Classics Velleius Paterculus
Eleanor Cowan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 June 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0164


Velleius Paterculus was a Roman historian, soldier, and senator. His only surviving work was composed during the regime of Tiberius. Almost everything we know about Velleius comes from his own writing. He tells us (2.16.1–3), for instance, that his great-grandfather secured Roman citizenship for his family through a special grant which recognized his loyal services to the Roman city-state in the Social War. He, himself, served as military tribune with Gaius Caesar, the grandson of the emperor Augustus (2.101.3) and later campaigned extensively in Germany, Pannonia, and Dalmatia with Rome’s second emperor, Tiberius Claudius Nero (14–37 CE). Velleius was elected to the senate as quaestor in 7 CE and went on to be designated for the praetorship of 15 CE (2.124.4). Velleius is known to us because his fast-paced summary of Roman history survives. The work began at some point after the fall of Troy (see Composition and Publication) and culminated with the Principate of Tiberius. It was dedicated to the consul-elect for 30 CE, M. Vinicius, whom Velleius addresses several times in the text itself. The original title and preface of the work (it would almost certainly have included one) have not survived and his method of composition is disputed (see Composition and Publication). Although conventionally referred to as a “History,” the genre of the work is also not clear (see Genre and Style). Velleius was primarily concerned to write about the achievements of individuals in Roman history and the lives and deaths of these great men (principes) dominate the surviving sections of the work. It is, however, Velleius’s account of the rise of the emperor Augustus and his successor, Tiberius, which has traditionally received the most attention in modern scholarship. Velleius’s positive attitude toward the Principate and its founders and his emphasis on continuity over change contrasts starkly with later accounts, especially that of the historian Tacitus. Studies of Velleius’s work have frequently focused on the ways in which it reflects the messages propagated by the new regime. His investment in the success of the Principate (which he characterizes as a restored res publica), his loyalty to Tiberius, and his partisan treatment of the civil war period have led some scholars to dismiss his writing as propagandist (see Reputation). Recent years have, however, seen a revival of interest in the work both in terms of appreciating the value of “propaganda” and in terms of the window Velleius offers onto the intellectual and cultural world of Tiberian Rome.

General Overviews

Although we know of other historical works which were written in the post-Augustan period, little survives. Velleius’s work is thus one of the earliest surviving attempts to write the history of the rise of the Principate. An early overview of Velleius’s work and achievement is provided by Hellegouarc’h 1984, but it is the extensive publications of Professor Woodman which really laid the foundations for modern scholarship on Velleius. A good general overview of Velleius’s place in Roman historiography is provided by Woodman and Kraus 1997 while Woodman 1975 remains an important contribution on Velleius’s context as a writer in the post-Augustan period, a so-called “silver Latin” author. Sumner 1970 is essential reading for those meeting Velleius for the first time. Von Albrecht 1997 situatesVelleius’s writing in the wider context of Latin historiography.

  • Albrecht, M. von. 1997. A history of Roman literature: From Livius Andronicus to Boethius. Vol. 2. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

    Translated with the assistance of Ruth R. Caston and Francis R. Schwartz. This is an English translation of the author’s Geschichte der römischen Literatur (1994). It offers an introduction to Velleius’s life and ideas, a survey of the work itself, and its later influence.

  • Hellegouarc’h, J. 1984. Etat présent des travaux sur ‘l’Histoire Romaine’ de Velléius Paterculus. In Aufsteig und Niedergang der römischen welt 2.32.1. Edited by H. Temporini, 404–436. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

    This is a bibliographic-style contribution on Velleius including an overview of scholarship on textual matters, and a consideration of Velleius’s sources. Three central sections deal with problems relating to Velleius’s literary endeavor and his conception of history, problems “ideological and political,” and problems of language and style.

  • Sumner, G. V. 1970. The truth about Velleius Paterculus: Prolegomena. Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 74:257–297.

    DOI: 10.2307/311010

    An introduction to Velleius which examines his family, career, and Tiberian context as well as giving an introduction to the work itself and its date of composition.

  • Woodman, A. J. 1975. Velleius Paterculus. In Empire and aftermath. Silver Latin II. Edited by T. A. Dorey, 1–25. London: Routledge.

    An introduction to Velleius which focuses on key questions such as the scope, genre, and style of the work, the claims to be writing at speed, and the role of the digressions. The article also addresses the issue of “propaganda” in Velleius’s writing by examining the intellectual culture of Velleius’s day.

  • Woodman, A. J., and C. S. Kraus. 1997. Latin historians. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    This introduction to the works of ancient historians writing in Latin contains a chapter on the historians titled “The First Century A.D.” The brief discussion of Velleius which follows helpfully outlines his career and work while situating it in the context of the wider development of history writing.

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