“Geniuses Came Only From Athens?” Velleius Paterculus on the Greatness of a Single City

“My wonder passes from clustering in certain times to cities. A solitary Attic city bloomed with more works of every kind of eloquence than the rest of Greece together, to the point that you might believe that the bodies of that race were separated into different cities, but that the geniuses were enclosed only within the walls of Athens. I find this no more surprising than the fact that no Argive, Theban or Spartan was considered worthy of note while he was alive or after he died. These cities, though preeminent for other things, were intellectually infertile, except for Pindar’s single voice which graced Thebes—for the Laconians mark Alcman as their own wrongly.”

[18] Transit admiratio ab conditione temporum et ad urbium. Una urbs Attica pluribus omnis eloquentiae quam universa Graecia operibus usque floruit adeo ut corpora gentis illius separata sint in alias civitates, ingenia vero solis Atheniensium muris clausa existimes. 2 Neque hoc ego magis miratus sim quam neminem Argivum Thebanum Lacedaemonium oratorem aut dum vixit auctoritate aut post mortem memoria dignum existimatum. 3 Quae urbes eximiae alias talium studiorum fuere steriles, nisi Thebas unum os Pindari inluminaret: nam Alcmana Lacones falso sibi vindicant.


Here Velleius moves from the clustering of intellects in time to their clustering in space. Although, to be fair, it seems that one would be impossible without the other…

Why Are Similar Minds Clustered in History? Envy, Emulation, Desire

Velleius Paterculus on intellectual clustering, part 2 (History of Rome, I.17)

[part 1 is here]

“Although I often seek explanations for why similar minds cluster in one period and focus on the same pursuit with similar success, I never find any I am sure are true, but only those that seem probable, especially the following. Emulation fosters genius; and then envy, then admiration which motivates imitation. By nature, whatever is sought with the utmost passion advances to the greatest degree. It is difficult to continue from there to perfection; naturally, what cannot proceed recedes.

In this way, at the beginning we are motivated to pursue those who lead before us, but when we have lost hope that we might surpass or equal them, our passion weakens with our hope. What we cannot match, we decline to follow, and we abandon a discipline, because it is thoroughly occupied, in search of a new one. When we have passed over that in which we cannot be exceptional, we look for something else in which we might compete. It follows that the greatest obstacle to achieving perfection is our frequent and fickle change in passions.”


Huius ergo recedentis in suum quodque saeculum ingeniorum similitudinis congregantisque se et in studium par et in emolumentum causas cum saepe requiro, numquam reperio, quas esse veras confidam, sed fortasse veri similes, inter quas has maxime. 6 Alit aemulatio ingenia, et nunc invidia, nunc admiratio imitationem accendit, naturaque quod summo studio petitum est, ascendit in summum difficilisque in perfecto mora est, naturaliterque quod procedere non potest, recedit. 8 Et ut primo ad consequendos quos priores ducimus accendimur, ita ubi aut praeteriri aut aequari eos posse desperavimus, studium cum spe senescit, et quod adsequi non potest, sequi desinit et velut occupatam relinquens materiam quaerit novam, praeteritoque eo, in quo eminere non possumus, aliquid, in quo nitamur, conquirimus, sequiturque ut frequens ac mobilis transitus maximum perfecti operis impedimentum sit.


Earlier, I posted Velleius Paterculus’ contemplation of the clustering of geniuses in specific fields in one era. One does not often associate unparalleled and original thought with this historian, but his consideration of this phenomenon seems pretty unique and somewhat out of place with his brief history.

We don’t really need a Gladwellian just-so explanation to go with his observation. His answer seems rather well-engaged with human psychology as it is. Although he hedges that the explanation he offers is true (quas esse veras) he wins me over in offering what he thinks is likely (sed fortasse veri similes).

Apart from the article I cited from Malcolm Gladwell,  I have the sense that I have read about this phenomenon before, I just can seem to think of the right author or terminology.  Any suggestions?

Why Are Similar Minds Clustered Together in History?

Velleius Paterculus, History of Rome I.17

“Who can be surprised enough at the fact that the most prominent minds of each discipline tend to gather together in the same form and the same short period of time, no less than the way animals of different types tend to group together, separated from foreign species, in one group when enclosed in the same pen? Don’t minds capable of distinguished accomplishment separate themselves from different natures in the similarity both of their eras and their pursuits? A single span of time, not lasting many years, made tragedy illustrious through men of divine spirit: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides. Similarly, one era perfected that ancient form of comedy under the auspices of Cratinus, Aristophanes and Eupolis; And Menander and his peers—in age more than in accomplishment—Philemos and Phiphilus—created the form of New Comedy and made it impossible to imitate. So, too, the brilliant minds of philosophers inspired by Socrates’ speech—whom we mentioned earlier—how long did they thrive after the deaths of Plato and Aristotle? What repute existed among orators before Isocrates or after his students and their followers? They were together in so narrow a span of time that none of them worthy of mention could have avoided being seen by another one!”

2 Quis enim abunde mirari potest, quod eminentissima cuiusque professionis ingenia in eandem formam et in idem artati temporis congruere spatium, et quemadmodum clausa capso aliove saepto diversi generis animalia nihilo minus separata alienis in unum quodque corpus congregantur, ita cuiusque clari operis capacia ingenia in similitudine et temporum et profectuum semet ipsa ab aliis separaverunt? 3 Una neque multorum annorum spatio divisa aetas per divini spiritus viros, Aeschylum, Sophoclen Euripiden, inlustravit tragoediam; una priscam illam et veterem sub Cratino Aristophaneque et Eupolide comoediam; ac novam comicam Menander aequalesque eius aetatis magis quam operis, Philemo ac Diphilus, et invenere intra paucissimos annos neque imitandam reliquere. 4 Philosophorum quoque ingenia Socratico ore defluentia omnium, quos pauco ante enumeravimus, quanto post Platonis Aristotelisque mortem floruere spatio? 5 Quid ante Isocratem, quid post eius auditores eorumque discipulos clarum in oratoribus fuit? Adeo quidem artatum angustiis temporum, ut nemo memoria dignus alter ab altero videri nequiverint.


Velleius Paterculus may have been ahead of his time in considering such intellectual and cultural clusters—in fact, this is exactly the type of thing Malcolm Gladwell might write about. Velleius has some answers of his own.  [Coming later!]