E. A. Thompson (essay date 1947)
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 taken into consideration.) It is necessary to emphasize that we are considering Ammianus as an historian, not as a stylist; for this is a distinction which students of his work do not always draw, an omission that has had disastrous results on his reputation. Yet we must insist that despite his cumbrous and obscure style there is not a single dull page in his book, and where he deals with his own adventures he is perhaps more exciting than any other writer of antiquity. His freedom from tediousness is largely due, as scholars have often noticed, to his extraordinary ability to depict character: no one of any importance appears in his pages without at once becoming a real and living person. To illustrate this well-known quality of our historian we may quote in full his magnificent portrayal of Sextus Petronius Probus, the head of the Anician house. Other pages in his book are equally fine, many perhaps better—such as his description of the career of Gallus, of Constantius' visit to Rome, of the siege of Amida, of Julian's great Persian expedition, of the campaign which culminated in the fearful disaster of Adrianople, his chapters on the social life at Rome, and so on. I have chosen the account of the character and career of Probus because in all the eulogies of Ammianus' powers of depicting character which I have read I have not found a single reference to this, perhaps the finest example of all. (An exception should be made of Gimazane (pp. 284 ff.), but he mentions the chapters on Probus not least for the purpose of criticizing their author.)
‘About this time (368) Vulcacius Rufinus passed away while still holding office, and Probus was summoned from the City to take up the Praetorian Prefecture. Because of his power, and the reputation of his family, and the enormous mass of his wealth, he was known to the Roman world—throughout almost the whole extent of it he possessed ancestral estates, whether justly or not is not for my humble judgement to declare (non iudicioli est nostri). A kind of innate good luck bore him, as the poets say’ (he is referring to Aeneid, VI, 15) ‘on swift wings, displaying him at one moment as a kindly person and one who raised his friends to high station, but at another as a fearful plotter bearing the guilt of bloody enmities. Although he had great power as long as he lived owing to his lavishness and his continuous succession of high offices, yet he was sometimes nervous when brought face to face with courage, so that in his moments of self-confidence he seemed to roar in tragic buskin, but, when he lost his self-assurance, to be humbler than any clown. And as fish when cast out of their native element breathe for only a short time on the land, so he wasted away when he held no Prefectures, offices which he was compelled to hold because of the quarrels of great families,2 who, owing to their immeasurable cupidity, are never innocent of crime, and who, in order that they might perpetrate their great mischief with impunity, plunged their master into political life. It must be admitted that, endowed as he was with greatness of soul, he never ordered a client or slave to commit an illegal act; but if it came to his ears that any one of them had committed a crime, then, even though Justice herself fought against it, he would defend him without any inquiries and without any respect for what was good and honourable. Cicero reprehends this vice when he says, “What difference is there between one who incites to an act and one who approves of it? What is the difference between my having wished it done and my rejoicing that it has been done?”3 Yet Probus was suspicious and fortified by his own genius as he smiled a little bitterly or flattered an enemy before he struck him down. But this is an outstanding flaw in characters of that kind (especially when it is thought possible to conceal it): he was so implacable, so inflexible, that when once he had made up his mind to injure anyone, prayers could not bend him, and he could not in any way be made to pardon mistakes, and his ears therefore seemed to be stopped, not with wax, but with lead. At the very height of riches and glory he was anxious and troubled, and consequently he was ever afflicted with slight illnesses. …’4
‘Valentinian was harsh in punishing common soldiers, but indifferent towards men of greater fortune even when they should have been reprimanded sharply. Probus alone he attacked with bitter hatred, never ceasing to threaten him, never showing him any mildness from the very first time he saw him. The reasons for this were neither obscure nor trifling. Probus (not for the first time) had acquired the Praetorian Prefecture and relied more upon flattery than upon candid friendship in his yearning to prolong his office at any cost; and would that I could approve of the methods he used, for they were not such as were urged by the glory of his stock. Being well aware of the Emperor's principle of tracking out means of making money indiscriminately with no distinction between justice and injustice, Probus did not bring him back to the honest path when he had strayed from it (and steady advisers have often done that), but he even followed his inconstant and perverse ways. Hence grievous disasters befell his subjects, hence came the imposition of ruinous taxes, long experience in extortion finding out pretext after pretext, one more effective than another for hamstringing great and humble fortunes alike. Hence, owing to the weight of the tribute and the doubled and redoubled taxes, Probus forced some men of the highest rank, driven by fear of the utmost calamity, to abandon their homes, while others, overwhelmed by the bitterly persistent collection of the taxes, were confined to gaols for the remainder of their lives when there was nothing left wherewith they could pay. Some of them, weary at last of life and of the light of day, hanged themselves as a welcome remedy. A persistent rumour declared that these horrors were going on with ever more treachery and pitilessness, but Valentinian knew nothing of them as though his ears were stopped with wax. He was concentrating on the indiscriminate extortion of money even from the most tenuous sources and was thinking only of what was offered to him. Yet perhaps he would have spared the provinces of Pannonia’ (Valentinian was a native of Pannonia) ‘if he had learned sooner of these lamentable profits, of which in fact he was made aware all too late by the following accident. The Prefect compelled the Epirotes like the other provincials to send envoys to express their gratitude to the Emperor. The Epirotes forced a philosopher named Iphicles, a man noted for the strength of his mind, to proceed against his will to carry out this task. When he met the Emperor and was recognized and asked the reason for his coming, he gave his answers in Greek, and when the Emperor inquired in detail whether those who had sent him regarded the Prefect highly in their hearts, Iphicles replied like a philosopher who professed the truth. “They think of him with groans”, he said, “and against their will.” Valentinian was struck by these words as though by a dagger. Like a keen-scented animal he pried into all Probus' deeds, asking in his native language about persons whom he had known—where so and so was, for instance, who outshone his countrymen in rank and repute, or about that other rich man, or another who was first of his class. When he learned that one had perished by hanging, that another had emigrated across the sea, that yet another had committed suicide or had had his life torn from him by the knout, he blazed out into a boundless anger.’5
Apart from illustrating Ammianus' power of character drawing, I would submit that this passage is unequalled by any chapters of similar length in Tacitus. We may digress somewhat to point out that it is not a little surprising to find that Ammianus, after building up this fine climax, leaves it in the air and at once proceeds to describe Valentinian's preparations for war against the Germans. Did Valentinian take action against Probus whose villainy he thus dramatically discovered, or was the Prefect too strong even for the Emperor? The historian gives us no hint. He says immediately after this passage that it was at Carnuntum, where the scene described at the end of the quotation took place, that Probus watched the execution of one Faustinus who had been accused of killing an ass with the intention of practising magic. (The defence was that Faustinus hoped to use the carcass to cure the baldness with which he was threatened!) Thereafter we hear nothing of Probus from Ammianus. A more abrupt termination to a story about which the writer obviously had very deep feelings could scarcely be imagined. We can only conclude that Valentinian was helpless before his great Prefect, for, despite the historian's silence, we know that the vast power with which Probus oppressed the provincials remained unbroken until his death in 389.
The truth of Ammianus' characterizations need not be stressed. It is now well known that Tacitus' portrait of, say, Tiberius, which occupies six books of the Annals, is little more than a subtle and almost persuasive caricature of that Emperor; it is, in fact, a travesty of the truth. On the other hand, as Gimazane (p. 348) says, ‘jamais impartialité d'historien n'a été plus universellement reconnue que celle d'Ammien Marcellin’. We have, indeed, found reason to modify our opinion of his impartiality, but even if all our conclusions be admitted, there still remains a comfortable margin of superiority over Tacitus and all other historians of imperial times. Although many modifications may be made in detail, it is certain that Ammianus' pictures of Constantius, Julian, Jovian, Valentinian, and Valens will stand for ever substantially unchanged.
It is at once clear that the course of Ammianus' life gave him a far better training for the duties of an historian than Tacitus could derive from his quiet and comparatively sheltered existence. Our historian's wide travels and his all too close familiarity with the rough and tumble of active military service (which so nearly cost him his life) gave him opportunities for observing conditions in many provinces and for studying the problems which faced the military leaders of his times. Such opportunities were denied to Tacitus even though he may have languished for a few years in the passive defence of a quiet frontier. Ammianus' ability as a military historian may best be judged by those who compare in turn the account of Germanicus on the Rhine frontier with that of Julian's campaigns in the same area, or Tacitus' narrative of Tacfarinas in Africa with Ammianus' narrative of the marches and counter-marches of Theodosius there. Most revealing of all perhaps is a comparison of Corbulo's activities in the East with those of Julian on his Persian expedition. It is often objected to Ammianus that he is vague and inaccurate in his use of military terms. Every general tends to be a dux, although that word specified a particular military rank in his day. Magistri easily become comites, and the various types of comites are not distinguished as often as we could wish. All military detachments tend to be legiones or cohortes, and we are disturbed by references to cohorts, centuries, and maniples in the Persian army (a point which is developed by A. Müller, pp. 574 ff.).6 On this we may remark that it was traditional for Roman historians to avoid ‘vulgar’ language and even technical terms, and especially a repetition of the latter, and no one adhered to this tradition more closely than Tacitus. Ancient historians never wrote military histories in our sense of that term. They never occupied themselves to any great extent with dates, distances, numbers, tactics, strategical moves preliminary to battles, and so on, for the simple reason that they were aiming primarily, not at producing text-books of military history, but at writing literary works which masses of figures and similar data would spoil from an artistic point of view. This obvious difference between the modern and the ancient conceptions of historiography can never be excessively emphasized. Hence...
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