The Lost History of Sextus Aurelius Victor

Justin Stover and George Woudhuysen

At some point in the later 4th century AD, perhaps around 380, the famous and irascible translator, Christian theologian, and general polymath, St Jerome, sat down to write a letter. Unsurprisingly, it was about books. His addressee was one Paul, a centenarian bibliophile who lived in Concordia near Aquileia, an important ancient city on the Adriatic. Two of the books Jerome asked for were what we might expect: the commentary on the Gospels of Fortunatian, sometime bishop of Aquileia, and the letters of the Christian schismatic Novatian. The third is rather more surprising – the History of Sextus Aurelius Victor.

St Jerome looking rather wearied by his scholarly labours: Saint Jerome in his study, Pieter Coecke van Aelst, 1530 (Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD, USA).

His might not today be a name to conjure with, but Jerome’s contemporaries would perhaps have been less surprised than we are to find him keen to read Victor’s history of the Roman Emperors. Born in rural poverty in North Africa to an unlettered father, Victor rocketed to fame in 361, when he was summoned to Naissus – now Niš in Serbia, the birthplace some ninety years earlier of Constantine – by the Emperor Julian, the renowned foe of Christianity and revivalist of capital-H Hellenism. Julian was so impressed by the North-African historian that he commissioned a bronze statue to be set up in his honour and made him governor of the province of Pannonia Secunda. Another famous pagan, the Latin historian Ammianus Marcellinus, singled out Victor alone amongst his contemporaries as a real historian, a scriptor historicus, and declared that he was a man worth imitating for his moral seriousness.

A gold solidus of the Emperor Julian, minted at Sirmium (361–3), quite possibly when Aurelius Victor was resident there as governor of Pannonia Secunda.

Like Julian and Ammianus, Victor was not a Christian, and yet he was one of the few figures whose fame traversed confessional boundaries. A Christian bibliophile like Paul of Concordia had a copy of the History in his library, and a Christian scholar like Jerome was eager to get his hands on it. Even more surprisingly, Victor was made prefect of the city of Rome by the Emperor Theodosius, whose strident promotion of Christianity (and occasional hostility to the traditional cults of Rome) earned him the venomous hatred of pagan intellectuals like the Greek historian Eunapius of Sardis. In 1563, during building works at a private house near Trajan’s Column in Rome, a monumental inscription on the base of some long-lost statue was discovered:

The base of the statue (now lost) that Victor erected in honour of the Emperor Theodosius (CIL 6.1186).

To the one who has surpassed the gentleness, holiness, and liberality of ancient emperors, our lord Fl. Theodosius, pious, victor, emperor forever, Sextus Aurelius Victor, of senatorial rank, prefect of the city, judge in the emperor’s place, consecrated this to his divine majesty.

The prefect was the president of the Roman Senate in session, and the intermediary between the Roman aristocracy and the (usually distant) Emperor. The office – while not the most powerful – was one of the most prestigious available to the senatorial elite, a rare prize denied even to some of the scions of Rome’s most blue-blooded families – quite an achievement for a country boy.

After his prefecture, references to Victor as a living person cease. Yet his History was still remembered, admired, and used long after his death. It received perhaps the ultimate compliment in 4th-century literature: to be plagiarised extensively by the Historia Augusta. In the Constantinople of Justinian, a century and a half after Victor’s lifetime, the antiquarian civil servant John the Lydian cited Victor as an authority on the development of a minor bureaucratic post – high praise from a world-class pedant. Like Jerome before him, John’s citation referred to Victor’s work as the History. Two centuries later, yet another érudit, Paul the Deacon, writing the history of his own people, the Lombards, likewise made reference to the History of Victor, this time in relation to the correct nomenclature of the Alpine provinces.

All of this makes Victor a rare figure. His appeal seems to have cut across confessional, linguistic, and chronological boundaries: pagans and Christians, Greeks and Latins, his own contemporaries and scholars hundreds of years later, all found something of particular value in his work. It is no exaggeration to suggest that Victor was the Latin historian of the later 4th century. In terms of his contemporary and posthumous reputation, he simply has no rival. Victor was the most famous, the most influential, and the most highly regarded Roman historian of his day. Most readers might reasonably wonder, therefore, why they have never heard of him.

An opus sectile mosaic from the Basilica of Junius Bassus in Rome, early 4thcentury; depicting a consul in his chariot, accompanied by representatives of the circus factions, it gives a colourful sense of the magnificence of senatorial aristocrats in the Rome of the period (Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome, Italy).

It is certainly not because of the obscurity or insignificance of the times in which he lived. Although later antiquity in general has long lurked in the shadow of the ‘classical’ periods of Greco-Roman civilisation, scholars have always recognised the enormous significance of the 4th century AD – an epoch characterised by dramatic change and dominated by big personalities. Victor tells us that he was old enough to remember the era of Constantine (r. 306–37), the first Christian emperor, of whom he offered a nuanced but ultimately rather damning account.

Constantine’s reign saw the Roman Empire complete its recovery from the chaos and disorder of the 3rd century: a fundamentally reformed and much more powerful state intervened increasingly in the lives of its subjects to enumerate, organise, tax, and control them with an intensity that would have seemed unimaginable a century earlier. The emperor’s conversion to Christianity and his subsequent drive to erase the legacy of persecution and shower favour on the Church marked a fundamental turning point in Roman history, one of those moments where nothing would ever quite be the same again.

Mosaic depicting a hunter shooting a tiger with a bow and arrow, possibly Odaenathus, the Palmyrene client king of Rome, and husband of Zenobia, 3rd century (Palmyra Archaeological Museum, Syria). Victor disapproved of archery.

As a young man, Victor obtained a first-rate education, probably at Carthage and then Rome. He was uncomfortably close to the action during the brutal civil wars of the early 350s, conflicts on a scale and of a violence that recalled the bloodshed of the late Republic. The wars between Constantius II (r. 337–61) – Constantine’s last surviving son – and the usurper Magnentius (r. 350–3) raged particularly savagely in the Balkans and in Italy, with an epic battle at Mursa (now in Croatia) in 352 perhaps the most lethal engagement of the 4th century. Constantius eventually triumphed over Magnentius, but the city of Rome itself was not spared large-scale violence. Troops of Magnentius were sent to suppress an urban revolt that had elevated Nepotian, a member of Constantine’s family, as emperor. Victor recalled (with an elegant nod to Sallust) that the houses, streets, forums, and temples of the city overflowed with corpses, as though they were suddenly tombs.

The Emperor Constantius II, portrayed in an uncharacteristically cheerful mood in the Barberini manuscript of the Chronography of 354, a Renaissance copy of a late-Roman calendar (Vatican Library, cod. Barberini lat. 2154).

A survivor of that turbulent period, Victor went on to serve in imperial administration in the Balkans in the late 350s, under Anatolius, a scholar-bureaucrat of a characteristic late-Roman kind, keen to employ as his subordinates the well-educated and the rhetorically skilled. Constantius II was campaigning on the Danube at the time, and Victor was close to the centre of the vast imperial machinery of government and warfare. He was thus in exactly the right place to witness the dramatic rise of Julian, who descended on the Balkans in 361 during his obviously ill-advised attempt to supplant his cousin Constantius as emperor.

When Constantius died suddenly, leaving Julian (to his surprise as much as anyone else’s) as his heir, the latter attempted to reverse the Christian revolution by returning the Roman Empire to the worship of the pagan gods. This short-lived experiment failed when Julian was killed leading a disastrous invasion of Persia in 363. As a provincial governor, honoured and promoted by the emperor himself, Victor had an unusually privileged position from which to observe Julian’s quixotic pursuits and the turmoil that they caused. Though he must have been an old man by then, Victor lived well into the reign of Theodosius (r. 379–95), as the triumph of Christianity became increasingly obvious and the Empire’s political situation increasingly precarious.

The missorium (a large silver dish) of the Emperor Theodosius II, who is portrayed in the centre, AD c. 388 (Royal Academy of History, Madrid, Spain).

Against this political backdrop there was a real cultural recrudescence, at least in the field of Latin literature. This was the age of the poets Ausonius, Claudian, and Prudentius, of Christian theologians and controversialists like Jerome, Ambrose, and Augustine, of cultured pagan littérateurs like Symmachus and Ammianus. At the centre of these swirling currents – political, military, legal, cultural, and literary – stands Victor as one of the great chroniclers of imperial Rome, a literary man of Empire-wide fame, a bureaucrat and official who enjoyed the favour of princes.

So, the question stands in yet starker relief: why is a preeminent cultural figure in one of the most transformative periods of Roman history so obscure to us today? To offer an answer we must turn to the work which a library would shelve under Victor’s name today. For the past several centuries, this has been known to the world as the De Caesaribus. To call it disappointing would be an understatement. It is a short work – fewer than twelve thousand words, shorter than almost any single book of Livy – which attempts to drag the reader from the reign of Augustus to AD 360.

Of course, brevity is not itself a vice, but the brevity of the De Caesaribus is not quite the elegant concision Jerome (for example) managed in his updating of the famous Chronicle of Eusebius of Caesarea. Instead, it is rambling and incoherent, skipping the most important events and lavishing attention on the trivial, frequently launching into what charitable critics have called ‘moralising digressions’, and exhibiting a series of what might be politely termed idiosyncratic interests: in male prostitution, in the literary culture of emperors, and in the more arcane aspects of imperial administration. Even this might be forgivable were the work not written in an extraordinarily obscure style, which has made it difficult to comprehend the history it chooses to relate.

The scholarly consensus is that the De Caesaribus is little more than an unusually incompetent summary of a widely circulated source known to most of the Latin historians of the 4th century, the Kaisergeschichte of Alexander Enmann (1856–1903), for aficionados. The De Caesaribus is not a naturally appealing work, let alone one likely to generate the kind of fame Victor enjoyed in the 4th century.

Adding further to our bafflement is the fact that there is another imperial history beginning with Augustus attributed to Aurelius Victor. This second work – which has a terminal point thirty-five years beyond where the De Caesaribus ends – is known to scholarship as the Epitome (i.e. “summary”) de Caesaribus, Conventional opinion holds that it has very little to do with Victor at all. It does overlap more or less verbatim with the De Caesaribus for the first eleven chapters – covering the emperors from Augustus to Domitian – but the consensus is that the rest of the work must be derived from some other source. It has been conventionally dated to the very end of the 4th century, but we have shown elsewhere that it cannot in fact have been written before the middle of the 6th century, one-hundred-and-fifty years after the events it relates. The De Caesaribus and Epitome de Caesaribus present, in other words, some unusually tricky problems to any modern student of the later Roman Empire. Given all this, it is hardly surprising that Victor is an eccentric curiosity in the life and letters of the 4th century – little studied and less understood.

Titulus of the Epitome de Caesaribus, written in Northern France in the early 9th century (Wolfenbüttel, Herzog-August-Bibliothek, Cod. Guelf. 84 Gud. lat., f.66r).

The gap between Victor’s considerable fame amongst his contemporaries and the obviously unsatisfactory nature of his work should at least give us pause. Ancient and modern tastes do not (by any means) always align – as anyone who has perused the Philogelos (a surviving ancient joke-book) or the plays of Menander can well attest – but it does seem odd that Julian, Jerome, and the rest should have had such a high regard for a work so clearly inadequate as the De Caesaribus. We have an excellent sense of what 4th-century Latin readers valued in a work of history and, as far as they were concerned, the models to be followed were Sallust and (to a lesser extent) Livy. No one could mistake the De Caesaribus – short though it is – for the pungent brevity of one of Sallust’s monographs, still less for the luxuriant decades of Livy’s history.

But here we reach an important point. Modern readers are used to taking works as givens, to (say) plucking a book of Livy from the library shelves and enjoying immediate, apparently direct access to what an historian working under Augustus thought about Rome’s past. It is crucial to realise that this experience is, at least in part, deceptive. The access we have to ancient works is not unmediated: we have histories for instance, like those of Livy or of Tacitus, because people from antiquity into the Middle Ages and beyond copied, read, retained, and studied the manuscripts that transmit them. But that was not the typical fate of ancient literature and the process of transmission both profoundly affects what we can read and the form in which we must read it.

Most of the literature of the Greco-Roman world does not survive in its original form at all – we are lucky if we can get some sense of individual lost works from ancient quotations or summaries. A smaller number of ancient authors saw their writings transmitted directly, but usually only some fraction of them. It is in fact rather unusual to be able to read the entirety of what some ancient author wrote in the form that he wrote it.

An illustration of a scribe by the 15th-centruy illuminator Jean Le Tavernier (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, MS Fr 9198, f.19r), recoloured for E.G. Gress’s The Art and Practice of Typography (Oswald, New York, USA, 1910).

To offer an example, only around one third of the eighty-book history of Cassius Dio, the great senatorial chronicler of the Severan age, directly survives. For the remaining two-thirds, we need to piece together what he wrote from quotations, extracts, snippets, and summaries, especially a drastically shortened version made in the 11th century by a Byzantine monk called John Xiphilinus. When we assess any ancient work, we need to pay close attention to the way it was transmitted before we draw any conclusions about it.

If we examine the De Caesaribus in the manuscripts that transmit the work, we find something rather interesting. The De Caesaribus has a slender transmission in manuscripts – only two survive today, both written in the Renaissance – but they give it the same title: not the one by which it is commonly known today (an early-modern invention), but rather the Aurelii Victoris Historiae Abbreviatae. There is only one thing that this can mean – ‘the abbreviated Histories of Aurelius Victor’, abbreviated not in the sense that they are merely short, but rather in that someone has hacked the text out of a longer original. The title is telling us that this is not Victor’s original historical work, but rather an epitome of it.

The same is true of that other work attributed to Victor. Epitome de Caesaribus is, once again a modern title for the work that the manuscripts call the Libellus breviatus de vita et moribus imperatorum breviatus ex libris Sexti Aurelius Victoris – that is ‘the little book on the life and manners of the emperors abbreviated from the books of Sextus Aurelius Victor’.

To the extent that modern scholars have thought about these titles, they have dismissed them as scribal fictions – inventions of medieval copyists that have no authority. There is no good reason whatsoever to do this. Epitomes – a summary or an abstract of a work or a topic – were a ubiquitous genre in antiquity. Every sort of ancient work was epitomised; it was not unusual for multiple epitomes to be made from the same work, and it was surprisingly common for ancient readers to use an epitome and the original work in parallel.

The Oxyrhynchus Epitome of Livy (P.Oxy. 668, Egyptian Museum, Cairo). Epitomes of historical texts were common in antiquity and are often our only evidence for the works they summarise.

The making of what scholars sometimes inelegantly call ‘condensed texts’ was a particular feature of history-writing: ancient readers really wanted summaries of long, complex, and involved works, which were no doubt extremely expensive to purchase and equally difficult to read and absorb. As we have seen moreover, it is very far from unusual for our knowledge of an ancient work to be indirect – dependent on epitomes, snippets, and quotations. There is, in other words, no good prima facie reason to reject what the titles tell us about the two short works of history attributed to Victor.

Moreover, thinking of the De Caesaribus and the Epitome de Caesaribus as epitomes makes it much easier to understand them. Both works have a remarkable quantity of recondite information – facts, names, dates, ideas found nowhere else in the ancient literature – for which there has never been a good explanation. We would expect summary histories of the Roman Empire to stick to a well-trodden path through the key events and personalities – but neither of the Victorine works does that. Moreover, the De Caesaribus in particular has an extraordinary range of literary reference: Sallust, Tacitus, Suetonius, Livy, Velleius Paterculus, Lactantius, Nemesianus, Cassius Dio, Dexippus, Herodotus, and a host of other authors across the whole range of ancient literature are alluded to, drawn on, or implicitly attacked. Even if we ignore its manuscript title and insist on treating the De Caesaribus as a work complete in itself, we would have to concede that its author was a remarkably learned individual, with an extremely impressive library of volumes both on his shelves and in his head. Yet, at the same time, the De Caesaribus is a work written in a Latin that can often barely be construed and is certainly jarring and inelegant: it is simply impossible that anyone who had so thoroughly read and absorbed so much of Latin literature could have written a work which would have any modern teacher of Latin prose-composition reaching for the red pen.

One of the few scholars to have given serious and sustained thought to the peculiarities of the Latin in the De Caesaribus was forced to conclude that Victor used particles in a way that no other Latin author ever had. All these oddities and infelicities are much more easily explained if we take the manuscript title at face value and imagine that we are reading not Victor’s original work, but a (not particularly competent) summary of some parts of it, produced by awkwardly threading together fragments of his prose. There is, in short, a real possibility that we are not reading Victor at all, but rather summaries of his original work.

The Abbey of Monte Cassino, as reconstructed after extensive damage in the Second World War.

Up to this point, it might seem that we have presented an interesting but ultimately unprovable idea – what we need is direct evidence for Victor’s original history. That leads us to a figure whom we have mentioned already: Paul the Deacon. Paul is most famous today for writing a History of the Lombards, the barbarian people who had conquered much of Italy across the 6th and 7th centuries and into whose aristocracy he was born in around 730 in Friuli. But his life and interests stretched far beyond the history of his own people and the peninsula they had come to rule. Paul was closely associated with the great monastery at Monte Cassino, a treasure-house of rare books that played a crucial role in the transmission of ancient literature to the Middle Ages. He was one of those intellectuals imported to the north by the Frankish emperor Charlemagne to adorn the Carolingian Renaissance (so-called). Besides his history of the Lombards, he also assembled a substantial Historia Romana, or history of Rome, relying on late-antique sources, and produced an epitome of the massive ancient Latin lexicon of Pompeius Festus. The sole manuscript of Festus’ lexicon was badly damaged in a fire and is now in a rather sorry state, so Paul’s epitome of it is a crucial witness to this important work.

Paul the Deacon, in an appropriately scholarly pose, 10th century (Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence, Plut. 65.35, f.34r).

Paul was, in brief, a scholar of extraordinary range and deep learning. Paul is particularly intriguing to us because he was (as we have seen) the last person to cite Victor’s History under that title and also the first to show knowledge of the Epitome de Caesaribus as we have it today, for he used the work extensively in his Historia Romana. Paul would thus seem to have had access to something he thought was Victor’s original work and to what is presented as an epitome of it. To prove that he knew Victor’s History in its full glory, we would need to find evidence that Paul had read it.

Fortunately, we have excellent evidence for Paul’s reading in the form of the so-called Scholia Vallicelliana. In the Biblioteca Vallicelliana in Rome, there is an early-12th-century manuscript of the Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, the great encyclopaedia of the Middle Ages. In the margins of this manuscript is a set of extensive annotations, clearly copied along with the main text from an earlier manuscript. In a pathbreaking article published in the 1980s, the Italian scholar Claudia Villa showed beyond any reasonable doubt that these marginalia were originally the work of Paul the Deacon. The annotations consist largely of (often substantial) quotations from ancient sources, some of them now lost or no longer clearly identifiable. The Scholia Vallicelliana are, in other words a vital witness both to what Paul had read and to some otherwise lost ancient works. In particular, the Scholia transmit entries from the lexicon of Festus that do not survive.

St Isidore of Seville presents his De fide Catholica contra Judaeos to his sister Florentia, c. 800 (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, lat. 13396, f.1v).

These are, however, far from the only items of interest in the Scholia. Scattered through the annotations is a good deal of material on the Roman emperors. Of these the most substantial reads in English translation as follows:

Victor, the writer of history: As I examine the lives of the emperors, rarely have I found that any of them who was devoted to the pursuit of archery was also useful to the state. I am not able to understand the reason why this happens, unless perchance one is given to conjecture that while they pursue a pastime that is more difficult than it is useful, and gives more pleasure in its successful completion, and is not even very effective in battle itself, they neglect imperial duties and vital counsels. This same emperor Domitian is said to have been so skilled in archery that his arrows could sail between the outstretched fingers of a man stationed a considerable distance away.

Even were the author of this fragment not identified as Aurelius Victor, the tangled style and taste for moralising reflection found in this quotation would be instantly recognisable to any reader of the De Caesaribus – but the text here is entirely absent from the pages of that work. The final line, however, with its details about the emperor Domitian, is found verbatim in the Epitome de Caesaribus. This scholion proves at a single stroke that the De Caesaribus and the Epitome de Caesaribus are exactly what their titles proclaim them to be: epitomes of a longer and more complex work by Aurelius Victor. Paul the Deacon was clearly still able to read the full History in 8th-century Italy – we have already remarked on his association with Monte Cassino and the ancient rarities that could still be read in southern Italy in the 8th century.

The reason for Victor’s fame amongst his contemporaries and his modern obscurity should now be obvious. They were reading what was clearly a monumental history of the Roman Empire, one that attracted enormous admiration from as diverse a range of witnesses as one could imagine in the 4th century. We are looking at two scrappy epitomes of that work, without even properly realising what they are. We might compare the process to trying to judge a great novel by its Wikipedia entry: informative so far as it goes, but it does not go very far.

All true… but is it good?

Lurking under our noses, there is a major lost history of the Roman Empire, just waiting to be rediscovered. Of course, we cannot read all of it and have to make do with summaries of its contents, but that is the usual situation for the great Roman historians. The works of Sallust, Tacitus, Livy, and Ammianus Marcellinus are all transmitted to us only in parts. We are lucky to be able to use ancient excerpts and quotations to get some sense of Sallust’s Histories and ancient epitomes to understand the broad outline of Livy’s work – nothing similar survives for the lost portions of Tacitus and Ammianus.

The possibilities that all this raises are enormously exciting. There is no good evidence that anyone had attempted to write large-scale history in Latin after the era of Tacitus and Suetonius in the early 2nd century. By writing such a substantial History in AD 360, Victor was doing something extremely adventurous. His work was at the start of the great revival of Latin literature that marked the later 4th century, and it was clearly very influential on contemporaries – hence the admiration it attracted. A proper understanding of the lost history of Sextus Aurelius Victor is set to transform our knowledge of the Roman past.

Justin Stover is Senior Lecturer in Medieval Latin at the University of Edinburgh, where he specializes in the transmission of classical texts in the Middle Ages.

George Woudhuysen is Assistant Professor in Roman History at the University of Nottingham. He works primarily on the 4th century AD.

Further Reading

This article represents a distillation of some parts of our book The Lost History of Sextus Aurelius Victor (Edinburgh UP, 2023). That work is freely available online as an open-access PDF: click here and scroll down to the open-access tab. Copies of the hard-back (beautifully type-set and printed in the UK) are also available for purchase.