Valerius Maximus

Valerius Maximus

Roman writer
Country: Italy

  1. Valerius Maximus: A Roman Writer and Rhetorician
  2. Style and Content
  3. Sources and Importance
  4. Legacy

Valerius Maximus: A Roman Writer and Rhetorician

Valerius Maximus was a Roman writer and rhetorician known for his collection of historical anecdotes during the reign of Emperor Tiberius. Little is known about his personal life, except that he came from a poor family and owed his success to Sextus Pompeius, the consul of 14 AD and proconsul of Asia, whom he accompanied on a trip to the East in 27 AD. Pompeius was a patron of the arts and literature, and his literary circle included Ovid and Germanicus, a member of the imperial family who had a strong interest in literature. Valerius Maximus' work, titled "Facta et dicta memorabilia" or "Memorable Deeds and Sayings," was published around 31 AD after the fall of Sejanus.

Style and Content

Valerius Maximus' writing style indicates that he was a professional rhetorician. In the preface, he suggests that his collection of historical anecdotes was intended for oratorical schools, to teach students the art of eloquence by drawing on historical examples. The manuscript's title, "Facta et dicta memorabilia libri novem," translates to "Nine Books of Memorable Deeds and Sayings." The narrative is disjointed and unordered, with each book divided into excerpts categorized by themes, often virtues and vices, or mistakes and weaknesses depicted in these excerpts. While most of the narrative is based on Roman history, each excerpt also includes additional excerpts from the annals of other nations, primarily the Greeks. Valerius' work reflects the two contrasting sentiments common among Roman authors of the principate period: on one hand, the belief that contemporary Romans were inferior to their republican ancestors, and on the other hand, the belief that they still surpassed all other nations, particularly the Greeks, in matters of morality.

Sources and Importance

Valerius drew on sources such as Cicero, Livy, Sallust, Varro, and Pompeius Trogus, among others, as reported by the Soviet Historical Encyclopedia. Although he used his source material carelessly and not particularly logically, his compilation, apart from its gaps, contradictions, and anachronisms, accurately reflects events and living conditions, as witnessed by Valerius. Historians have much to thank Valerius for, as he often includes now-lost sources, and where he touches on his own time, he provides a fleeting glimpse into the reign of Tiberius, which has been the subject of much debate due to the scarcity of information. His views on the imperial court were often misunderstood, as he was considered a flatterer, similar to Martial. However, upon closer examination of his comments on the imperial government, they could not be considered extraordinary in terms of their nature or quantity. Valerius' only truly reprehensible passage is a sharp rhetorical diatribe against the praetorian prefect Lucius Aelius Sejanus. His work is worth attention as a chapter in the history of the Latin language, as it provides a more complete understanding of the transition from classical to "silver" Latin. Valerius encompasses all the rhetorical achievements of his time, with the exception of the brilliance of Quintilian's intellect and the taste and subtlety of Tacitus. He avoids direct and straightforward narration, striving for novelty by breaking down the barriers between prose and poetic vocabulary, carefully selecting words, using complex metaphors, employing sharp contrasts and vividly emotional adjectives, and utilizing a range of the most unnatural figures of speech. A meaningful lesson in the history of the Latin language can be drawn from a comparison between Valerius' narrative and the corresponding passages in the works of Cicero and Livy.


In addition to his main work, Valerius Maximus' manuscripts also include a tenth book known as "Liber de Praenominibus," a work by a grammarian who lived much later. Valerius' composition was actively used in schools, and its popularity in the Middle Ages is evident from the large number of surviving copies. Like other school textbooks, it was excerpted, and two of these excerpts have been completely preserved, one attributed to Julius Paris and dating back to the 4th or 5th century AD, and the other written by Januarius Nepotianus.