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Valerius Maximus -fl. c. 20

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Roman historian and moralist.

A Roman historical writer of the early imperial era, Valerius Maximus produced a single, nine-volume compilation of Latin anecdotal history entitled the Factorum et dictorum memorabilium novem libri (c. 31); Memorable Doings and Sayings). Focusing on selected individuals from the history of Rome culled from its mythic origins to the reign of Tiberius in the early first century Valerius's collection is usually considered part of the exempla tradition. As such, it offers accounts of characters, behaviors, and attitudes that appear to have been exclusively designed to convey a moral lesson. Marred by historical errors and inconsistencies, which the author knowingly manipulated for narrative effect, the Memorable Doings and Sayings is additionally characterized by Valerius's artificial style and pretentious moralizing. Generally regarded as a text of historical interest rather than one of literary merit, the work nevertheless enjoyed a period of acclaim in medieval and early Renaissance Europe and boasts an impressive manuscript tradition.

Biographical Information

Almost nothing is known of the life of Valerius. In his writings, he explains that he was born into a poor family and later enjoyed the patronage of Sextus Pompeius, who would serve as Roman consul in 14 and later as proconsul to Asia from 27. Valerius accompanied his patron to Asia Minor (via the Aegean island of Ceos) and it is during his time in the east that he probably wrote his Memorable Doings and Sayings. (The matter of precisely dating the work, however, has not been satisfactorily settled by scholars.) Aside from very scattered internal references to Valerius's life contained within the Memorable Doings and Sayings, any other information regarding Valerius or the actual composition of this prose collection is speculative.

Textual History

A handful of manuscripts of the Memorable Doings and Sayings survive from the late Roman period, including a crucial fourth-century codex by Julius Paris and an epitome fragment by Januarius Nepotianus from about 500. Remarkably popular in the Middle Ages, Valerius's historical collection circulated in numerous manuscripts. Many selections of the work copied by medieval hands have survived, including one ninth-century text by Heirich of Auxerre. By 1369, it had been translated into German, and in the ensuing centuries it appeared in other major European languages. The first English translation was undertaken by Samuel Speed in 1678. A Latin manuscript edition edited by Pighius was typeset in 1567 and reprinted almost twenty times before the middle of the seventeenth century. Interest in Valerius's work subsequently declined, although further editions continued to appear into the middle of the nineteenth century. The publication of Carl Kempf's authoritative Editio maior (1854) replaced all editions that had preceded it. Kempf's revised version, the 472-page Teubner text (1888), served as the standard critical reconstruction of the Factorum et dictorum memorabilium in the twentieth century. This volume, principally based on the ninth-century Berne manuscript, also includes additional evidence from several later texts from the thirteenth and fourteenth-centuries. A long-awaited update to the Teubner series appeared with the publication of J. Briscoe's (1998) edition of the Factorum et dictorum memorabilium, a work supplemented by the contemporary translations of D. Wardle (1998) and D. R. Shackleton Bailey (2000).

Major Works

An collection of fact-based anecdotes that display a strong moralistic tone and a reverential attitude toward the history of Rome, Valerius's Memorable Doings and Sayings opens with an adulatory dedication to the Roman emperor Tiberius. Its multiple books feature a host of sketches and stories drawn from established sources, including the writings of Cicero, Livy, and Sallust. In...

(The entire section contains 1614 words.)

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Principal Works