By Kristin Masters
Eutropius’ Breviarium ab urbe condita is a summary of Roman history from the founding of Rome (traditionally set at 753 BCE) to the reign of the emperor Jovian (364 CE). It was dedicated to the reigning emperor, Valens (r. 364–378), and aimed to collect “the conspicuous achievements of the Romans, whether in war or in peace … [as well as] those topics which appeared exceptional in the lives of the emperors” (Breviarium, Preface).
Little is known of Eutropius’ life, beyond a few details mentioned in the Breviarium. He says he participated in the expedition to fight the Parthians mounted by the Emperor Julian (363 CE, see Brev. 10.16.1), though what role he played is unknown. The work’s dedication seems to refer to Eutropius as Valens’ magister memoriae. This was very high position in the Roman imperial bureaucracy, in the office of legal advisors to the emperor, subordinate to the magister officiorum. The duties of the office included composing replies to petitions made to the emperor. H.W. Bird argues, citing Ammianus Marcellinus, that Eutropius served as proconsul of the Roman province of Asia under Valens (Eutropius Asiam proconsulari tunc obtinens potestate, Ammianus, Histories 29.1.36; Bird 2011: xiv), a very responsible position indeed, with direct access to the emperor.
Because of its important content and straightforward style, Eutropius’ work became a classroom staple in ancient times, and has remained so. A Greek translation was made by a certain Paeanius already in Eutropius’ lifetime for the Greek-speaking readership of the empire. The Breviarium has a rich Latin manuscript tradition, with surviving examples as early as the 9th century, such as the important manuscript known as “G,” from Gotha (Gothanus 101). The fact that Eutropius' compendium had nine print editions before the year 1800, with four editions needing a second reprint, shows strong demand for the work in the early modern era. This edition draws on some of the earlier ones, especially the recent English translation of H.W. Bird (Eutropius: Breviarium, Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1993, new ed. 2011), and the school edition of J.C. Hazzard (Eutropius Edited for School Use, New York: American Book Company, 1898).
With so much ground to cover, Eutropius was ruthlessly selective. He focuses on military matters and building programs, but occasionally adds a character-revealing anecdote as a garnish. His selection of events and occasional comments show that he considered military success a key attribute of a good leader. In seventy or so (modern) pages of text, Eutropius mentions no fewer that sixty-five “triumphs,” that characteristically Roman post-war victory celebration. For those interested in further details about events mentioned only in passing by Eutropius, this edition provides many references to other ancient sources. Here is an annotated list of the ancient authors most often cited.
The History of Ammianus Marcellinus covers the reign of the emperors Constantius Gallus to the defeat of Valens at the Battle of Adrianople in 378 CE. Originally thirty-four volumes long, only eighteen volumes remain. This work provides particularly valuable information on Roman history and culture of the 4th century CE.
Appian was a Greek historian who lived during the 2nd century CE. His volumes of Roman history recount various foreign and civil wars. His account of Hannibal’s invasion during the Second Punic War was used in this commentary.
Augustus was a 1st century BCE Roman emperor who successfully converted the Roman government to a monarchy. His autobiography, the Deeds of the Divine Augustus, offer insight into his rule and is used in this commentary to provide clarification on Eutropius’ text.
Dionysius of Halicarnassus was a Greek author who lived during the 1st century BCE. His work, the Roman Antiquities, is a twenty-volume work on Roman history that spans from the flight of Aeneas from Troy to the war against Pyrrhus in the 3rd century BCE. Many of the later books are lost, but his work is invaluable in preserving early Roman history and legends.
Anon., Epitome de Caesaribus
Although the Epitome de Caesaribus was originally thought to have been written by Sextus Aurelius Victor, this work is distinctly different from Aurelius’ work de Caesaribus. The Epitome gives an abbreviated history of the Roman emperors from Augustus to Theodosius. Parallel passages are used in this commentary that provide useful information and anecdotes on the lives of later Roman emperors.
Florus abridged the works of Livy into two concise volumes in his Epitome. This work spans over seven hundred years, from the founding of the city by Romulus to the establishment of the Principate by Augustus.
Anon., Historia Augusta
The Historia Augusta were a collection of imperial biographies that span the reigns of Hadrian to Carus. Although it is written in the style of Suetonius, much of the information in these biographies is not credible. Anecdotes were used in this commentary for illustrative purposes only.
Horace was a Roman poet who lived during the reign of the Emperor Augustus. He is most known for his famous line, “carpe diem” (Carm. I.11). His poetry is a rich source of Roman history and culture; this commentary uses his account of the First Punic War hero Regulus to complement Eutropius’ account.
Jordanes was a 6th century Roman author whose work, the Getica (Origin and Deeds of the Goths), preserves the migration and settlement of the various Gothic tribes into Roman territory. This text is particularly helpful in understanding the reigns of later Roman emperors.
Lactantius is a 3rd century Latin Christian author who was part of the Roman Emperor Constantine’s royal court. His work, On the Deaths of the Persecutors, preserves the famous anecdote of Constantine’s religious vision and subsequent divine intervention that occurred during the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 CE.
Considered one of the greatest Roman historians, Livy wrote the history of Rome from Aeneas’ flight from Troy to the rise of Augustus in 142 volumes. Although much of it only exists in fragments, the Romans valued it for its informative and didactic qualities.
Marcus Aurelius was a 2nd century CE Roman emperor known for his Stoic beliefs. The first volume of his journal, the Meditations, provides insight into the upbringing and education of a royal prince. Passages from the Meditations are used to supplement Eutropius’ information on the crucial figures in the emperor’s early life.
Pliny the Younger was a 2nd century Roman bureaucrat whose collected correspondence provides insight into Roman history and mores during the reign of Trajan. This commentary uses the famous “Christian Letter” to highlight the administrative mind of the emperor Trajan.
Plutarch was Greek author who lived during the end of the 1st century CE. His most famous work, the Parallel Lives, are a series of biographies of famous Greek and Roman statesmen.
Suetonius was a Roman historian who lived during the 2nd century CE. His most notable work, the Lives of the Caesars, was a series of imperial biographies that preserved the history of emperors Augustus through Domitian.
Tacitus was a 2nd century CE Roman author who is most known for his works the Annals and the Histories. Only portions of the Annals remain, but its intended scope was the Julio-Claudian dynasty. His much shorter work, the Histories, covers the tumultuous Year of the Four Emperors and the Flavian dynasty. Selections from the Annals and Histories were used in this commentary to provide context for the fall of Nero and its turbulent aftermath.
Valerius Maximus, Memorable Deeds and Sayings
Valerius Maximus was a Roman author who lived during the 1st century CE. His work, the Memorable Deeds and Sayings, were a collection of exempla and anecdotes for use in oratory.
Written as a national epic in the 1st century BCE, Vergil’s Aeneid is considered the pinnacle of Roman literature. This commentary uses the depiction of the Battle of Actium on Aeneas’ shield in Book VIII for illustrative purposes.
Zosimus was a Greek author who lived during the 6th century CE. His work, the New Histories, covers the reigns of the emperors Augustus to the fall of Priscus Attalus. This commentary uses parallel passages of Zosimus regarding the emperors Aurelian and Constantine I.