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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Memorable Deeds and Sayings: A Thousand Tales from Ancient Rome by Valerius Maximus, translated by Henry J. Walker (Hackett Publishing Company) Popular in its day both as a sourcebook for writers and orators and as a guidebook for living a moral life, this remarkably rich document serves as an engaging introduction to the cultural and moral history of ancient Rome. Valerius’ "thousand tales" are arranged thematically in ninety-one chapters that cover nearly every aspect of life in the ancient world, including such wide-ranging topics as military discipline, child rearing, and women lawyers. 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. As a whole, the work gives the reader fascinating insights into what it felt like to be an ancient Roman, what the ancient Romans really believed, what their private world was like, how they related to one another, and what they did when nobody was watching.

Valerius Maximus flourished in the reign of Tiberius. Little is known of his personal history except that his family was poor and undistinguished, and that he owed his standing to Sextus Pompeius (consul A.D. 14), proconsul of Asia, whom he accompanied to the East in 27. This Pompeius was a kind of minor  Gauis Maecenas (a model of the Roman patron of letters, 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.

The author's chief  known surviving sources are Cicero, Livy, Sallust and Pompeius Trogus, especially the first two. Valerius's treatment of his material is excessively slapdash and obtuse; but in spite of his misunderstandings, inconsistencies 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, unrestrained by the sanity of Quintilian and unprocessed 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 colored 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

Excerpt: The prestige of Valerius Maximus (and of the Bible, too, for that matter) went down in the eighteenth century, and during the nineteenth century Valerius' work was attacked for failing to live up to the standards of "scientific history," the foundation of all knowledge in that age. This attack was perfectly justified, and Valerius would not have denied it. He states quite openly in the Preface of his work that only a madman would try to write history in his day and age. Valerius was not trying to be a historian; his goals were very different. We can see how great the difference is by considering one among many criticisms directed against him. At the beginning of the twentieth century, a scholar denounced Valerius because "he relates omens and miracles in a spirit of unquestioning superstition." The scholar was absolutely right, but Valerius did not want to question Roman beliefs nor deconstruct Roman values. He wanted to record them exactly as they were and pass them on to the next generation, and that is what makes him so important for us today. Ironically, it is his very refusal to perform a historical critique of Roman ideals that makes Valerius Maximus such a valuable historical source for the worldview of the Romans.

Valerius accurately preserved for us the very bland version of the Romans' past that the Rormans wanted to hear. It is narrow and nationalistic, and it shows no in­terest in political or social analysis; it is saturated with the prejudices of the prop­ertied classes in Rome, because these were the real Roman people as far as he was concerned. Strictly speaking, his stories are not history at all; they are the kind of patriotic myths that people always like to hear and that politicians have never ceased to tell. The work of Valerius is indeed, as one modern scholar says, "a Reader's Digest shortcut to Roman history," but that is nothing to sneer at. The Reader's Digest does, after all, reveal how ordinary Americans feel about the world. It differs a great deal from the academic view and it may not be a view we would like people to hold, but we ignore these beliefs at our peril. The men who read Valerius Maximus realized the power of such beliefs; it was the very reason that they resorted to his work in the first place. If they wanted to be respected, they had to imbue their own deeds and sayings with those values, and they had to uphold them in their public life.

Martin Bloomer, the first scholar in modern times to write a serious analysis of Valerius Maximus, summarizes Valerius' achievement as "a new generation's ap­propriation of Roman noble culture" This formula explains exactly what Valerius Maximus was doing and why his work remained so popular for so many centuries. After all, everyone who takes any interest in ancient Rome automatically joins yet another new generation that appropriates the culture of the Roman nobility. Valerius Maximus' writings make this appropriation easier for us, as they made it easier for his own contemporaries. It is an extraordinary advantage for us that we can still have access to the imaginary world of the ancient Romans, a world preserved by a man whose own life is completely unknown to us, because Valerius chose to pass that world intact onto us, rather than impose the stamp of his own personality upon it.

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