Amateur Historian Hour: Velleius Paterculus’ History of Rome

“His [Paterculus’] admiration of Caesar is questionable, of Augustus justified, of Tiberius excessive.” — Jacket copy to the Loeb edition

“Velleius Paterculus does not rank among the great Olympians of classical literature either as a stylist or as historian.” — Introduction to the same

[Title page of the 1520 edition of History of Rome, edited by Beatus Rhenanus]

Some of you probably breathed a sigh of relief that I didn’t push up my usual Thursday entry by a day as an excuse to bombard all of you with Ides of March memes, but luckily for you we had tickets for Six yesterday so I was too busy getting my Tudor groove on to cobble together a timely post.

[Getting obsessed with the soundtrack was my pandemic cope, so I’m definitely biased, but I think everyone should see it if you are able. And the stage show is just a plain good time 👑👑👑👑👑👑]

So as we’re now a day late and a dollar short, rather than digging up an angle for an entry on Julius, I thought I’d instead talk about minor historian and Children of Actium bit player Marcus Velleius Paterculus and his only surviving work, an ambitious history of Rome from the fall of Troy to the reign of Tiberius, his own time. Even in the crowded field of Roman histories of dubious credibility, Velleius’ work is striking for its overt biases and naked opinions, but its mere survival from the 1st century to our time is fascinating in of itself and arguably makes the case for taking a closer look. So let’s do that and see what we can tease out about what—if anything—that signifies.

[Ahahahaha! Fooled you! I don’t have anything good to use for illustration breaks for this entry, so it’s nothing but Ides memes from here on out. Enjoy or despair as is your inclination.]

Our ancestral biographical information for Velleius is sketchy at best, and like many ancient authors, comes mostly intertextually from the horse’s mouth. While that makes such details sometimes dangerous to take at face value, Velleius is a guileless enough stylist that it is hard to imagine him constructing an elaborate false narrative, especially since the impressiveness of said narrative aligns with the modest level of his historical footprint.

Even his praenomen, Marcus, is a conjecture, which is probably why the Loeb translation declines to use it and merely refers to him as Velleius Paterculus. The “Marcus” comes down to us from the 6th century grammarian Priscian, which is the earliest attested independent textual source for any praenomen. The next oldest source is the 1520 printed edition of the history whose title page I used above, which calls the author “P. Vellei Paterculi,” indicating that Beatus Rhenanus considered Velleius’ praenomen to be “Publius,” but the text of this edition also calls him “Gaius” at certain points. These two praenomens appear to be sourced from a Publius Velleius Paterculus mentioned by Tacitus, and a man named Gaius Velleius Paterculus who served as legatus Augusti (a post-Augustan title for the governors of some of the imperial provinces) in Roman Numidia, respectively.

The Publius Velleius in Tacitus is pretty widely accepted to be an entirely different person, but some scholars favor the Gaius praenomen over Marcus because at least there is archaeological evidence of that Velleius in the form of an inscription found in modern Algeria at El Harrouch. The inscription (and its legate) are most likely dated from either the reigns of Claudius or Nero, which would fit a Gaius Velleius Paterculus who served as consul in 60 CE. The historian Velleius Paterculus isn’t known to have served as a provincial legate, nor as a consul (generally a prerequisite before a senator would be appointed a governor), but this is because no other evidence (read: his own writings or contemporary sourcing) supports the historian’s survival beyond 31 CE for reasons we’ll get into a little later. But suffice to say for now that those reasons support this reading of the historian’s demise thirty years before the legate Velleius was serving in Africa. Incidentally, there is also a Lucius Velleius Paterculus who served as consul in 61 CE, but it is unclear from the historical record how the two consuls were related to one another, let alone whether either were related to the historian.

We do know from him that our Velleius was born around 19 BCE to a noble family in Campania, the historical region coinciding with the modern administrative region in southwest “ankle part” of the Italian peninsula. While it includes the more famous Neapolitan coast, it is likely, based on the genealogical information he provides, that Velleius’ family lived in the regional interior—specifically around the town of Aeclanum. Velleius describes himself as the maternal great-great-grandson of a Minatus Magius from that town. Apparently Minatus was a Samnite, the non-Latin Italian ethnic population of the region, because we are told he only received Roman citizenship following his service during the Social Wars (91-87 BCE).

But this in of itself is fascinating because of the role of the Samnites both in the Social Wars and in the civil war between Gaius Marius and Sulla (83-81 BCE) that followed it. Briefly, the Social Wars were fought between republican Rome and a number of their loosely-confederated tribal neighbors agitating for more rights from Rome, of which the Samnites were one of the leading groups. Rome was eventually victorious, but the Samnites and many of their allies were given Roman citizenship and absorbed into Latin Rome to avoid a similar conflict in the future. However, unusually, Velleius specifically tells us that his great-great-grandfather was given his citizenship not in this mass grant, but for raising a legion of men and fighting the Social War on the Roman side. The vast majority of the Samnites had the misfortune to choose Marius in the subsequent Sullan civil war and Sulla virtually wiped them out in the brutal reprisals against Marius’ allies that cemented his ultimate victory. Minatus had the luck to have been an associate of Sulla from the days of the Social Wars, so his family was among the very few Samnite survivors. Sulla made Minatus’ sons praetors, one of the ordinary magistratures that opened up the ability of the family to begin climbing the Roman power ladder and they became culturally Latinized.

By contrast to the Sullan civil war, Velleius’ family would be on both sides of the Caesarian civil war. His paternal uncle would support Agrippa’s senatorial motion of condemnation against Cassius for Caesar’s assassination, but otherwise the family seems to have most fallen in on the Pompeiian/Liberatore side of the scale. But this isn’t all bad news for Velleius, because his grandfather (a genuine) Gaius Velleius Paterculus was an intimate of not only Pompey and Brutus, serving as praefectus fabrum—the praefect overseeing their armies’ engineering and skilled artisan corps—but perhaps more importantly for Velleius himself, he served in the same capacity to Tiberius Nero, father of Octavius’ future stepson and Rome’s future emperor. Grandpa Velleius would prove so loyal to Tiberius Nero that when Nero’s forces were forced to flee their position in Naples (the famous flight where Livia Drusilla and a young Tiberius nearly burned to death in a forest fire), the praefect, too old and injured to follow, would end his own life rather than permitting himself to be captured by Octavius’ soldiers.

But this loyalty would be remembered by if not by Tiberius Nero himself, who died only six years after his very public cuckolding at the hands of Rome’s new Big Boy on Campus, by his son, in whose orbit our Velleius seems to have been in from a relatively early age. He served as a military tribune in Thrace and Macedonia, and either through the efforts of Tiberius (the future emperor, not his father), or his uncle Capito in the senate, Velleius was one of the young officers attached to Octavius’ grandson and heir Gaius Caesar’s entourage during his eastern provincial tour in 2 CE. Velleius would serve Gaius until the other young man’s untimely death in Lycia in 4 CE, after which he must have returned in some capacity to Rome, because two years later he’s serving with Tiberius in Germania as praefectus castorum (the camp praefect of a Roman legion), and later as a praefectus alae (praefect of cavalry). With clear imperial backing, Velleius would be elected to a quaestorship (another stepping-stone governmental administrative position) in 7 CE, but he would continue to be a senior member of Tiberius’ military staff until Tiberius returned to Rome in 12 CE. Octavius would designate Velleius and his brother for praetorships before his death, but it would be Tiberius who would ensure that their elections were honored and the brothers served in that capacity in 15 CE—the highest public political position Velleius would achieve, assuming he is not the legate referenced in Algeria.

There is a fifteen-year lacuna in Velleius’ history after his praetorship. He might have held various lower-level provincial positions typical of his class, but of which there would have been less specific records. However, this is purely conjecture. What is relatively certain is that even if he held no further public offices, he remained close to an increasingly reclusive Tiberius, and more importantly for a man during the years between 15 and 30 CE, was counted as a close friend of Lucius Aelius Sejanus. Now, Sejanus will assuredly get his own entry sometime in the future, but in sum, by the time Velleius re-emerges in the historical record in 30 with his History in hand, Sejanus is arguably the most powerful man in Rome. And I’m including Tiberius in that sentence. Like Velleius, Sejanus cut his teeth on the military staffs of first Gaius Caesar and then Tiberius, but while he was a member of the lower eques class as opposed to Velleius, who had senatorial family members, that made Sejanus eligible to serve as the praefect of the Praetorian Guard, the elite household troops of the emperor. The praefectus praetorio not only control the only soldiers permitted within the city limits of Rome, but by necessity was the person in control of access to the emperor.

Sejanus leveraged these advantages against Tiberius’ naturally suspicious temperament until he was effectively co-emperor—handling most of the day-to-day administration of the empire while Tiberius shut himself up in his villas on the island of Capri. This became even more so after the deaths/exiles of Tiberius’ only adult male heirs (his nephew Germanicus; Germanicus’ older sons; and Tiberius’ own son, Drusus), and the succession was increasingly centered on the remaining underage male Julio-Claudians (Germanicus’ youngest son, Caligula; and Drusus’ only son, Gemellus). In short, the potential for a some sort of regency situation was increasing and if there was such a position, all signs point to Sejanus having every intention of filling it. Even if he was feared and hated by the senatorial class of the city, who saw him as a scheming upstart even as they sucked up to him as much as possible.

At the same time, one of Velleius’ fellow Campanians and friend of Tiberius, Marcus Vinicius (c. 5 BCE-46 CE) was elected to the consulship. It is to Vinicius and his election that Velleius dedicates his History, which accounts for Velleius’ many asides highlighting his friend’s family’s accomplishments throughout Rome’s history. The History’s purpose as a flattering celebration of a friend’s good fortune also accounts for some of Velleius’ tone and style. This is not Tacitus, or even Suetonius, here. Velleius is certainly not a poet and not even really a serious historian, despite that being the categorization we know him best by. He’s a reasonably-educated man of his class who wants to make an appropriate present to a politically-connected friend. We are missing chunks of his manuscript in Book I, but Book II is intact, and the whole thing only adds up to 163 pages in the tiny-sized Loeb volume. Even when one takes into account that we’re missing the beginning of Velleius’ text and a chunk around the founding of the city, he flies breathlessly through Rome’s early history in Book I, and only starts to really flesh anything out in Book II, which picks up the timeline after the Second Punic War.

But there are some points in Velleius’ favor as a writer. He’s deeply interested in historical personalities, so his otherwise bald prose is punched up with a lot of anecdotes and human interest. And he is a detailed eyewitness to the people and events of the early empire, especially from the perspective a military administrator. While too short to be more than a Cliff Notes history, we know that Velleius relied on contemporary historian Livy’s (c. 59 BCE-17CE) Ab Urbe Condita, and while Livy is much greater writer, we are missing the last ninety-seven books of his magnum opus—which happens to cover almost exactly the intact part of Velleius’ work. This makes Velleius’ History an admittedly inferior, but vital link for us in the present to an otherwise lost ancient text.

The other thing that I think is potentially a strength of Velleius’ text is the one usually held out as its biggest flaw—he is an unalloyed and enthusiastic Tiberian partisan. Even in 30 CE, when whatever luster Tiberius’ reign had managed to scape together was already pretty tarnished, Velleius paints a wholly sympathetic portrait of an emperor already deeply embittered by his position and seen as largely the puppet of an ambitious and unscrupulous underling. Velleius’ Tiberius is immortalized as a great military commander, both in terms of tactical competence and as a leader of men. He has personal concern not just for his staff like Velleius, but for the lowest legionary. As Octavius’ heir, he is a filial son and consistently sets aside his own desires to try to realize the princeps’. As emperor, he has respect for the Senate as an institution and is modest in word and habits. This has been disparaged by most scholars and historians as the basest courtier flattery of a paranoid and ultimately violent despot, but most of us have gotten that idea of Tiberius from the army of ancient historians who had a horse in the race of painting the dead emperor in the worst possible light. I’m not suggesting one should take Velleius’ view at face value, either, but criticizing him while swallowing every salacious morsel Suetonius spoons into our mouths is pretty disingenuous. Even the much more even-handed Tacitus has a republican anti-imperial axe to grind and has no interest in making any kind of excuses for Tiberius or his circumstances.

Also, one must allow for Velleius’ timing. In 30 CE, the worst excesses of Tiberius’ reign were still at least a year in the future. After decades of careful maneuvering, Sejanus finally overreached himself and his own ambitions unmasked him as much a danger to Tiberius as the praefectus praetorio had been to most of the upper class in Rome—especially the dead Germanicus’ family, who he’d successfully estranged from the emperor’s affections. Sejanus was executed, and his fall led to an orgiastic purge of his family and associates. But because Sejanus had been nearly the sole avenue to imperial favor, almost everyone with any standing in Rome could be connected back to him in some way. This meant that the denouncements and executions continued almost unabated for the next six years, fueled by Tiberius’ now uncontrollable paranoia after his betrayal by the man he had trusted the most. Only the emperor’s own death stopped the slaughter.

Velleius’ attested closeness to Sejanus makes it unlikely that he survived the fallout of his friend’s downfall, given how far less connected and even more innocent people were executed during those years—including Sejanus’ young daughter Junia, who would be raped before she was strangled, since Roman law forbade the execution of virgins. These grim circumstances, coupled with Velleius’ absence in the record after 30, seems to corroborate this. If he did survive, it would have likely been through Tiberius directly, as was the case with Marcus Vinicius. Vinicius would make it through these ugly years, marrying Germanicus’ youngest daughter, Julia Livilla, and serving in various high-level appointments. He would survive the unstable years of Caligula’s reign (partly by being a part of the conspiracy that assassinated the young emperor), as well as serve a rare second consulship during Claudius’ tenure. But Vinicius’ luck would finally run out when he made enemies of Claudius’ wife, Messalina, and he would be murdered at her instigation in 46 CE. If Velleius is miraculously somehow the former consul who served as the Numidian legate after 60, he made it further than any of his old friends and that would be almost as an amazing of an achievement as unwittingly preserving a lost section of Livy for us.

[Okay, last one for this year… Happy Ides, everyone!]
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