Monday, September 24, 2012


Eleanor Cowan (ed.), Velleius Paterculus: Making History. Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2011. Pp. xiii, 378. ISBN 9781905125456. $100.00.

Reviewed by Isabella Wiegand, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (

Version at BMCR home site

This handy volume is the ideal of the genre. The international and interdisciplinary contributions on Velleius are from the eponymous April 2008 conference at the University of Leicester. Velleius has lived in obscurity on the shelves of Classical libraries, despite Woodman's path-breaking commentary (1977/1983); this appears for once to have benefited the volume, since the articles exclusively come from authors who bring both enthusiasm and expertise to the subject. Compared to usual conference proceedings this volume is unique.

The book is divided into four sections (whose essays are not always entirely at home): I: "Velleius"; II: "Historiography and intertextuality"; III: "Roman themes, Roman values"; IV: "Velleius and ...". Sections II and III will appeal more to scholars of historiography; sections I and IV will prove useful to scholars in other areas. Sections aside, the basic disposition of papers is the following: "those on Velleius and his work", and "those made possible by Velleius and his work" (as Cowan says: the "desire to see what else we might do with Velleius' text", ix).

An entertaining ploy opens the book: Barbara Levick's "Velleius Paterculus as senator: a dream with footnotes" (1-16) is presented as her persona's (presumably fictional) dream about an (unfortunately fictional) newly discovered manuscript: Velleius' son writes about his father. The "letter" is, of course, not merely a imaginative emanation — detailed notes support the piece, as does Levick's profound knowledge of the Tiberian period. The scholarly Gattungskreuzung may seem awkward at first, but it's an original opening to a collected volume.

Edward Bispham's "Time for Italy in Velleius Paterculus" (17-57) examines Velleius' representation of Italy, and its connection to the "bourgeois" (like Velleius and his social equals and contemporaries). He focuses on problems of "time", especially in Velleius' first book, but goes well beyond Feeney's 2007 study (Caesar's Calendar): Bispham attempts to show how the heterogeneous image arising in Velleius' descriptions can function as an exemplar of rise and decline.

The third contribution, "A page in the history of Campania" (59-73), comes from an expert on Velleius' text, Maria Elefante. She investigates Velleius' special connection to Campania, his home region as well as that of Vinicius, his addressee.

Section II begins with John Rich's "Velleius' History: genre and purpose" (S.73-92), which explores historiography and intertextuality. An objective eye thoroughly surveys the fundamentals of the Historia Romana (particularly transmission, chronology, models, genre, dating, addressee and intention). Rich fruitfully situates Velleius in his traditions, especially comparing Sallust and Livy, but offers interesting hypotheses against the grain. Thus, he defines the work as an occasional piece upon Vinicius' assumption of office, meant to bolster Velleius' position in the consul's circle.

The heart of the volume is Martin Bloomer's piece "Transit admiratio: memoria, invidia, and the historian" (93-119)". As in all his scholarship the greatest benefit lies not in the main inquiry (which lacks neither learning nor imagination), but in the shrewd collateral observations. He first analyzes Velleius' attempts to compare the Republican past with the early imperial present, focusing on brevitas and festinatio —principles which appear at first glance to belong to another subject. Bloomer, however, shows the narrative workings of festinatio, which has typically been misunderstood as haste or sloppiness. Specifically, the violations of his allegiance to festinatio indicate what is uniquely memorable, especially in the case of the Caesars. They thereby attain a special status, immune to contemporary invidia. As exceptions, they become a historical telos, Tiberius in particular. Memory of the Republic, which failed due to invidia, is possible for Velleius through brisk pacing (festinatio), which precludes closer investigation and therefore judgment.

John Marincola examines "Explanations in Velleius" (121-140). He concludes that Velleius sees the motor of history as personal, while conceding to him the prospect of "pragmatic" explanations. The biographical interpretation ("Velleius, as a man with political and military career, must have had to make decisions based ... on factors that were wholly pragmatic", 135ff.) still seems problematic.

Victoria Pagán considers the implications of the oft-noted but never examined lexical parallel between Vell. 2,30,6 (huius patrati gloriam) and Tac. Hist. 4,81,2 (patrati remedii gloriam). It's a sign of scholarly integrity that she does not force upon the reader a single solution to the dependency, but rather gives a range of answers.

Christopher Pelling's eminently readable "Velleius and biography: the case of Julius Caesar" (157-176) handles anew the long-standing problem of genre, especially "biography: yes or no?", before turning to the linearity of Velleius' presentation and the Caesars' role in it. The analysis hinges on the "generic takeover" (161) produced by the Caesars' appearance on the historical stage. The essay will disappoint those who expect only what the title promises, but will greatly benefit anyone else.

Part III begins with Ulrich Schmitzer's "Roman values in Velleius" (177-202). He fruitfully discusses these, including concepts such as pax. Through constant comparison with texts from the Augustan period (mostly — other meaningful comparisons are also drawn), he shows Velleius' value for the analysis of concepts of value: how, for example, do they illuminate socio-political relations? The method is (advantageously) German, based on the scholarship and detailed use of the TLL.

John Alexander Lobur's "Resuscitating a text: Velleius' history as cultural evidence" (203-218) distances itself from the usual apology for "second-class" texts by seeing Velleius as a happy accident of transmission. Velleius represents an otherwise lost perspective, provided by non-professional "erudite elites" (203). The Historia Romana serves therefore as a key to understand a culture and socio-political landscape which literary historians cannot glean from the likes of Horace, Livius, Ovid, or Tacitus. Consistently, Lobur's synchronic view also falls on similarly situated contemporaries, Valerius Maximus and Seneca the Elder.

In "Velleius 2,124,2 and the reluctant princeps: the evolution of Roman perceptions of leadership" (219-251) Tom Hillard examines, beginning with Tiberius' recusatio imperii, how the Historia Romana develops an early imperial ethos in examining the attempt to unite traditional mores and single rule. He concludes that the "evolution of the concept of leadership" (237) develops out of the Republican remnants of the client-patron system. The observation is not new, but has never been applied to Tiberius' tenure. Luke Pitcher's "The stones of blood: family, monumentality, and memory in Velleius' second century" (253-264) points out the thematic connections and continuities between Books 1 and 2, providing a new way into both: Neither does Book 1 glorify the Republic, nor are the Caesars without precedent.

Catherine Steel's "Heroism and despair in Velleius' Republican narrative" (265-277) also focuses on Book 1, constantly considering how Velleius matches events to his enthusiasm for the imperial present. Her observation concerning contradictory virtutes which arose in the Republic, but then fully developed under the Principate, is only one of the exciting results. Whether Velleius' treatment of Sejanus is "the climax of Velleius' general description of Tiberius' reign" (276) remains a matter for discussion.

Part IV starts with T. P. Wiseman's "Velleius and the games" (279-286). Beginning with 1,14ff., especially 1,15,3, on the unpopular mid-2nd century building of a theater, he makes comparisons both to contemporary events and to Valerius Maximus' account (2,4) as well as to the relationship of history and its representation on stage.

No one will be surprised by Robin Seager's interest in a Tiberian era discussion of Pompey, "Paene omnium vitiorum expers, nisi...: Velleius on Pompey" (287-307), which tracks Velleius' details on Pompey while noting conflicts and emphases as well as addressing how the dramatic arrival of Caesar influences the characterization of his former friend and subsequent opponent. Velleius can maintain Pompey's traditional role as a figure deserving sympathy by foregrounding his military achievements and obscuring his opposition to the Julii.

Kathryn Welch's "Velleius and Livia: making a portrait" (309-334) uses Vell. 2,75,2f. (with relevant passages of Dio und especially Appian) as the starting point for discussing the "mothers' network" (313)—conventus matronalis or ordo matronarum)—which can be understood as an unofficial but operationally successful interest-group of leading mens' wives, especially during the triumviral period. If these cultural factors are considered, Livia embodied, says Welch, a hidden yet efficient force for early imperial stability – at least, if Velleius' enthusiastic account is reliable. Welch's strongly feminist approach should be understood with circumspection, but the results cannot be discounted.

The final piece, "Velleius and the princeps Romanis nominis" (335-346) belongs to the editor. On the surface a lexical study of princeps Romanis nominis, common to Velleius but otherwise rare. Beyond that a careful introduction to the meaning of names in Velleius. This and the comparison of parallels allow Cowan to show that the phrase reflects change not only in the metonymy's content, but also in Rome's relationship to its leadership.

This very successful volume contains only one minor disappointment. Like the jacket blurb, Cowan's introduction emphasizes that "Velleius saw continuity where later authors saw only radical change" (x), but no contribution follows this lead: Marincola's analysis of Velleius' explanations touches on the phenomenon but declares it typical for "the ancients" (135); Pelling skirts the question by seeing Velleius' potential linear image of history as a loop ("reversal", 171). Hillard shows elements of continuity in his conceptual description of "princeps", but the points of comparison are often external to Velleius. Steel also makes nods to the observation, but only on minor points.

The book is user-friendly: layout easy to grasp, no typos, each piece with individual footnotes, but an index locorum and full index nominum et rerum at the end with a bibliography — all enhancing usability.

The volume is, as a matter of fact, despite the introductory synopsis in Rich's piece, not a "Companion". The contributions are too advanced, especially those belonging to the first category named above, studies of Velleius and his text. One needs strong familiarity with the text and the author's aims, not to mention the scholarship, even if some essays offer a propaedeutic bridge of sorts. The demanding nature of the pieces reflects their quality, as each offers new impulses for investigation. In summary, the book is a milestone in scholarship on Velleius. Thanks!

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