Ammianus Marcellinus c. 330-c. 395
Syrian-born Roman historian.
Ammianus is regarded as the greatest Roman historian of the fourth century. His major work, Rerum Gestarum Libri (c. 390; The Book of Deeds; also translated as The Chronicles of Events), consisted of thirty-one books that chronicled the years 96 through 378, but only the final eighteen volumes—beginning with the year 353 and covering the reigns of Constantius, Julian, Jovian, Valentinian, and Valens—are extant today. Historians consider Ammianus's work invaluable since it is the sole source for much of what he describes and many scholars judge it the best contemporary source on fourth-century Britain.
Ammianus was born in Antioch, Syria, into a noble Greek family. Nothing is known of his education. He entered the Roman army as a young man and became a member of the imperial bodyguards at age twenty, serving under General Ursicinus, who was governing Nisibis. In 357 Emperor Constantius ordered Ammianus to accompany him on a military campaign against the Persians; he again fought the Persians in 363, under Emperor Julian. Upon Julian's death that summer in Mesopotamia, Ammianus served under Emperor Jovian. He stayed for a time in Antioch, but by 383 he was settled in Rome, where he spent most of the remainder of his life. It was in Rome that he composed and recited his history, which he envisioned as continuing the work of the Roman historian Tacitus.
In its original form, the Rerum Gestarum Libri began in the year 96 with the reign of Nerva. Since the first thirteen books are no longer extant, the surviving volumes begin with the year 353. Scholars have long speculated about the contents of the missing volumes, but they know that the narratives would have had to be very compressed to cover 257 years, compared with the eighteen volumes allotted to the last quarter-century. Timothy D. Barnes has provided evidence that the surviving books may be incorrectly numbered, arguing that the original work consisted of thirty-six volumes, and that the eighteen extant books should properly be numbered volumes nineteen through thirty-six. Even with the possibility of an additional five volumes covering earlier years, it is clear that Ammianus devoted significantly more attention to the period closest to his own time. Rerum Gestarum Libri is notable for being the work of a professional soldier who thoroughly understood military life.
While significant in its own right, Ammianus's work has received even greater praise when compared to that of his peers, whose writings were little more than brief summaries of events and collections of anecdotes. By contrast, Ammianus candidly recounted Rome's many problems, including heavy taxation and low army morale, thereby suggesting some reasons for the fall of the empire. E. A. Thompson has asserted that a fairer appraisal of Ammianus may be made by comparing him to Tacitus, his model, and has even claimed that in some respects Ammianus was the superior historian. R. C. Blockley has described Ammianus as primarily a moralist—a posture that may be seen, for instance, in his litanies of the virtues and vices of his subjects. Gary A. Crump examines Ammianus's digressions, which are sometimes scorned by critics as merely occasions for the author to display his knowledge. While many critics have credited Ammianus for his sympathetic portrayal of Christians, especially in light of the fact that he himself was a pagan, E. D. Hunt notes that scholarly perceptions regarding Ammianus's religious views vary widely, from those who contend he was secretly a Christian, to those who conclude he was strongly anti-Christian. Hunt finds it remarkable how frequently Ammianus comments on Christianity, whereas other historians of the time often neglected this subject. For the most part, commentators view Ammianus's appraisals of the figures and events he depicted as frank, although some criticize him for being overly laudatory of Julian. Scholars point out that Ammianus undoubtedly benefited by ending his narrative at the point he did, thereby sidestepping the possibility of offending contemporary politicians.
SOURCE: Thompson, E. A. “Ammianus as an Historian.” In The Historical Work of Ammianus Marcellinus, pp. 121-33. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1947.
[In the following excerpt, Thompson evaluates Ammianus as an historian, commenting that he is the best of his time period.]
Some idea of his enormous stature may be obtained by contrasting him with the other Latin historians—if they deserve the name—of his day. Latin historiography at the end of the fourth century consisted of meagre epitomes or uncritical and insignificant collections of anecdotes. Perhaps the illiberal tendency of the various governments of the age was one of the several factors which inclined to deter men from attempting detailed and really revealing studies, especially of their own times. At any rate, with this poverty of contemporary historians Ammianus had little sympathy, although he might pay a slight compliment to a man whom he personally respected like Eutropius by borrowing a sentence or two from him. But his general contempt for the historians of his day is well illustrated by his bitter remark about their widely read model Marius Maximus.1
How then does Ammianus compare with the best of the older imperial historians, that is, with his model, Tacitus? (Livy and Sallust cannot fairly be compared with him, while Caesar's military history is a work of a different kind and so cannot be...
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SOURCE: Blockley, R. C. “Tacitean Influence upon Ammianus Marcellinus.” Latomus 32, no. 1 (January-March 1973): 63-78.
[In the following essay, Blockley investigates the extent of Ammianus's borrowings from Tacitus and concludes that there is no convincing case that Tacitus was a major influence.]
During the late fourth and fifth centuries a.d., a period which saw a revival of interest in, and study of, some of the great works of Latin literature, Tacitus, after a period of neglect, found a measure of popularity. He was known, to a greater or lesser extent, by, amongst others, Aurelius Victor, Sulpicius Severus, Orosius, Ambrose and Sidonius Apollinaris1. Flavius Vopiscus certainly knew of him (Vit. Aurel., 2, 1) and tells a story that the Emperor Tacitus, who claimed descent from the historian, had ten copies of his works made each year and placed in the archives and public libraries, lest he be lost through lack of readers' interest (Vit. Tac., 10, 13). Syme considers that for the third century Emperor the anecdote is possibly untrustworthy, but that the “story reflects faithfully the preoccupations of a later age, precisely the end of the fourth century”2.
Although Ammianus never names Tacitus, he certainly knew his work and seems to have made use of it, apparently linking his own History (a principatu Caesaris Nervae exorsus,...
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SOURCE: Blockley, R. C. “Gallus: Dramatic and Moralizing History.” In Ammianus Marcellinus: A Study of His Historiography and Political Thought, pp. 18-29. Bruxelles, Belgium: Latomus, 1975.
[In the following excerpt, Blockley argues that Ammianus wavers between the personae of objective historian and didactic moralist, using Ammianus's book on Constantius Gallus for illustration.]
Much of book XIV, the first surviving book of Ammianus' History, describes the later part of the reign and the death of Constantius Gallus. Gallus, who, with his half-brother Julian, survived the massacre of the kinsmen of Constantine I carried out at the accession of his sons1, was appointed Caesar in 351 a.d. by his cousin, the Emperor Constantius II, and left to guard the East against the Persians while the Emperor went West to face the usurper Magnentius2. In 354, after the defeat of the usurper, Gallus was summoned to the West, deposed and put to death.
Ammianus, whose narrative deals only with the years 353 and 354 (and perhaps not all of 353)3, characterizes Gallus as a cruel and angry tyrant. Dwelling upon these traits he describes actions which led to unrest in the East, a plot against the Caesar (which was uncovered and cruelly suppressed) and finally to his deposition and execution at the order of Constantius, who, Ammianus suggests, was afraid that his...
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SOURCE: Momigliano, Arnaldo. “The Lonely Historian Ammianus Marcellinus.” In Essays in Ancient and Modern Historiography, pp. 127-40. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1977.
[In the following essay, Momigliano reflects on Ammianus's motives in depicting himself as “intellectually isolated” and in keeping his emotions and opinions in check.]
In the second part of the fourth century the Greek East became economically stronger, militarily safer and religiously more Christian than the Latin West. The rise of Constantinople to the position of a new Rome was the most tangible expression of the new situation; but Antioch was hardly less prestigious. Latin, however, was the language of law and, to a great extent, of administration: it was also the language of the army. Many Greeks felt that they had to learn Latin just because their prospects of a career in the Roman administration had become brighter. In Egypt (and no doubt in other Greek-speaking regions as well) people read the Latin poets and historians for the first time. In Antioch Libanius came to fear the competition of teachers of Latin rhetoric (Or., 2, 44; 58, 21 Förster; Ep. 870 Wolf= 951 Förster). Competence in the Latin language was an accomplishment of Greek speakers to be recorded in prose and verse: ‘you, replete with the Laws, mixing the Italic muse with the sweet spoken honey of...
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SOURCE: Austin, N. J. E. “Strategy: The Collection and Evaluation of Strategic Intelligence.” In Ammianus on Warfare: An Investigation into Ammianus's Military Knowledge, pp. 22-41. Bruxelles, Belgium: Latomus, 1979.
[In the following excerpt, Austin considers Ammianus's understanding of military intelligence.]
It has been shown above [in N. J. E. Austin, Ammianus on Warfare: An Investigation into Ammianus's Military Knowledge] that Ammianus, as part of his duties as a protector domesticus, was personally involved in the collection of intelligence of a military nature which was of use more in the long term than immediately. He is also familiar with the duties of other individuals instructed to carry out similar tasks.
First then, autobiography. Ammianus' Corduene exploit was pure intelligence work: the background is clear enough. During the early part of 359, the protector and ex-rationarius Antonius defected to the Persians, taking with him a considerable amount of classified information particularly about military matters in the East1; it took place at a time when Constantius was committed on the Danube frontier and when serious and delicate peace negotiations with the Persians were being conducted2. Antonius' information was valuable enough to determine Sapor to invade. Raids had already been taking place (18.6.9) before Ursicinus...
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SOURCE: Hunt, E. D. “Christians and Christianity in Ammianus Marcellinus.” Classical Quarterly n.s. 35, no. 1 (1985): 186-200.
[In the following essay, Hunt discusses Ammianus's attitudes toward Christianity and Christians.]
Ammianus Marcellinus, by common consent the last great historian of Rome, rounds off his obituary notice of the emperor Constantius II (d. 361) with the following observation:
The plain simplicity of Christianity he obscured by an old woman's superstition; by intricate investigation instead of seriously trying to reconcile, he stirred up very many disputes, and as these spread widely he nourished them with arguments about words; with the result that crowds of bishops rushed hither and thither by means of public mounts on their way to synods (as they call them), and while he tried to make all their worship conform to his own will, he cut the sinews of the public transport service.1
This is a perceptive judgement of the ecclesiastical politics of the reign of Constantius, remarkable in a pagan writer, and of exceptional significance in that it lies outside those very ‘arguments about words’ which contaminate all the Christian assessments of this emperor. Although Ammianus is unsympathetic to Constantius, he manages succinctly to grasp the basic drift of imperial policy, inherited from Constantine...
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SOURCE: Wiedemann, T. E. J. “Between Men and Beasts: Barbarians in Ammianus Marcellinus.” In Past Perspectives: Studies in Greek and Roman Historical Writing, edited by I. S. Moxon, J. D. Smart, and A. J. Woodman, pp. 189-201. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
[In the following essay, Wiedemann explores Ammianus's use of animal metaphors in describing individuals and groups of people.]
Dietary practices are among the more obvious ways in which one group of people can differentiate itself from another. What I eat and drink is normal and natural. A person who does not eat or drink what I do is peculiar: in structuralist jargon, I am central and he is marginal. He may be marginal geographically—simply foreign—or morally: a saint/hero (between man and god) or a sinner/heretic/revolutionary (between man and beast).1 The ultimate dietary rule is the ban on eating the flesh of another human being. A recent study by Arens of accounts of cannibalism predictably aroused considerable discussion.2 Its thesis might be summarized as follows. To eat human flesh is the mark of an animal. A human who eats human flesh thus shares in his person the characteristics of a man and of an animal: cannibalism symbolizes the mid-point between humanity and bestiality. It follows that any group satisfied that its own behaviour patterns are normal will tend to ascribe the qualities of...
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SOURCE: Barnes, Timothy D. “The Impartial Historian” and “Reality and Its Representation.” In Ammianus Marcellinus and the Representation of Historical Reality, pp. 1-19. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998.
[In the following excerpt, Barnes explores how reliable Ammianus is as an historian and discusses the divergent critical evaluations of his work.]
At the close of his history, Ammianus Marcellinus described himself as “a soldier and a Greek” (31.16.9). He was born about 330 into the local aristocracy of one of the cities of Roman Syria or Phoenicia, and his father was probably a career soldier who rose to a position of some importance in the reign of the emperor Constantius, who ruled the East from 337 to 361 (Chapter VI). Ammianus entered the Roman army as an officer in an élite corps around 350 and first appears in his narrative as extant in the year 354 (14.9.1, 11.5). It is not known how long he served beyond 359, when he disappears from his narrative after escaping from Amida when the Persian king took it by storm and returning safely to Antioch (19.8.5-12).
Ammianus reappears in his narrative in 363, when his use of the first-person plural indicates that he joined Julian's expedition into Persia at Circesium (23.5.7, cf. 6.30) and returned to Antioch with the defeated Roman army after its failure (25.10.1: Antiochiam venimus). After 363, however, Ammianus...
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Crump, Gary A. “The Historian's Use of Geography.” In Ammianus Marcellinus as a Military Historian, pp. 35-43. Wiesbaden, Germany: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1975.
Explains how Ammianus supports his historical accounts by incorporating pertinent geographical information.
Matthews, John. The Roman Empire of Ammianus. Baltimore, Md.: John Hopkins University Press, 1989, 608 p.
Acclaimed critical biography.
Fornara, Charles W. “The Prefaces of Ammianus Marcellinus.” In Cabinet of the Muses: Essays on Classical and Comparative Literature in Honor of Thomas G. Rosenmeyer, edited by Mark Griffith and Donald J. Mastronarde, pp. 163-72. Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press, 1990.
Analyzes Ammianus's prefatory remarks to his historical writings.
Syme, Ronald. Ammianus and the Historia Augusta. The Clarendon Press, England: Oxford Univerity Press, 1968, 237 p.
Detailed study of the historical context, writing, and main themes of the Historia Augusta.
Additional coverage of Ammianus Marcellinus's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Ancient Writers, Vol. 2 and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 211.
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