- Valerius Maximus Essay - Critical Essays

Valerius Maximus, -


Valerius Maximus -fl. c. 20

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 his preface to the work, Valerius wrote, “The history of Rome and of foreign nations supplies us with many deeds and sayings worthy of remembrance, but they … cannot be apprehended quickly and concisely, so I have decided to make a compendium of selections from illustrious authorities.” Aside from this vague acknowledgement, only very rarely does Valerius cite his sources. The collection itself chiefly relates moral tales associated with the exploits of famous historical figures—emperors, generals, queens, and the like—although it also concerns itself with persons of humbler stature. Some of its most frequently referenced figures belonged to the Roman elite, among them the republican consul Marius, Julius Caesar, Tiberius, and other members of the imperial family. Each story is designed to exemplify a moral or religious lesson, usually illustrative of some vice or virtue. In order to accomplish this task, Valerius almost invariably accompanied his tales with characteristically effusive and pretentious commentary: Caesar earns his praise, while women, slaves, and other social subordinates are routinely treated with condescension. Arranged by subject, the Memorable Doings and Sayings comprises nine books and is subdivided into approximately ninety chapters.

Book I features broadly religious and supernatural topics, including historical tales involving omens, dreams, miracles, and myths. Among the pieces in this section are a retelling of Calpurnia's dream vision presaging the death of her husband, Julius Caesar, anecdotes involving visionary portents of victory experienced by Hannibal and Alexander the Great, and the widely recounted story of Marius and the donkey. Book II deals with social institutions, offering sketches of Roman customs and behavior, including military practices, marriage traditions, and details of public rituals. Individual chapters within Book III concern the subjects of bravery, constancy, and patience, while Book IV concentrates on such themes as moderation, friendship, justice, poverty, modesty, and restraint. Topics in Book V include mercy, piety, gratitude, filial love, and parental severity. Books VI-VIII are less cogently structured than the preceding volumes. Stories of capricious fortune, marital fidelity, and national loyalty fill Book VI. Book VII remarks on military ploys and stratagems and relates certain legal anecdotes. Something of a catch-all selection, Book VIII describes stories of leisure as opposed to diligence, records oratory of exceptional eloquence, and documents instances of human longevity. Vice is the overarching subject of the final Book IX, a collection of sketches concerned with greed, lust, cruelty, and revenge that culminates in a conspiratorial tale of parricide (generally thought to be that perpetrated by Aelius Sejanus in 31, although Valerius reveals no identity.) Throughout the Memorable Doings and Sayings, Valerius typically presents a tale favorably depicting a Roman figure and contrasts it with another involving a foreign protagonist who was sometimes rendered in an unfavorable light. This scheme, however, is not followed with any great consistency. In cases involving a disparity between traditional and contemporary practices, Valerius unfailingly took pains to emphasize the superiority of tradition, a theme that commentators consider central to the work.

Critical Reception

Scholars have found the early critical status of Valerius and his collection of historical anecdotes somewhat difficult to determine; the fact that Pliny the Elder listed the Memorable Doings and Sayings among the sources to his Natural History and that Plutarch mentioned Valerius twice in his writings suggests only moderate interest. Presumably, Valerius's collection was intended for popular consumption and generally treated as such. However, the critical perception and evaluation of Valerius's work changed radically in the medieval period. From about the ninth century onwards, the Memorable Doings and Sayings became the Latin text favored by scholars, grammarians, and instructors of rhetoric. Petrarch undertook an imitation of the work in about 1343, but his Rerum memorandarum libri was left incomplete. Extensive commentary from the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries, primarily concentrated in Italy and Germany, followed as the text reached the acme of its popularity, becoming a ubiquitous component of the European university education. Such circumstances later prompted renowned nineteenth-century German historian Barthold Georg Niebuhr to somewhat hyperbolically declare the Memorable Doings and Sayings “the most important book next to the Bible” in the Middle Ages.

For nearly a century after the appearance of Kempf's second edition in 1888, scholarly interest in Valerius's work—outside the realm of manuscript analysis, editorial emendation, and Quellenforschung (“source-hunting”) mainly conducted by generations of German scholars—dropped off steeply. The principal cause appears to have been Valerius's prose style, which in the twentieth century generally elicited strongly negative reactions from critics. Adjectives such as turgid, tedious, and bombastic have commonly been used to describe it. Modern critics additionally list rhetorical artifice, clumsy use of metaphor, and a pretentious tone among its aesthetic defects. Some hundred years after the publication of Kempf's second edition, however, a new resurgence of critical interest in the Memorable Doings and Sayings occurred.

Meanwhile, late twentieth-century scholars reopened a once closed debate involving the appropriate dating of the text. The standard and majority view relates a passage in Book IX to the fall of the military leader Sejanus, which suggests that the piece must have been published after 31 and that bulk of the text was probably written between the years 27 and 31. Others have proposed a somewhat earlier composition date near the beginning of Tiberius's reign in roughly 14 to 17. Still other dates have also been suggested within the range of 14 to 37. As contemporary critics have acknowledged both historical indeterminancies and Valerius's stylistic shortcomings, including his relentless use of forced antitheses, clichés, exaggeration, and sententious moralizing, many have opted to focus their attention elsewhere. Admitting that on a factual level the value of the Memorable Doings and Sayings is negligible—owing to its innumerable errors, contradictions, obscurities, and inconsistencies—commentators have concentrated on the moralizing intent and dubious historiography of the work. Most have viewed the collection as part of the exempla tradition. Thus, scholars have pointed out that Valerius frequently altered historical details and events to serve his didactic purposes. Some have argued that the collected tales were effectively “dehistoricized” for specific ideological purposes, including Valerius's glorification of the Roman past and sycophantic praise of the imperial regime. Overall, commentators have asserted that, whatever its shortcomings, the Memorable Doings and Sayings provides valuable insight into early imperial Rome and offers a unique perspective owing to Valerius's nonpatrician social status.

Principal Works

Factorum et dictorum memorabilium novem libri [Facta et dicta memorabilia] (short stories and sketches) c. 31

Valerius Maximus: Memorable Deeds and Sayings Book I (translated by D. Wardle) 1998

Memorable Doings and Sayings (translated by D. R. Shackleton Bailey) 2000

(The entire section is 37 words.)


Konrad Gries (essay date April 1955)

SOURCE: Gries, Konrad. “Valerius-Maximus an Minimus?” Classical Journal 51, no. 7 (April 1955): 335-39.

[In the following essay, Gries decries the content of Valerius's Memorable Doings and Sayings as “nothing but a huge collection of anecdotes, drawn mainly from the history of Rome,” notes Valerius's rhetorically excessive style, and summarizes the textual history of the collection.]

Modern literary historians do not think much of him. To Fowler, he is “artificial, pompous, and dull.” According to Rose, he has a “most atrocious style, bombastic, would-be-clever, full of artificial and at the same time clumsy and obscure phraseology.” Mackail,...

(The entire section is 3066 words.)

C. J. Carter (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: Carter, C. J. “Valerius Maximus.” In Empire and Aftermath, Silver Latin II, edited by T. A. Dorey, pp. 26-56. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975.

[In the following essay, Carter surveys the content, structure, style, sources, influence, textual history, and reception of Valerius's Memorable Doings and Sayings, commenting primarily on the work's stylistic limitations and the reasons for its centuries-long popularity.]

The great German nineteenth-century historian, Niebuhr, was perhaps exaggerating when he said that the Middle Ages considered Valerius Maximus ‘the most important book next to the Bible’1 but he was certainly...

(The entire section is 12032 words.)

Eugene N. Lane (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Lane, Eugene N. “Sabazius and the Jews in Valerius Maximus: A Re-Examination.” Journal of Roman Studies 69 (1979): 35-38.

[In the following essay, Lane remarks on a conflation of Sabazius-worshippers and antique adherents of Judaism that he attributes to errors in the manuscript tradition of Valerius's Memorable Doings and Sayings.]

There has long been accepted as a fact in the study of the cult of Sabazius an ostensible reference to Jews who, as early as 139 b.c., worshipped Sabazius, and were expelled from Rome by the praetor peregrinus Cornelius Hispalus.1 The source of this information is often given without qualification as Valerius...

(The entire section is 2594 words.)

G. Maslakov (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Maslakov, G. “Valerius Maximus and Roman Historiography: A Study of the Exempla Tradition.” Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt (II) 32, no. 1 (1984): 437-96.

[In the following excerpt, Maslakov asserts that a complete understanding of Valerius's Memorable Doings and Sayings requires an analysis within the context of the exempla tradition, claiming that such a reading allows the reader to properly recognize Valerius's historical sensibility as well as his use and manipulation of historical material in the collection.]



(The entire section is 10778 words.)

Robert Hodgson, Jr. (essay date July 1989)

SOURCE: Hodgson, Jr., Robert. “Valerius Maximus and Gospel Criticism.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 51, no. 3 (July 1989): 502-10.

[In the following essay, Hodgson contends that contemporary scholarly criteria justifying the denigration of Valerius's Memorable Doings and Sayings may be obsolete and that the work offers insight into the development of the exempla tradition in its transition from secular Roman to Christian forms.]


In the early years of Tiberius' reign Valerius took to reading Latin and Greek history and collecting anecdotes for an anthology of Roman life. Dedicated to Tiberius and...

(The entire section is 3740 words.)

Robert Hodgson, Jr. (essay date October 1989)

SOURCE: Hodgson, Jr., Robert. “Valerius Maximus and the Social World of the New Testament.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 51, no. 4 (October 1989): 683-93.

[In the following essay, Hodgson focuses on Valerius's depiction of Tiberius and representation of Roman religion in the early Christian era in the Memorable Doings and Sayings.]

Valerius Maximus, a historian and anthologist who wrote under Tiberius, is a significant source of information for reconstructing the social world of early Christianity. This article presents a few passages from Valerius' Factorum et Dictorum Memorabilium Libri Nouem (Of Noteworthy Deeds and Sayings Nine Books)1...

(The entire section is 5088 words.)

Jane Bellemore (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Bellemore, Jane. “When Did Valerius Maximus Write the Dicta et Facta Memorabilia?” Antichthon 23 (1989): 67-80.

[In the following essay, Bellemore presents internal and external evidence to suggest that Valerius's Memorable Doings and Sayings was written near the beginning of Tiberius's reign, circa 14 to 16 a.d., rather than at its end.]

There can be no doubt that Valerius Maximus completed the Dicta et Facta Memorabilia during the reign of Tiberius (a.d. 14-37), although he refers to this emperor only in general terms, as ‘Caesar’, for example, in the preface to the work or, more usually, as princeps. Despite the fact that...

(The entire section is 7033 words.)

W. Martin Bloomer (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Bloomer, W. Martin. “Audience and Design.” In Valerius Maximus and the Rhetoric of the New Nobility, pp. 11-58. Chapel Hill, N. C.: The University of North Carolina Press, 1992.

[In the following excerpt, Bloomer concentrates on the intended audience for and the structural design of Memorable Doings and Sayings, arguing that Valerius's reasons for composing the work were not antiquarian or historical, but rather were motivated by his desire to reinterpret and “de-historicize” existing material.]

From what Valerius tells his reader Memorable Deeds and Sayings is a time-saving, smooth, and seamless collection. In his proem and the prooemia...

(The entire section is 10693 words.)

Clive Skidmore (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Skidmore, Clive. “Valerius's Moral Purpose.” In Practical Ethics for Roman Gentlemen: The Work of Valerius Maximus, pp. 53-82. Exeter, England: University of Exeter Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Skidmore emphasizes the moral-didactic orientation of Valerius's Memorable Doings and Sayings, viewing its central purpose as the depiction of “traditional standards of morality” from a bygone era.]

[T]he true purpose of Valerius's work has been obscured by the gratuitous assumption that it was merely a handbook for rhetoricians and declaimers. That can be seen very clearly in Bloomer's monograph. The author is well aware that Valerius's examples...

(The entire section is 11811 words.)

D. Wardle (essay date October 1997)

SOURCE: Wardle, D. “‘The Sainted Julius’: Valerius Maximus and the Dictator.” Classical Philology 92, no. 4 (October 1997): 323-45.

[In the following essay, Wardle explores Valerius's positive evocations of Julius Caesar in the Memorable Doings and Sayings, including his affirmation of the emperor's bravery and divinity and his generalized support for imperial rule.]

The career of the man who brought to an end Republican government for the Romans and who was at the same time the founder of the first imperial dynasty, Julius Caesar, posed particular problems for writers in the principates of Augustus and Tiberius.1 Geraldine Herbert-Brown in...

(The entire section is 12223 words.)

D. Wardle (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: Wardle, D. Introduction to Valerius Maximus: Memorable Deeds and Sayings, Book I, translated by D. Wardle, pp. 1-25. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

[In the following excerpted introduction to his translation of the Memorable Doings and Sayings, Wardle considers the composition date, content, structure, sources, and textual history of the collection.]


There is very meagre material for a biography of Valerius Maximus; all of it is internal: he tells us that he witnessed the suicide of an old woman in the town of Iulis on the island of Ceos while he was journeying to Asia in the company of Sex....

(The entire section is 7990 words.)

D. Wardle (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Wardle, D. “Valerius Maximus on the Domus Augusta, Augustus, and Tiberius.” Classical Quarterly 50, no. 2 (2000): 479-93.

[In the following essay, Wardle stresses the conventional political orientation of Valerius's Memorable Doings and Sayings in its praise for the Roman imperial family.]

Valerius Maximus' Facta et dicta memorabilia provide an opportunity of seeing how an undistinguished talent responded to the demise of the republic and the establishment of an imperial system. Fergus Millar has argued that we should view Valerius as a contemporary of Ovid, that is as an author influenced by the last years of Augustus and writing in...

(The entire section is 9380 words.)

D. R. Shackleton Bailey (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Bailey, D. R. Shackleton. Introduction to Valerius Maximus: Memorable Doings and Sayings, translated by D. R. Shackleton Bailey, pp. 1-7. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000.

[In the following introduction to his English translation of the Memorable Doings and Sayings, Bailey encapsulates scant facts from Valerius's life and comments on the composition of this collection, noting its moral purpose and modern textual history.]

Nothing is known of Valerius Maximus except what can be gathered from his work. His name survives in early manuscripts and epitomists, but without praenomen. The nomen and cognomen are both common and found combined in...

(The entire section is 1698 words.)

Further Reading


Badian, E. “Two Roman Non-Entities.” Classical Quarterly 63 (1969): 198-204.

Comments on Valerius's misrepresentation of a speech by the expelled Roman senator Duronius in his Memorable Doings and Sayings.

Carney, T. F. “The Picture of Marius in Valerius Maximus.” Rheinisches Museum 105 (1962): 289-337.

Probes Valerius's depiction of the Roman consul Marius in some ninety-three passages of the Memorable Doings and Sayings, arguing that this representation is marred by contradiction and inconsistency.

Fowler, D. P. “Notes on Pighius and Valerius Maximus.” Classical...

(The entire section is 418 words.)