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The Silence of Velleius Paterculus (1st-Century Fridays #5)

The Silence of Velleius Paterculus (1st-Century Fridays #5) July 23, 2021

Hi, y’all! Welcome back. It being Friday again, let us turn our attention to another 1st-century writer. This time, our subject is Marcus Velleius Paterculus (19 BCE – 31 CE). This Roman historian lived through the wildest years of the early Roman Empire. Thus, he wrote during those critical years (from our perspective) of 1-35 CE. Today, let’s see what Velleius Paterculus says — or doesn’t say, rather — about the stuff going on in Jerusalem then.

the emperor velleius cherished so much
(iam_os.) A sculpture of Tiberius in Vatican City. Dude was ripped af!

(Series tag.)

(In 1st-Century Fridays, we’re meeting ancient figures that were contemporaneous with Jesus. We’re using the real definition of the word “contemporaneous,” not the one Biblical scholars have weaseled to give themselves some leeway with their utter lack of evidence that their Savior actually existed. No, the people we’ll meet here must have been alive during that critical time of 30-35 CE AND have had a good chance of hearing about what Christians claim was happening in Jerusalem then. Here’s the largely-canonical list of contemporaries you might have seen around. I prefer this diagram made by one of our other link writers. And here are some other lists.)

Velleius Paterculus (Or, My Life in Tangents).

Marcus Velleius Paterculus (b. 19 BCE – d. 31ish CE), or just Velleius, lived through some downright fascinating times. During his lifetime, he served Rome as a historian, soldier, and senator. He pursued the path of the cursus honorum, which was a sort of round-the-world tour of service that high-level Roman men were supposed to perform if they had any aspirations toward top leadership at all.

He did a lot of very interesting things in his life. Early on, he served as a cavalry officer in Germania under the command of Tiberius Caesar Augustus before Tiberius became emperor. Once Tiberius attained that title, ruling from 14 CE – 37 CE, Velleius served him as a praetor.

Toward the end of his life, Velleius seems to have taken up history-writing. He dedicated his grand work, a book now known as The Roman Histories of Gaius Velleius Paterculus to the Consul Marcus Vinicius, to (as you can guess) Marcus Vinicius (b. 5 BCE – d. 46 CE).

The life of Vinicius, what we know of it at least, also sounds eventful — and honorable. After all, Messalina (b. 17ish CE – d. 48 CE) had him murdered in 46 CE for refusing to sleep with her.

As for Velleius himself, we’re not sure exactly when he died. However, he was friends with a guy named Sejanus (b. 20 BCE – d. 31 CE). Tiberius executed Sejanus for treason, and the execution got really rowdy. The mobs that tore Sejanus’ body apart went hunting for anyone who was friends with him. Velleius may have gotten caught up in that rioting and violence. He vanishes afterward, is all.

And with this subsection, somehow I have summarized Velleius and the circumstances around his history after many hours of Wiki Walkabouts that had me absorbing Roman history with wide eyes. Seriously, this stuff is addicting. I may never crawl out from under all the tabs I have open in my “1st century” browser window.

What Was Velleius Like?

You gotta love what the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica wrote about Velleius:

The author is a vain and shallow courtier, and destitute of 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 knowledge is superficial, his blunders numerous, his chronology inconsistent. He labours at portrait painting, but his portraits are daubs. On Caesar, Augustus and above all on his patron Tiberius, he lavishes praise or flattery.

It sounds like Velleius wrote in a very florid style for his time. Indeed, our source provides a very disapproving description of that too:

The repetitions, redundancies, and slovenliness of expression which disfigure the work may be partly due to the haste with which (as the author frequently reminds us) it was written. Some blemishes of style, particularly the clumsy and involved structure of his sentences, may perhaps be ascribed to insufficient literary training. The inflated rhetoric, the straining after effect by means of hyperbole, antithesis and epigram, mark the degenerate taste of the Silver Age, of which Paterculus is the earliest example.

Wow. Seriously, whoever wrote that entry did. not. approve. (Old-timey trash-talk really is the best trash-talk.)

The person who wrote the translations we’ll be reviewing today, Frederick W. Shipley, seems to approve somewhat more, though he also accepts that Velleius’ work has its flaws.

All in all, though, Velleius just sounds like an ambitious Roman citizen trying to make a name for himself. He glommed onto the right people (or at least so he thought), worshiped and paid deference to the proper Roman gods, doesn’t seem to have believed anything heretical, and pursued his goals with the exact steps people expected back then.

The History of Velleius.

It doesn’t sound like Velleius really wanted to write a complete, 100% accurate history, either. At least he sounds honest about it, eh?

That 1911 source tells us he always wanted to write a better one, especially about the later period he covered. This expanded history would have been more serious, and it would have covered the fight between Caesar and Pompey the Great and the wars Tiberius fought. However, it doesn’t look like Velleius ever got the chance to complete it.

Our source consists of two volumes. Its first volume goes from the aftermath of the Trojan War (possibly occurring between 1194-1184 BCE) to the destruction of Carthage at the end of the Third Punic War (146 BCE). Along the way, Velleius discusses the founding of Rome, but that bit has been lost along with a few other parts, including his very beginning.

You can find a link to both of the English-translation volumes here.

We’ll be focusing on the end of the second of the volumes, linked here.

Where We’re Focusing.

Volume II begins with the Gracchi brothers, who served as tribunes of the plebs from 133 BCE – 121 BCE, and ends with Marcus Vinicius becoming consul in 30 CE (for the first time; his second stint was in 45 CE, and then Messalina assassinated him in 46 CE).

We’re focusing on this part, which begins around 24 BCE, with Tiberius attaining the rank of quaestor. Chapter 104 begins around 4 CE. Velleius links various events to the start of his time serving under Tiberius’ command in Germania. He was there until Tiberius returned to Rome in 12 CE, and he reached the rank of quaestor himself midway through this period in 7 CE as part of his own cursus honorum).

Now, I don’t expect Velleius to cover Jesus’ ministry and death. Indeed, he doesn’t even really cover Judea. Most of the end of this volume talks about Tiberius’ campaigns in Germania and Gaul. That makes sense, since Velleius himself personally served under Tiberius in those areas for so long.

The closest Velleius really gets to Judea seems to be discussions of the ongoing Roman-Parthian tug-of-war over Armenia, a hotly-contested region at the time.

(The Parthian Empire, which ran from 247 BCE – 224 CE, wanted Armenia. However, Rome didn’t wanna give it to them. Eventually, a war started between these great powers in 58 CE, but even afterward Armenia was extremely volatile. BEHOLD MY MANY TABS, YE MIGHTY, AND DELIGHT.)

What Is Missing from the History of Velleius.

Very, very few Bible scholars — reputable ones at least — seem to think that much of anything in the Gospels really happened. I’m definitely in agreement there. And one of the reasons we can be certain of this fact is that absolutely nobody writing during the years covered by the Gospels mentions anything significant that those anonymous writers say happened.

So there’s a lot missing from Velleius’ history, even given his personal reasons to focus on Germania, Gaul, and sometimes Armenia.

We hear absolutely nothing of any of the cosmic portents presaging Jesus’ birth, for one thing. The supposed Star of Bethlehem discussed in Matthew 2 was so attention-grabbing that it dragged three mystics from “the east” all the way to the backwater of Jerusalem. Alas, however, even in the purple prose of Velleius we encounter no mention of what had to be quite an event.

(Strange how such an important part of the world got so little notice from anywhere else! For a god who totally aches to connect with his ant farm, it doesn’t make much sense.)

But that’s not the only confusing omission from Velleius’ work.

Whither Tiberius?

Velleius didn’t even notice all the ways that Tiberius mattered to Judea.

Indeed, Tiberius shows up in the Gospels. In Luke 3:1-2, we find the ruler mentioned by name as a reference for the start of the ministry of John the Baptist:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

Remember, Tiberius attained his title in 14 CE. So, that’d put John’s ministry at about 30 CE.

We also see his name pop up in other ways, too. In John 6:23, the anonymous writer mentions a town named Tiberias (named after the emperor, of course). The Sea of Galilee was, according to John 6:1, also known as the Sea of Tiberias, at least in all the translations BibleHub offers.

Really, pretty much any mention of “Caesar” or “emperor” in the Gospels means Tiberius, like when Jesus told his followers to “render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s” and showed them a penny (this story shows up in all three Synoptic Gospels). Scholars think that coin was a denarius, which Romans used, and the picture stamped on it was Caesar’s.

And Caesar, of course, was Tiberius then. Whoever inspired the character of Jesus likely got executed before Tiberius died in 37 CE.

More Silence from Velleius.

I seriously doubt there were any Christians at all in the 30s. At least, no mention is made of them at all in the contemporary historical record that I’ve ever found. So Velleius could hardly have been expected to write anything about Christianity proper.

For that matter, we don’t actually know exactly when Christianity morphed from a weird Jewish offshoot sect to its very own separate religion. In fact, for a long time, the earliest Christians seem to have worshiped in temples right alongside Jews and to have considered themselves Jewish. At various times, the New Testament’s writers allude to this coexistence.

But we do know that Jews had gotten more restive during Tiberius’ reign. More and more of them were coming to Rome itself, the central city, and they’d begun to proselytize Romans. This paper describes some other events apparently going on — like the embezzling of huge amounts of expensive gifts from a newly-converted Roman matron.

All of that annoyed a lot of people, from the sound of it. So in 19 CE, Tiberius ordered all Jewish men of military age to join the army. He also banished the other Jews from Rome — and threatened to enslave them if they refused to leave. This order is called the Expulsion of Jews from Rome. There were a lot of Jews in Rome in 19 CE. Philo, who we discussed last week, even talked about the size of their colony there. So really, you’d think something like this would have drawn Velleius’ attention.

All of this resentment of Jews against the Roman Empire and its rulers poured into the cauldron that produced Jesus and his new Jewish cult. To me, the silence of Velleius speaks to just how important the rest of Rome considered these developments.

Grading Velleius.

For the reasons mentioned above, Velleius does seem useful as a source. He was very highly placed in Roman society, and rubbed shoulders with the emperor who ruled Rome during Jesus’ supposed lifetime. He was very contemporaneous with the supposed Savior himself, and he wrote during the years Jesus supposedly was active. So, I think Velleius should remain on our vetted timeline of 1st-century writers who matter.

However, he’s still just a tad too early for us. He’s a very informative source for the general events that Romans themselves would have found important, but his focus was too narrow to be a slam-dunk note of silence.

Ultimately, I grant him a C+/B-, depending on exactly how we’re looking at what he wrote.

And now, I will return to those tabs and continue my walkabout, and I hope you can do the same. The years of Velleius’ lifetime were the glory days of Rome in a lot of ways, and he was right there in the thick of a lot of the most important events of his day. It’s mind-blowing just to think about what he got to see and do. Reading his words, even as florid as they are and at a 2000-year remove, makes me feel like I’m right there.

I’m very glad I met Velleius Paterculus, and I hope this has been a fun foray into history for you as well. Thank you for traveling this path with me!

NEXT UP: Tomorrow, we’ll resume our all-important Beach Reach training to learn how to have a totally natural non conversation with one’s evangelism marks.


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.
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