Paterculus' Roman History

Velleius Paterculus (c. 20 BCE - after 30 CE) Roman officer, senator, and scholar, author of a brief Roman History.

Beatus Rhenanus
Beatus Rhenanus

In 1515, the manuscript of Velleius Paterculus' Roman History was discovered in the abbey of Murbach in the Alsace by a humanist scholar who called himself Beatus Rhenanus but whose real name was Bilde von Rheinau (1485-1547). Five years later, he published the text. Although the original manuscript is now lost, we know that it was badly written and contained many errors.

Yet, the discovery was immediately recognized as important. In those days, Paterculus' now deservedly famous description of the conflict between the Romans and the Germanic tribes, which culminates in his account of the battle in the Teutoburg Forest, seemed remarkably relevant to the conflict between the German reformer Marten Luther and the Roman Catholic church. Today, the Roman History is appreciated as a readable summary of Roman history, and as an important source for the reign of the emperor Tiberius. In fact, Paterculus' treatise is the only surviving historical study from the early empire.

Rhenanus called the text Roman History, and although many scholars have used this title ever since, it is in fact a bit misleading. Paterculus does certainly focus on Rome, but he situates its history in a larger context. Maybe Compendium of World History would have been a better title, although it was obvious to his contemporaries that the conquests of Rome had changed universal history into Roman history. This was an accepted point of view, developed already by the Greek historian Polybius of Megalopolis (c.200-c.118) in his World History.

Paterculus is also indebted to the Roman historian Sallust (86-34), who stated that the fall of Carthage in 146 had been the most important turning point in the history of Rome. Until then, the Romans had been virtuous people, but since they no longer had a serious enemy, their greed was no longer checked and they were corrupted by luxury, which in turn made civil war inevitable. Paterculus agrees:

When Rome was freed of the fear of Carthage, and her rival in empire was out of her way, the path of virtue was abandoned for that of corruption, not gradually, but in headlong course. The older discipline was discarded to give place to the new. The state passed from vigilance to slumber, from the pursuit of arms to the pursuit of pleasure, from activity to idleness.note

As if to stress this point, the Roman History is divided into two halves. In the first book, Paterculus describes the events until the capture of Carthage. In this part, which unfortunately contains two long lacunae, there is much room for Greek, oriental and Carthaginian history. The words quoted above are the introduction to the second book, which describes the Roman civil wars and the reigns of Augustus and Tiberius.

Book I
[preface missing]
Events after the Trojan War; Homer; origin of the Median empire; foundation of Carthage; Hesiod; the first Olympic games; foundation of Rome.
[long lacuna]
Rome conquers Macedonia; Roman intervention in Syria and Egypt; Achaean War; Third Punic War; digression on the foundation of Roman colonies; digression on the benefits of competition.
Book II
Roman corruption after the fall of Carthage; Roman defeats in Hispania; Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus; Numantine War; Gaius Sempronius Gracchus; Germanic incursions; famous orators; Numidian War; Marius versus the Germanic tribes; Social War; Mithradatic War; Sulla; Cinna; Sulla's dictatorship.
Book II
Rise of Pompey the Great; Sertorius; War against the pirates; Lucullus; Conspiracy of Catiline; Pompey versus Mithradates; Digression on Roman provinces; First Triumvirate; Defeat of Crassus; Julius Caesar conquers Gaul; Civil war between Pompey and Caesar; Caesar's dictatorship; Caesar's death.
Book II
Adoption of Octavian; Octavian versus Marc Antony; Second Triumvirate; Battle of Philippi; Suicide of Brutus and Cassius; Perugine War; Octavian's war against Sextus Pompeius; Marc Antony's war against the Parthian empire; Cleopatra; Naval battle of Actium; Suicide of Marc Antony and Cleopatra; Octavian sole ruler; Blessings of his reign.
Book II
Beginning of the career of Tiberius; Conquest of Raetia; Defeat of Lollius; Beginning of the Germanic Wars; Gaius Caesar in the east; His death; Tiberius appointed as Augustus' successor; his Germanic wars; Tiberius suppresses the Pannonian and Dalmatian revolts; Varus' defeat in the Teutoburg Forest; Tiberius' punitive actions; He becomes emperor
Book II
Blessings of Tiberius' reign; several successes; prayer to Jupiter, Mars, and Vesta for the prosperity of the Empire and the health of its ruler.

In his first book, Paterculus devotes much space to the achievements of non-Roman people (especially the Greeks). He probably was the first Roman to write a universal history. This is interesting, because the Roman History was dedicated to Marcus Vinicius, consul in 30 CE, who is often addressed in the second person. One is tempted to think that Paterculus tried to remind the chief magistrate of Rome that the Roman empire had become a truly Mediterranean empire, and that this created certain responsibilities. If so, the author's thoughts were seriously out of season: during the reign of the conservative Tiberius, the Empire was still there to serve Italy.


Perhaps this interpretation is far-fetched, but there may be more implied criticism in the Roman History. Although Paterculus includes the usual remarks about the blessings of the reign of the emperor Augustus, his account of the Augustan age is essentially the story of a series of military disasters: the defeat of Lollius in 16 BCE, a Thracian insurrection, the rebellion of the Pannonians and Dalmatians in 5 CE, and the battle in the Teutoburg Forest in 9. The introduction to the reign of Augustus is ambiguous - to say the very least:

The civil wars were ended after twenty years, foreign wars suppressed, peace restored, the frenzy of arms everywhere lulled to rest; validity was restored to the laws, authority to the courts, and dignity to the Senate; the power of the magistrates was reduced to its former limits, with the sole exception that two were added to the eight existing praetors. The old traditional form of the republic was restored.note

This is the equivalent of praising general Pinochet for bringing peace to Chile. Marcus Vinicius and any other senator reading the Roman History knew that Augustus was responsible for the last fourteen years of civil war, that the power of the magistrates had not been restored to former limits but simply curtailed, and that the foreign wars simply continued. In fact, Paterculus is an important source for the conflicts in Pannonia and Germania.

The details of his description of the Augustan age are no less telling. For example, we learn about Augustus' failure as a father (his daughter Julia's children "were to be blessings neither to herself nor to the state", 2.93.2), and Paterculus singles out for praise consul Gaius Sentius Saturninus, who used the absence of Augustus to punish corruption. The implication is that Augustus was unable to cope with these excesses.

It is not hard to see why Paterculus was skeptical about the blessings brought to humankind by Augustus. During his own active career as a soldier, he had seen the wars of the pax augusta. Although he was not directly involved in the battle in the Teutoburg Forest, Paterculus took part in the retaliatory campaigns, and he also had first-hand experience with the difficult Pannonian and Dalmatian wars. He must have understood that the Roman conquest of the earth was not a pretty thing when one looked into it too much, and knew how empty the boasts of Augustus were and how shallow his propaganda was.


There is another reason for Paterculus' skepticism. The long and interesting descriptions of the Pannonian and Dalmatian Wars and the Germanic campaigns were excellent means to introduce the martial qualities of Tiberius, Paterculus' patron, who "by virtue of his services had long been a Caesar before he was such in name" (2.104.3).

This remark is one of the many examples of Paterculus' enthusiastic loyalty to his former comrade-in-arms. Unfortunately, he often crosses the line where an acceptable (and praiseworthy) loyalty degenerates into flattery. In those cases, he is no longer a historian, but becomes a panegyrist.

It must be noted, though, that it is unfair to take the final part of the Roman History, after 2.126.1, as evidence for Paterculus' historical judgment. It is meant as panegyric and clearly presented as such, commencing with a rhetorical question ("Who would undertake to tell in detail the accomplishments of the past sixteen years?") and a triple metonymy ("strife banished from the forum, canvassing from the Field of Mars, discord from the curia").

Yet, Tiberius can not have been pleased with one detail of the Roman History. One example is Paterculus' description of the battle in the Teutoburg Forest. In the years immediately after the disaster, general Quintilius Varus had been blamed for the Roman defeat. During the reign of Tiberius, however, Varus' noble family had attempted to restore the memory of its relative. The soldiers of the Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Nineteenth legions were responsible, they said. Tiberius, who had by marriage been connected to Varus, had also been his personal friend, and favored the Roman nobility anyhow, was inclined to support this revision. Paterculus, however, who had known many soldiers who had perished in the disaster, reminded his readers of the heroic behavior of the legionaries, and concluded that

from all this, it is evident that Varus, who was a man of character and of good intentions, lost his life and his magnificent army more through lack of judgment in the commander than of valor in his soldiers.note

The story of the defeat in the Teutoburg Forest also illustrates the other qualities of Paterculus' Roman History. The description of Varus contains some criticism ("That he was no despiser of money is demonstrated by his governorship of Syria: he entered the rich province a poor man, but left it a rich man and the province poor") but is essentially friendly ("a man of character and of good intentions").

Coin of Varus
Coin of Varus

After the almost comical description of Varus' behavior in Germania ("sitting on his tribunal he wasted the time of a summer campaign in holding court and observing the proper details of legal procedure"), there is a turn to the real tragedy, which Paterculus introduces suddenly ("after this first warning, there was no time left for a second"). The story also contains a sad philosophical comment:

It is usually the case that heaven perverts the judgment of the man whose fortune it means to reverse, and brings it to pass -and this is the wretched part of it- that that which happens by chance seems to be deserved, and accident passes over into culpability.note

Paterculus reflects upon the human condition, offers a balanced and not uncritical portrait of a man he has known, and changes in a few lines from what amounts to comedy to sad tragedy. The result of this unexpected change is that the reader feels compassion with those brave men whose lives suffered a similar change in fortune. Whatever one may think of Paterculus' frequent hyperboles and his sometimes clumsy sentences, he knows how to tell a good, varied story. He was a narrator, not a writer.

For a very long time, Paterculus has been regarded as a mere flatterer and a poor historian. This is not untrue, but it is possible to stress this point too much. He did his best. His rejection of the Varronian chronology proves that he understood that Caesar and Augustus had tried to manipulate the past - which is more than we can say of modern historians who follow Varro's propaganda.

Finally, it is unfair to say that Paterculus was a bad historian. It is true, he did not consult archives, and it is also true that his analysis runs less deep than that of an author like Tacitus. But these are not the standards to be applied. The ancients thought that a historian had to have first-hand experience with politics and warfare, ought to have interviewed the main actors of his story, and should have visited the countries he was describing. From this point of view, the only one that mattered in Antiquity, Velleius Paterculus was the perfect historian.