Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.09.21

Axel Brandt, Moralische Werte in den Res gestae des Ammianus Marcellinus. Hypomnemata. Untersuchungen zur Antike und zu ihrem Nachleben. Heft 122.   Göttingen:  Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1999.  Pp. 447.  ISBN 3-525-25219-6.  DM 130,-.  

Reviewed by Jan den Boeft, Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht)
Word count: 1620 words

In ancient historiography facts are regularly assessed with the help of moral standards which are applied to the behaviour of the actors. To be sure, other types of ratio causaeque are not neglected, yet ethical values play the more decisive part. There is a tendency to describe social and economic changes in moral terms. In the historiography of the Roman Empire such tendencies could flourish all the more, since in the first place all sorts of res gestae could be regarded as the result of some decision or initiative of the emperor. No wonder that his character and moral standing are often brought in as the ultimate explanation of a variety of financial, military or political measures. Secondly, many other prominent men and women somehow were dependent on the emperor and had to move warily, never neglecting their special relationship with him. In any case, historians in imperial times did not show any inclination to eschew ethical viewpoints.

Readers of Ammianus Marcellinus will soon find out that this prominent 4th century historian is no exception to the rule. To learn more about this aspect of his Res Gestae they could turn to the relevant chapters or sections of general studies of the author and his achievement, and particularly to R. Seager's helpful monograph Ammianus Marcellinus. Seven Studies in His Language and Thought (University of Missouri Press, 1986). In this book Seager deals succinctly with a number of virtues and vices, among which moderation, excess, prudence and sobriety receive large attention. Many passages are referred to, so that the reader is well informed on Ammianus' predilections and idiosyncrasies, e.g. his being "fascinated by extreme behavior of every kind and by responses to situations which are in themselves extreme" (43). This entails a "rhetoric of excess", the title of chapter 3. No doubt Seager's endeavours resulted in a praiseworthy book, as those who have consulted it will testify. However, it did not cover the whole field: inter alia bravery, greed, loyalty, justice, hatred are not thoroughly treated. There was therefore room for a comprehensive study. Alex Brandt took up the challenge by choosing the subject for the dissertation which he defended successfully at Göttingen University in 1997. The present book is a "geringfügig überarbeitete Fassung" (11) of this dissertation.

The first problem to be solved is, of course, the selection and arrangement of the material. One can e.g. select some characteristic clusters of virtues and vices and then present the various terms and phrases which are relevant and illustrative of the author's typical interpretations of human behaviour in this respect. This is essentially what Seager has done, with notable success. Brandt proceeds with an entirely different method, which could be regarded as quite ingenious in view of its highly practical nature. He takes Ammianus' four necrologies of emperors as his point of departure: Constantius (21.16), Julian (25.4), Valentinian (30.7-9), Valens (31.14). From these lists of their various bona and vitia he draws up a general catalogue of the qualities of good and bad emperors. This synopsis then becomes the basis of his primary research, which is concerned with moral values in the Res Gestae in general.

In gathering his data, Brandt has his eyes on terms, not on contents. He is fully aware of the drawbacks of this system but argues that these can be neutralized by always taking the context into account. On the other hand, the method he prefers has the advantage of a far clearer delineation of the material and, moreover, reliable statistics can make their entry. Hereafter, there will be occasion to show some of the disadvantages. As to statistics, the author readily concedes the dangers involved but rightly argues that e.g. the small number of occurrences of gravitas compared to the overwhelming presence of fortitudo does indicate something about Ammianus' favourites in the domain of virtues. In fact, precisely the main merit of this overview is in providing a series of answers to the general question which qualities loom really large in the Res Gestae and in which context. These findings are usually compared to the state of affairs in other authors. Brandt specifically adduces Tacitus, the Panegyrici and the Historia Augusta. For example: the "Wortgruppe" sap- occurs three times as often in Tacitus and, moreover, Ammianus uses sapientia etc. only in a philosophical sense. On the other hand, Ammianus' instances of prud- are remarkably numerous, especially those of prudentia militaris, which plays only a minor part in Tacitus and the Historia Augusta. Justice is extremely important in Ammianus' world view: excellentissimam virtutum omnium adverte iustitiam (20.8.11). He even tends to personify it as an active goddess: ultrix impiorum facinorum (14.11.25). Apart from this, iustitia is both a "Grundnorm" (suum cuique tribuere) and a virtue: "Gerechtigkeit ist der wichtigste moralische Wert in den Res Gestae" (295). This differs significantly from Tacitus and the Historia Augusta, which can at least partly be explained by the fact that Julian, the protagonist of a considerable part of the Res Gestae, is portrayed as exemplary in this respect in spite of a few reproachable errors.

Some other interesting results of Brandt's investigation are the following: the conspicuous presence of "Destruktivität", on a scale which is unparallelled in Cicero, Tacitus and Historia Augusta; the comparatively small attention paid to such traditional values as constantia and gravitas, in contrast to the prominence of the vices of arrogance and greed; the scarcity of the terminology of love, about which Ammianus writes "mit viel weniger Pathos ... als zumindestens Tacitus dies gelegentlich tut" (259) -- this tallies well with its counterpart: against Tacitus' 130 instances of odium Ammianus has only 13; the frequent occurrences of the "Wortgruppe" caut-: "Der Historiker betrachtet die Vorsicht im zivilen Bereich ebenso als Vorzug wie im militarischen" (386); luxuria is absent in the Res Gestae, luxus occurs only five times: "Die Verschwendung ist in den Res gestae im Gegensatz zu Historien, Annalen und Historia Augusta also nur ein zweitrangiges vitium" (414). Such differences from other authors have much to do with subject matter -- the last example is a case in point: a considerable part of Ammianus' history is concerned with military matters, with (apart from the Roman digressions 14.6 and 28.4) less room for domestic life.

As was stated above, Brandt systematically chooses terms as his point of departure. At times this results in sections which are less than satisfactory. Take section 3.3.10 ("Liebe"), in which erotic relations, love of relatives, patriotism, friendship and predilection for certain abstract entities (e.g. Julian's popularitatis amor in 22.14.1) are dealt with because the words amor, amare and diligere figure in these various feelings. In section 3.7.1 (liberalitas), which is part of the chapter on "Geldwesen" (!), it emerges that Ammianus uses liberal to denote open-handedness, kindliness and the liberal arts. On the other hand, section 3.5.3 is entitled scientia rei militaris, a phrase occurring no more than three times in the Res Gestae. In this section, which deals with military expertise, phrases like perfectos bellicarum omni genere doctrinarum (24.3.7) or bellicis ... studiis eruditus (31.14.5) are not referred to. These are the disadvantages of Brandt's method. Its most curious consequence, however, is section 3.9 ("Religionswesen"), consisting of a mere 118 words, regarded as enough since "Ammian sich fur die religiose Thematik nicht weiter interessiert" (417) -- "weiter" than the relevant evidence gathered in the synopsis of ch. 2, viz. in the short section 2.9 ("Religionsangelegenheiten"). I know that such statements are unbelievable, but they really are there. One would urgently like to know what Brandt thinks about Ammianus' great interest in divination, which appears from his theological discussion in 21.1.7-14 and the repeatedly emphasized importance of omina in the report of the Persian expedition, about Julian's deep religious feelings (expressed in his conversion [21.2], his detour to visit the sanctuary of the Magna Mater at Pessinus [22.8.5] and his sacrificial mania), about phrases like adiumento or favore numinis, about the digression on the Magi (23.6.32-35), which so clearly reveals Ammianus' own preference in the field of religion, about Egypt possessing the cradles of various religions (22.16.20), about the Huns' irreligiosity as one of their bad habits (31.2.11 nullius religionis vel superstitionis reverentia), etc. No wonder that Brandt's bibliography does not mention the studies of Cracco Ruggini, Hunt, Nero or Rike, to name but a few. More than 30 years ago, P.-M. Camus spent 135 pages of his survey on "l'univers religieux d'Ammien". One can always disagree about proportions, but less than half a page on religion in the Res Gestae strains the imagination.

This amazing gap does not detract anything from the value of what Brandt's book does offer. It presents a wealth of material in an orderly fashion. The order in question may be debatable, but it has at least been seriously considered, and in any case the material can be easily consulted. Brandt quotes lavishly from the Latin text and does not refrain from repeating full quotations in other sections, when that is opportune. This is a fine and admirable service, which enables the reader to make full use of this book even he does not have an edition of the Res Gestae near at hand. A good working knowledge of Latin is, however, indispensable, since the quotations are not rendered into German. The passages referred to or fully quoted are listed in a handy index. There is also a rather short catalogue "der wichtigsten untersuchten Ausdrucke und Begriffe", which is less satisfactory. It does not e.g. contain civilitas, feritas, immodicus, saevitia, truculentus, which can all be found in the index of Seager's far less extensive study. As could be expected, religio(sus) and superstitio(sus) are also absent.

The book has been well produced and there is evidence of careful proof-reading.

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