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Ammianus Marcellinus

Ammianus Marcellinus, thought by some to be the last Roman historian of worth, was born about A.D. 325‑330 likely at Antioch (the likelihood hingeing on whether he was the recipient of a surviving letter to a Marcellinus from a fellow citizen of Antioch). The date of his death is unknown, but he must have lived till 391, as he mentions Aurelius Victor as the city prefect for that year. The surviving books of his valuable history cover the years 353‑378; the work is sometimes referred to by a Latin title as Res Gestae, a usage best avoided, however, since it leads to confusion with the Res Gestae Divi Augusti.

He was "a soldier and a Greek" he tells us, and his enrolment among the elite protectores domestici (household guards) shows that he was of noble birth. He entered the army at an early age, when Constantius II was emperor of the East, and was sent to serve under Ursicinus, governor of Nisibis in Roman Mesopotamia, and magister militiae.

He returned to Italy with Ursicinus, when he was recalled by Constantius, and accompanied him on the expedition against Silvanus the Frank, who had been forced by the unjust accusations of his enemies into proclaiming himself emperor in Gaul. With Ursicinus he went twice to the East, and barely escaped with his life from Amida or Amid (modern Diyarbakir), when it was taken by the Persian king Shapur II. When Ursicinus lost his office and the favour of Constantius, Ammianus seems to have shared his downfall; but under Julian the Apostate, Constantius's successor, he regained his position. He accompanied this emperor, for whom he expresses enthusiastic admiration, in his campaigns against the Alamanni and the Persians; after his death he took part in the retreat of Jovian as far as Antioch, where he was residing when the conspiracy of Theodorus (371) was discovered and cruelly put down.

Eventually he settled in Rome, where, at an advanced age, he wrote (in Latin) a history of the Roman empire from the accession of Nerva (AD 96)to the death of Valens at the Battle of Adrianople (378), thus forming a continuation of the work of Tacitus. This history (Res Gestae Libri XXXI) was originally in thirty-one books, but the first thirteen are lost. The surviving eighteen books cover the period from 353 to 378. As a whole it has been considered extremely valuable, being a clear, comprehensive and impartial account of events by a contemporary of soldierly honesty, independent judgment and wide reading. Recent studies have, however, shown the rhetorical power in his histories. Like all ancient historians, he did not even attempt to produce a history in the modern style: he had a strong political and pagan religious agenda to pursue, and he contrasted Constantius II with Julian to the former's constant disadvantage.

Edward Gibbon judged Ammianus as "an accurate and faithful guide, who composed the history of his own times without indulging the prejudices and passions which usually affect the mind of a contemporary." Ammianus was a pagan, and when he marginalises Christianity repeatedly in his account, we are reminded that making Christianity the state religion did not make all Romans Christians. His style is generally harsh, often pompous and extremely obscure, occasionally even journalistic in tone, but the author's foreign origin and his military life and training partially explain this.

Further, the work being intended for public recitation, some rhetorical embellishment was necessary, even at the cost of simplicity. It is a striking fact that Ammianus, though a professional soldier, gives excellent pictures of social and economic problems, and in his attitude to the non-Roman peoples of the empire he is far more broad-minded than writers like Livy and Tacitus; his digressions on the various countries he had visited are peculiarly interesting.

In his description of the empire--the exhaustion produced by excessive taxation, the financial ruin of the middle classes, the progressive decline in the morale of the army--we find the explanation of its fall before the Goths twenty years after his death.


Latin text and facing English translation commonly available in the Loeb Classical Library, 1935‑1940 with many reprintings.

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Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04