


[1] C. Ando, Review of H. W. Bird, (trans.), Sextus Aurelius Victor, Liber de Caesaribus in BMCR 1995.03.21.

[2] See J. A. Stover and G. W. Woudhuysen, ‘Aurelius Victor and the Ending of Sallust’s Jugurtha’, Hermathena 199 (2015) [published 2020], 93-134.

[3] R. J. Tarrant, Review of P. Dufraigne, ed. Aurélius Victor, Livre des Césars in Gnomon 50 (1978). 355-62 at 362.