Ammianus Marcellinus (325/330 - after 391) was a fourth century Roman historian. His is the last major historical account of the late Roman Empire which survives today. His work chronicled the history of Rome from 96 to 378, although only the sections covering the period 353-378 are extant. He appears to have consciously begun where Tacitus finished. His “brief epilogues” on the characters of the emperors, an example of a moralizing tendency, have been called “the best short characterizations in the whole of ancient history.” He lacked the linguistic style of Tacitus, being at times turgid and clumsy. On the other hand, his “broad and balanced insight into human characters,” his concern for “historical truthfulness” and his knowledge of military strategy may out-class Tacitus. Ammianus’s “moralizing tendency,” reminiscent of Sallust suggests that he wanted people to learn from history so that past mistakes would not be repeated. He almost certainly regarded history as a tool to help understand the past in order to shape the present and to influence the future. Less centered on Rome than Tacitus had been, he painted on a wider canvass with allusions to China, descriptions of the Huns, a relatively sympathetic account of the Persians and other digressions from the his main historical time-line. While very aware that criticizing the Emperors could have repercussions, though a pagan, he expressed distaste for the excesses of Julian the Apostate’s anti-Christian measures, and mourned Rome’s moral decline. His reflection on issues involving in constructing history suggests that he was conscious of historians’ role in shaping as well as in recording events.
Ammianus includes some autobiographical references in his Book of Deeds (Rerum Gestarum Libri, or Res Gestae Libri). From these references, it has been deduced that he was born probably between 325 and 330 to an educated family of Greek descent, possibly in Antioch This probability hinges on whether he was the recipient of a surviving letter to a Marcellinus from a contemporary, Libanius. The date of his death is unknown, but he must have lived until 391, as he mentions Aurelius Victor as the city prefect for that year.
He was "a former soldier and a Greek" ut miles quondam et graecus he says, and his enrollment among the elite protectores domestici (household guards) shows that he was of noble birth because he appears to have entered the army at an early age when Constantius II was emperor of the East, when such a rank would only have been open to someone whose family wielded influence (or to someone who already had a record of distinguished service, which could not have applied to him). He says “as a gentleman (ingenuus)” he had to get used to all the walking required of him in the military. He was sent to serve under Ursicinus, governor of Nisibis in Mesopotamia, and magister militiae.
He returned to Italy with Ursicinus, when he was recalled by Constantius, and accompanied him on the expedition against Silvanus the Frank, who had been forced by the allegedly unjust accusations of his enemies into proclaiming himself emperor in Gaul. With Ursicinus he went twice to the East, and barely escaped with his life from Amida (modern Diyarbakır), when it was taken by the Sassanid king Shapur II. When Ursicinus lost his office and the favor of Constantius, Ammianus seems to have shared his downfall; but under Julian, Constantius's successor, he regained his position. He accompanied this emperor, for whom he expresses enthusiastic admiration, in his campaigns against the Alamanni and the Sassanids. After Julian’s death, he took part in the retreat of Jovian as far as Antioch, where he was residing when the conspiracy of Theodorus (371) was discovered and cruelly put down.
Ammianus eventually settled in Rome during the early eighties of the fourth century, where, in his fifties (calculating his age to be coeval to Julian, who was born in 331), he wrote (in Latin) a history of the Roman empire from the accession of Nerva (96) to the death of Valens at the Battle of Adrianople (378), thus forming a possible continuation of the work of Tacitus. He wrote thirty-one books (of which only thirteen survive). He originally intended to end with the twenty-fifth, which concludes with Julian’s death in 363. He may have feared sanctions, since in writing about the period that followed he had to chronicle the story of “bloody deeds.” He appears to have lived again in Antioch (363 to 378). He traveled widely in the East of the empire. He death has been dated as between 391 and 395.
The surviving eighteen books cover the period from 353 to 378. Book 14 (the earliest to survive) starts from 353 (the sixteenth year of Constantius II’s reign) and ends with Deputy emperor Gallus' execution for misgovernment in 354. Much of this book focuses on Ammianus’ own commanding officer, Ursicinus. Books 15 and 16 cover Julian’s exploits against the Germans and Constantius’ only visit to Rome. Gallus’ half-brother, Julian had been promoted to commander in Gaul. Book 17 follows Julian’s campaigns as far East as the Danube River. 18 and 19 turn to Persia where Constantius was now fighting against Shapur II (310-379). Book 20 returns to his focus on Ursicinus, describing what Ammianus sees as his unfair dismissal and Constantius’ attempt to remove Julian from his post in Gaul, which resulted in the troops hailing Julian as “emperor” (360). Constantius died on his way to confront Julian and his supporters. Books 21, 22, 23, and 24 all cover Julian’s reign, including his campaign against the Persians. Book 25 describes Julian’s death in 363. Books 26 to 29 cover a series of violent and bloody events, including the trial and execution of the lawyer, Theodorus and restriction on the power of the Senate, suppression of a revolt in Africa, a rapid succession of emperors, various persecutions, the expulsion of intellectuals from Rome (383)—Ammianus himself appears to have avoided this, possibly due to his military rank—and the Visigoth invasion, Valen's defeat at the Battle of Adrianople (378)—beginning what later became the Fall of Rome.
Following the example of Herodotus he often digressed to describe the geography, people and whatever he found curious, such as “geese which make no sound when they are crossing the Taurus” and the fact that Constantius never ate fruit. His “brief epilogues” on the characters of the emperors, an example of a certain moralizing tendency, have been called “the best short characterizations in the whole of ancient history.” He gives excellent pictures of social and economic problems, and in his attitude to the non-Roman peoples of the empire he is far more broad-minded than writers like Livy and Tacitus. His digressions on the various countries he had visited are particularly interesting. He is much more sympathetic than other Roman writers in describing the Persians, where there is an echo of Herodotus in his writing. He referred to Rome and Persia as “two lighthouses illuminating the world” and depicts Constantius and Shapur as addressing each other like brothers, parting company from those for whom the Persians were just another tribe of barbarians. On the other hand, the Visigoths and Huns were no better than wild animals, and should be treated as such.
Other digressions include a detailed description of the 365 C.E. Alexandria tsunami which devastated the metropolis and the shores of the eastern Mediterranean on 21 July of that year. His report describes accurately the characteristic sequence of earthquake, retreat of the sea and sudden giant wave. He even digresses to describe the Chinese, whom he characterized as a peace-loving people.
As a whole, of Res Gestae has been considered extremely valuable, being a clear, comprehensive impartial account of events. It is a major source of information on the Roman world of the fourth century and one of the few sources on Roman Britain during this period. E. A. Thompson says that the reliability of Annianus’ narrative is confirmed both by its “internal consistency” and by comparison with “the very sparse notices of other Greek and Roman historians” who wrote about this period. Ammianus was aware that writing about contemporary, including events to which he was a witness, raised questions about impartiality. He began Book 15 “with a preface promising even greater accuracy … now that the contemporary period had been reached” but in Book 26 reported that “dread” had “restrained” him from “giving a minute account” of “this series of bloody deeds.”. He was aware that appearing to be too critical, or too sympathetic, towards named people might attract censure. On the one hand, he was almost obsessive in his concern for “truth.” On the other hand, his work does suggest that he was prudent in writing what he did write, for example, his portrait of the condemned Gallus is very dark whereas a “more balance picture would also have indicated his talents as a military commander, his popularity with the troops and proletariat….” On the other hand, he was “too kind to the memory of his own general, Ursicinus.” He was, though, interested in moral issues and did not hesitate to comment on what he saw as people’s failing, including the greed of the judges and advocates who “played a dominant part in the ubiquitous oppressions of the regime.” Noblemen who lacked culture and spent their time “building water organs and other musical instruments of ludicrous size.”
Ammianus was at times very detailed in his descriptions of events but at other times he expressed reluctance to get caught up in what he called “insignificant” details, such as “what one emperor said at table, or left out the reasons why the common soldiers were led before the standards for punishment.” This was perhaps related to his awareness that proximity to events provided on the one hand an opportunity to draw on personal observation, and to include autobiographical content while on the other he could offend powerful people by omission as well as by inclusion. He spoke of leaving out what was trivial or not “appropriate to history,” so he was aware that a judgment has to be made here. Different historians may have a different idea abut what is and is not significant and ultimately what does not get recorded may be lost to posterity, even if it was actually very significant, possibly providing an alternative view about what really happened.
Writing when Rome was facing her decline and when barbarians were attacking from the North, Ammianus was aware that Rome was entering what he called her “old age.” He wrote:
Declining into old age, and often owing victory to its name alone, Rome has come to a quieter period of its existence.
Yet he could not contemplate her actual Fall, believing that in the end its own heritage would enable its survival. He was aware, though, that many of the freedoms that had been enjoyed had been curtailed, describing “at length the reigns of terror instituted by successive emperors and by the deplorable crew of secret police, spies and informers who surrounded them.” He also deplored the decent of the nobility into pointless pursuits, commenting that when intellectuals were expelled from Rome, “thousands of dancing-girls received permission to stay.” He appears to have believed that a moral and cultural revival would save the city, “The City is glorious and eternal” but “its current manifestations, seen in high and low society alike, are vile and call imperatively for the moral recovery which will save the empire.” He associated Rome with “liberty” and believed that moral renewal would revive a system that was not, itself, at fault.
However, his description of the Empire, the exhaustion produced by excessive taxation, the financial ruin of the middle classes, the progressive decline in the morale of the army provides an explanation for sack of Rome by the Visigoths only twenty years after his death. On the other hand, as a Greek by birth he was less focused on Rome than Tacitus has been and “paints on a far wider canvas,” suggesting that his “geographical, ethnological” and sometime “scientific digressions” may have been more than literary license. His typical interest in education as the measure of “the man” is also very Greek. Like other historians of his day, he does not indicate sources. He does refer to Sallust and allusion to Tacitus, Livy, and Herodotus can be identified in his text. Grant says that he also used government records and that when it is possible to check his writing against other sources, he “emerges with credit.”
Critics, pointing to the turgid, sometimes obscure style of his prose, speculate why he chose to write in Latin and not in his native Greek. Grant suggests that this was in the main because he wanted to “live up to Tacitus.” Recent studies have, however, shown the rhetoric power in his histories, which may have been written for the purposes of recitation. Some maintain that his style is harsh, often pompous and extremely obscure, occasionally even journalistic in tone, due the author's foreign origin and his military life and training.
Certainly, the Res Gestae, has suffered from the manuscript transmission. Aside from the loss of the first thirteen books, the remaining eighteen are in many places corrupt with sections missing. The sole surviving manuscript from which almost every other is derived is a ninth century Carolingian text, V, produced in Fulda from an insular exemplar. The only independent textual source for Ammianus lies in M, another ninth-century Frankish codex which was, unfortunately, unbound and placed in other codices during the fifteenth century. Only six leaves of M survive; however, the printed edition of Gelenius (G) is considered to be based on M, making it an important witness to the textual tradition of the Res Gestae.
Ammianus was a pagan, and some have said that he marginalizes Christianity repeatedly in his account. He was not, however, a narrow-minded pagan and subscribed to the view that there really was no need for a “sharp dichotomy between pagan and Christian beliefs.” He believed in a “divine power” that manifested itself “through the various deities.” He was full of praise for Valentinian I’s policy of religious tolerance and while generally very positive on Julian, he thought he went too far in his anti-Christian measures, “it was a harsh law that forbade Christian rhetoricians and grammarians to teach unless they consented to worship the pagan Gods.” Grant suggests that on the one hand what he wrote in praise of Julian would have displeased Christians, while when he criticized Julian he would have alienated pagans, who idolized him. He admired the Christian martyrs and some “provincial bishops” for their moderation but criticized others for wasting money. In his last six books, he is much more reluctant top discuss religion or to refer to “pagan philosophers” because under Theodosius I it was again Christianity that was officially sanctioned. He also criticized the emperors for interfering in what was originally a “plain and simple religion” by embroiling Christians in “discussion about dogma … rather than … seriously trying to make them agree” they caused “controversy.”
Edward Gibbon judged Ammianus "an accurate and faithful guide, who composed the history of his own times without indulging the prejudices and passions which usually affect the mind of a contemporary." Setting aside digressions and even lacunae in the text, Res Gestae remains a unique source of information on the history of the fourth century, especially European history. The way in which Ammianus wrestled with the questions of objectivity, the way in which he used he drew on own presence at events to construct history while aware of political consequences of what he wrote, remain of considerable interest. He was passionate about loyalty to the Emperor yet also criticized emperors. Grant suggests that a disappointing aspect of his work is that, given that he was not a member of the inner aristocratic circle, we might expect more insight into the psyche of the Roman masses but “the fact is that he feels the strongest distaste for the enormous unprivileged sections of society,” who he thinks fail to “rally around the State as they should.” Ammianus’s “moralizing tendency,” reminiscent of Sallust suggests that he wanted people to learn from history so that past mistakes would not be repeated. He appears to have regarded history as a tool to help understand the past in order to shape the present and to influence the future.
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