Eutropius Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Eutropius fl. c. 320-c. 387

Roman historian.

A high-ranking official in the governments of several Roman emperors, Eutropius wrote what was for centuries considered one of the standard Roman histories. Written for the emperor Valens in 369 or 370, Eutropius's Breviarium ab Urbe Condita (Compendium of Roman History) summarizes the history of Rome, particularly chronicling its military and political concerns from its founding in 753 B.C. to 364 A.D. Although the book has been somewhat neglected in the twentieth century, it has influenced generations of historians and is still used today to supplement Roman republican and imperial history.

Biographical Information

Most of what can be constructed of Eutropius's biography has been garnered from secondary references to Eutropius, for he says very little about himself in the Breviarium. While critics disagree on the accuracy of these secondary attributions, it is generally accepted that he was born in Italy or in the province of Asia soon after 320, for he was a contemporary of the Emperor Valens (b. 328?) and Julian (b. 331). Eutropius's parents were probably quite wealthy but not of senatorial rank, for although Eutropius was well-educated, service in the imperial secretariat was generally pursued by curiales, members of the middle class. His career in the Eastern bureaucracy makes it likely that he studied Greek and law, probably in Rome, where students from throughout the empire gathered.

Soon after 340 he gained entry into the imperial secretariats, beginning his career as a clerk under Constantius in the eastern section of the Secretary of State for Correspondence (magister epistularum). When Constantius died in 361, Julian became sole emperor; he shortly afterward formed an investigatory committee that led to the banishment of six high government officials and the execution of five others. Eutropius must have been cleared of any wrongdoing, for he later accompanied Julian on the Persian campaign in 363 and was among the military and court officials to choose Julian's successor when he died in that same year. Julian was succeeded by Jovian and later Valentinian, during which time Eutropius continued to serve as a senior official. Some time afterward Eutropius was taken on in the administration of the Eastern Emperor Valens, brother of Valentinian; in his Breviarium he claims to have accompanied Valens in 367-69 in his campaign against the Goths.

A promotion to the senior post of Secretary of State for General Petitions (magister memoriae) under Valens followed in 369. Eutropius wrote the Breviarium in that year or the next, possibly to show his gratitude to Valens for his promotion to the most important of the three Secretariats. Eutropius then became proconsul of Asia from 371 to 372, a position through which he had direct access to the Emperor; while in this position, Eutropius received a constitution on the restoration of the cities to Asia of part of their civic lands and restored buildings at Magnesia. Although he was later implicated in a plot against Valens, for which he was brought to Antioch on the charge of complicity, Eutropius probably was exonerated, for he escaped the many executions—of guilty and innocent alike—that followed. Nonetheless, he was removed from the proconsulship.

When Valentinian died in 375, followed by Valens in 378, the succession of Gratian and Theodosius marked Eutropius's return to political life. Sometime after 372 Eutropius travelled to Rome and was accepted in the court of Gracian; he was installed as prefect of Illyricum under Theodosius from 380 to 381, during which time Eutropius influenced the establishment of many laws, some of which lessened the punishment for various crimes. After concluding his prefecture in late 381, he moved to Constantinople, continuing to enjoy the approval of the Emperor Theodosius, who elected him Eastern consul in 387.

Major Works

Eutropius's only extant work is the Breviarium. Working primarily from source materials, including an abridgement of Livy's Epitome, Suetonius auctus, and what is known as Enmann's Kaisergeschichte, the book covers the whole of Roman history "from the founding of the city" (ab urbe condita) in 753 B.C. to the death of Jovian in 364 A.D., and was probably commissioned by Valens so that he, Valentinian, and the military commanders could acquire a sound knowledge of Roman history, which was demanded of them by the senatorial aristocracy. The history may also have been intended to bolster support of Valens's aggressive foreign policy against the Persians, which he undertook in order to recover the land surrendered by Jovian. Although the Breviarium's ten short books are primarily concerned with the most important events in the lives of the emperors and with wars and their importance in the expansion and contraction of the empire, Eutropius reveals both a pro-senatorial bias—praising emperors who are on good terms with the senate—and a disdain for unnecessary conflict.

Critical Reception

The popularity of the Breviarium is attested to by its translation into Greek a mere ten years after its composition; indeed, Paeanius's translation of 380 was followed by two other Greek translations: in the sixth century by Capito of Lycia, and in traces of the Chronographia of Theophanes the Confessor, an eighth-century Greek author. The Breviarium became a common textbook in the Middle Ages, both in its original form and in the expanded versions of Paul the Deacon (c. 800) and Landolfus Sagax (c. 1000). Later historians—including Peter Damiani (Historia Remensis), Henry of Huntingdon (Historia Anglorum), Vincent de Beauvais (Speculum Doctrinae), Saint Jerome, Ammianus Marcellinus, Saint Augustine, and Bede—would draw on Eutropius heavily in their own work. Editorial interest increased in the sixteenth century, when various editions of the Breviarium appeared; Daniel Nathan Erickson conjectures that the popularity of the Breviarium grew because it could be copied quickly due to its brevity, thus making it both attractive to manuscript copyists and less expensive for the public. Numerous editions appeared throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the Breviarium was used as a Latin textbook in Germany, Britain, and elsewhere. Although interest in the book has waned somewhat in the twentieth century, it continues to be used to supplement Roman republican and imperial history. The appearance of two new English translations in the last ten years also attests to a renewed interest in Eutropius and his work, which, as H. W. Bird has written, "for several hundred years after its composition … played a major role in transmitting knowledge of Rome to later generations."