Ammianus Marcellinus

Ammianus Marcellinus
(c. 330-395)
   Last important pagan historian of Rome, and the first to write a major history since Tacitus (c. 56-c. 120). Although nearly half of his work, the Res gestae (Deeds done), has been lost, Ammianus remains one of the most important writers for the history of the Roman Empire and the movement of the Germanic peoples in the fourth century. Inspired by Tacitus, whose work he emulated, Ammianus provides a unique view, especially compared with Christian historians of the time, of the late Roman Empire. In some ways unlike his Christian contemporaries, Ammianus believed that "Rome will last as long as mankind shall endure." Indeed, even though he chronicled the crises of the late fourth century, including the catastrophic defeat of imperial armies by the Visigoths led by Alaric, Ammianus preserved the characteristic faith of the Romans in the empire.
   Little is known precisely about Ammianus other than what is revealed in his work of history. He describes himself as a "former soldier and a Greek" in the pages of a history that was written in Latin. He was probably born in Antioch in Syria around 330. He served in the 350s as an officer in both Gaul and Persia under the emperor Constantius II (r. 337-361); his military background enabled him to write effectively about military matters in his history. He later joined the campaigns of the emperor Julian the Apostate (r. 361-363), the nephew of Constantine the Great, against Persia in 363. Julian was raised as a Christian by his uncle but rejected that upbringing in favor of traditional Roman religion, which he actively promoted to the detriment of the Christian church. Although he had earlier enjoyed military success, Julian failed in his attack on Persia and was killed near Baghdad while retreating. Ammianus retired from military service after the failed Persian campaign and traveled widely across the Mediterranean, spending time especially in Egypt and Greece. Sometime in the 380s, he settled in Rome, where he wrote his history, probably in 390.
   Written in the last decade of the fourth century, the history of Ammianus began in 96, where Tacitus left off, and covered events down to 378. The work was composed in thirty-one books, but only books fourteen to thirty-one have survived. This section, however, covered the years 354-378, the period of the author's active military career, and contains much eyewitness reporting. The work is both a personal memoir and testimony and a defense of the career of Emperor Julian. The history contains not only personal observations but many important observations on military and political affairs, as well as the reflections of a tolerant late Roman pagan. The work of Ammianus is often colorful; it contains numerous details of daily life and scathing accounts of the flaws of Christian and pagan leaders of Rome. Like Tacitus before him, Ammianus criticized the moral weaknesses and political foolishness of his contemporaries and wrote in a highly rhetorical style. His work reflects the attitudes of a late Roman soldier and noble who valued the traditional Roman virtues of moderation and who believed in the permanence of Roman power. Indeed, his account of the terrible Roman defeat by the Visigoths at Hadrianople in 378 reveals his belief that the empire would recover from this defeat and eventually triumph over its enemies, just as earlier Romans had defeated their great rival Hannibal after his victory at Cannae (216 b.c.).
   Ammianus not only left important information about the Romans and their defeat by the Visigoths but also about the barbarian invaders themselves. He describes the origins and background of the Goths and the extent of their territory. He also describes the origins of the Huns, their nomadic lifestyle, their customs and manners, and their success against the Goths. Although the surviving portion of the history covers only a short period, Ammianus's work is an important source of information on Romans and barbarians in the later fourth century.
   See also
 ♦ Ammianus Marcellinus. Ammianus Marcellinus. Trans. John C. Rolfe. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971-1972.
 ♦ Barnes, Timothy D. Ammianus Marcellinus and the Representation of Historical Reality. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998.
 ♦ Cameron, Averil, and Peter Garnsey, eds. The Late Empire, a.d. 337-425. Cambridge Ancient History, vol. 13. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
 ♦ Hunt, David, and Jan Willem Drijvers, eds. The Late Roman World and Its Historian: Interpreting Ammianus Marcellinus. London: Routledge, 1999.
 ♦ Matthews, John. The Roman Empire of Ammianus Marcellinus. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.
 ♦ Wolfram, Herwig. The Roman Empire and Its Germanic Peoples. Trans. Thomas J. Dunlap. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Encyclopedia of Barbarian Europe. 2014.

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