Bryn Mawr Classical Review 01.02.14

John F. Matthews, The Roman Empire of Ammianus Marcellinus. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989. (Published in Britain by Duckworth.) Pp. xiv, 608. ISBN 0-8018-3965-3.

Reviewed by James J. O'Donnell, University of Pennsylvania.

In 1967 and 1968, when the rest of the world was discovering love beads, Oxford discovered the fourth century A.D. Peter Brown's biography of Augustine appeared in 1967, then Sir Ronald Syme's Ammianus and the Historia Augusta in 1968. Those books made an epoch and opened an era that lives on. Brown's work has had more influence among professed historians and church historians, but Syme's influence remains strong in the authentic line of literae humaniores pupils. At all events, the fourth century has never been the same. John Matthews remains the leading avatar of the Oxford fourth century still resident between Isis and Cherwell. His 1975 Western Aristocracies and Imperial Court has just been paperbacked; the present volume is the most substantial of the various fruits of his work since.

The stature of Ammianus is the question. Is he, as long regarded, a curiosity of the late and corrupt period? Or is he perhaps worthy to stand beside Thucydides and Tacitus? The scope and ambition of the book are themselves evidence of the ambitious but solid claims that Matthews will make for an author who is for him by now, one suspects, as much colleague as subject. There is close scrutiny and careful correction, but an underlying undertone of affection emerges that is scarcely more than Ammianus' due.

Organizing so ambitious and wide-ranging a study of so ambitious and wide-ranging an author must have been maddeningly difficult. (Matthews speaks in his introduction of how this has grown from a "elegant, slim" volume in the imagination into its present bulk and solidity.) The solution is one that manages to retain, or better contain, the amplitude and even the digressiveness of Ammianus without reducing and thus misrepresenting him -- such reduction has been a silent and insidious cause of some of Ammianus' long struggle for respect. The first half follows the trajectory of Ammianus' own narrative, and particularly follows the person of the young officer who became the mature historian himself. The second half then surveys the horizon: the book almost becomes "The Life and Times of Ammianus", but is saved from such conventionality by Matthews' energy and passion for detail. At no point is he merely potting familiar material, but always checking, testing, and comparing his materials. It is thus almost digression when Matthews says (145) "It is a little surprising that the Talmud, with all its emphasis on particular situations, real or hypothetical, has no specific reference to the Persian invasion of Julian." The student of Ammianus is not absolutely forced to consider such a silence, but doing so adds fresh color and depth to the picture Matthews paints: and this is typical.

In one sense then this book as a whole is a cleverly disguised commentary on the text of Ammianus, but one rendered much more accessible to the reader. (Opinions will differ on one point: Matthews justifies putting the notes in the back as a concession to the non-specialist reader; others will think that every reader prefers [should prefer?] notes where they can be seen. Notes and bibliography run to 100 pages.) It is a book that can emphatically be read by the non-specialist (Matthews recommends the recent semi-abridged Penguin translation as a companion), but can be digested at length by the specialist as well.

Tacitus without the cattiness? Thucydides without the cynicism? Ammianus has no such vices, and the range and humane curiosity that make him a fit companion for a scholar like Matthews. They work well together.