Velleius Paterculus and the Gospel of Mark

Augustus (Museo Nacional de Arte Romano, Mérida)

One of the (many) interesting aspects of the Gospel of Mark is that the reader knows more than the dramatis personae. In the first line, essentially the title of this short book, Jesus is identified as the Son of God. Unclean spirits (3.11-12, 5.7), the high priest (14.61), and a Roman officer (15.39) are aware of Christ’s divine nature, but the disciples remain puzzled. Maybe even Mark’s Jesus is unaware of his true nature, because he consistently calls himself Son of Man.

Perhaps Jesus believed that the Son of Man and the Son of God were identical. That is how I would read 14.61-62, but christology is not my subject and I want to focus on Mark’s double message. At first sight, Mark offers a story about the most miserable of men: in spite of successes, he has to leave his homeland, and in Jerusalem, he is abandoned by his disciples, arrested, judged by a Jew, mocked by Jews, abandoned to the Romans, judged by a Roman, mocked by Romans, abandoned to the cross, and mocked by criminals. His dying words show that he realizes even his Father has abandoned him (“Why have you forsaken me?”).

A Christian believer who reads this same text, will understand it differently. He knows that he must not focus on the opinions of the disciples, but on the words of Jesus’ enemies, who correctly identify that big loser as the Savior. The Gospel of Mark is a text with a message and a countermessage. Whatever you believe, this is great literature.

I had to think of this when I was occupied with the Roman historian Velleius Paterculus, about whom I blogged yesterday. In his Augustan narrative, he employs the same contrasts. There’s a message of praise, as was common in Roman sources about Augustus, and a highly critical countermessage. Take, for instance this line:

It was in keeping with his fortune and his clemency that not one of those who had borne arms against him was put to death by him, or by his order (2.87.2).

But this is immediately contradicted by the nine examples Paterculus offers: four of these people preferred suicide to the delights of Augustan clemency. Worse, in the next section, 2.88, we read how ruthlessly efficient Maecenas got rid of one of Octavian’s opponents. True, Augustus had no blood on his hands, but Velleius offers a strong counterpoint.

There’s more. The statement that everybody delighted in Augustus’ restoration is contradicted by three references to conspiracies. We learn that the prince of peace sacrificed his political friend Cicero to his alliance with Marc Antony and Lepidus, failed to control his men at Perugia, left the supreme command in battle to Agrippa, and did not properly educate his daughter.

This is not the work of a clumsy writer. It is intentional. Augustus’ successes are mentioned in passing, like the war in Spain, or ignored, like the rebuilding of Rome and the Secular Games. We read a lot, on the other hand, about the Third Civil War, which was launched by Octavian; about the Actium campaign; about the Pannonian Revolt, which proves that the pacification of the provinces was unsuccessful; and finally the disaster in the Teutoburg Forest, ‘the greatest calamity experienced by the Romans since the defeat of Crassus in Parthia‘ (2.119.1).

Message and countermessage. For every boast of Augustus’ propaganda, Velleius offers a counterpoint. I wonder whether there are more ancient texts structured like this. Suggestions, anyone?

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2 Responses to Velleius Paterculus and the Gospel of Mark

  1. Bill Thayer says:

    Jona, this is brilliant; you’ve changed my mind 180° about Velleius.

  2. Simon Hill says:

    Hey! The old idea of thinking about Velleius and other Roman writers in terms of ‘propoganda’ and ‘counter-points’ as you talked about has been overtaken by more nuanced forms of scholarship. If you still have an interest in Velleius’ message, which has been poorly studied to date, a new book ‘Velleius Paterculus’ (2011, Cowan, E. (ed.)) is incredibly helpful, containing essays from many big names in Roman history today. Have a read of that.

    I have to say, when I read Velleius I didn’t see the same connection you are making between Velleius and Mark’s Gospel. After reading this, I can see where you are coming from. However, a few things, like some more reading on the very specific Torah-derived title of ‘the Son of Man’ (i.e. Daniel 7) is hardly evidence that Jesus was a confused man who thought he was just an ordinary human being. I do also find it interesting that in summarising the Gospel of Mark, and the way Mark wants us to think about Jesus, you don’t include the kind of vital bit where Jesus comes back from the dead. If you are making an argument about how Mark represents Jesus in his narrative, I would have thought that should enter it.

    But good thoughts!

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