Valerius Maximus on a sacrificial father and his repentant son

Writing about 30 GC, the Roman rhetorician Valerius Maximus collected instructive stories on traditional Roman religion and morals in his massive work, Nine Books of Memorable Deeds and Sayings {Factorum ac dictorum memorabilium libri IX}. Valerius marked as unusually sourced a story about a sacrificial father and his repentant son. That story, which is best read as a transformation of the binding of Isaac, may have been a Jewish version of what became the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke’s Gospel. In fact, the story was allegorized in relation to the Parable of the Prodigal Son in the medieval exempla collection Deeds of the Romans {Gesta Romanorum}.

Valerius explicitly and implicitly marked this story as unusual. He typically cites by name the illustrious protagonist of his stories, for example, “L. Brutus is Romulus’ equal in glory … Cassius emulated his example {L. Brutus, gloria par Romulo … huius aemulatus exemplum Cassius},” “A. Fulvius, a man of senatorial rank {A. Fulvius, vir senatorii ordinis},” “the elder Scipio Africanus {superior Scipio Africanus},” etc. Concluding his section on “more merciful manners of fathers {patrum mores clementiae},” Valerius declared:

To the merciful actions of great men, I shall add a design of strange and unusual reasoning of an alien father.

{ Magnorum virorum clementibus actis ignoti patris novae atque inusitatae rationis consilium adiciam. }[1]

Valerius gives no name for this “alien father {ignotus pater}.” Jews had low social status in first-century Rome. Citing a Jewish father wouldn’t have served Valerius’s attempt to project moral authority.[2]

binding of Isaac in the Golden Haggadah

Valerius’s story seems to have domesticated and re-arranged the plot of the binding of Isaac. While mothers have always been at the center of Jewish life, Jews formally appreciate the role of fathers in their families and tribe. The father in Valerius’s story explicitly addressed the threat of domestic violence in relation to paternity uncertainty:

When he discovered that his son was plotting to kill him, he could not bring himself to believe that his own true blood had gone to this criminal extent. He drew his wife aside and begged her not to hide the truth from him any longer. He begged her to say whether she had substituted the young man for their son or conceived him by someone else.

{ qui cum a filio insidias necti sibi comperisset, nec inducere in animum posset ut verum sanguinem ad hoc sceleris progressum crederet, seductam uxorem suppliciter rogavit ne se ulterius celaret sive illum adulescentem subiecisset sive ex alio concepisset. }

The wife swore that she had neither swapped children nor committed adultery. The father then took extraordinary action:

He led his son to a solitary place and handed him a sword that he had secretly brought with him. The father, offering his throat to be cut, declared that the son needed neither poison nor an assassin for his parricide to be completed.

{ in locum desertum filio perducto gladium, quem occultum secum adtulerat, tradidit ac iugulum feriendum praebuit, nec veneno nec latrone ei ad peragendum parricidium opus esse adfirmans. }

Then suddenly, as if with a flash of divine insight, the son flung away the sword and declared:

Father, go on living, and outlive me also, if you are so obliging as to allow your son to pray for that. I ask only that you do not think my love for you more lowly because it arises from repentance.

{ pater, vive, et si tam obsequens et hoc precari filio permittas, me quoque exupera. sed tantum quaeso, ne meus erga te amor eo sit tibi vilior, quod a paenitentia oritur. }

Parthenius of Nicaea’s early story-collection Sufferings in Love {Ἐρωτικὰ Παθήματα} includes stories of personal moral reflection leading to repentance. This son seems not to have worked out his moral transformation thoughtfully. Divine intervention apparently changed his action, just as happened to Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac.[3]

Valerius concluded this story with an authorial comment on the world turned upside-down. He used his characteristically elaborate rhetoric to emphasize the point:

Ah, solitude is better than living with blood relations, forests are safer than the household hearth, steel is more persuasive than nurturing, and offering death is a more auspicious benefit than having bestowed life!

{ solitudinem sanguine meliorem pacatioresque penatibus siluas et alimentis blandius ferrum ac mortis oblatae quam datae vitae felicius beneficium! }

Factorum ac dictorum memorabilium provides instructive stories that Valerius intended to be used to set the world upright. Valerius characterized the above story, in contrast, as ridiculously turning the world upside-down. That story probably wasn’t from the authoritative stream of traditional Roman culture.

The fourteenth-century Gesta Romanorum eliminated Valerius’s deprecatory framing of the story and made it more sensational. Now the story has a named father within an eminent family. The medieval version begins:

The extremely wise Alexander reigned. He accepted the daughter of the King of Syria as his wife, and she gave birth by him to a beautiful son.

{ Alexander regnavit prudens valde, qui filiam regis Syrie in uxorem accepit, que filium pulcherrimum ei peperit. }[4]

Highlighting fundamental gender inequality in parental knowledge, the medieval version added dialog between the uxorious emperor and the assertive empress about the paternity of their son. Paternity deception was a high-profile issue in medieval literature of men’s sexed protest.

In contrast to Valerius’s mocking conclusion, turning the world upside-down is a central, lauded transformation in Jewish and Christine scripture.[5] Nonetheless, the medieval story ends not with an assertion of the world turned upside-down, but with a medieval representation of good order:

The son succeeded his father to the throne and ruled with great wisdom. At the end of his life, when he was about to die, he had a banner carried throughout the whole of his empire. On the banner was written: “All things pass except the love of God.”

{ filius vero regnum obtinuit et satis prudenter regebat. In fine vero vite ejus cum mori deberet, vexillum per totum imperium portari fecit et omnibus ostendit, in quo scriptum erat: Omnia transiunt preter amare deum. }

The words on the banner are a medieval European proverb squarely within Jewish and Christian religious tradition.[6] As its incorporation into the Gesta Romanorum suggests, so too is Valerius’s story as a whole.

The Gesta Romanorum aligned Valerius’s story with the Parable of the Prodigal Son. In the Gesta Romanorum version, when the son suddenly repents, he uses words of the prodigal son. The father in turn responds with actions from the parable:

Immediately the son threw the sword away and knelt before his father’s body and, weeping greatly, begged him for mercy, saying: “O good father, I have sinned against you, and I have wronged you. I have been wicked. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. I beg you to forgive me and love me and henceforth I will be your beloved son. I will follow your will in all things and serve you.”

Hearing this, the father embraced his son’s neck and kissed him. He said: “O dearly beloved son, henceforth sin no more, be a faithful son to me, and I will be a gracious father to you.” And saying this, he clothed him in costly garments and led him home himself. There he made a great banquet that included all the imperial governors.

{ statim gladium a se projecit et coram patre genua flexit cum fletu magno misericordiam ab eo petens, ait: “O bone pater, peccavi in te, quia male egi; iniquitatem feci. Jam non sum dignus vocari filius tuus. Peto, ut remittas michi et me diligas et ammodo ero filius tuus dilectus, et per omnia secundum tuam voluntatem ministrabo tibi.”

Pater hec audiens cecidit super collum ejus et osculatus est eum et ait: “O fili dilectissime, ammodo non pecces, esto michi fidelis filius, et ero tibi graciosus pater.” Et hoc dicto induit eum vestimentis preciosis, et eum secum ad domum duxit et magnum convivium satrapis imperii fecit. }

The Gesta Romanorum made these and other minor changes in Valerius’s story to bring it closer to the Parable of the Prodigal Son.[7]

Rembrant, Return of the Prodigal Son

The moralization of Valerius’s story in the Gesta Romanorum explicitly invokes the Parable of the Prodigal Son. As is typical in the Gesta Romanorum, the moralization is schematic and wide-ranging. It’s an allegory in which the Emperor Alexander is Jesus Christ, the Empress is the Holy Church, and the son is a bad Christian. The bad Christian seeks the death of Christ. The sword is the free will with which God endows humans. Seeking Christ’s death means abandoning the Lord, which is like going to a far land and there squandering one’s wealth and acting shamefully. The moralization associates the son’s non-filial violence and repentance with the Prodigal Son’s departure and return. The moralization’s conclusion parallels the story’s conclusion, but theologizes it:

And then throughout the city of your heart you will be able to display the banner of the valiant soldier of Christ. On that banner will be written: “All things pass except the love of God.” In other words, all my evil sins have been blotted out through penance, and now I bear with me trembling respect for God and his grace, through which I will obtain eternal life.

{ Et tunc poteris per civitatem cordis tui ostendere vexillum boni militis Christi, scilicet ubi erit scriptum: “Omnia pretereunt preter amare deum” i.e. omnia peccata mea mala per penitenciam sunt deleta, et jam dei timorem et graciam ejus mecum porto, per quam vitam eternam obtinebo }

The moralizer of the story, who probably also modified it, understood the story in relation to the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

Valerius’s story of a sacrificial father and his repentant son preceded Luke’s Gospel and probably originally came from a Jewish source. The original Jewish story is best read as a recasting of the binding of Isaac. That recasting points in the direction of Parable of the Prodigal Son. It was understood in relation to that parable in the medieval Gesta Romanorum.

From early first-century Rome to the relatively enlightened European Middle Ages, perceptive authors have recognized the social importance of affirming fathers’ love for their children. Meninist literary critics and all other persons of good will must continue this vitally important work today. Otherwise, the future will be female and civilization will collapse under extreme gynocentrism.

Divine anger proceeds with slow steps to take its vengeance, and it compensates for its tardiness of punishment by its severity.

{ lento enim gradu ad vindictam sui divina procedit ira, tarditatemque supplicii gravitate pensat. }[8]

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Valerius Maximus, Nine Books of Memorable Deeds and Sayings {Factorum ac dictorum memorabilium libri IX} 5.9.4, Latin text and English translation (modified slightly) from Shackleton Bailey (2000). A freely available online English translation (revised from Samuel Speed’s translation in 1678) is available at Attalus. The currently best critical edition is Briscoe (1998), which I haven’t been able to consult. Subsequent quotes from Valerius are similarly sourced from Factorum ac dictorum memorabilium 5.9.4. The previous short quotes are from id. 5.8.1-2,5 and 5.6.7.

In his Book 5, chapters 7-9, Valerius provided successively sets of stories about “gentle fathers {lenitatis patres},” “harsh fathers {asperitatis patres},” “more merciful manners of fathers {patrum mores clementiae}.” The doubling of gentle and merciful fathers emphasizes fathers’ goodness in Valerius’s perspective.

Valerius’s Factorum ac dictorum memorabilium was well-known in first-century Rome. It attracted citations from Pliny the Elder and Plutarch. It went on to be the second most copied non-sacred Latin prose work in medieval Europe, behind only Priscian’s Grammar. More than 800 manuscript copies of Factorum ac dictorum memorabilium have survived.

[2] As far as I’m aware, there has been no discussion of possible Jewish sources for Valerius. About the first century, Jews certainly existed in significant numbers in Rome, but were economically and culturally marginal:

In the city as a whole, the Jewish population has been estimated at 40,000-50,000. They were generally poor.

MacMullen (2020) p. 54.

[3] On Abraham’s binding of Isaac for sacrifice, Genesis 22:1-19.

[4] Deeds of the Romans {Gesta Romanorum} (continental version), Ch. 9 (“On overcoming natural malice through gentleness {De naturali malitia per mansuetudinem superanda}”), Latin from Oesterley (1872), English translation (modified slightly) from Stace (2018). Subsequent quotes from Valerius’s story as received in the Gesta Romanorum are similarly sourced.

This exemplum occurs as Ch. 58 in the Anglo-Latin Gesta Romanorum. There it’s captioned “an exemplum concerning patience and humility {de paciencia et humilitatis exemplum}.” Bright (2018) pp. 378-9. The Anglo-Latin version is more compact. Neither the exemplum itself nor its moralization refers to the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

[5] See, e.g. Psalm 118:22-3, Luke 17:25, Matthew 21:42, Acts 4:11-2, 17:6.

[6] The standard form of the proverb is “All things pass except the love of God {omnia praetereunt praeter amare deum}.” That form is used in the moralization. The sixth-century Latin poet and Christian hymnist Venantius Fortunatus used this phrase in one of his poems. See Venantius Fortunatus, Books of Song {Carminum libri} 4.26.32.

Drawing upon this medieval literary heritage, Harvard-educated New England Puritan minister Michael Wigglesworth invoked the proverb to conclude his popular poetry book, The Day of Doom: or, A Poetical Description of the Great and Last Judgment. Wigglesworth was highly successful with his poetry:

Published in 1662, The Day of Doom became America’s first best seller, circulating 1800 copies during the first year. It has been estimated that at one time one copy was owned for every thirty-five people in all of New England; every other family must have had The Day of Doom on its parlor table. The poem went through ten editions in the next fourteen decades, four in the seventeenth century and six in the eighteenth.

Stern & Gross (1978). Harvard now strongly supports intellectual Puritanism, but without Wigglesworth’s appreciation for medieval Latin literature.

[7] For the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Luke 15:11-32. In the Vulgate text of this parable, the son says to the father:

I have sinned against Heaven and before you. Now I am no longer worthy to be called your son.

{ peccavi in caelum et coram te iam non sum dignus vocari filius tuus }

Luke 15:18-9. In the parable, the father embraces the son, kisses him, clothes him in an expensive robe, puts a ring on his finger, and holds a banquet for him. On the medieval reception of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Delcorno (2018). For a modern interpretation of it in accordance with modern liberal ideology, Eng (2019).

[8] Valerius Maximus, Factorum ac dictorum memorabilium 1.1.ext 3, Latin text from Shackleton Bailey (2000), my English translation, benefiting from that of id.

[images] (1) Abraham prepares to sacrifice Isaac. Illumination from the Golden Haggadah. Made in Spain in the 2nd quarter of the 14th century. On folio 4v on MS British Library Additional 27210. (2) Son seeks to kill father. In secluded spot, father offers son sword for secret parricide, but son repents. Illumination of story 5.9.4 from Valerius Maximus’s Factorum ac dictorum memorabilium, translated by Simon de Hesdin and Nicolas de Gonesse, Les Fais et les Dis des Romains et de autres gens. Made in France between 1473 and about 1480. Illumination on folio 42r of British Library Harley MS 4375/1. (3) The Return of the Prodigal Son. Painting by Rembrandt c. 1668. Preserved as accession # 742 in the Hermitage Museum (St. Petersburg, Russia). Image thanks to Google Arts & Culture and Wikimedia Commons.


Bright, Philippa, ed. and trans. 2019. The Anglo-Latin Gesta Romanorum: from Oxford, Bodleian Library, Douce MS 310. Oxford Medieval Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Briscoe, John, ed. 1998. Valeri Maximi Facta et dicta memorabilia. Stutgardiae: Teubneri. Reviewed by D. Wardle.

Delcorno, Pietro. 2018. In the mirror of the Prodigal Son: the pastoral uses of a biblical narrative (c. 1200-1550). Based on doctoral dissertation in History, Radboud University Nijmegen, Netherlands, 2016. Leiden: Brill. Table of Contents. Introduction.

Eng, Daniel K. 2019. “The Widening Circle: Honour, Shame, and Collectivism in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.” The Expository Times. 130 (5): 193-201.

MacMullen, Ramsay. 2020. “The Unromanized in Rome.” Ch. 2 (pp. 47-64) in Cohen, Shaye J.D., and Ernest S. Frerichs, eds. Diasporas in Antiquity. Brown Judaic Studies. Atlanta: Scholars Press.

Oesterley, Hermann, ed. 1872. Gesta Romanorum. Berlin: Weidmann. Alternate presentation of chapters 1-181.

Shackleton Bailey, D. R., ed. and trans. 2000. Valerius Maximus. Memorable Doings and Sayings, Loeb Classical Library 492 (Books 1-5), 493 (Books 6-9). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Stace, Christopher, trans. 2018. Gesta Romanorum: A New Translation. Manchester University Press.

Stern, Milton R., and Seymour L. Gross. 1978. American Literature Survey. Colonial and federal to 1800. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

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