Memorable Deeds and Sayings: One Thousand Tales from Ancient Rome

Memorable Deeds and Sayings: One Thousand Tales from Ancient Rome

Memorable Deeds and Sayings: One Thousand Tales from Ancient Rome

Memorable Deeds and Sayings: One Thousand Tales from Ancient Rome


Popular in its day both as a sourcebook for writers and orators and as a guidebook for living a moral life, this remarkably rich document serves as an engaging introduction to the cultural and moral history of ancient Rome. Valerius' "thousand tales" are arranged thematically in ninety-one chapters that cover nearly every aspect of life in the ancient world, including such wide-ranging topics as military discipline, child rearing, and women lawyers. As a whole, the work gives the reader fascinating insights into what it felt like to be an ancient Roman, what the ancient Romans really believed, what their private world was like, how they related to one another, and what they did when nobody was watching.


Valerius Maximus finished this great collection of almost one thousand stories from the Roman world in A.D. 31. Apart from the fact that he was a close friend of a consul, we know almost nothing about Valerius: he has effaced himself completely behind his collection of stories. The period in which he lived and wrote was the beginning of a new era for Rome and indeed for the west in general. The Roman Republic had been destroyed with horrifying bloodshed, and the age of the emperors had begun. Western history would be dominated by monarchs for the next nineteen centuries. The beginning of this long era of domination was a very disturbing time, when the future looked bleak and people were cut off from their past. Valerius recorded these stories because they provided a link with that past—they preserved the moral values of the Republic. They are great stories, of course, but he did not want the Romans to read them just for fun; he also wanted his readers to absorb the values represented by these stories, to turn to them for moral guidance and to use them as models of behavior. His readers did not disappoint him; the Romans eagerly adopted his book as a moral code from the time it was written. And people kept turning to his stories long after the Roman emperors had disappeared and other monarchs had taken their place. His stories continued to provide his readers with a more noble code of behavior in a world of universal servility.

Fortunately, we do not need Valerius to teach us how to live. We have gradually developed our own traditions of liberty, patterns of democratic behavior, and role models. We have Gandhi and Mandela as well as Brutus the Liberator and Cato of Utica. But it is hard to resist the appeal of a man who can tell one thousand tales, and nobody else could tell us what it felt like to be an ancient Roman, what the

I come up with a different number every time I try to count them, but there are approxi
mately 960 stories.

A consul was similar to a modern-day president (see consul in the Glossary). The friend of
Valerius was Sextus Pompeius, consul in A.D. 14. For more on their friendship, see the end
of the next section in this Introduction.

In the middle of the century, the Roman poet Lucan wrote about the death of the Repub
lic and predicted with gloomy accuracy, “From now on till the end of time, we are slaves.”

At the end of Shakespeare's Hamlet, the prince's friend, Horatio, pays an extraordinary
tribute to the values of the Roman Republic when he contrasts its tradition of freedom
with the atmosphere in Denmark and declares, “I am more an antique Roman than a
Dane.” Once a large enough number of people were converted to Horatio's views, and
chose en masse to act like ancient Romans, the French Revolution and American Revolu
tion were all but inevitable.

These men were the first and last great Republicans in Rome. Brutus founded the Republic
in 509 B.C., and Cato committed suicide in 46 B.C. rather than live under a dictator.

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