BMCR 2023.06.04

Die Erzählungen des Valerius Maximus

, Die Erzählungen des Valerius Maximus. Bibliothek der klassischen Altertumswissenschaften, 165. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, 2022. Pp. 502. ISBN 9783825349196.

Over the course of the past thirty years, interest in Valerius Maximus and his Facta et dicta memorabilia has increased steadily. Long considered unworthy of independent study, Valerius’ work has come to be acknowledged as literature in its own right—an original and deliberately composed literary text. Despite the growing popularity of the Facta et dicta memorabilia, however, larger-scale narratological studies determined to scrutinise Valerius’ approach as a narrator are rare. One of the reasons for this might be the fact that Valerius’ work, consisting of nine books and over a thousand historical exempla, can be read at four different levels: the whole, the book, the chapter, and the individual exemplum. Of these four, it is primarily the levels of the chapter and the exemplum at which Valerius’ abilities as a narrator become particularly evident. It therefore does not come as a surprise that Thomas Tschögele’s new narratological study is limited to these two levels.

Tschögele’s book, which started life as a PhD thesis, begins without a proper methodological introduction, in other words without a clear statement of intent regarding the study’s objectives or guiding research questions. Thus the reader is kept guessing as to how Tschögele’s ‘comprehensive narratological and structural analysis’ (p. 5: ‘umfassende erzähltechnische und strukturelle Analyse’) of Valerius’ text will actually manifest itself and what in particular his research seeks to uncover or demonstrate. Rather than outlining the purpose of his study, Tschögele’s introduction consists of an extensive review of previous research concerning Valerius and his work. The survey shows critical rigour, but because such a review of previous work cannot deliver major new insights, it feels as if this section could have been kept more succinct. By far the most innovative introductory chapter is Tschögele’s discussion of the term anecdote, which he prefers over exemplum when referring to the individual historical episodes compiled by Valerius. Focussing on the formal rather than the functional aspects of Valerius’ exemplary material, Tschögele opts to follow the Oxford English Dictionary’s rather broad definition of anecdote as ‘[t]he narrative of a detached incident, or of a single event, told as being in itself interesting or striking’ (p. 48). It is, however, not until p. 53 that Tschögele actually starts to explain the intentions behind his project. In the brief introduction to the first main part of his study, he states the aim of examining Valerius’ narrative approach at the level of the individual exemplum with the help of two different structuralist narratologies. Considering his research as an ‘Experiment einer “quantitativen Narratologie”’ (p. 56), he seeks to compile a set of reliable narratological data to facilitate a more nuanced comparison between Valerius’ work and similar texts or genres.

Tschögele commences by applying the systematic narratological framework developed by Gérard Genette to describe the structure of fictional narratives to his own corpus of hand-picked ‘anecdotes’ from the Facta et dicta memorabilia.[1] Adapting the main concepts scrutinised by Genette (ordre, durée, fréquence, mode and voix) for his purpose, Tschögele presents his readers with a detailed statistical analysis of the frequency of occurrence of the various modes of narrative presentation identifiable within his sample material. However, while these statistics can reveal some general tendencies within the Facta et dicta memorabilia (e.g. the propensity to brevity or the reluctance to deviate more than necessary from the main topic of the exemplum), the larger part of the evidence gathered appears too inconclusive—or perhaps merely too impenetrable?—to accentuate the key principles of Valerius’ narrative approach. For the most part, it remains unclear in what way the ordinary reader of Valerius is meant to utilise Tschögele’s extensive sets of descriptive data (consisting mainly of numbers, tables and percentages), as there is only very limited evaluative discussion of the significance of the finds. Tschögele’s study leaves no doubt that Genette’s narratology can also be applied to short ‘anecdotal’ texts such as Valerius’ exempla, but the practical value of such a laborious exercise is to be questioned.

More fruitful is Tschögele’s examination of Valerius’ narrative on the basis of William Labov and Joshua Waletzky’s model of ‘narrative analysis’, a narratological framework developed for the purpose of providing a functional analysis of oral accounts.[2] Not satisfied with Roberto Guerrini’s basic concept of Valerius’ exempla as predominantly tripartite structures (esordio-presentazione, racconto storico, riflessione conclusiva), [3] Tschögele adapts Labov and Waletzky’s model by classifying the principal syntactical elements of his samples according to their respective narrative functions (abstract, orientation, complicating action, evaluation, resolution, coda). His analysis, and in particular the tabular overview provided in Appendix 1.b (pp. 425–457), helps the reader develop a more nuanced understanding of the constants and variables in Valerius’ narrative approach at the level of the individual exemplum.

Since Tschögele describes his study as an ‘experiment of quantitative analysis’, however, a few comments on his statistical procedure are in order. Selecting suitable samples for quantitative studies is always a challenge. Tschögele approaches this issue by choosing one chapter from each of the nine books of the Facta et dicta memorabilia, while simultaneously aiming to build a corpus of great thematic variety (p. 57: ‘mit Bedacht so gewählt, dass sie möglichst viel von der Breite des Gesamtwerks abdecken’). This decision comes with some potential problems. First of all, the number of exempla per chapter included within Tschögele’s corpus differs greatly, ranging from five (Val. Max. 5.7) to eighteen exempla (1.7). In a study which relies to a large extent on percentages, this is an extraordinarily wide margin. Secondly, Tschögele examines 89 exempla in total, less than a tenth of Valerius’ collection, and it is impossible to tell whether the quantitative results of his study would have been different had he chosen to focus on different sample chapters. In any case, the fact that his sample material has not been selected randomly has an immediate impact on the statistical validity of his research, as Tschögele himself is ready to admit (p. 57 n. 168: ‘[D]er Berücksichtigung möglichst aller im Werk vorkommenden erzähltechnischen Mittel und Tendenzen wurde Vorrang gegeben vor der statistischen Repräsentativität der Auswahl für das Gesamtwerk, der mit einer Zufallsstichprobe am besten gedient wäre’).

Tschögele concludes the first part of his study by attempting to put his own results in relation to insights gained from previous studies into other ancient forms of anecdotal narratives. Without much comparable data at hand, however, this discussion remains largely superficial. Perhaps the most significant observation is that the narrative approach of the Facta et dicta memorabilia appears to differ to some extent from that of seemingly similar compilations, such as Plutarch’s Sayings of Kings and Commanders or Aelian’s Various History. Instead, Valerius’ use of his anecdotal material shows obvious parallels to the way in which his two main sources, Cicero and Livy, employ historical exempla within their works.

In the second main part of his study, Tschögele makes the commendable decision to look beyond the individual exemplum and to turn his attention to Valerius’ transitions between consecutive exempla as well as the organisational principles at the chapter level. Comparing the transitional methods found in the Facta et dicta memorabilia to those used in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, he identifies several striking similarities between the two texts, but does not fail also to acknowledge Valerius’ own ways of arranging and connecting his material. Based on his observations, Tschögele argues in favour of classifying Valerius’ chapters as distinct ‘typological-episodical narratives’ (p. 307: ‘eine besondere Art von Erzählung, die man typologisch-episodisch nennen kann’), which are not only connected thematically (p. 330: ‘durch eine rein abstrakte Thematik’), but also on narrative grounds, namely as varying anecdotal depictions of the same archetypal, perhaps even stereotypical, characters (ibid.: ‘Typen […], die von Anekdote zu Anekdote von wechselnden historischen Personen verkörpert werden’). According to Tschögele, Valerius’ chapter prefaces function mainly as typological summaries, propounding the lesson to be learnt from the exempla that follow (p. 330–331). At the same time, these prefaces also help connect the individual chapters, creating the impression of a single, continuous narrative event (p. 332: ‘Anschein einer einzigen großen Erzählsitzung’).

In an attempt to further defend his own reading of Valerius’ chapters as coherent argumentative units, Tschögele closes by drawing attention to the reception of the Facta et dicta memorabilia during the Renaissance. In Tschögele’s eyes, the circumstance that, during this period of great appreciation for Valerius and his work, Valerius was widely perceived both as a moralist and a historian should be seen as further evidence that the Facta et dicta memorabilia was not intended as a loose compendium of individual anecdotes or as a promptuary for orators, but as a deliberately designed and progressing narrative in ethical categories. One might, of course, ask to what extent the views of Renaissance scholars can be taken as indications of Valerius’ own narrative ambitions during the early Principate, but it would also be unwise to ignore such circumstantial evidence altogether.

All in all, Tschögele’s study is a mixed bag. The large sets of quantitative data collected in the first part of the study may be of relevance to scholars enthusiastic about the statistical side of modern narratology. To the ordinary reader of the Facta et dicta memorabilia interested in the guiding principles of Valerius’ narrative approach, however, they will be of limited benefit. Tschögele’s discussion of the organisational principles discernible at the chapter level, on the other hand, demonstrates how seemingly disparate anecdotal material can be sewn together into coherent typological narrative. It is likely to be this aspect of Tschögele’s work that readers of Valerius’ text will appreciate the most.



[1] G. Genette, ‘Discours du récit: Essai de méthode.’ In: G. Genette, Figures III, Paris 1972, 67-282. See also G. Genette, Nouveau discours du récit, Paris 1983.

[2] W. Labov and J. Waletzky, ‘Narrative Analysis: Oral Versions of Personal Experience.’ In: J. Helm (ed.), Essays on the Verbal and Visual Arts: Proceedings of the 1966 Annual Spring Meeting of the American Ethnological Society, Seattle 1967, 12–44. See also W. Labov, ‘The Transformation of Experience in Narrative Syntax.’ In: W. Labov, Language in the Inner City: Studies in the Black English Vernacular, Philadelphia 1972, 354–396.

[3] R. Guerrini, Studi su Valerio Massimo, Pisa 1981.