- Valerius Maximus Introduction - Essay


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.