Of its authorship nothing certain is known. It is conjecture to associate it either with the name of Helinandus or with that of Petrus Berchorius (Pierre Bercheure). It is debated whether it took its rise in England, Germany or France.
The work was evidently intended as a manual for preachers, and was probably written by one of the clerical profession. The name, Deeds of the Romans, is only partially appropriate to the collection in its present form, since, besides the titles from Greek and Latin history and legend, it comprises fragments of very various origin, oriental and European. The unifying element of the book is its moral purpose.
The style is barbarous, and the narrative ability of the compiler seems to vary with his source; but he has managed to bring together a considerable variety of excellent material. He gives us, for example, the germ of the romance of Guy of Warwick; the story of Darius and his Three Sons, versified by Thomas Occleve; part of Chaucer's Man of Lawes Tale; a tale of the emperor Theodosius, the same in its main features as that of Shakespeare's King Lear; the story of the Three Black Crows; the Hermit and the Angel, well known from Parnell's version, and a story identical with the Fridolin of Schiller.
Owing to the loose structure of the book, it was easy for a transcriber to insert any additional story into his own copy, and consequently the manuscripts of the Gesta Romanorum exhibit considerable variety. Hermann Oesterley recognizes an English group of manuscripts (written always in Latin), a German group (sometimes in Latin and sometimes in German), and a group which is represented by the vulgate or common printed text.
An English translation, probably based directly on the manuscript Harl. 5369, was published by Wynkyn de Worde about 1510-1515, the only copy of which now known to exist is preserved in the library of St John's College, Cambridge. In 1577 the London printer Richard Robinson published a revised edition of Wynkyn de Worde, as Certain Selected Histories for Christian Recreations, and the book proved highly popular.
Between 1648 and 1703 at least eight impressions were issued. In 1703 appeared the first vol. of a translation by BP, probably Bartholomew Pratt, from the Latin edition of 1514. A translation by the Rev. Charles Swan, first published in 2 vols in 1824, forms part of Bohn's antiquarian library, and was re-edited by Wynnard Hooper in 1877 (see also the latter's edition in 1894).
The German translation was first printed at Augsburg, 1489. A French version, under the title of Le Violier des histoires romaines moralisez, appeared in the early part of the 16th century, and went through a number of editions; it has been reprinted by Pierre-Gustave Brunet (Paris, 1858).