Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.12.21

J. den Boeft, J.W. Drijvers, D. den Hengst, H.C. Teitler, Philological and Historical Commentary of Ammianus Marcellinus XXIV.   Leiden:  Brill, 2002.  Pp. xxix, 279.  ISBN 90-04-12335-0.  $81.00.  

Reviewed by Michael Kulikowski, History, University of Tennessee (
Word count: 1015 words

Some good commentaries change forever the way one reads a text (for instance, among late antique authors, Green's recent Ausonius), while others provide a resource which one can fall back on when faced with textual cruces, whether for explication or for confirmation of one's own suspicions. The long-running Dutch Philological and Historical Commentary on Ammianus Marcellinus, begun in the 1930s and now in its eleventh volume, has always belonged to the second category. That this is the case is no reflection on the commentators (P. de Jonge for books XIV-XIX, the present collective for XX-XXIII) but rather on our fourth-century author: Ammianus, despite the truncation and the occasional mutilation of the extant text, remains too various and too shifty to be penetrated by lemmatic commentary; it takes the sweeping, some might say prejudicial, generalizations of an E.A. Thompson to impose an interpretation on the author. Here, in their commentary on Book XXIV of the Res Gestae, den Boeft, Drijvers, den Hengst and Teitler do precisely what they have done in their commentaries on Books XX through XXIII: provide every difficult, and many transparent, lines of Ammianus' text with a careful philological gloss, while attending to such major historical problems as can be addressed within the confining parameters of their lemmata.

Book XXIV, the least intrinsically interesting in the whole of the Res Gestae, is in some ways perfectly suited to the approach of the commentators. Beginning with Julian's crossing into Assyria and ending with the aftermath of the decision to retreat from Ctesiphon, it contains only a single, short excursus (on the sexuality of palm trees, no less) and functions as a brief, unemphatic interlude between the ominous preparations for the Persian expedition in Book XXIII and the climactic death of the emperor in Book XXV. At the same time, its narrative of the army's progress is muddled enough to defy precise reconstruction and leaves ample scope for comparison with Zosimus and Libanius, our other principal sources for Julian's campaign. Given this, the two chief tasks of any commentator on Book XXIV are to explicate its chronology and its geography. The authors of the volume under review do both as well as the available evidence allows: their provisional chronology (xiii-xxiii, summarized on xxiii) makes the best of Ammianus' maddeningly vague temporal clues, while the maps (xxviii-xxix) improve upon those in Fontaine's edition of Books XXIII-XXV (the Barrington is unfortunately of no use here). The student of late Roman military history will be grateful to have the commentators' guidance on both these points, and, though it will probably not occur to the Latinless to look here, Rolfe's many mistranslations of military vocabulary are noted and corrected throughout.

Commentaries prove themselves by long use, rather than in continuous reading, and early reviews are therefore hazardous. On the other hand, having used the volume under review while teaching Ammianus this term, there are really very few specific points I would wish to dispute: the phrase summa res at 24.1.1. is hardly obscure; that the Saracen Assanitae of 24.2.4 are the Ghassanids seems established; the commentators are surely right in accepting Ammianus' report, at 24.4.24, that Julian awarded the corona obsidionalis to the first soldiers to penetrate beneath the walls of Maozamalcha, but their argument would be much strengthened by appeal to Julian's general, but also haphazard and sometimes solecistic, antiquarianism; nothing verbally distinguishes the description of the animals in the Persian royal hunting park near Ctesiphon at 24.5.2 as visa rather than the lecta that the commentators find in Ammianus' other references to wild animals. And while I cannot agree with the commentators' view that the well-known lacuna at 24.7.3 was very short -- it seems to me to require several rhetorically balanced sentences of epitomized debate amongst the emperor's chief generals -- they make a strong case for their position.

If these points of dispute seem trivial, grounds for approval come at a similar level of detail. The discussion (at 24.2.7 and 24.6.1) of the royal canal, the Naarmalcha, between the Euphrates and Tigris above Ctesiphon, is exemplary, and the commentators usefully underscore how frequently our ancient authors, not least Ammianus himself, fail to distinguish rivers from canals. If it does not solve the problem of Julian's route or the point at which the fleet left the main course of the Euphrates, that is because the problem is insoluble; the commentators' conjecture of intersaepta for interrupta at 24.2.12 is felicitous; and they are surely right to stress the phrase avidae semper ad ulterior cupiditatis at 24.7.3 as evidence for Julian's plan to penetrate deep into Persia, leaving Ctesiphon untouched behind him.

The Dutch commentary is now venerable enough to allow some estimate of its general value as a reference tool and this volume conforms to the model of its predecessors throughout. It assumes that the user will have ready access to the earlier volumes, making frequent reference back to them, and the reader will also want a copy of Paschoud's Zosimus handy. Like previous volumes of the series, a fairly comprehensive classical library is required to make full use of the material presented by the commentators, particularly because comparanda are cited fully enough to establish verbal connections without indicating context. As in the others, philological insights are more plentiful and useful than historical ones. Also as in the others, too little weight is given to the Greek qualities of Ammianus' Latin, which Norden and Willamowitz underscored (and on which Barnes has recently insisted), and to Ammianus' familiarity with historical traditions that are, so far as we know, exclusively Greek (for instance at 24.2.16, where Ammianus retails a story about Scipio Aemilianus and Polybius at the gates of Carthage which is otherwise known only from Zonaras). As with the earlier volumes, however, the serious student of Ammianus will find cause to turn here. The cost of the series is a deterrent to individuals not independently wealthy, and it is rather an all or nothing sort of venture as single volumes are useless without access to the others. But any research library worth the name must brave the investment.

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