Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.05.27

J. den Boeft, J.W. Drijvers, D. den Hengst, H.C. Teitler, Philological and Historical Commentary of Ammianus Marcellinus XXVI.   Leiden:  Brill, 2008.  Pp. xxix, 356.  ISBN 9789004163461.  $156.00.  

Reviewed by David Woods, University College Cork (
Word count: 2164 words

This is the thirteenth volume in the ongoing Dutch commentary on Ammianus Marcellinus, an epic task begun by P. de Jonge, who completed the commentary upon Books XIV to XX, and continued by J. den Boeft, D. den Hengst, and H.C. Teitler for Books XX to XXI, finally joined by J.W. Drijvers for Books XXII onwards. This commentary is an indispensable tool for all students not only of Ammianus Marcellinus, but also of the military and political history of the mid-fourth century more generally. The strength of the more recent volumes of this commentary has lain in their detailed treatment of both philological and historical matters, and the authors maintain the same scrupulous balance in this volume.

The format is the same as in the more recent volumes. There is a short introduction to Book XXVI as a whole followed by a brief description of the chronology of the events described in this book, and a short explanation of the abbreviations used throughout the commentary. There then follows a detailed commentary upon every line of text, divided into chapters following the chapters within the Latin text itself. Next, there is a bibliography of all items referred to in the commentary arranged in alphabetical order by the surnames of the authors. The latest items in this comprehensive list date to 2007, and one will strive hard to detect an omission.1 Finally, there is an important set of nine indices which serve to make the riches of this volume much more accessible than they might otherwise have been. All logical, neat, and easy to use. However, there is one weakness in that this volume does not contain a single map. The last volume had at least contained one rather rudimentary map focussed on the political geography of the Eastern frontier along the Tigris in accordance with the subject matter of Book XXV. This volume would have also profited from a similar map focussed on the geography of the Western part of Asia Minor in accordance with its subject matter.

Book XXVI of Ammianus' history begins with the decision by the senior civil and military officers to appoint Valentinian I to succeed Jovian as their new emperor, formally proclaimed Augustus at Nicaea on 25 February 364, and ends with an account of the great tsunami which struck the eastern Mediterranean basin on 21 July 365. However, most of the book is devoted to a description of the rebellion by Procopius, hailed as Augustus at Constantinople on 28 September 365 and finally executed on 27 May 366. There is no-one who will not learn more about the events described therein by consulting this commentary, and one may benefit from the succinct summaries of the state of the debate on many textual or historical matters without necessarily subscribing to the same conclusions as the authors themselves. If there is any pattern, or weakness, to be discerned in their analysis of various literary or historical problems raised by this text, it is that the authors seem incapable of speaking ill of Ammianus, or rather, treating him as a flawed and fallible human subject to the same prejudices and weaknesses as the rest of us.

Two examples will illustrate this. The first concerns the decision by Ammianus to include a long digression on the performance of Apronianus as prefect of Rome (26.3) between his descriptions of the proclamation of Valentinian I as Augustus on 25 February and of the latter's promotion of his brother Valens as his fellow Augustus on 28 March 364. The problem here is that Apronianus had actually served as prefect of Rome from about January 363 until about April 364. So why did Ammianus decide to postpone his description of Apronianus' prefecture to Book XXVI rather than include it in Book XXV? The authors claim that 'he gave precedence to coherence over strict chronology', explaining that 'he did not want to break up his account of the Persian campaign, including the peace treaty with Persia and the death of Jovian' (p. 59). Unfortunately, this explanation cannot suffice because the resultant coherence in his description of the Persian campaign was only obtained at the cost of incoherence elsewhere, that is, his failure to break up his account of the Persian campaign resulted in his breaking up his account of the rise of the brothers Valentinian and Valens to power as joint emperors instead. In fact, it is arguable that the real reason that Ammianus postponed his description of Apronianus' prefecture to Book XXVI was in order to distance his vigorous campaign against poison and magic from the reign of Julian. Hence although Ammianus does admit that it was Julian who had originally appointed Apronianus as prefect, the position of this chapter within his work creates the vague impression that these trials actually occurred at or about the time that Jovian died and Valentinian came to power, that is, during the brief reign of Jovian, if not during the early reign of Valentinian also, rather than during the reign of Julian. Now, it may well be correct that Apronianus did only begin his campaign against poison and magic during the reign of Jovian, perhaps in an attempt to ingratiate himself with the new Christian regime. My point is only that Ammianus did not want to risk any possibility that his readers might assume otherwise, correctly or not, and that this was in accordance with his consistent bias in favour of Julian.

The second example concerns an apparent instance of reduplication within Ammianus' text which, if accepted as such, makes him seem rather careless in his work. In his initial description of how Procopius came to power, Ammianus reports that he took advantage of the fact that the Divitenses and Tungricani Iuniores were in Constantinople at the time, stopping for two days while on their way to Thrace, to persuade them to support his revolt (26.6.12). Later, following a description of the success of the revolt, and how Valens reacted to news of it, he describes how Procopius managed to win over some units of infantry and cavalry which happened to arrive in Constantinople at that point while on their way to Thrace (26.7.9). The similarities between these descriptions are so pronounced that it is difficult to believe that they do not refer to the arrival of the same group of units at Constantinople. Unfortunately, the authors of this commentary do not accept this possibility. However, they proceed to argue against the identification of 26.7.9 as an abridged version of sections 26.6.12-14 as if anticipating a claim that Ammianus himself had deliberately used the same source in these two sections. They do not seem to envisage the possibility that Ammianus may have accidentally repeated himself as he used two different sources in the composition of his account. Hence their arguments against the identification of the military units described at 26.7.9 with those described at 26.6.12 fail utterly. The disconcerting feature, however, is their determination not to admit that Ammianus could have carelessly repeated himself.

The commentary diplays another weakness also, a common failure even to try to identify the precise office held by several key individuals. This weakness is directly related to the last in that it reveals an inability by the authors to distance themselves from the authorial viewpoint. If Ammianus does not think it worth his effort to identify these individuals by their office, then our authors do not seem to think it worth their efforts to inquire too closely either, although the identification of these offices ought to be of prime importance for a correct understanding of what is being described. Two examples will illustrate my point. Ammianus records that when the emperor Julian invaded Persia, he left Procopius in Mesopotamia in joint command of a large army with Sebastian (26.6.2). The present commentary does not attempt to identify the precise office held by Sebastian at that time, simply referring us back to the commentary on 23.3.5 which proves equally unenlightening (p. 129). Now, nothing is more certain than that Sebastian must have held some military office in 363, since he had previously served as dux Aegypti and would later die as a senior infantry commander at Adrianople in 378. I have suggested elsewhere that he probably held the office of magister per Orientem during the Persian expedition.2 Such a possibility deserves some comment at least. Next, there is the failure even to consider to what office Valens may have appointed his father-in-law Petronius following his accession. Ammianus reports that Petronius had been commander of the Martenses, that Valens had promoted him to the rank of patricius, and that he had fiercely pursued debts to the state dating back even as far as the emperor Aurelian (26.6.7-9). Here it is important to distinguish between rank and office. The fact that Petronius had been promoted to the rank of patricius did not in itself give him the right to pursue debts in the way that he did. The obvious suggestion is that he had been appointed to a senior financial post also, perhaps as either comes sacrarum largitionum or comes rerum privatarum. Certainly, some stronger comment is necessary here than a brief statement that it is not known whether he had held any other office before he became patricius apart from command of the Martenses (p. 140).

Interesting ideas abound, although it occasionally difficult to establish whether the idea is original or not. For example, the authors read 26.9.8 to mean that the tribune Barchalba was an old comrade of Procopius since the reign of Constantius II (p. 255). This is a very different interpretation of the text to that in the two most common English translations by J.C. Rolfe and W. Hamilton, but this is not properly acknowledged or explained. Whatever the case, I find it convincing. However, there remains a problem. The authors continue to refer to Barchalba as if he had been a military tribune, and refer us back to earlier comments on the military tribunate. However, Procopius had served as a tribune and notarius under Constantius II (26.6.1), so the probability is that Barchalba had become acquainted with him when he had served in the notarii also, and that he was a tribune and notarius by 363, if not much earlier already, rather than a military tribune.3

Ammianus preserves the most detailed surviving account of the rebellion by Procopius to which one necessarily compares all other accounts in the hope that they might shed some light upon one another. It is noteworthy, therefore, that a series of ecclesiastical historians provide very different accounts of the death of Procopius to that preserved by Ammianus. Whereas Ammianus is quite clear that Valens had Procopius beheaded (26.9.9), the mid-fifth century ecclesiastical historian Socrates reports that two trees were bent down, that one of his legs was attached to each tree, and that the trees were then released once more, so tearing him in two (HE 4.5.4). Several later historians follow Socrates, or his source. So which is the correct account? The present commentary follows Seyfarth in dismissing Socrates' account as a literary topos (p. 257). The problem with this approach, however, is that it pays too little attention to Socrates' text. Socrates initially describes the deaths of two traitors whom he identifies with the generals Gomoarius and Agilo before he then proceeds to describe the death of an usurper whom he identifies as Procopius. However, since Ammianus is clear that Gomoarius and Agilo had been well received by Valens, but that Florentius and Barchalba, who had finally surrendered Procopius to Valens, had only received death for their treachery, it has long been suggested that Socrates mistakenly attributes the deaths of Florentius and Barchalba to Gomoarius and Agilo. Here it is important to remember that a certain Marcellus staged a brief usurpation following the death of Procopius, but that Valens' forces quickly captured and scourged him before they finally killed him (26.10.5). Unfortunately, Ammianus does not describe how exactly they killed him. It is my suggestion, therefore, that Socrates, and related authors, mistakenly attribute the death of Marcellus to Procopius in the same way that they mistakenly attribute the deaths of Florentius and Barchalba to Gomoarius and Agilo. Again, one feels that the commentary could have paid a little more attention to this problem, a serious contradiction between Ammianus and our other sources, from which, I am glad to say, Ammianus emerges victorious.

It is possible to disagree with the authors on many minor points of interpretation, and some not so minor, but that is the nature of scholarship. However, I doubt that anyone will be found to disagree that this volume marks another fine contribution to the study of Ammianus by this team of authors, and it is a credit both to their scholarship and their industriousness that it was published a mere three years after their commentary on Book XXV. Here is a team that actually works, and I look forward to their next volume too.


1.   They should include a reference to M. Humphries, 'The Lexicon of Abuse: Drunkenness and Political Illegitimacy in the Late Roman World', in G. Halsall (ed.), Humour, History, and Politics in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge, 2002), 75-88, in the commentary upon the abusive description of Valens as a sabaiarius (26.8.2).
2.   See D. Woods, 'The Final Commission of Artemius the Former Dux Aegypti', BMGS 23 (1999), 2-24, at 8-9.
3.   The neglect of this point is curious given that one of the authors produced the standard work on the notarii in late antiquity. See H.C. Teitler, Notarii and Exceptores (Amsterdam, 1985).

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