Velleius Paterculus and the Gospel of Mark

18 August 2010

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?


Velleius’ Chronology

17 August 2010

The Fasti Capitolini

For the past two weeks, I have been occupied with Velleius Paterculus, a Roman historian from the age of Tiberius who wrote a brief account of the history of Rome, which he dedicated to his friend Marcus Vinicius. I think I’ve made a small discovery.

It has been observed before that although Paterculus makes kind remarks about Julius Caesar and the emperor Augustus, his Roman History tells a different story. For example, although we’re supposed to believe that Caesar’s clemency was almost superhuman and his assassination undeserved, we hear nothing about his countless reform measures. Not even his calendar reform is mentioned, which is odd, because Paterculus is obsessed with chronological precision.

His work contains many chronological references, like “In the consulship Lentulus and Marcellus, 703 years after the founding of the city and 78 before your consulship, Marcus Vinicius, the civil war burst into flame”. The great scholars of the nineteenth century already noted that the dating system Paterculus uses starts in 752/751 BCE, and not in 754/753, as we are used to. This means that Paterculus used Cato’s chronology of the Roman Republic.

It also means – and I have not seen this in the articles I’ve read – that he does not use the Varronian system, which he must have known and which had become the authorized chronology. It was inscribed on the Arch of Augustus on the Forum Romanum (the inscription, known as the Fasti Capitolini, is now in the Capitoline Museums). Chosing not to use this system, Velleius made quite a statement: he was essentially saying that Caesar and Augustus were liars, who endorsed Varro’s propagandistic fabrications, the notorious “dictator years”.

Revised webpage here.