Once again, the Roman Empire in the 4th century; this time as seen by a contemporary witness.
In this review I report on the second of four volumes of the German edition of Ammianus Marcellinus' history of the late Roman Empire I chose to read. For general background, information about English translations, and a discussion of the first volume, please see Römische Geschichte, Erster Teil.
3. Volume 2: Books 18-21
Book 17 ended ominously with the Persian King of Kings' demand that the Romans return Armenia and Mesopotamia to Persian suzerainty. That wasn't going to happen without a fight. Book 18 opens with further successful military actions of Caesar Julian against the Alemannic tribes east of the Rhine and with his efforts to reintroduce a just rule of law in Gaul and to rebuild and reprovision the cities and fortifications along the Rhine which had been destroyed, but most of Books 18 and 19 provide a first hand report of one season of the war with the Persians. For Ammianus was on the staff of the Roman supreme commander in the East, Ursicinus, and gives us in these Books one of his most gripping, detailed and extensive "I-passages," as I shall briefly explain below.
Urged on by a Roman deserter, the Persian Shah, Sapor, sent a large army across the Tigris into Roman territory, an army that at least partially disintegrated into roving bands of plunderers. For complicated reasons Ursicinus (who had just been relieved of command through an intrigue at Constantius' court) and Ammianus rode into one of these bands unsuspectingly and then had to ride for their lives, having the kind of adventures told in the Flashman series (though these men were definitely not cowards). With too many side stories(*) to tell here, let me focus on the following story concerning events that occurred after the Romans withdrew to the west bank of the Euphrates.
After an ambush by the Persians effectively destroyed the small troop under Ursicinus' command, Ammianus barely made it back to the fortified town of Amida after further Flashman-like adventures. The Shah soon invested Amida with a large portion of his army, and the reader is treated to a very detailed account of a 4th century siege, including the Shah's headwear when Ammianus saw him before the city from his vantage on the walls - a golden helmet in the shape of a ram's head covered with precious gems. The Shah came too close and was almost struck by the barrage of missiles the Romans shot at him. Though his traitorous Roman adviser urged him to move around the city and continue further incountry, the Shah was outraged at the near misses and demanded that the city be taken and razed. The resolve of the Persians was fortified when the son of one of the Shah's vassal kings was killed before the walls. (Ammianus describes the battle for the prince's corpse and the seven day funerary rites.) His father swore not to leave the field until the city was burned. So the Shah concentrated all his troops there, including a corps of elephants, and a long and bloody struggle ensued.
I have read eyewitness accounts of sieges of fortified cities before, but none from such ancient times and, above all, none anywhere near so detailed, including arguments among the Romans about which tactics to use at various critical moments. And I had no idea that 4th century siegecraft was so advanced - the Persians used every machine and means employed in the European Middle Ages before the introduction of gunpowder from China. Ammianus is full of respect for the Persians' intelligence, resolve and bravery; the Shah, overcome by the martial spirit, is once again spotted in the front lines and narrowly escapes death.
After seventy-three days of this, the numeric advantage of the Persians began to tell, and then an unfortunate circumstance(**) permitted the Persians entry to the city, where they began to kill everything that breathed. The night falling and the battle lost, Ammianus and two companions managed somehow to get out of the city and through the encircling army. This began another adventure as they crossed a desert and then mountains to get to a city still held by the Romans.
The oncoming winter put an end to the Persian campaign, and Ammianus turns to problems in the rest of the Empire at the end of Book 19. As if the reader hadn't read enough adventures yet, he finds a detailed account of a near miss attempt by a Balkan tribe to lure Constantius to peace talks in order to attack and kill him. Constantius narrowly escaped, and the Romans wrought a terrible vengeance.
Book 20 is full of strife; from Hadrian's Wall to the Rhine and then to the Tigris the Empire is beset with armed conflict on the borders. Perhaps the most significant event in this Book is when Caesar Julian is proclaimed by his troops in Paris to be Augustus. Concerned by Julian's successes and growing stature, Constantius commanded a large portion of Julian's troops to be sent to the Near East in order to meet the Persians (and to weaken Julian). There he made a serious mistake, because the Gauls and Germans in Julian's army were not willing to fight the Persians on the other side of the known world under any set of circumstances.
In the late Empire, when an army declared its general to be Emperor, one of the Emperors had to die. Julian tried to defuse the situation by making clear to Constantius that it was not his intent to replace him. The latter commanded Julian to be satisfied with the title Caesar, but again Julian's troops forcefully insisted that he be recognized as co-Emperor. Though the preceding Books were full of stories of Constantius having high-standing Romans executed because of mere rumors that they might consider the possibility of maybe thinking about becoming Emperor, here Constantius backed down temporarily because the Persians were pushing hard again. His campaign against the Persians resulted in a draw this season.
And in Book 21? What else? War. Julian defeated another Alemmanic king and then prepared for a civil war against Constantius. Most of the Book is given over to the military and political moves both Emperors made to bind parts of the Empire and various armies to them personally. Julian defeated the few armies that came against him, and turncoats and opportunists were crawling out of the woodwork. While Julian was fighting turncoats in the city of Aquileia at the head of the Adriatic, Constantius was moving westwards through Anatolia to confront him. However, Constantius died of a fever in a small town in Cilicia, sparing the Empire a more protracted and bloody civil war. Ammianus ends the Book with an examination of Constantius' strengths and weaknesses.
Now Julian is the last of Constantine's line and the sole Emperor of the Romans. For a short time.
(*) One of the many fascinating little side stories Ammianus tells us: During the initial confused contact with the Persians, Ammianus rode into a village empty of all but one soldier attempting to hide himself. After some extended questioning, this soldier confessed that he was born in Paris, had served in the Roman cavalry, but had gone over to the Persians (there were many deserters from both sides trying to maximize their personal advantage), where he had married a Persian woman and started a family. He had been sent back into Roman territory to spy and had unfortunately ended up in Ammianus' hands. After telling Ammianus all that he knew about the Persians' activities, his adventurous life came to a sudden end in that little Mesopotamian village - Ammianus had the Parisian executed.
Along with such stories, Ammianus also makes intriguing or surprising side remarks. For instance, he reports that when the Romans burnt the fields between the Tigris and the Euphrates to deny the grain to the Persians, many wild lions were caught in the fires, leading him to detail how blind lions were such a pest in that region.(!)
(**) To overcome the advantage of the city walls, the Persians constructed ridges of earth higher than the walls themselves from which to fight. The Romans then built corresponding ridges of earth to counter that move. However, one of the Roman ridges collapsed forward across the wall, filling part of the moat and offering the Persians a way into the city.