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Roman History , by Ammianus Marcellinus


Late Roman mosaic from the Antioch area



Once again, the Roman Empire in the 4th century; this time as seen by a contemporary witness.



1. General Background for all four volumes(*)


While I was reading Jacob Burckhardt's excellent cultural history of the 3rd and 4th century Roman Empire, Die Zeit Constantins des Großen, the names of two contemporary sources appeared again and again with Burckhardt's approbation. One of these was Ammianus Marcellinus  (ca. 333 – ca. 400), offspring of a family in the highest classes of nobility, already at 20 years of age in the personal guard of the Emperor, and high-ranking officer in campaigns in both Asia and Europe. Born and raised in Antioch - with Rome and Alexandria, one of the three largest cities in the empire - Ammianus' native tongue was Greek, and though he was very well read in Latin literature, the translator and commentator of these four volumes, Wolfgang Seyfarth, asserts that Ammianus not infrequently violates Latin usage in ways that reveal he is trying to express Greek thoughts in a foreign tongue. 


Nevertheless, Ammianus' history is vivid, detailed and opinionated in a very engaging manner. What is more, he takes the unusual step of inserting lengthy "I-passages" - descriptions of his own personal experiences, particularly in the wars in Asia and Gaul - into the text, which add a touch rivalled only by Julius Caesar's narratives. Though of Greek descent, Ammianus was an exemplary Roman and product of his elevated class: he was highly educated, believed unquestioningly in all the traditional Roman virtues, and therefore felt that family and service to the empire were the center of life. He also viewed the newer, upward striving arrivistes and philistine opportunists with deep disdain, which he freely displays again and again in his history. 


Intending his history to be a continuation of Tacitus', Ammianus began with the year 96 and the ascent of Emperor Nerva to power and ended in the year 378 with the disastrous Roman defeat at the hands of the Goths outside of Adrianopolis. Unfortunately, the first thirteen books have been lost, though it might not be quite as great a loss as might first appear. In fact, the first thirteen books deal with the period 96-352, while the remaining 18 books cover the remaining 26 years. Though I wish we had at least Liber XIII, it is clear that Ammianus provided significantly more detail about the history of the empire during his own lifetime than he did for earlier times. In other words, it is likely that we have the choicest bits of his work; most of the rest is probably distilled from previously written histories.


No less than 11 of the extant books are devoted to 10 years of the life of Julian (the so-called Apostate), who is for me one of the most interesting figures of the late Roman Empire. Ammianus admired Julian greatly, both as a man and as an emperor, but he nonetheless criticized what he saw as Julian's defects. As a deeply traditional Roman, Ammianus, too, was a "pagan;" however, he viewed Julian's stance towards Christians as sometimes unnecessarily repressive. But more on Julian later.


Though Ammianus had no understanding for the urban plebs (or often for those, like the Caesar Gallus, who tried to protect them from the upper classes, of which Ammianus was a proud member), he was disturbed by the increasing power of the Emperors now unchecked by the Senate and the senatorial class or the army - the classic checks in the early Empire.(**) As Burckhardt and Ammianus indicate, from Constantine onwards the only check on the Emperors was the Christian church, which, while feuding within itself for the power to settle theological matters and more worldly concerns, had left behind its origins as a kind of revolutionary movement of the little man and had become a strictly hierarchical entity that viewed a firm support of the Emperor as the best protection of its own interests. Though Ammianus wanted a return to the checks and balances provided by a noble and altruistic Senate, it is clear that he, like Tacitus, was pessimistic about this possibility and therefore about the future of the Empire.


The edition of Res gestae that I read consists of four volumes. Because of the exceptional nature of this text, I intend to say a few words about each in the subsequent reviews. 


2. Volume 1: Books 14 - 17


Book 14 begins in media res during the civil wars Constantine's son, Constantius, had to fight in order to stay on the imperial throne. Constantius wasn't much better than his father when it came to killing relatives and other possible or actual rivals. Along with the intramural warfare and relatively minor problems with the Persians and Isaurians and larger problems with the Alemannic tribes, Ammianus occupies himself in Book 14 with demonstrating in great detail the degree to which the Senate and people of Rome had degenerated. In the 4th century, Rome had become politically insignificant and a great economic drain on the empire, since every registered citizen of Rome was fed and entertained at the cost of the rest of the empire. Ammianus' description of the contemporary mores in Rome drips with vitriol and is sufficiently detailed to provide a real glimpse of life there. There is also a very interesting excursion about the nature and customs of the Arabic tribes at that time, with whom Ammianus had some personal experience. Indeed, there are too many interesting passages for me to mention. Just one more from Book 14, because it is representative of many similar passages: Due to his many connections with the aristocracy and the various imperial courts, Ammianus was able to obtain the story of the final voyage of Caesar Gallus in great and moving detail, where Constantius lured his cousin Gallus to his ignominious death. This kind of insider information gives a view of events that few ancient histories provide.(***)


After a long excursus about the police state methods approved by the increasingly paranoid Constantius, the incompletely preserved Book 15 reports on the rise of Gallus' younger brother, Julian, who barely escaped his brother's fate. He, too, was the object of the envy and intrigue of the snakepit of opportunists which was the court of every absolute ruler, from China, Japan, Korea and imperial Rome to Stalin's Kremlin. But a crisis in Gaul - among other things, Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium (Cologne) was invested and then destroyed by Germanic tribes -  moved Constantius instead to declare Julian, his last remaining relative, Caesar and to send him off to fight the "barbarians." Ammianus mentions that a persistent rumor held that Constantius hoped that the very young and inexperienced Julian would not survive the experience.


This Julian did, and quite successfully, as Ammianus describes in great detail in Books 16 and 17. He was still a member of the leading general Ursicinus' military staff and witnessed some of the campaign himself. The rest was witnessed by fellow officers whom he knew personally. Julian's actions and successes during this campaign brought Ammianus to believe that Julian was a late embodiment of all the old Roman virtues, sharing Cato's spartan lifestyle, Titus' cleverness, Trajan's strategic insight, Antoninus Pius' mercy and Marcus Aurelius' drive for understanding. Aware that his presentation of Julian "approaches that of a panegyric," Ammianus hastens to assure the reader that he is employing reliable witnesses.


After the first year of the campaign in Gaul, trouble arose in Asia with the Persians and others; Ursicinus was posted back to Asia as the supreme commander and was again accompanied by Ammianus. Despite Ammianus' absence from Europe, the details of the Gaul campaign become no fewer, with the reader being informed about strategy, tactics, logistics and politics. One side note: just as Julius Caesar did in his memoirs, Ammianus reports without blinking that as the Roman troops landed on islands in the Rhine held by the Alemanni, "they slaughtered, without making a distinction for gender or age, men and women like cattle."


After defeating the Franks, regaining Cologne and clearing the lower Rhine valley in the first year, in the next Julius defeated the Alemanni, regained Strasbourg and cleared both sides of the upper Rhine valley. Ammianus recreates the decisive battle outside of Strasbourg in such detail - even reporting on the history and character of some of the Alemanni leaders - that one feels one was there. With that victory ends Book 16. A large portion of Book 17 is occupied with Julian's third campaign season, where most of the fighting takes place east of the Rhine, and the Germanic tribes are beaten into submission - for a while. However, part of Book 17 reports on Constantius' campaigns in the Balkans, where the totally outclassed Balkan tribes were basically massacred. At the end of Book 17, the Persian king demands the return of Armenia and Mesopotamia...



(*) Ammianus' history, which has come down to us with the title Res gestae (or also Rerum Gestarum), is also available in a somewhat abridged Penguin edition and in a complete version as part of Harvard's estimable Loeb series. (There are also English translations from earlier centuries, but I did not seriously consider them.) Since the first is abridged and the second is written in the usual stiff Loeb prose, I chose to read this complete and somewhat more felicitously expressed German edition (it is bilingual, like the Loeb), which also is provided with a very useful introduction and explanatory endnotes.


(**) Oversimplifying, there was no "army," only many, many armies, and the Emperors had learned how to prevent any one general from getting too powerful, as Ammianus illustrates again and again. 


(***) Which provides me with the opportunity to muse: Though the efforts made by Herodotus and Ammianus to get to the truth do not come up to the standards of our contemporary historians, they both made real exertions to find witnesses and, occasionally, documents for the events in question. But I am struck by the difference in their style. Herodotus' style was that of a fabulist, of a storyteller - he told stories of wonder and moment - while Ammianus' style is that of a novelist - he is interested in the motivation, emotion and intention of his main characters along with the events.