BMCR 2006.04.31

Philological and Historical Commentary of Ammianus Marcellinus XXV

, Philological and historical commentary on Ammianus Marcellinus XXV. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Leiden: Brill, 2005. 1 online resource (xxv, 415 pages) : map. ISBN 9781429452632 $150.00.

Ammianus’ Book 25 is among the most interesting in the whole of the Res Gestae and not just for its contemporary relevance: a world empire, under an ambitious new ruler seeking easy glory, launches an ill-advised and badly prepared war in Mesopotamia and gets its nose badly bloodied.1 Book 25 is the climax of Ammianus’ Julianic narrative, a climax that he has been preparing for us since Book 15, just after the extant text of the history picks up. If its immediate predecessor is the only book of Ammianus one might wish to be shorter — with its endless futile skirmishings and leisurely, at times impenetrable, meander down the Euphrates — Book 25 is as artfully constructed as anything in the canon of ancient historians. It early unveils the denouement of the precipitous slippage of Julian’s character, which had begun almost as soon as he departed Constantinople for the East in 361. The book opens in the aftermath of Julian’s realizing that he had not brought enough men to take the Persian capital. We are, from the opening lines, thrust into the midst of the retreat from Ctesiphon, as the long road back up the Tigris into Roman Armenia stretches endlessly ahead of the already famished army. Set-piece after set-piece description is paraded before us, the accumulation of detail as dazzling and oppressive as the sun baking Ammianus’ protagonists, a true ‘rhetoric of the scene’, to borrow a phrase from Martínez Pizarro.2 It is Book 25 that gives us the Persian cataphracts in their mail and face-masks; the spectre of Julian’s guardian daimon departing him in shadow; the Socratic aemulatio of his deathbed; the inauspicious entrance of Jovian into his new office; the frenzied fording of the Tigris; the grief of surrendered Nisibis; the mewling of the infant consul Varronianus portending his unworthy father’s imminent death, itself the deliberate anti-climax with which the book, and a whole section of the Res Gestae, comes to a close.

The present volume of the ongoing Dutch commentary on Ammianus has the virtues and defects of the others in the series, but as always the merits of its philological sections far outweigh other defects. Given the awful state of the text of Ammianus, the authors’ ample consideration of the more plausible Humanist conjectures is very useful, particularly for those without ready access to the Wagner-Erfurt edition. They likewise consistently point out those places where Seyfarth’s Teubner edition retreats from plausible readings in his bilingual text, rarely consulted outside Germany, and they are unafraid to point out the shortcomings of the uncharacteristically wretched Budé edition.

On the historical side, however, this is the least successful volume that the authors have produced since reviving the project of De Jonge with their commentary on Book 20. The core of the problem is interpretative. Because they see Ammianus as more or less honest and trustworthy, they decline to accept the view — shared by a whole array of scholars who agree on nothing else — that Ammianus is fundamentally hostile to Jovian. This leads them to explain away many slighting references to the short-lived emperor, and to an occasional caustic attack (very out of keeping with their usual tone) on scholars who believe that Ammianus has deliberately compressed, distorted and manipulated the facts in order to slander Jovian. Though their arguments are spirited enough, the position is simply untenable. To take just one example: Ammianus 25.9 rewrites the chronology of Jovian’s stay at Nisibis, given correctly in Zosimus, not merely because Ammianus wished ‘to compose a tightly structured and moving episode’, but rather to compound the indictment of Jovian. The new emperor was not only a fool and weakling for surrendering Nisibis to Shapur, he was a boor for hesitating to accept the gift of crown gold from the citizens he was about to wrong so grievously.

One might also suggest that Ammianus’ treatment of Julian in Book 25 is not quite so clear-cut in its admiration as the authors believe. When Julian is described as fidentissimus at 1.16 it must, pace the commentary, denote hubris: the superlatives that accompany Julian throughout the Res Gestae often hover on the edge between laudation and critique, and this must be one such case, particularly given Julian’s trajectory in the next chapter, two full sections (2.7-8) of which are given over to his hubristic disregard of the haruspices. Again, I am not persuaded that the use of immemor in 3.6 is neutral; by the authors’ own account it is elsewhere in Ammianus always used to indicate forgetting that which ought not to have been forgotten and that habitual usage must be respected here, particularly given that immediately thereafter Ammianus tells us how Julian effunderet semet in pugna. Such seemingly minor differences of interpretation are not trivial, for they bear directly on the larger question of just how far Ammianus’ opinion of Julian’s judgement (if not of his heroism and greatness) had fallen by the last days of the campaign. The point is clearly arguable, but for my own part, I see much less of an exculpatory imperative in books 24 and 25 than do the authors of the commentary.

That said, much of the historical commentary here is quite useful. The whole of the commentary on chapter 3, which is entirely devoted to the death of Julian, is exemplary in its parsing of the sources and their contradictions, a place where the authors’ tendency to take Ammianus at his word when he is an eyewitness does not make them too trusting. Details, too, are attractively offered, e.g. the long-puzzling incertum in 3.6, variously emended in the past, for which the authors’ offer the plausible, and palaeographically defensible, in certamine rather than the generally accepted incertum unde. The discussion of the imperial nomination(s) of the PPO Salutius in the wake of Julian’s death (5.3), a subject of much controversy amongst scholars, is moderate and convincing, showing against von Haehling that Salutius was indeed offered the purple twice, once upon the death of Julian, and then again after that of Jovian. Again, the authors must be right in accepting Gelenius’ emendation of the otherwise unattested Nemota to Nevitta at 7.13, thus making better sense of the ranks of the hostages exchanged between Shapur and Jovian.3 And finally, their treatment of the abrupt, and perhaps not very consequential, conclusion of the book (the father of Jovian’s misinterpretation of a dream) is plausible and thorough and should demonstrate to the reader that the point need play no argument in debates about the composition of the history and the relationship between the final six extant books and those that precede them.

As pointed out in BMCR 2005.11.09, commentaries usually receive a sort of hit-and-run use — and it is just that sort of quick consultation that reveals their value over time. But their greatest pleasures derive from their capacity to awaken interest in a passage for its own sake, rather than from a sense of scholarly duty. As has become normal with the series, such moments are thickly scattered throughout.One might single out the entries on Julian’s punishment of deserters (1.9); on the moral virtue implied by his eating of puls shortly before his death (2.2); the varying contexts in which Julian is characterized as immobilis, as at 3.9; on the fact that immodeste, used of the Roman soldiers forcing the Tigris crossing at 6.11, is elsewhere used by Ammianus only of presumptuous barbarians; and on the Vergilian echoes at 9.3 and 9.5.

One could go on, but those who have consulted the authors’ earlier volume will know how much of value can be gleaned from them. Let me conclude, then, with two instances in which the authors’ reluctance to join in heated controversies makes their commentary less useful than it might otherwise have been.

One of Barnes’ two most provocative arguments in his Ammianus Marcellinus and the Representation of Historical Reality is that Ammianus was himself an apostate, and that the Christian template of his thought is at times visible behind his choice of language. Book 25 gives one of the clearest proof texts of this, where in discussing Julian’s virtues (4.2), the standard trope of temperantia is restricted to the very narrow castitas — marking his restraint in purely sexual terms. The authors suggest that the passage may be a rebuttal of Christian attacks on Julian by showing him to possess one of the chief Christian virtues, but they are completely silent on the implications of the passage for Ammianus’ own religion. Moreover, although at 4.3 they offer a list of pagan authors who regarded sexual continence as important, doing so does not address the basic question of what the restriction of moderation to chastity means for our understanding of Ammianus.

A second omission is reference to the more controversial conclusions of B. Bleckmann’s Die Reichskrise des III. Jahrhunderts in der spätantiken und byzantinischen Geschichtsschreibung, although his treatments of some topics are referred to without comment. There is a good pragmatic case for avoiding Bleckmann’s arguments, inasmuch as they raise the vast red herring of Nicomachus Flavianus’ Annales. But Bleckmann has almost certainly shown that behind Peter the Patrician (whose text is identical with the so-called ‘Leoquelle’ used by Leo the Grammarian) there lies a lost fourth-century source which, on my reading of the evidence, must be Greek, although Bleckmann favours Flavianus. There are two places in Ammianus’ Book 25 — on the ‘lies of Metrodorus’ (4.23) and on Julian’s love of empty praise (4.18) — where the relationship between Ammianus and this lost source needs full discussion, not just a reference to Cedrenus. Likewise at 5.4, the account of Zonaras on Jovian’s election cannot be fully treated, as it is here, without reference to Bleckmann.

Neither of these points, nor indeed the authors’ idiosyncratic belief in Ammianus’ basic fairness to Jovian, detracts from the quality of most of what is here. The ongoing project to produce a full commentary on Ammianus remains an important one, and the rapidity with which the authors have brought out this most recent volume, just three years after their commentary on Book 24, is welcome. We must hope that, with the Julianic narrative now behind them, the authors can offer us their treatment of the — in some ways more difficult — Valentinianic books with equal speed and insight.


1. The parallel is inescapable, and is made with admirable restraint in D.S. Potter’s recent Roman Empire at Bay. Of course, the analogy breaks down on the respective rulers’ intellectual and oratorical attainments.

2. J. Martínez Pizarro, A Rhetoric of the Scene: Dramatic Narrative in the Early Middle Ages. Toronto, 1989.

3. But note that Gelenius’ Mellobaudes for the MS bello uae clius is not necessarily better than the standard emendation to Bellovaedius.