Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Valerius Maximus

Valerius Maximus was a Latin writer and author of a collection of historical anecdotes. He flourished in the reign of Tiberius.

Nothing is known of his personal history except that his family was poor and undistinguished, and that he owed everything to Sextus Pompeius (consul AD 14), proconsul of Asia, whom he accompanied to the East in 27. This Pompeius was a kind of minor Maecenas, and the centre of a literary circle to which Ovid belonged; he was also the intimate of the most literary prince of the imperial family, Germanicus.

The style of Valerius's writings seems to indicate that he was a professional rhetorician. In his preface he intimates that his work is intended as a commonplace book of historical anecdotes for use in the schools of rhetoric, where the pupils were trained in the art of embellishing speeches by references to history. According to the manuscripts, its title is Nine Books of Memorable Deeds and Sayings. The stories are loosely and irregularly arranged, each book being divided into sections, and each section bearing as its title the topic, most commonly some virtue or vice, or some merit or demerit, which the stories in the section are intended to illustrate.

Most of the tales are from Roman history, but each section has an appendix consisting of extracts from the annals of other peoples, principally the Greeks. The exposition exhibits strongly the two currents of feeling which are intermingled by almost every Roman writer of the empire--the feeling that the Romans of the writer's own day are degenerate creatures when confronted with their own republican predecessors, and the feeling that, however degenerate, the latter-day Romans still tower above the other peoples of the world, and in particular are morally superior to the Greeks.

The author's chief sources are Cicero, Livy, Sallust and Pompeius Trogus, especially the first two. Valerius's treatment ot his material is careless and unintelligent in the extreme; but in spite of his contusions, contradictions and anachronisms, the excerpts are apt illustrations, from the rhetorician's point of view, of the circumstance or quality they were intended to illustrate. And even on the historical side we owe something to Valerius. He often used sources now lost, and where he touches on his own time he affords us some glimpses of the much debated and very imperfectly recorded reign of Tiberius.

His attitude towards the imperial household has often been misunderstood, and he has been represented as a mean flatterer of the same type with Martial. But, if the references to the imperial administration be carefully scanned, they will be seen to be extravagant neither in kind nor in number. Few will now grudge Tiberius, when his whole action as a ruler is taken into account, such a title as salutaris princeps, which seemed to a former generation a specimen of shameless adulation. The few allusions to Caesar's murderers and to Augustus hardly pass beyond the conventional style of the writer's day. The only passage which can fairly be called fulsome is the violently rhetorical tirade against Sejanus.

But it is as a chapter in the history of the Latin language that the work of Valerius chiefly deserves study. Without it our view of the transition from classical to silver Latin would be much more imperfect than it is. In Valerius are presented to us, in a rude and palpable form, all the rhetorical tendencies of the age, unsobered by the sanity of Quintilian and unrefined by the taste and subtlety of Tacitus. Direct and simple statement is eschewed and novelty pursued at any price. The barrier between the diction of poetry and that of prose is broken down; the uses of words are strained; monstrous metaphors are invented; there are startling contrasts, dark innuendoes and highly coloured epithets; the most unnatural variations are played upon the artificial scale of grammatical and rhetorical figures of speech.

It is an instructive lesson in the history of Latin to compare minutely a passage of Valerius with its counterpart in Cicero or Livy. In the manuscripts of Valerius a tenth book is given, which consists of the so-called Liber de Praenominibus, the work of some grammarian of a much later date. The collection of Valerius was much used for school purposes, and its popularity in the middle ages is attested by the large number of manuscripts in which it has been preserved. Like other schoolbooks it was epitomated. One complete epitome, probably of the 4th or 5th century, bearing the name of Julius Paris, has come down to us; also a portion of another by Januarius Nepotianus. Editions by C Halm (1865), C Kempf (1888), contain the epitomes of Paris and Nepotianus.

This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.