Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.12.31

Gavin Kelly, Ammianus Marcellinus: The Allusive Historian. Cambridge Classical Studies.   Cambridge/New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2008.  Pp. xi, 378.  ISBN 9780521842990.  $99.00.  

Reviewed by Eric Fournier, West Chester University of Pennsylvania (
Word count: 2872 words

Table of Contents

Gavin Kelly's Ammianus Marcellinus: The Allusive Historian is a thought-provoking and original study of a key fourth-century author. It makes a valuable contribution to the field of late antique studies and of Ammianus in particular by focusing on the literary aspects of the historian's text. Bridging the gap across disciplines, Kelly's book should appeal equally to classicists and historians. In doing so, Kelly follows in the footsteps of Averil Cameron, Elizabeth Clark, and others who in turn have taken their cue for reading texts from continental philosophers.1 The result is an engaging interpretation of Ammianus as a creative and erudite writer. By the same token, Kelly also creates a via media in scholarship on Ammianus between the two dominant voices of the last two decades, John Matthews and Timothy Barnes, the former largely taking Ammianus at his word as a starting point for a larger exploration of the world the historian lived in, the latter presenting Ammianus as a writer of fiction whose historical account was unreliable.2 Instead, Kelly appraises Ammianus on his own ground, as a writer of history according to the ancient literary conventions of the genre, and not following (dubious) modern criteria of objectivity and veracity.

A "considerably revised" (ix) version of Kelly's 2002 Oxford thesis, the book is divided in two parts, each presenting one main argument. Part one ("The Elusive Historian") exposes the limits of the biographical approach which has so far dominated scholarship on Ammianus. Kelly shows the conjectural aspect of our knowledge of Ammianus's life ("(un)likely but unprovable" is a constant leitmotiv), and instead insists on the writer's careful self-representation within the narrative. Part two ("The Allusive Historian") aims at shifting the paradigm from the author toward his text. Kelly's analysis focuses especially on intertextual elements of Ammianus's account (external and internal allusions, exempla, structural and thematic similarities). Against previous scholars who assumed Ammianus to be unsophisticated and who judged him of poor taste for his abuse of literary flourishes, Kelly insists on his genius and the meaningful political nature of his literary devices ("I am happy to believe that he wrote with anger and partiality" [6]).

The book is divided in seven chapters -- three for the first part and four for the second -- in addition to a short Epilogue (318-21), an Appendix (322-31, on the "Sources for the tsunami of AD 365"), a Bibliography of both editions and translations of Ammianus and modern studies (332-55), a Subject Index (356-64), an Index of Modern Scholars (365-6), and a very useful Index Locorum (367-78). The introduction, mainly devoted to surveying previous scholarship on Ammianus, ends with a brief comment on the dating of the work, which Kelly places in the late 380s-early 390s. More controversial is his claim that the work was published all at once. The problem is that Kelly does not discuss any alternative: why would Ammianus have not written in separate installments and publicly presented his work in progress before publication, for example?

Chapter 1 ("The Bones of the Battlefield") introduces the main themes of the book, and constitutes a constant point of reference for the rest of the work, perhaps in a deliberate imitation of Ammianus's intra-textual habit. Kelly discusses the battle Ad Salices (AM 31.7.16) of 377 CE in which Gothic and Roman forces clashed inconclusively, as a prelude to Adrianople (although Valens was not directly involved). This is an excellent discussion of some of the main features of Ammianus's intertextual characteristics, which include allusions, window allusion, autopsy, "archaeological reconstruction" as a literary device, and "twisted ecphrasis" (15-21). It is puzzling, however, why such terms are here presented for the first time without any definition. This seems to be a structural problem, since section one of chapter four is entirely dedicated to defining such terms (166-175). The latter section would have been best placed in the introduction, or at the beginning of chapter one. Definitions aside, Ammianus's description of the battle Ad Salices is shown to illustrate the span of the historian's allusions, from classics such as Tacitus and Vergil, to contemporary writers like Libanius (19-20). Another important theme of the book introduced by Kelly's analysis of this passage is the political implications Ammianus conveyed through his allusions, in this case a reference to flesh-eating birds as an augur of Adrianople (24). The behavior of the military commanders at Ad Salices, who did not bury the dead and therefore impiously allowed the birds to devour them, sharply contrasts with Julian' "pious and correct" behavior after the battle of Strasbourg, in yet another omen of both later chapters of the book and the disaster of Adrianople.

With Chapter 2 ("The Adventures of Ammianus"), Kelly picks up his first main task, essentially a negative one (as he himself admits at 108), to demolish any appearances of certainty one might have regarding the life and career of Ammianus. He first discards the approach of psychohistory because the autobiographical passages, he argues, are carefully crafted from a literary point of view and designed to reflect the historian's experiences as he wished his reader to view them. This chapter mainly analyzes the function of such accounts and argues that they strengthened Ammianus's credibility by creating an "authoritative persona" (33). In order to do so, Kelly reviews three problematic aspects of such accounts which have traditionally led scholars to doubt Ammianus's veracity, his bias toward his commander Ursicinus (44-53), the embellishments included in his narrative of the campaign of 359 (53-4), and literary allusions (to the Trojan War within his famous account of the siege of Amida, for example [55-61]). While Kelly explains away such problems convincingly, he more importantly concludes that veracity "is the wrong question."

The rest of the chapter supports his contention that Ammianus's exhibition of autopsy (personal testimony) bolsters his authority as a historian (66). Two examples support this argument, the passage in which Ammianus claimed to have seen the Persian army fifty miles away (18.6.20-3, 18.7.1-2) and Ammianus's account of the great tsunami of 365 CE (26.10.15-9). In the first case, it has long been pointed out that Ammianus must have had eagle eyes to see at such a distance. Kelly defends Ammianus by unfolding this passage as an ecphrasis, a combination of the eyewitness account with the historian's account. The latter consisted in a "pardonable exaggeration" (86), a reference to Herodotus, a classic whose authority increased Ammianus's credibility (87). In the second case (the tsunami, which restates Kelly's previous publication on the topic3), autopsy not only lends credence to a marvelous occurrence and marvelous association with previous literature, it is a way for Ammianus to present his account as superior to others (92-3). Moreover, Kelly argues that this passage's depiction of a ship inland, which Ammianus claimed to have seen, "flung around and yawning apart from long decay" from the giant wave, constitutes a metaphor for the state, evoking the consequence of Julian's death for the Roman state, against Christian writers who interpreted it as a sign of God's anger with Julian's reversal of the triumph of the Church (96). For Kelly, this piece is a mise en abyme representing Ammianus's main argument, because it illustrates the incoming fall of the Empire at Adrianople (99).

While Kelly has obviously read Ammianus very closely and presents mostly very sound interpretations, he also occasionally seems to be carried away and argues for readings that are a bit of a stretch (as Kelly himself anticipates, at 77: this "may seem to some to be over-interpretation of a few linguistic oddities.") Chapter 2 includes two such forced readings. In the first case, Kelly claims that the autobiographical passages occur especially in contexts of solitude and danger. Solitude, we are asked to believe, is a "metaphor for [Ammianus'] loneliness in the field of history. By showing himself alone, he suggests that his historical testimony is unique" (72). Even more questionably, Kelly argues that similarity of language between Ammianus's account of Julian (16.1.3: fides integra rerum) and his account of a captured Persian spy who had "revealed the full truth of things" (18.6.16: pandit rerum integram fidem) makes the latter a "potential historian" (75) and a historien manqué (76). Another passage (18.5.7, cited by Kelly at 76), seems to depict the spy as a potential informant, the likely source of Ammianus's account of events in the Persian Empire. Additionally, a less literary inclined reader might well conclude that the spy "pandit rerum integram fidem" as a result of undergoing torture precisely so that he would reveal the truth.

Chapter 3 completes Kelly's first objective, to show "The Limits of Biography." Here, Kelly asserts that Ammianus lived in Rome during the late 380s, where he wrote and presented his work (109). Concerning his controversial city of birth, Kelly insists that the debate should be focused away from Libanius' Ep. 1063 (addressed to a fellow Antiochene writer in Rome named Marcellinus), and argues that there is sufficient "cumulative evidence" that Ammianus was, if not a citizen, at least a resident of Antioch (114: oral traditions [23.5.3, 22.12.8]; 115: first-person accounts [19.8.12, 25.10.1, 29.1-2]) both as a youth and later in his life. Kelly refuses to take sides on the Antioch debate, instead reminding his reader that late antique members of the elite were mobile and would have had many homes. As with the question of veracity, Kelly points out that efforts to determine whether or not Ammianus was a citizen of Antioch are misguided, instead rightly focusing on the importance of the city in the historian's work (116). Section 2 of this chapter tackles the question of Ammianus's social status and career, and Kelly points out that military or administrative origins for his family would fit well with Antioch and Ammianus's bilingualism (122). Only speculation is possible for his later years, with one certainty: that he moved to Rome around 375-385 (130). Although Kelly repeatedly supports Barnes's argument that Ammianus disliked Christianity, Kelly discards the latter's suggestion that our historian was an apostate (130: "pure and unsupported speculation.") Regarding his social rank, Kelly concludes inevitably that he was uir perfectissimus, the highest equestrian rank, which was conferred to a protector domesticus upon retirement (131). In a third section devoted to Rome, Kelly concludes that Ammianus's Roman digressions (14.6 and 28.4) were not autobiographical and that he was not expelled from Rome (133-4). His high status as well as the support of the influential Hypatius would militate against such a view (136). In a fourth section on Ammianus's personal relationships, Kelly argues that political opinions predominated over personal bias (142-54).

Chapter 4 ("Ammianus' Intertextuality") opens the second part of the book and is the most debatable. In addition to coming too late to be useful, as already mentioned, it is also oddly organized. After his presentation of definitions and the historiography of his topic, Kelly introduces a catalogue of seven types of allusion (opposites, divided allusions, punning alterations, alterations of context, glossing, window allusions and exemplary) which he has identified in Ammianus. The problem is that the presentation mixes examples of each category with a narrative that discusses it later or before the relevant example, without obvious identification of which is related to what. For example, Kelly. does not appear to discuss the last category, "exemplary," while the last paragraph introduces a previously unidentified allusion to Julian's own Caesares that Kelly presents as a way for Ammianus to "correct" his source (213). It remains unclear what type of allusion the latter represents.

Chapter 5 ("Sources") argues against a distinction between "source criticism" (attempting to identify the author's source of information) and intertextuality (a more interactive relationship with the original text) in Ammianus through four case studies (The Obelisk; The tsunami again; Herodian; Eutropius). A comparison between Ammianus 17.4.12-15 and ILS 736, both concerned with an obelisk of Rome, reveals that our historian emphasized Constantine's impiety in transferring the sacred stone to Rome whereas the (now lost) inscription lauded Constantius II for the achievement. This is a case where Ammianus had read the inscription but was "correcting" it by presenting his own version as the most accurate one, an example of the historian's manipulation of (or what Kelly considers "engaging" with) a text considered as his "source" by modern scholars. On the tsunami, Kelly follows Bruno Bleckmann in dentifying Ammianus's source for this event as an "anonymous Church historian of homoean opinions" (230).4 Considering Ammianus's otherwise willful ignorance of Christianity, this is a surprising conclusion indeed! On the other hand, since Ammianus appears to have been widely read, perhaps it should not surprise us so much. If Bleckmann is right, this is a good example of Ammianus's wide reading interests and the way he transformed his source to present his account with "authority and literary superiority" (231). Kelly's section on Ammianus's use of Herodian is very well argued and convincing (232-7). The last section of this chapter on Eutropius is intriguing, and for good reason. Kelly shows that Ammianus used the breviarist, a source he did not need to use for events he perhaps witnessed himself, as an "intertext" (text with which Ammianus engaged [244]). In Kelly's view, Ammianus exploited Eutropius to cast doubt on the circumstances of Jovian's death by using the breviarist's version of the same event. But Ammianus also adds an allusion to Scipio Aemilianus' death by poisoning from Cicero's Pro Milone. Kelly concludes that "Ammianus' intention was clearly to hint, without in any way taking responsibility for the suggestion, that Jovian was poisoned" (245). More importantly, Eutropius' text helped Ammianus illustrate Jovian's insignificance, with Ammianus outdoing Eutropius in brevity and presenting his version of events as the official one, only to allude to a somber possibility.

Chapter 6 ("The Exemplary Historian") analyzes Ammianus's abundant use of exempla, which contrast with other types of allusions by their visibility and the manner in which they test the reader's knowledge of history (258). Not only did Ammianus use exempla in the typical --intertextual -- manner, using the past to interpret the present, but Kelly also argues that he used the present to interpret the future by creating his own precedents (260). An interesting feature of exempla is the unique potential they offer for making subtle attacks. Here, Kelly presents another case that seems a bit stretched, but which yields a very plausible and fascinating conclusion. At 21.16.11-12, Ammianus compares Constantius II to the usurper Avidius Cassius (175 CE) and (negatively) to Marcus Aurelius. For Kelly, the geographical map of the events associated with this comparison can be applied to Julian's usurpation, because Marcus was in Illyricum (like Julian) and Cassius usurped power in Syria (where Constantius was when Julian usurped power). According to Kelly's reading, therefore, Ammianus really meant to compare Julian to Marcus Aurelius, by contrast with Constantius who resembled the usurper Cassius, which incidentally legitimated Julian's reign (280-1). A section on Gallus closes this chapter, in which Kelly argues that Ammianus's villains do not recognize exempla when they occur, in contrast to Julian who did (287), thereby showing their ignorance and the paradigmatic nature of history.

Building on the notion that Ammianus created exempla to interpret the future, the very brief Chapter 7 ("Julian's Monument") explores the role of Julian as an exemplum for books 26-31 (296-7, 304). Kelly argues that Ammianus tailored his portrait of Gordian III as a model for Julian, that the battle of Strasbourg becomes the standard against which to judge post-Julianic rulers, and that Ammianus manipulated the chronology of contemporary events to suggest that Constantius II had learned from Julian's exemplum (300-2). Ammianus used Julian as a standard for later rulers, whereas the posthumous treatment of Constantius II is limited to two "unedifying" examples, both concerning the insignificant Jovian (305). Valentinian failed to match up with Julian's achievements, therefore Ammianus compared him negatively to the good emperors (Trajan, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius) whereas Julian had been presented as their equal (308-10). Valens' ignorance contrasts with Julian's learning, which explains his incompetence in handling justice (311). Adrianople, Valens' other failure, also inverts Julian's success (313). Kelly notes "impressive [verbal] parallels" between the two accounts (17.1.7 and 31.7.16), and underlines how Adrianople also functions retroactively to glorify Julian's behavior at Strasbourg, "the node of the work" (314-6). There are too few references in this chapter, however, so it is difficult to follow the argument in detail. Several times the reader is referred to the author's "reckoning" of a literary occurrence, without elaboration, footnote, table, or full discussion in the text (301, 304, 306). In a similar fashion, the previous chapter would have gained from including a table of exempla in an appendix (esp. 265-6).

In the end, this is a very valuable study that should appeal to a variety of scholars: late antique historians, scholars of Ammianus, Latinists, classicists interested in historiography and the use of classical texts in the late Empire, students of rhetoric and literature. Kelly's ongoing attention to modern scholarship would make the book a good reading companion to Ammianus for graduate seminars, and his presentation of most significant passages in translation makes it accessible to students with little knowledge of Latin. Modern students of Ammianus have now a third pole of attraction to consider, after navigating between Matthews and Barnes for over a decade.


1.   A. Cameron, "Redrawing the Map: Early Christian Territory after Foucault [Review of Histoire de la sexualité 2-3]," JRS 76 (1986), 266-71; eadem, History as Text: The Writing of Ancient History (London, 1989); eadem, Christianity and the Rhetoric of Empire. The Development of Christian Discourse (Berkeley, 1991); E.A. Clark, History, Theory, Text: Historians and the Linguistic Turn (Cambridge, MA, 2004).
2.   J.F. Matthews, The Roman Empire of Ammianus Marcellinus (London, 1989); T.D. Barnes, Ammianus Marcellinus and the Representation of Historical Reality (Ithaca, NY, 1998).
3.   G.A.J. Kelly, "Ammianus and the Great Tsunami," JRS 94 (2004), 141-67.
4.   B. Bleckmann, "Vom Tsunami von 365 zum Mimas-Orakel: Ammianus Marcellinus als Zeithistoriker und die Spätgriechische Tradition," in J. den Boeft, et al. (eds.), Ammianus after Julian: The Reign of Valentinian and Valens in Books 26-31 of the Res Gestae (Leiden, 2007), 7-31.

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