Velleius Paterculus, The Roman History I.6

Aemilius Sura’s fragment about the succession of empires.
Name of the author: 
Velleius Paterculus
30 CE
1st CE
Literary genre: 
Title of work: 
The Roman History

According to the opinion of a majority of scholars the year 30 CE marked the end of the composition of Velleius Paterculus’s two books of Roman history. Contrary to what its title indicates, this work is not focused only on Rome’s history. In what remains of the first book – a large part of which has been lost –, Velleius talks alternately about the diaspora of the Greek chiefs after the war of Troy, the foundations of Greek cities and colonies, and the evolution of world monarchies. According to Emil Kramer, the first book of The Roman history may have been wholly structured by the theme of the successions of empires, as it may have begun with a reference to the foundation of the Assyrian empire, and it ends with the fall of Carthage and Corinth (Kramer, “Book One of Velleius’s History,” p. 146-148; Bispham, “Time for Italy,” p. 29;). The text presented here is the first text which has been preserved and which deals with this theme. It can be divided into two parts. In the first part (from § 1-5), in a quite disordered way, Velleius deals with the succession of various world monarchies (§ 1-2 Assyria – Babylonia – Media), and also with the foundation of powerful city-states or kingdoms: Sparta (§ 3), Carthage (§ 4) and Macedonia (§ 5). The second part (§ 6) corresponds to a gloss, probably added after the completion of the work, which quotes an excerpt from Aemilius Sura’s work, De annis populi Romani (On the Years of the Roman People), which was “a sort of summary of Roman history arranged in chronological order” (Alonso-Núñez, “Aemilius Sura,” p. 111). This gloss may have been added because Sura’s words complete Velleius Paterculus’s presentation of the succession of empires (Kramer, “Book One of Velleius’s History,” p. 149). However, contrary to José Alonso-Núñez’s suggestion, according to which Velleius himself quoted Sura’s work, it seems preferable to think that this gloss was added by an ancient commentator – it appears for the first time in Delbenius’s edition of 1591 – because he wanted to make a parallel between Velleius’s conception of the succession of world empires and what he knew about that of Aemilius Sura (Alonso-Núñez, “Aemilius Sura,” p. 111; Kramer, “Book One of Velleius’s History,” p. 149-150). We will focus our analysis on this short text of Aemilius Sura, and on his use of the theory of the succession of world empires.

This passage is the only fragment of Aemilius Sura’s De annis populi Romani which has been preserved. The date of the composition of this work is debated. Some scholars think that it may have been written in the second century BCE, between 190 BCE, which saw the battle of Magnesia, which he mentions, and 168 BCE, which saw the battle of Pydna, which he does not mention (Alonso-Núñez, “Aemilius Sura,” p. 111-112; Alonso-Núñez, “Trogue-Pompée,” p. 83). Others think that it was likely to have been written at the beginning of the first century BCE (Nicolet, L’inventaire du monde, p. 45), or under Caesar (Mazza, “Roma,” p. 325-329). Regardless of the dating of the composition of De annis populi Romani, Aemilius Sura appears as the first author who deals with the idea of the succession of five empires and who presents the Roman empire as being the last empire of this succession (Alonso-Núñez, “Aemilius Sura,” p. 113; Alonso-Núñez, “Trogue-Pompée,” p. 83; Inglebert, Le Monde, p. 256). As José Alonso-Núñez rightly recalls, Herodotus is the first Greek author who deals with the succession of world powers when he writes that the Assyrians, Medians and Persians succeeded each other for the rule of the world (see Herodotus, Histories I.95 and I.130), a succession which has been later completed by Demetrius of Phalerum, who adds the Macedonians to it (Polybius, Histories XXIX, 21, 3-6; Alonso-Núñez, “Aemilius Sura,” p. 113-114). Thus, Aemilius Sura follows the traditional order of succession of empires and inserts Rome in it: Assyria – Media – Persia – Macedonia – Rome. This model was later adopted also by Greek or Roman authors of the Augustean period who composed a “universal history,” such as Trogus Pompeius or Nicolaus of Damascus, whose original works are now lost with the exception of Trogus Pompeius’s Philippic Histories which has been preserved through an anthology composed by Justin at least two centuries after its composition (on these authors, see Inglebert, Le Monde, p. 241-246, 257). One originality of the model of the succession of universal empires adopted by Trogus is that he inserts the Parthians, and presents them both as the successors of the Macedonians and the contemporaries and rivals of the Romans (see Justin, Epitome of the Philippic Histories of Pompeius Trogus XLI.1.1-9). However, it has been rightly recalled that this idea, according to which the Parthians were so powerful that they shared with Rome the rule of the world, is one which can be found in Strabo and also in Velleius Paterculus (Strabo, Geography XI.9.2; Velleius Paterculus, History of Rome II.101; Liebmann-Frankfort, “L’histoire,” p. 912-913; Lerouge-Cohen, “Les livres,” p. 366).

For what concerns Aemilius Sura, he deals with the succession of the five empires without alluding to any sharing of the world between the Romans and the Parthians: “Then through the defeat of Kings Philip and Antiochus, of Macedonian origin, following closely upon the overthrow of Carthage, the world power (summa imperii) passed to the Roman people (ad populum Romanum pervenit).” José Alonso-Núñez explains the absence of the Parthians in Aemilius Sura’s model by the fact that, around 170 BCE – which he considers the terminus ante quem of the composition of his work –, the Romans would still not have been aware of the power of Parthia at that time (Alonso-Núñez, “Aemilius Sura,” p. 115). Following Aemilius Sura’s words, Rome became a hegemonic power after the defeats of Antiochus III at Magnesia in 190 BCE (mentioned also in Polybius, Histories XXI.16.8; Alonso-Núñez, “Aemilius Sura,” p. 116) or of Philip V of Macedonia at Cynoscephalae in 197 BCE, two events which followed the Carthaginian defeat at Zama in 202 BCE (Alonso-Núñez, “Aemilius Sura,” p. 111). However, it has to be noticed that other authors considered that other events ensured the crucial point in Rome’s accession to the status of a world empire. For example, Polybius stresses the importance of the battle of Pydna against the Macedonian king Perseus in 168 BCE, and Dionysius of Halicarnassus highlights the final defeat of Carthage in 146 BCE (see Kramer, “Book One of Velleius’s History,” p. 148).

As José Alonso-Núñez remarks, the fact that Aemilius Sura does not include Carthage in his enumeration of world empires may prove that he used Greek sources, and that he was influenced by a theory of the succession of world empires of oriental origin, a theory that he may have adapted according to his pro-Roman perspectives (Alonso-Núñez, “Aemilius Sura,” p. 115, 119). Due to the loss of the whole work, we can not assert that, by expounding his theory of the succession of the five empires, Aemilius Sura wanted to present the Roman empire as the last empire, representing the “completion of historical evolution,” in a way comparable to that of Dionysius of Hallicarnassus (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities I.2.2-4; I.3.1-5; for the quotation see Alonso-Núñez, “An Augustan,” p. 63; Inglebert, Le Monde, p. 257). Such an interpretation remains probable, however. From this perspective, José Alonso-Núñez considers that by narrating the emergence of Rome as the most powerful empire of his time, Aemilius Sura must have implied that this event put an end to the succession of world empires, as the Roman empire could not be surpassed (Alonso-Núñez, “Aemilius Sura,” p. 115). Such an understanding of the passage is actually possible and it provides a good example of how a Roman author may have developed a model of the succession of universal empires based on five empires, to serve the global aim of his work De annis populi Romani, namely to exalt the greatness of the Roman people.

Keywords in the original language: 

Bibliographical references: 

“Aemilius Sura”

Alonso-Núñez, José M.article-in-a-journal110-11948/1“Aemilius Sura”Latomus 1989
Realized by: