The Inheritance of Historiography, 350-900

By Christopher Holdsworth; T.P. Wiseman | Go to book overview

II
AMMIANUS AND THE ETERNITY
OF ROME

John Matthews


I

It is a constantly intriguing paradox that the last great Latin historian of Rome was by birth a Greek from Syrian Antioch, and the last great Latin poet a Greek from Egyptian Alexandria. In the case of Ammianus Marcellinus, the meaning of the paradox is clearer to us in its general than in its particular aspects, for the exact circumstances in which it came about are not know to us—neither when Ammianus went to Rome to complete his history (except that he was there during the later 380s), nor precisely why he went there, nor by what route he travelled. What we do know, from cross-references within the history itself, is that he was still composing, able at least to make some quite substantial insertions, as late as 390, but apparently not (on the evidence) later than this;1 and, from a letter of Libanius written to him late in 392 but referring to a slightly earlier time, that he gave recitations from his history at Rome to an audience, some of whose members took news of them back to Libanius at Antioch.2

This letter of Libanius, praising his distinguished compatriot, is the only external reference we possess to Ammianus, the rest of whose life and attitudes must be inferred solely from his own text: and this is itself incomplete. Of 31 original books, running from the principale of Nerva to the battle of Hadrianople in August 378 and its immediate aftermath, the first thirteen books are lost, together of course with the preface in which he may have explained his overall design and purpose.3 The surviving books (14–31) cover in considerable but sometimes uneven detail, and with an occasionally capricious emphasis on the historian’s own experiences, the 25 years 353–378. Despite, or rather as part of, their capriciousness, these books are among the most revealing of late Roman sources. There is no important issue on which they do not have something to say, and I cannot think of any other ancient writer who surpasses Ammianus’ powers of observation and his ability through this to convey a visual image and penetrate character—even if, as Arnaldo Momigliano remarked, he is much less adept at defining a situation. He

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