Velleius Paterculus, Compendium of Roman History

LCL 152: viii-ix

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Introduction

Introduction

“Denim solebat nullum esse librura tam malum ut non aliqua parte prodesset.”—Pliny, Ep. iii. 5. 10, quoting a saying of his uncle.

Velleius Paterculus does not rank among the great Olympians of classical literature either as stylist or as historian. But, as Pliny the elder says, no book is so poor that one cannot get some good out of it, and there is much in this comparatively neglected author that is worth reading once, at least in translation. In its aim to include all that is of value and interest in Greek and Latin literature from the days of Homer to the Fall of Constantinople the Loeb Library is performing what is perhaps its most valuable service in making more generally available the content of those comparatively unknown authors who, for stylistic or other reasons, are not to be reckoned among the great classics or do not deserve a careful study in the original.

A compendium of Roman history, hastily compiled by an army officer as a memorial volume to commemorate the elevation to the consulship for the year a.d. 30 of his friend and fellow-Campanian, Marcus Vinicius, could hardly be expected to rise to the level either of great history or great literature. And yet, taken for what it is, a rapid sketch of some ten

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Introduction

centuries of history, it is, in spite of its many defects, which will duly be pointed out, the most successful and most readable of all the abridgements of Roman history which have come down to us. Abridgements are usually little more than skeletons; but Velleius has succeeded, in spite of the brief compass of his work, in clothing the bones with real flesh, and in endowing his compendium with more than a mere shadow of vitality, thanks to his own enthusiastic interest in the human side of the great characters of history. The work, after the large lacuna in the first book, covers uninterruptedly the period from the battle of Pydna to a.d. 30, a period which practically coincides with that covered by the final 97 books of Livy for which no manuscript has come down to us, and one which is but partially treated in the extant portions of the works of other Roman historians of first rank. It is therefore valuable, if for nothing else, in that it furnishes us with a connected account of this period which is at any rate much more readable than the bare epitomes of Livy. Besides, it has certain excellences of its own in the treatment of special subjects, especially the chapters on literary history, in which the author has a genuine if not very critical interest, the chapters on the Roman colonies, and those on the history of the organization of the Roman provinces, and in some of the character portraits of the great figures of Roman history. Even in the treatment of Tiberius, in spite of its tone of adulation which historians have so generally condemned, we have a document which must be considered along with the famous delineation by Tacitus, as representing the psychological attitude toward the new empire of the group of administrative officers

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DOI: 10.4159/DLCL.velleius_paterculus-compendium_roman_history.1924