Ammianus Marcellinus Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.