Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.04.15
Wiebke Vergin, Das Imperium Romanum und seine Gegenwelten: die geographisch-ethnographischen Exkurse in den "Res Gestae" des Ammianus Marcellinus. Millennium-Studien = Millennium studies Bd 41. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2013. Pp. x, 316. ISBN 9783110296938. $154.00.
Reviewed by Álvaro Sánchez-Ostiz, Universidad de Navarra (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Table of Contents
Vergin’s book, a revised version of her doctoral thesis presented at the University of Rostock in 2011, offers a detailed literary analysis of the geographical and ethnographic digressions in Ammianus’s work. One of the striking features of the Res Gestae is that the narration is often interrupted by detailed asides on a wide variety of topics, from explanations of natural phenomena and divination to vivid portrayals of the vices of the Urbs, among other curiosities. Of those, the accounts of the situs et mores of some provinces of the empire and the territories beyond are the most frequent and extensive. Since the nineteenth century, these non-narrative sections have attracted particular attention among scholars, and the resulting flow of research has increased steadily up to the present day.1 Vergin’s analysis focuses on how the digressions construct a specific portrait of the Imperium Romanum and its antagonists, and provide an argumentative framework for the main narrative. In this regard, she is aligned with the most recent trend of research on the matter, which highlights how the historian interweaves digressive and diegetic sections in line with a particular strategy. The study thus attempts not only to surpass the old-fashioned assessment that Ammianus’s geo-ethnographical excursuses are clumsy accumulations of badly digested scholarly information, but also to quash the idea that they merely serve the purposes of literary ornatus or are included only for the reader’s entertainment. The result is not a philological commentary but a literary analysis in which Vergin proceeds systematically, grouping the various digressions according to thematic affinities, examining the most significant texts within each category, reading the results against particular passages, and finally tracing intratextual links between the excursuses and other passages of the Res Gestae in order to identify their function in the overall strategy of the work as a whole. The fact that the author has grounded her arguments mainly on Ammianus’s own words— presented in German translation in the body of the text and in Latin in the footnotes—rather than on secondary literature is praiseworthy. Although some of her particular conclusions may not be completely convincing, Vergin offers a valuable and thought-provoking piece of research.
Chapter I summarizes the history of research on Ammianus’s excursuses, while chapters II and III set out the two poles of the author’s analysis: the rhetorical tradition about digressions, and the ‘identity-alterity’ dichotomy, which defines and legitimates any social order by opposing itself to the otherness of the so-called ‘Gegenwelten’. The ‘Gegenwelten’ of Rome was characterized by the inversion of traditional values and the ‘threating potential’ (‘Bedrohungspotential’) over the Empire. In light of these two assumptions, Ammianus’s digressions would appear to provide an almost complete picture of the known world, as well as patterns of experience through which the main action may be interpreted. Thus they would have had an argumentative function, albeit one more psychological or emotional than rational. Vergin also underlines how Ammianus’s descriptions build up plausible pictures of the ‘other’ through commonplaces, and rightly lays the emphasis on how those topoi are produced and understood rather than on their accuracy. Some space is devoted as well to the main research topics in relation Ammianus that are secondarily related to the main argument of the book, such as the autobiographical question, intertextuality, and the readership of the Res Gestae.
Chapters IV-VII, entitled “Alteritätskonstruktionen”, comprise the core of the book, dealing with the construction of otherness in the depiction of Germany, Gaul, Persia, the Eastern provinces, the Balkans, Egypt and their inhabitants, as well as the nomadic Huns, Goths and Saracens, as opposed to the senate and plebs of Rome. Chapter IV (“Alteritätskonstruktion I: Germanen und Gallier bei Ammian”) explores the digressions on the Rhine (Amm. 15.4.2-6), Lake Constance (Amm. 15.4.2-6) and Gaul (15.9-12), presupposing that Ammianus arranged them complementarily to remind the reader of the metus Germanicus, i.e. the potential threat of the Germans for Rome, which had become an element of Roman cultural memory. Although the historian does not present a description of the Germans, the nature of their living space reveals the characteristics that the barbarians display in the narrative sections of the work. For example, the Rhine could be a metaphor for the uncontrolled Germanic forces that appear in several confrontations between the Romans and the Alemanni. On a more general level, the metus Germanicus ought to be read as a key thread in the Res Gestae, supporting the mise en scène of the battle of Strasbourg and other actions undertaken by Julian in Gaul.
The following chapter (“V. Alteritätskonstruktion II: Der alius orbis Persien”) analyses the presentation of Persia, primarily in the digression at Amm. 23.6. In contrast to Germania, Persian space is characterized by range and remoteness. In the same vein, the Persians are not uncontrolled, but shrewd, disciplined and well-equipped enemies, who act in an orderly fashion on the battlefield and do not retreat to an inhospitable nature, but rather to a great civilization that stands as an alternative to Rome. In the argumentative strategy of the story, the vastness of Persian ‘Gegenwelt’ would justify both Julian’s great failure and his death during the campaign (Amm. 25.3). Here the theme is more conducive to Vergin’s thesis than in other chapters, and she clearly adds to our appreciation of Ammianus’s argumentative schemes. Nonetheless, the idea that Julian’s failure is justified solely by the immensity and character of the Persians, and not chiefly by his inability to read the lessons from the past, is open to question. 2
Chapter VI (“Alteritatskonstruktion III: Der Orbis Romanus”) discusses digressions about territories, which mark transitions from the Roman Empire to its ‘Gegenwelten’: the provinces in the East (Amm. 14.8.1-15), the Pass of Succi (Amm. 21.10.3-4), Thrace along with the regions of the Black Sea (Amm. 22.8) and Egypt (Amm. 22.15-16). The four excursuses in their respective books combine the reader’s delectatio with an argumentative purpose; thus the two sides of the Pass of Succi would contrast the mildness of civilization in the West with the abrupt descent into barbarism in the East. Similarly, the description of the Black Sea illustrates the territories in which Julian is about to rule, while the wonders of Egypt and the wisdom of Alexandria provide a context for Julian’s religious policies. The overall thesis is intriguing, but some specific implications are not wholly conclusive. For example, the metaphorical sense of the geography of Succi might be based on an over-interpretation of Amm. 21.10.4 (pp. 142-143). Similarly, Vergin plausibly maintains that Ammianus’s description of Egypt takes into account the iconography and architecture visible in Rome (pp. 170-179), but she perhaps overstates the significance of the erection of the obelisk in Amm. 17.4 (pp. 179-182).
Finally, chapter VII (“Alteritatskonstruktionen IV: Nomaden bei Ammian”) convincingly details how Ammianus deployed traditional motifs about nomads in his description of Huns and Alans (Amm. 31.2) and the Saracens (Amm. 14.4), to which Vergin adds the Goths in the digression on Thrace in Amm. 27.4. Those peoples were particularly threatening enemies, as they lived like beasts and in accordance with nature. Their mobility and moral features—frugal lifestyle and lack of tradition or memory—had given them a particular ‘Bedrohungspotential’, and preserved them from decline. Here Vergin introduces her most contentious point. To her mind, Ammianus juxtaposed these descriptions with the two Roman digressions (Amm. 14.6 and 28.4) to foreshadow dramatically the disaster of Adrianopolis (Amm. 31.12-13). Moreover, she argues that both Roman excursuses were constructed as ethnographic texts, since they detail the degeneration of life, food and dress of the citizens of the Urbs in line with the pattern of the digressions about nomadic peoples. It remains unclear, however, that Ammianus drafted the two Roman digressions precisely for this purpose at two such different points in the narrative. Finally, an appendix (Flüsse als Konstituenten Römischer Raum - und Herrschaftsauffassung”) expands on the idea that rivers may mark dimensional and mental boundaries between civilization and ‘Gegenwelten’. The volume includes a summary of conclusions, an extensive bibliography, and three indexes.
The book is structured clearly and often includes partial summaries that help the reader follow the line of argument, although this comes at the price of some repetition. There are a number of typographical errors in non-German quotations, especially in the Latin texts in the footnotes. However, these criticisms are made up for by the work’s many merits, and should not distract from the fact that Vergin’s book makes many valuable points that deserve further discussion. Indeed, her study is a noteworthy contribution to our knowledge of the literary technique and argumentative function involved in Ammianus’s digressions. Some of her specific interpretations may be open to question, but that speaks to her courage in addressing a vast field of research, fearless of its ‘Bedrohungspotential’.
1. For example, the work of F. Feraco, Ammiano geografo. Nuovi studi. Naples. 2011 is cited in the bibliography, but appeared too late to be used by Vergin.
2. The author could have benefited from a more indepth analysis of other narrative chapters, for example the episode of Antoninus (Amm. 18.5) and Julian’s speech near Zaitha (Amm. 23.5.16-23).