Ammianus Marcellinus and the Representation of Historical Reality

Ammianus Marcellinus and the Representation of Historical Reality

Timothy D. Barnes
Volume: 56
Copyright Date: 1998
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 304
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.cttq45g1
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  • Book Info
    Ammianus Marcellinus and the Representation of Historical Reality
    Book Description:

    Much of what we know today of Rome in the fourth century has its source in Res Gestae, the sole surviving work of the historian Ammianus Marcellinus. The accuracy of Ammianus' reporting has come under question over the past fifty years, however, and Timothy D. Barnes here offers new grist for skepticism. This is the first book on Ammianus to place equal emphasis on the literary and historical aspects of his writing.

    Barnes assesses Ammianus' depiction of historical reality by investigating the Res Gestae's strengths and weaknesses, as well as its literary qualities. He examines its structure and arrangement, emphasizes its Greek and pagan features, and points out the extent to which Ammianus drew on his imagination in shaping the narrative. Ammianus, raised as a Christian, became an apostate when Julian seemed to promise a return to traditional religion and values. In Res Gestae, he expressed strongly held views, often in vivid and extreme language.

    Barnes explores the historian's biases and personal prejudices, documenting seemingly intentional distortions and demonstrating that Ammianus advanced a pessimistic and anti-Christian interpretation of the Roman Empire.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6696-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. PREFACE
    (pp. vii-viii)
    Timothy Barnes
  4. EDITIONS, TRANSLATIONS, AND COMMENTARIES
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. ABBREVIATIONS
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  6. [I] THE IMPARTIAL HISTORIAN
    (pp. 1-10)

    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...

  7. [II] REALITY AND ITS REPRESENTATION
    (pp. 11-19)

    Erich Auerbach published his classic study Mimesis in 1946, and it was superbly translated into English by Willard Trask in 1953.¹ Unfortunately, Trask rendered Auerbach’s subtitle in a way that has unintentionally misled many readers and some critics. What is rendered into English as The Representation of Reality in Western Literature is subtly, but significantly, different from Dargestellte Wirklichkeit in der abendländischen Literatur. Whereas the original German means “reality (as) represented in western literature” with emphasis on the first noun, the English version replaces the noun qualified by a participial adjective by two nouns and thus shifts the emphasis from...

  8. [III] SYMMETRY AND STRUCTURE
    (pp. 20-31)

    The twentieth century, or at least English-speaking culture in the twentieth century, has lost the feeling for symmetry and formal structure that came instinctively to earlier ages. Formal structure, that is, the division of long works into books among the ancients and their division into volumes in the modern age, was important for all historians in the classical tradition until the nineteenth century. The subsequent loss of this sense of the architecture of a history that also sets out to be a literary masterpiece can be charted through a comparison of the original publication of Edward Gibbon’s History of the...

  9. [IV] NARRATIVE AND EXCURSUS
    (pp. 32-42)

    In a history with a formally symmetrical structure of triads and hexads, there can be no formal or proportional symmetry in the historical narrative itself without the danger of distortion. Any historian must allow himself the freedom to treat some matters briefly, others at greater length—and all readers feel that Ammianus has devoted an excessive amount of space to Shapur’s campaign of 359 in northern Mesopotamia and, within that campaign, to the siege of Amida, which lasted seventy-three days and from which the historian himself barely escaped with his life (19.1–9). On the other hand, Ammianus’ conscious choice...

  10. [V] DATING, EMPHASIS, AND OMISSION
    (pp. 43-53)

    As an annalistic historian, Tacitus could manipulate both his annalistic framework and the interplay between it and the division into books in order to emphasize an event or an episode of his choosing, which he wished to invest with particular significance.¹ Unlike Livy, moreover, Tacitus did not always begin his account of each year with the entry of the consuls into office and events in Rome at the start of the year, nor did he record even events at Rome in strict chronological order.² His account of the year 15, for example, begins with an anticipatory notice that a triumph...

  11. [VI] ORIGIN AND SOCIAL STATUS
    (pp. 54-64)

    Who was Ammianus Marcellinus? Where did he come from? What was his social status? There is no direct and explicit evidence beyond the little that Ammianus has chosen to vouchsafe about himself in the extant books of his history. He was a soldier and a Greek (31.16.9). Both terms require further definition before their precise import becomes clear (Chapters VII, VIII). The extant books disclose Ammianus’ approximate age and the outlines of a career. He was an adulescens in 357 (16.10.21): when his extant narrative begins, he was serving in the Roman army as a protector domesticas (14.9.1, 1 8.8.1...

  12. [VII] THE GREEK TEMPLATE
    (pp. 65-78)

    In the final paragraph of his history, Ammianus describes himself as “a former soldier and a Greek” (31.16.9: haec ut miles quondam et Graecus . . . pro virium explicavi mensura). The tone of the words that Ammianus uses to describe himself has been a matter of some debate.¹ Are they a proud boast? And is Ammianus claiming that he has both the practical experience of affairs and the culture needed to be an authoritative historian? Or is he, as has recently been argued, “offering an apology rather than staking a claim”? And can his words be construed as “the...

  13. [VIII] CHRISTIAN LANGUAGE AND ANTI-CHRISTIAN POLEMIC
    (pp. 79-94)

    Ammianus’ eastern origin and his Greek cast of mind are very relevant to assessing his religious beliefs and his treatment of Christianity. When he wrote Graecus, what he heard inside his own mind was the Greek word Hellen, which has a very different semantic range from its Latin equivalent.¹ For, although Hellen could indicate merely that someone was culturally Greek,² by the late fourth century it often had the specific meaning of “pagan,” especially when used by anyone at all hostile to Christianity.³ This sense of the word is first clearly documented in Porphyry’s polemic Against the Christians: probably writing...

  14. [IX] THINGS SEEN AND THINGS READ
    (pp. 95-106)

    Ammianus’ geographical and ethnographical excursus combine three very different types of material.¹ The framework usually comes from either official lists of Roman provinces or lists of peoples and places outside Roman territory that he may have found in Ptolemy’s Geography.² He added historical notices from Festus’ Breviarium, drew on Solinus and Greek topographical works for particular sections, and used Sallust and Livy where they provided relevant material.³ Ammianus also sometimes drew on his own recollection of what he had seen or heard. Hence the description visa vel lecta that he applies to the content of his account of the coasts...

  15. [X] ENEMIES, ANIMALS, AND STEREOTYPES
    (pp. 107-119)

    Ammianus discloses his likes and dislikes of individuals with unusual frankness and directness.¹ When he held a strong opinion of someone, he could express this opinion in vivid and unforgettable language that often evokes a precise visual image. Thus his account of the arrest of Peter Valvomeres strikes the reader as remarkable above all for its palpable visual qualities (Chapter II). Peter was “a very tall, red-haired man towering above the rest” who replied to the urban prefect’s question with truculence, was tortured and released, but later executed for raping a virgin of good birth (15.7.4–5). Many other individuals...

  16. [XI] EMPRESSES AND EUNUCHS
    (pp. 120-128)

    The Res Gestae move entirely in a man’s world, and their author held entirely conventional views about the place of women in it and about how they ought to behave. Modern studies have reconstructed the historian’s picture of women and analyzed their political role, and one is promised on their social and moral significance.¹ The result is distressingly predictable. Ammianus’ attitudes toward women are so conventional for his time that they reveal little or nothing about him as an individual. Yet something interesting may emerge if it is asked which women he chooses to include and which to omit in...

  17. [XII] TYRANNY AND INCOMPETENCE
    (pp. 129-142)

    Three emperors of whom Ammianus disapproved serve as foils to his hero Julian in Books XIV-XXV. Gallus had been appointed Caesar in 351 and sent to Antioch: Book XIV recounts his actions from the summer of 353 to his recall and execution in the following year. Constantius had been Augustus since 337: he appointed Gallus and Julian successively as Caesars, and he shares Ammianus’ main narrative with the latter from the winter of 355–356 until his death on 3 November 361 (Books XVI–XXI). Jovian succeeded Julian and ruled for less than eight months (27 June 363 to 16...

  18. [XIII] THE NEW ACHILLES
    (pp. 143-165)

    This fragment of a speech by Himerius, quoted by Photius out of context for its rhetorical allure, is of the highest historical significance. The three men praised are easily identified. The brightest eye of his race, the sun who illumines the great thrones is Constantius. The others are Gallus and Julian. Gallus has risen like the morning star: that is to say, he has been proclaimed Caesar—and this passage could come from a speech delivered at his proclamation in Sirmium on i March 351.² Whether or not that was in fact the occasion on which Himerius spoke, and whether...

  19. [XIV] PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE
    (pp. 166-186)

    An officer and a gentleman is not normally expected to be deeply versed or profoundly interested in philosophy. By the same token, however, imprecision or inconsistency does not prove that such a man’s apparent interest in philosophy is merely superficial or second-hand, as has been assumed in most modern discussions of Ammianus’ thought world and his “religious and moral universe.”¹ Ammianus’ philosophical views (so it is normally held) are not the product of independent reflection, for they derive from handbooks, from popularized Neoplatonism, from Cornelius Labeo: the historian had never read any Plotinus or Porphyry in the original Greek, but...

  20. [XV] TACITUS, AMMIANUS, AND MACAULAY
    (pp. 187-198)

    Ammianus and Tacitus both wrote history in a way that can be described as dramatic. Yet they write history, depict the actors in the historical drama that they narrate, and represent reality in very different ways. It is worth the effort, therefore, to attempt to analyze how precisely, or in what precise sense, each of these two historians is dramatic. For important studies of both historians have obscured the individual genius of each by assimilating it to that of the other. Edmond Courbaud began his classic book on the artistic procedures of Tacitus by quoting Racine’s paradoxical opinion that Tacitus...

  21. APPENDIX [I] THE TEXT OF AMMIANUS
    (pp. 201-208)
  22. APPENDIX [2] THE STRUCTURE OF LIVY’S AB URBE CONDITA
    (pp. 209-212)
  23. APPENDIX [3] AMMIANUS’ REFERENCES TO THE LOST BOOKS
    (pp. 213-217)
  24. APPENDIX [4] CONSULAR DATES IN THE RES GESTAE
    (pp. 218-221)
  25. APPENDIX [5] FORMAL EXCURSUS
    (pp. 222-224)
  26. APPENDIX [6] AMMIANUS’ USE OF ACCENTUAL CLAUSULAE
    (pp. 225-230)
  27. APPENDIX [7] CORRUPT AND MISTAKEN DATES
    (pp. 231-236)
  28. APPENDIX [8] MISSING PRAEFECTI URBIS
    (pp. 237-240)
  29. APPENDIX [9] MAXIMINUS AND THE TRIALS AT ROME UNDER VALENTINIAN
    (pp. 241-246)
  30. APPENDIX [10] THE MOVEMENTS OF VALENS
    (pp. 247-254)
  31. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 255-278)
  32. INDEX OF NAMES OF PERSONS AND PLACES
    (pp. 279-286)
  33. INDEX OF MODERN SCHOLARS
    (pp. 287-288)
  34. PASSAGES OF AMMIANUS DISCUSSED
    (pp. 289-290)
  35. Back Matter
    (pp. 291-291)