He belonged to a distinguished Campanian family, and entered the army at an early age. He served as military tribune in Thrace, Macedonia, Greece and the East, and in AD 2 was present at the interview on the Euphrates between Gaius Caesar, grandson of Augustus, and the Parthian king. Afterwards, as praefect of cavalry and legatus, he served for eight years (from AD 4 in Germany and Pannonia under Tiberius. For his services he was rewarded with the quaestorship in 8, and, together with his brother, with the praetorship in 15. He was still alive in 30, for history contains many references to the consulship of M. Vinicius in that year. It has been conjectured that he was put to death in 31 as a friend of Sejanus, whom he praises.
His compendium of Roman history consists of two books dedicated to M. Vinicius, and covers the period from the dispersion of the Greeks after the siege of Troy down to the death of Livia (AD 29). The first book brings the history down to the destruction of Carthage, 146 BC; portions of it are missing, including the beginning. The later history, especially the period from the death of Caesar, 44 BC, to the death of Augustus, AD 14, is treated in much greater detail. Brief notices are given of Greek and Roman literature, but no mention is made of Plautus, Horace or Propertius. The author does not display real historical insight, although generally trustworthy in his statements of individual facts. He may be regarded as a courtly annalist rather than an historian. His chronology is inconsistent. On Caesar, Augustus and above all on his patron Tiberius, be lavishes praise or flattery. The repetitions, redundancies, and slovenliness of expression may be partly due to the haste with which (as the author frequently states) it was written. The inflated rhetoric, the straining after effect by means of hyperbole, antithesis and epigram, belong firmly to the Silver Age, of which Paterculus is the earliest example. He purposed to write a fuller history of the later period, including the civil war between Caesar and Pompey and the wars of Tiberius; but there is no evidence that he did so. His chief authorities were Cato's Origines, the Annales of Q Hortensius, Pompeius Trogus, Cornelius Nepos and Livy.
Velleius Paterculus was little known in antiquity. He seems to have been read by Lucan and imitated by Sulpicius Severus, but he is mentioned only by the scholiast on Lucan, and once by Priscian. The text of the work, preserved in a single badly written and mutilated manuscript (discovered by Beatus Rhenanus in 1515 in the abbey of Murbach in Alsace and now lost), is very corrupt. Editio princeps, 1520; early editions by the great scholars Justus Lipsius, J Gruter, N Heinsius, P Burmann; modern editions, Ruhnken and Frotscher (1830-39), JC Orelli (1835), F Kritz (1840, ed. mm. 1848), F Haase (1858), C HaIm (1876), R Ellis (1898) (reviewed by W Warde Fowler in Classical Review, May 1899); on the sources see F Burmeister, "De Fontibus Vellei Paterculi," in Berliner Sludien für classische Philologie (1894), xv. English translation by JS Watson in Bohn's Classical Library.