Velleius Paterculus

(b. c. 19 bc)

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Roman historical writer, b. in (probably) 20 or 19 bc. He spent ad 4–12 serving under the future emperor Tiberius in Germany twice, Pannonia, and Dalmatia. In 6, having completed his service as an equestrian officer, he returned to Rome and was elected quaestor for 7; in 12 he and his brother took part in Tiberius' Illyrian triumph; and, when Augustus died in 14, both brothers were already designated ‘candidates of Caesar’ for the praetorship of 15.

Velleius' work begins with Greek mythology and ends in ad 29, a span of time which he encompassed in only two volumes. Like Cornelius Nepos he is thus a writer of summary history, something to which he draws frequent attention. Almost all of bk. 1 is lost. It is separated from bk. 2 by two excursuses, which would be notable even in a full‐length history (on Roman colonization; on Greek and Latin literature); and bk. 2 begins, as the narrative part of bk. 1 had ended, with the destruction of  Carthage in 146 bc, which Velleius, like Sallust, saw as a turning‐point in Roman history. Although the following years to 59 bc are dispatched in a mere 40 chapters, which include three further excursuses of varying length (on Roman authors, and on Roman provincialization), Velleius devotes increasing amounts of space to Caesar, Augustus, and esp. Tiberius, whose career forms the climax of his work.

Though Velleius constantly imitates the phraseology of both Sallust and Cicero, it is the fullness and balance of the latter's style that he aimed generally to reproduce. His sentences, replete with antithesis and point, are often long and involved; and he has a gift for pithy characterization. Yet readers have been dismayed by the successive rhetorical questions and exclamations in his account of Tiberius, which in general, like his treatment of Aelius Seianus, has been regarded as mere panegyric.

Yet in imperial times the traditional patriotism of Roman historians was inevitably focused on the emperor of the day, who in Velleius' case was also his former commander; and his account of Tiberius is valuable in presenting the establishment view of events for which Tacitus, from the safer perspective of the 2nd cent., supplies an opposition view. Even so the prayer, which forms the unconventional conclusion to his work, is arguably a recognition of the political crisis of 29, while the treatment of Sejanus, which is not a panegyric of the man but a defence of his elevation by Tiberius, betrays some of the very unease which it seems designed to dispel.

Velleius travelled widely; he was a senator, like Sallust and Tacitus, and held magisterial office; like Thucydides 2 he witnessed and took part in a significant number of the events he describes. He thus enjoyed many of the advantages conventionally associated with the ideal historian. He regularly provides information on topics about which we would otherwise be ignorant; and he is the only Latin historian of Roman affairs to have survived from the period between Livy and Tacitus.


Subjects: Classical Studies.

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