506 pages, Penguin, 1986
Ammianus Marcellinus was the last great Roman historian, and his writings rank alongside those of Livy and Tacitus. The Later Roman Empire chronicles a period of twenty-five years during Ammianus’ lifetime, covering the reigns of Constantius, Julian, Jovian, Valentinian and Valens, and providing eyewitness accounts of significant military events including the Battle of Strasbourg and the Goths’ Revolt. Portraying a time of rapid and dramatic change, Ammianus describes an Empire exhausted by excessive taxation, corruption, the financial ruin of the middle classes and the progressive decline in the morale of the army. In this magisterial depiction of the closing decades of the Roman Empire, we can see the seeds of the events that were to lead to the fall of the city, just twenty years after Ammianus’ death. This selection includes the major parts of the surviving books of the history. Walter Hamilton’s fine translation captures the stylish vigour of the original, while Andrew Wallace-Hadrill’s introduction describes the life and works of Ammianus and places the history in the context of its times.
Ammianus Marcellinus was the last great Roman historian. He was not a professional man of letters but an army officer of Greek origin born at Antioch and contemporary with the events described in what remains of his work. He set himself the task of continuing the histories of Tacitus from AD 96 down to his own day. The first thirteen of his thirty-one books are lost: the remainder describe a period of only twenty-five years (AD 354-378) and the reigns of the emperors Constantius, Julian, Jovian, Valentinian and Valens, for which he is a prime authority. He was a pagan and an admirer of the apostate Julian, to whose career about half the surviving books are devoted. But his treatment of Christianity is free from prejudice and his imparitality and good judgement have been generally recognized. His style is sometimes bizarre, but in all the essential qualities of an historian he deserves the praise accorded to him by Gibbon and is well able to stand comparison with Livy and Tacitus.
Review of Ammianus’ The Later Roman Empire (AD 354-378)
While reading The Later Roman Empire, I feel an affinity with the Roman legions in Tacitus who have wandered far from Italian soil and too far into Germany. The fog is everywhere, the marshlands extends forever, the sun no longer shines. They have reached the edge of the known world. While Tacitus’ legions have wandered too far in space, I feel, while reading Ammianus, that I have wandered too far in time. This is no longer the Roman Empire of old. This is something else. Not quite the Middle Ages, not quite classical antiquity.
In Ammianus’ time, the world is a smaller space. The Roman Empire is sick. This is not Livy’s Rome, which was expanding. Nor is it Tacitus’ Rome, which was consolidating it’s powers. This is an old Rome, sick unto death. In Livy and Tacitus, temporary setbacks due to lavishness, foreign influences, and profligacy (the usual suspects) could be overcome by a return to the mos maiorum, “the way of our ancestors.” No longer in the Late Empire. The corruption is now systemic. Even Valentinian’s attempts at reform are due to cruelty and a desire to see others suffer than the good old mos maiorum doctrine.
In Ammianus’ time, the Empire is split between east and west. The emperor, or the “Augustus” watches over one half, while the prince, or the “Caesar” watches over the other. The barbarians constantly push against the boundaries and the army is constantly pushing back. The Augustus and the Caesar are on a neverending campaign. They themselves ride into battle in a magisterial if perhaps misguided show of noblesse oblige. Perhaps, like the Empire, they are tired of being alive.
In Ammianus’ history, Rome is far away. What is going on in Rome? Are the senators coming up with new policies? Do the masses have enough grain? Who knows. Compared with the hostile frontier, Rome is an insignificant speck. Germans, Gauls, and Persians are the focus of attention. Guys names “Gundomadus” and “Dagalaifus” run around in Ammianus’ history. We are no longer in Kansas, Dorothy.
Despite the book blurb, in style and substance, Ammianus cannot compare with Tacitus and Livy. Part of this may be due to the loss of the all-important prologue, which is, for me, the most interesting part of the text. In the prologue, the historian justifies the writing of his history. He talks of his predecessors’ failings and how he is filling in a gap. He talks up the period of history he concentrates on and why he, and only he, can capture accurately the story of that time. Ammianus’ style isn’t as weird as the introduction makes it out to be (e.g. I didn’t notice instances of what Gibbon refers to as Ammianus’ disorder, perplexity of narrative, false ornaments, and turgid metaphors). All in all, a fascinating look at how the Roman world had changed. If we take the Hannibalic War (218 BC) as the “coming of age” of Rome, and the period covered by Ammianus as Rome’s twilight (AD 378), it looks like, for some reason, Rome maintained her position as the primary Mediterranean world power for close to 600 years. What an amazing achievement. They ask: “Why did Rome fall?” But perhaps the real question is: “Why did Rome dominate for so long?”
Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.