Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.04.13

Timothy D. Barnes, Ammianus Marcellinus and the Representation of Historical Reality.   Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 1998.  Pp. xiv + 290.  ISBN 0-8014-3526-9.  $45.00.  



Reviewed by Robin Seager, University of Liverpool (rseager@liv.ac.uk)
Word count: 2433 words

This book is much easier to read than B.'s recent work on Athanasius; it also, mercifully, boasts a bibliography. The preface propounds three basic premises. (1) Everyone else who has ever written about AM has got it wrong -- a feeling that often comes to all of us, though perhaps to B. more often than most. (2) In particular, despite the claims of many from Gibbon onwards, AM failed to transcend personal bias. (3) AM thought in Greek. To pre-empt, briefly: (1) is overstated; (2) is true but B. at times overcompensates; (3) is undoubtedly true.

The first chapter offers no more than the 'history of the question' so beloved of the dissertation factories, presenting an anthology of favourable verdicts on AM's impartiality. The next brings in Auerbach. B. stresses the visual character of AM's writing in contrast to Tacitus before moving on to list those who have recently been more critical of AM.

He then turns to various aspects of the structure and character of AM's work. He makes a strong case for the view that AM, like Tacitus, structured his work in triads and hexads and that originally there were 36 books, with the extant books, now misnumbered, constituting 19-36. He distinguishes 5 types of compositional block: (1) the activities of the emperor(s) during a campaigning season (2) court events in the following winter (3) events at Rome during successive urban prefectures (4) provincial events by summer and winter (5) excursus. There follows a detailed analysis of the entire work in accordance with these principles. On dating he rightly insists that AM is not annalistic. His use of consular dates is sparing and intended to emphasise events and aspects of events. The placement of events may enhance or diminish their significance: B. cogently cites the minimal importance AM assigns to Julian's attempt to rebuild the temple at Jerusalem. The omission of crucial elements in a story may also be revealing. Of B.'s examples, however, one (the cashiering of Valens for punishing a pagan priest) is somewhat speculative, while another, the execution of Bonosus and Maximilianus for allegedly plotting Julian's assassination, is unfair to AM. B. suggests that AM omits this because of his claim that there were no Christian martyrs under Julian. But had he wished, he could surely have treated the matter as he does the fate of Artemius (see below). It is not unreasonable for AM to protest by implication against the inevitable Christian claim that any Christian condemned under Julian was the victim of religious persecution. (Cf., as B. knows perhaps better than anyone else, the systematic Christian misrepresentation of the true nature of the quarrel between Athanasius and Constantius as a question of religious freedom.)

Next B. turns to AM himself. After a history of the debate on the notorious letter of Libanius he opts firmly for the cause of common sense, rightly insisting that such a missive, directed to AM, would have been intolerably patronising. One might add that Libanius, if aware of AM's existence, must have seen him as a traitor to his Hellenic heritage and would not have wished to praise his achievements in the barbarian tongue. Indeed, perhaps the only way to uphold the identification of AM as the recipient would be to see the letter as a studied and elaborately ironic expression of the parochial sophist's contempt. On the question of origin B. is less convincing. He argues that AM's praise of Antioch might stem only from long residence there, though he insists that the historian must hail from Syria or Palestine. He conjectures Tyre as a possibility. This seems rash in view of the intense local rivalry between cities at all periods of Greek history -- and indeed at other times. One would not lightly assume that a man who praised Manchester came from somewhere close by, as it might be Liverpool.... More interesting are B.'s speculations about what went wrong with AM's career. To be a protector domesticus at his age should indicate that his father was a general; three coevals from similar backgrounds attained the purple. B., who believes that AM was brought up a Christian, suggests that Julian's Christian successors may have terminated AM's career as punishment for his presumed apostasy.

'The Greek template' is entirely cogent. Ut miles quondam et Graecus is a boast, not an apology. (For further possible implications, cf. T. W. Hillard et al., Ancient History in a Modern University II [Grand Rapids 1998], 292f.) AM placed himself in the tradition of Thucydides and Polybius; not, B insists, that of Herodotus, despite the lack in AM of speeches and in particular pre-battle speeches by commanders. This chapter is also noteworthy for a dictum deserving elevation to proverbial stature: 'The most superficial acquaintance with modern scholarship ought to show how fallacious the inference from misrepresentation to ignorance can be.'

Perhaps the most interesting chapter is that on Christianity. Graecus, as B. affirms, carries overtones of 'pagan'. Modern views of AM's religious beliefs have varied, thanks to the historian's own profound inconsistencies, but a general consensus has evolved that AM was a moderate and tolerant pagan. On a conscious level, B. suggests, he set out to marginalise Christianity: among notable omissions he cites the activities of the catholicos Nerses in Armenia, the career of Athanasius, religious politics in the reign of Constantius, the support of Western Christians for Julian, and Lauricius' presidency at the synod of Seleucia in 359. This seems unfair to AM. All these omissions surely follow from the fundamental generic doctrine that church history was not part of history. AM did not invent that doctrine, and he can hardly be blamed for adhering to it, however much that decreases the value of his work for our purposes. Nor should AM be accused of anti-Christian bias for his account of the execution of Artemius, who, as B. admits, was hated by both pagans and Christians. Artemius did not die for his religion, though loyalty to Constantius may have contributed to his downfall: if AM is to be charged with bias here, it is bias against Constantius, not against Christianity. B. sees as the clearest revelation of partiality 21.16.18, from the necrology of Constantius, a 'tissue of absurdities' which nevertheless faithfully reflects Christian complaints about imperial interference in ecclesiastical affairs (and perhaps, in the matter of the imperial post, personal inconvenience). Virtually all the points B. makes about this passage are true, but again it proves bias only against Constantius, not against Christianity. That the pagan historian should exploit Christian lies to blacken a Christian emperor is a pleasing irony. B. also sees the neglect of the importance of Constantinople and Jerusalem in the excursus on Thrace and the Syrias as evidence of anti-Christian bias, but surely, as in Libanius, this is rather the resentment inevitably felt by natives of other great centres for the upstart 'city on the Hellespont' and the recent upgrading of Jerusalem by Constantine. In short, it is indeed apparent that AM was a pagan and disliked and despised Christianity, but in comparison with the rantings of Athanasius and Lucifer, to name only the most obnoxious, his judgements and the terms in which they are expressed still stand as models of moderation. The case that AM was himself an apostate is not implausible, but hardly proven. It rests on two arguments: AM's use of Christian technical terms and his espousal of Christian moral values, for instance in praise of Julian's chastity. But the first need prove only conscientious research, while the second might merely reflect Julian's own obsession.

'Things seen and things heard' deals with excursus and contains much speculation. The suggestion that AM had had a brush with a French innkeeper's wife (15.12.1) is plausible as well as entertaining, and his attitude to the refugee child (18.6.10f.), whom he would clearly, if given the choice, have left to his fate, is at least compatible with the somewhat inhuman isolation B. ascribes to him. But it is adventurous to infer from 22.16.23 that AM had been torturing Egyptian tax-evaders, and wildly so on that account to dub him a sadist. There is after all nothing in the surviving books to match Tacitus' drooling over the death of Junilla (Ann. 5.9). On the other hand B. is right to dismiss the account of the eclipse of 360, placed for effect between the fall of Ursicinus and the ascent of Julian, as almost entirely fictional.

'Enemies, animals and stereotypes' does not entirely live up to its splendid title. B. presents a selective list of those individuals and barbarian tribes to whom AM applies animal imagery (not, as he notes, the Persians, who occupy a curious limbo between civilisation and barbarism) and other instances of cultural and racial stereotypes, such as Pannonians and yet again pagans and Christians.

'Empresses and eunuchs' (another fine title) has more substance. The empresses from hell who bulk so large in Tacitus are absent from AM. Whether bad (Constantina) or good (Eusebia), imperial women are granted little space. Wicked women are largely replaced by wicked eunuchs. The chapter includes a careful and cogent discussion of Valentinian's remarriage; B. rightly points out that AM's praise of Valentinian's domestic life implies his rejection of Christian views on the subject.

'Tyranny and incompetence' deals with AM's presentation of his various foils to Julian: Gallus, Constantius and Jovian. His attitude to Gallus, a bad ruler but half-brother of Julian and victim of Constantius, was inevitably ambivalent but basically follows Julian's own line. As ever, AM is too ready to regard as criminal the effective execution of Constantius' orders. B.'s criticisms of AM's treatment of Constantius are sound, if not strikingly original, while his estimate of Constantius' achievement on the frontiers is largely fair. He notes, without trying to explain it, the oddity of the near panegyric tone of 17.12f. Possible reasons might be that on the Danube Constantius need not be seen as in direct competition with Julian, while on the Rhine a major beneficiary of his generosity had been Julian's enemy Vadomarius. More controversial is B.'s acceptance of the rehabilitation of Jovian. Of course Jovian cannot be blamed for the measures taken to save the army from the destruction to which Julian had been resolutely leading it, but the gulf between AM and Zosimus on Jovian's accession is perhaps more apparent than real. (Cf. similar divergences between Sisenna and everybody else on Sulla's election as dictator.) Nevertheless B. does well to highlight Themistius' praise of Jovian (5.63C) for rescuing philosophy: clear proof that very different views might be taken of Julian's version of Hellenism.

'The new Achilles' notes the use of this analogy in the important fragment of Himerius (I.6), perhaps, as B. suggests, delivered at Gallus' proclamation as Caesar, as well as by Julian himself in Or. 3(2).56B of winter 358/9. A more intriguing analogy in that speech likens Julian and Constantius to David and Saul, one of several hints that Julian was already contemplating usurpation. B. accepts the story that on his deathbed Constantius nominated Julian as his successor. This may, but need not, be true, and the question is not affected by the undoubted fact that once Constantius was safely dead Julian abandoned his hostile stance in the interests of his own legitimation. The Achilles comparison was also used by Libanius and by AM, at least by implication. Julian himself preferred Alexander and Marcus, but after his death to compare him with Alexander might seem double-edged, so AM prefers other analogies, both Roman and Greek. B. notes the obvious distortions in AM's account of Julian's campaigns on the Rhine and observes wryly that if Julian had been in charge there would have been no glorious victory at Strasbourg. From 358 Julian set about preparing for his usurpation. This is true, but as with the narrative of the usurpation itself it is only fair to AM to state that the truth is clearly legible between the lines and was surely meant to be so. B. is more severe on AM's treatment of Julian's religion, which omits his attempt to establish a neo-pagan counterchurch, his theurgy and his Mithraism. Again this is perhaps too harsh. That AM disapproved strongly, as B. says, of Julian's conception of religion is obvious from the comments that he does make. He may therefore perhaps be excused for invoking the doctrine that religious history is not history in order to treat the subject as sparingly as possible. On the Persian expedition most of what B. says is sound, though he offers no comment on Julian's war-aims, either in the first season or longterm. But it is not true that in AM the Roman army's desperate plight occurs only after Julian's death: cf. esp. 24.7.7, 25.1.10, 2.1; also Lib. Or. 18.249.

'Past, present and future' discusses AM's beliefs, suggesting that AM derived them directly from Porphyry. B. then turns to AM's views of the meaning of history. Eunapius, who also probably ended his work with Edirne, had taken the view that Rome was strong and successful till the conversion of Constantine. AM compares the history of Rome with the ages of man (14.5.3ff.), as do Florus, Lactantius and the HA. B. suggests that AM took over the notion from Florus, who got it from Seneca. But AM is less optimistic: for him old age betokens weakness, not rejuvenation. In his only other serious reflection on such matters (31.5.11ff.) the effeminate and luxurious life points, as B. shows, at Christianity; the heroic past ends with Diocletian. The process of corruption, begun by Constantine, was carried further by Constantius, while after Julian's death everything went wrong, both internally and on the frontiers. B. pertinently notes that the work ends with a paean to genocide. He is, however, too ready to take at face value AM's apparently favourable view of the elder Theodosius (cf. Histos 1 (1997): www.dur.ac.uk/Classics/histos).

The final chapter claims cogently that AM is not the successor of Tacitus in any major sense (though he had certainly read him). The world had changed too much, his techniques, methods and style were very different, and he belonged to a Greek rather than a Latin tradition. Among the contents of a series of useful appendices may be noted the definition of a formal excursus, the use of clausulae to reinforce the view that AM thought in Greek, and valuable discussions of the corruption of dates and the chronology of 28.1.

In short, an enjoyable and valuable book, always stimulating and right more often than not, to be welcomed by all with a serious interest in the author and the period.

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