BMCR 2022.11.38

Reading by example: Valerius Maximus and the historiography of exempla

, , Reading by example: Valerius Maximus and the historiography of exempla. Historiography of Rome and its empire, 11. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2022. Pp. xi, 352. ISBN 9789004499409 $137.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]


In 1975, C.J. Carter, in a volume on Latinists of the so-called ‘Silver Age’, stated that, ‘[i]n many ways Valerius [Maximus] never deserved to survive, and he still obstinately refuses to die. Paradoxes like this surround an author whom modern taste rightly finds one of the most tedious and affected products of the ancient world’.[1] Although believed for much of the twentieth century to have been nothing more than a collector of other people’s exemplary stories, W. Martin Bloomer’s Valerius Maximus and the Rhetoric of the New Nobility was foundational in asserting that Valerius Maximus was an author worth reading (and that the facta et dicta deserved to survive the vagaries of time). Bloomer took seriously the idea that this Tiberian author was active in crafting his facta et dicta, and that he had a literary and historical ‘voice’ worthy of study on its own merits. This volume started life at a conference entitled “Valerius Maximus: 25 Years After Bloomer”, held at the University of Cape Town in October 2017, intending to emphasise how scholarship on Valerius had grown since Bloomer’s publication in 1992. Indeed, many of the contributors to this volume have been active in recent years in continuing to rehabilitate Valerius Maximus’ image.

Murray’s Introduction to this volume usefully outlines some of the most substantial scholarship on Valerius Maximus (with a good bibliography), making this introductory chapter an essential place for any scholar beginning their study of Valerius Maximus. Thereafter, the volume is divided into four parts, ‘Architecture and Order’, ‘Roman History’, ‘Values’ and ‘Reception and Tradition’. These parts are broadly framed to best encapsulate the disparate themes of the chapters within. Perhaps inevitably in such a volume, the individual chapters explicitly speak little to each other. Yet the strength of this volume lies in the contributors all participating in the same historiographical exercise: how Valerius Maximus and his facta et dicta can (and should) be read within the literary and historical context of the Tiberian principate. Thus, while individual contributions on specific topics of Valerius’ interest (e.g. Murray on vice) may attract a focused reader, there is much to be gained by reading this volume as a whole. In so doing, readers are encouraged to join the ongoing debate on how best we can read, use, and understand Valerius and his work. While not all explicitly discuss methodologies for reading Valerius Maximus, the contributions highlight the elasticity of approaches that can be taken to reading the facta et dicta, and (on occasion) the potential pitfalls of certain approaches. Thus, many of the contributors to this volume question how we can read Valerius through the lens of other ancient writers, notably Cicero, Cornelius Nepos, Livy, Dionysius of Halicarnassus and Tacitus. Others tackle the tricky question of the utility of the facta et dicta as a lens for understanding the Tiberian period (or, vice versa, for using the Tiberian period to understand Valerius and his text).  Still others read Valerius by isolating specific structures and themes within the facta et dicta. In asking such questions, this volume is an important addition to the Historiography of Rome and its Empire series.

Part 1 – ‘Architecture and Order’ – contains two chapters which ask questions of the structure and focus of Valerius Maximus. Despite many of Valerius’ exempla lacking chronological order and recognisable contextual details to identify an exemplum’s place within time, Wardle’s contribution convincingly demonstrates that there are interesting avenues for reading the facta et dicta with an eye to Valerius’ awareness (and use) of periodisation and chronology. Wardle’s contribution is characterised by a careful appreciation of how Valerius’ language evinces his recognition of different periods of Roman history. Yet Wardle’s attempt to quantify Valerius’ Roman exempla and demarcate them as belonging to strict ‘Periods’ of Roman history (see Table 2.1 on p. 20) has the potential to be misleading in the study of Valerius. Although Wardle is wary of drawing firm conclusions from this periodisation of Roman history, the process of placing (perhaps arbitrary) importance on certain dates above others risks giving the impression that we have proof for how Valerius conceptualised and structured time. The following contribution by Lawrence tackles Valerius’ unique structural decision to include both ‘internal’ (Roman) and ‘external’ (non-Roman) exempla. In perhaps the most important of the contributions to the volume, Lawrence uses Valerius chapter 2.6 as a microcosm of his approach to external exempla across the facta et dicta. Lawrence examines the 21 unique exempla in this chapter – a chapter containing no Roman exempla at all – to convincingly show that external exempla are not merely external curiosities or ancillary to Valerius’ didactic aim. Through a careful analysis of Valerius’ language, and the ways in which he plays with the discourse of exemplarity, Lawrence demonstrates that Valerius uses external exempla to show Romans that foreign peoples have as much to teach them as examples from their own history.

The next four essays are loosely united by a focus on ‘Roman History’. Atkinson’s contribution asks what can be gained by reading Valerius with a focus on an individual figure – Coriolanus – and the disparate exempla that mention him across the facta et dicta. Atkinson seeks to find Tiberian elements in Valerius’ representation of Coriolanus. Yet Atkinson’s attempt to read Coriolanus as a reflection of the Tiberian age (and Tiberius himself) is undermined slightly by the complexities of nailing down Tiberian ‘history’ with certainty. For instance, Atkinson relies on Dio’s perhaps simplistic picture of the tensions between Tiberius and his mother, Livia, and the extent to which the princeps attempted to restrain and set limits upon her power and status (Dio 57.12.4-6), to find a parallel for the apparently ‘muted’ Veturia, mother of Coriolanus in Valerius’ text (p. 86). Yet Atkinson leaves unquestioned the reliability of Dio’s representation of Tiberius’ relationship with his mother, and how this might differ from – for instance – the public role of Livia in the trial of Plancina, as announced in the senatus consultum de Pisone patre.[2] The following chapter, Roth’s careful categorisation of the Italian allies in the facta et dicta, demonstrates Valerius’ active hand in forging distinctions between ‘Italian’ and ‘Roman’, and ‘Italian’ and ‘Campanian’. In so doing, Roth demonstrates that Valerius is not afraid to deliberately include rumour and exaggeration in crafting his exemplary tales, and thus warns those coming to Valerius Maximus as a mine for historical detail that they are bound to be disappointed. As long as we read the facta et dicta as an unashamedly moral text, Roth rightly asserts, then we can ask more fruitful questions of the author and the text. Lentzsch’s subsequent chapter on spoils of war reads the facta et dicta through the lens of earlier literary texts. He stresses the distance between Valerius and his predecessors (Livy, Sallust and Cicero) in that his exempla do not emphasise the corrupting nature of spoils and victories. While strong in making this comparison, Lentzsch spends too little time answering the questions of why and how Valerius did this. Gowing’s contribution – and the final essay in Part 2 – reads the facta et dicta by looking forward to Tacitus’ Annals. Gowing attempts to detect the deliberate absence of Germanicus in the facta et dicta as evidence of Valerius’ authorial aims, and illuminates several places in the text where the omission of Germanicus is potentially evident and noteworthy. Yet, although Gowing acknowledges the ongoing debate about Tacitus’ characterisation of Germanicus (p. 153), his refusal to engage deeply in that debate potentially make his conclusions less convincing than they ought to be. Gowing’s conception of Tacitus’ Germanicus as being ‘a largely positive exemplum’ (p. 153), for example, makes him overestimate the importance of Germanicus’ trip to Egypt and underestimate the complex reasons for Tacitus’ detailed inclusion of Germanicus behaviour in Egypt (Tac. Ann. 2.59-61).[3] While it is possible to note the absence of Germanicus’ trip to Egypt and of any Egyptian miracula in Valerius’ text, the complex thematic and narrative reasons for its prominence in the Annals does not necessarily make its absence in the facta et dicta as noteworthy as it might seem.

Part 3 concerns ‘Values’, and the four essays in this part all read Valerius with a focus on specific themes. Langlands reads Valerius’ de patientia (3.3) as a philosophical response to Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations, and argues that the exempla of 3.3 have been deliberately chosen and re-worked to highlight the potential weaknesses in Cicero’s argument and reliance on Stoic philosophy. In so doing, Langlands convincingly demonstrates that Valerius is provoking his readers to react to the text, and thus draw his readers into an ethical discussion in which they reflect upon what both Cicero and Valerius have presented, and come to their own ethical conclusions as to the utility of philosophy as a way of enduring pain. Baroud’s essay tackles Valerius’ representation of amicitia and posits that it is a crucial indicator that Valerius’ facta et dicta is a subtle and complex social narrative and commentary. Murray reads Valerius’ treatment of vice against his literary precursors and within the context of the Tiberian principate, and rightly stresses that the scale and range of vices treated by Valerius, especially sustained in 9.1-11, is unique in Latin literature. Brobeck concludes this Part with a particularly fine reading of Valerius’ treatment of art and literature. She persuasively reveals that Valerius stresses the exemplary value of both art and literature – that both inspire audiences to action – but also that for Valerius, the ambiguities of art (but not of text) have the potential to be deceptive and harmful. Images accompanying this contribution would have been very welcome to assist the reader.

As Murray acknowledges in the Introduction (p. 9), the weight of the volume is on its first three parts with only two chapters covering Part 4, ‘Reception and Tradition’. Although this reviewer is not wholly convinced by Burgersdijk’s primary argument that Valerius’ facta et dicta was a ‘sub-species of biography’ (p. 287), Burgersdijk nonetheless provides interesting hints at the possibilities (and complications) for considering the reception of Valerius Maximus in historiography of late antiquity. Conrau-Lewis’ final chapter reveals a litany of Christian readers of Valerius in the Middle Ages, and how the facta et dicta were used, excerpted, and manipulated in the preaching of Christian values. Although likely an exaggeration, the kernel of truth in Niebuhr’s oft-cited claim that ‘[t]hroughout the Middle Ages, Valerius Maximus was considered the most important book next to the Bible’,[4] means that there remains a sizeable gap in the potential readings of Valerius in the Middle Ages in this volume.

This strong collection of essays on Valerius Maximus contributes much to his rehabilitation as an author worth studying in his own right. Yet, many of the contributions to this volume  still adopt a predominantly defensive tone; that we still need to justify looking at Valerius Maximus on his own merits. Despite being 25 years since Bloomer’s study, it is a shame that the editors of this volume still feel the need to be defensive about the value of studying Valerius. Hopefully this collection of fine essays can contribute much to dispelling the need in future to be defensive in studying this author and his work.


Authors and titles

Jeffrey Murray, Introduction

David Wardle, “Not Putting Roman History in Order?” – Regal, Republican and Imperial Boundaries
Sarah Lawrence And Now for Something Completely Different…

John Atkinson, Coriolanus as an Exemplar in Valerius Maximus
Roman Roth, Boundary Issues: Valerius Maximus on Rome’s Italian Allies
Simon Lentzsch, “Others Took Money from That Victory, but He Took the Glory”: Spoils of War in the Facta et dicta memorabilia
Alain Gowing, Forgetting Germanicus: Reading Valerius Maximus through Tacitus’ Tiberian Books

Rebecca Langlands, Valerius Maximus’ Engagement with Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations on Virtue and the Endurance of Pain, in 3.3 De patientia
George Baroud, Amicitia and the Politics of Friendship in Valerius Maximus
Jeffrey Murray, Valerius Maximus on Vice
Emma Brobeck, Efficacior Pictura: Morality and the Arts in Valerius Maximus

Diederik Burgersdijk, Valerius Maximus’ Facta et dicta memorabilia and the Roman Biographical Tradition
Kyle Conrau-Lewis, Preaching Ancient History: Valerius Maximus and His Manuscript Reception



[1] C.J. Carter (1975) ‘Valerius Maximus.’ Pp. 26-56 in T.A. Dorey (ed.) Empire and Aftermath: Silver Latin II. London/Boston, p. 26.

[2] SCPP esp. ll.109-20, on which see e.g. M.T. Boatwright (2021) Imperial Women of Rome: Power, Gender, Context. Oxford, pp. 42-46.

[3] See e.g. B. Kelly (2010) ‘Tacitus, Germanicus and the Kings of Egypt (Tac. Ann. 2.59-61).’ CQ. 60.1: 221-237; K.E. Shannon-Henderson (2019) Religion and Memory in Tacitus’ Annals. Oxford, esp. pp. 106-111, 117-120.

[4] B.G. Niebuhr (1852) Lectures on the History of Rome. 3rd edn by L. Schmitz (ed.), London, pp. xcvi-xcvii.