BMCR 2008.09.35

Ammianus After Julian: The Reign of Valentinian and Valens in Books 26-31 of the Res Gestae. Mnemosyne Supplementa, 289

, , , , Ammianus after Julian : the reign of Valentinian and Valens in Books 26-31 of the Res Gestae. 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, 2007. 1 online resource (x, 326 pages).. ISBN 9789047421511. $139.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

[The reviewer apologizes for the lateness of this review.]

The four editors of this book will be very familiar to scholars of Ammianus as the co-authors, since 1987, of the indispensible “Dutch commentaries” on the Res Gestae.1 This volume collects papers delivered at a 2005 conference that marked the completion of the commentaries on Ammianus’ “Julianic books” (20-25), and the beginning of the commentaries on the final six books (26-31), covering the reigns of Valentinian and Valens.2 In their introduction, the editors say that the conference was planned “not to look back on what had been achieved in the commentary project, but to look forward to the third hexad and the period after Julian” (p. 2). The collected papers accordingly investigate various aspects of a portion of the history that has long been recognized as distinct from the rest of the extant work: Ammianus himself introduces it with a fresh programmatic preface and, besides obvious differences in subject matter, it seems to have its own narrative pace, organizational method, and moral tone. The thirteen papers here, all by prominent international scholars, are organized under three broad rubrics: “History and Historiography,” “Literary Composition,” and “Crisis of Empire.” Besides their individual contributions on key personae, episodes, and topics, the papers generally follow the current trend in Ammianean scholarship that seeks to reaffirm his historiographical mastery (both in terms of erudition and of rhetoric), and to expose his interface with contemporary thinkers and writers. One emerges from a reading of this volume wondering how much longer Ammianus will have to bear the seductive but beguiling “lonely historian” moniker imposed on him by Momigliano. A brief discussion of the papers follows.

Bruno Bleckmann examines parallels between Ammianus and several late Greek and Byzantine historians in their portrayals of the great tsunami of 365, the usurpation of Procopius, prophecies of Valens’ death, and the characters of Jovian and Valentinian. The surprising similarities between Ammianus and these authors are found to lie in common (mainly lost or fragmentary) sources from Ammianus’ own period. In the case of the tsunami, which occupies the largest part of his paper, Bleckmann develops a theory of Gavin Kelly, who first alleged a common source between Ammianus, Theophanes, and George the Monk.3 Bleckmann identifies this source as “the anonymous Homoean,” a heterodox church historian active around 380. The surprise of finding Ammianus in scholarly engagement with a reconstructed contemporary source is only increased by the possibility that this source was a Christian one. We are persuaded to expand some of our assumptions about Ammianus’ social and intellectual milieu. Moreover, in the context of Ammianus’ description of the tsunami, which generations have read as autopsy, such source criticism forces us to revise some cherished ideas on Ammianus’ motives and method. Bleckmann reprises Kelly’s explanation that Ammianus designedly blends eye-witness report with documentary borrowing not to deceive, but to demonstrate his own “superiority of expertise,” which is both bookish and real. The self-consciously complex and provocative Ammianus that emerges here is to be found in many of the other papers in the collection as well.

Hartmut Leppin compares Ammianus’ presentation of the Valentinian dynasty with the official ideology of the regime as reflected in literary sources such as panegyric (Themistius) and the church historians, as well as in non-literary sources like coins and inscriptions. In the larger part of his paper Leppin seeks to demonstrate that Ammianus’ account of the accessions of Valentinian and Valens is not as straightforward as it seems. It is in fact shot through with deliberate distortions of the official court version. The effect is to undermine the Pannonian brothers’ claim to imperial merit, if not to legitimacy. Though Leppin’s paper is not a source critical study in the manner of Bleckmann’s, it also develops our understanding of Ammianus’ vigorous engagement with contemporary ideas (here political ones) and helps us to envision him in active competition for the attention of a contemporary audience.

Hans Teitler revisits Francois Paschoud’s chapter in the 1992 Cognitio Gestorum collection, which argued that Ammianus, by malicious innuendo and prolepsis of key detail, produced a distorted negative portrait of Valentinian, thus increasing the stature of the departed Julian.4 Teitler believes that Paschoud’s interpretation is excessive, and seeks to correct it mainly by using evidence internal to Ammianus’ text: where Paschoud alleges negative innuendo in the emperor’s physical description, for example, Teitler notes that he neglects to mention a formula of praise which neatly echoes one used of Julian. While Teitler certainly scores points against Paschoud’s original argument, his effort to moderate Ammianus’ negative portrayal of Valentinian is generally at odds with the conclusions of Leppin’s paper, which uses a different methodology to show that the total strategy of Ammianus’ portrayal is negative — even where he is superficially positive. This is also generally true of other papers in the collection that weigh in on the matter, though David Hunt’s paper, which immediately follows Teitler’s, is a qualified exception.

Ammianus grants Valentinian a rare piece of praise in his obituary of the emperor, where he speaks approvingly of his religious toleration ( Res Gestae 30.9.5). David Hunt seeks to explain Ammianus’ surprising benevolence by viewing it in the religio-political context of the early Theodosian period in which he wrote his history. At a time when imperial disapproval was squeezing not only pagan elites (such as those at Rome) but also dissenters from orthodoxy, Valentinian’s moderamen principatus could be looked to with nostalgia by groups normally opposed in the minds of modern historians. Hunt shows that Valentinian’s toleration was motivated above all by his interest in maintaining civil order, and that when he opted to intrude on episcopal authority, it was more often to serve this end than to impose the imperial will on matters of doctrine. Indeed, despite the contentions of the church historians, Hunt argues that Valentinian, like Valens, sought to preserve the homoean settlement of 359-60. The intended audience of Ammianus’ laudatory remark is the pagan traditionalist labouring under Theodosian repression.

Noel Lenski supplies a new chronology of events as reported (and as not reported or glossed over) by Ammianus in books 27, 29, 30 and 31 covering the years 364-378. Lenski’s argument amends the standard chronology of Seeck, which was based too exclusively on Ammianus and the Codex Theodosianus, and did not bring into sufficient consideration the comparators of church history, Themistius, and the Armenian Epic Histories, among others. Prominent among Lenski’s revisions are the movements of Pap of Armenia prior to taking the throne. Lenski shows that Seeck’s version failed to notice Ammianus’ omission of the winter of 368-69 in his chronology, thus forcing an implausible amount of activity into a short period. Lenski’s sometimes dense argumentation is helpfully supplemented by a table at the end of the paper.

At 29.5 Ammianus presents an account of the revolt of the Moorish chieftain Firmus (ca. 372-375), which was suppressed by the elder Theodosius, father of the later emperor and Valentinian’s magister equitum. In his paper Jan Willem Drijvers first addresses Ammianus’ chronological and geographical accuracy, and then tackles the question of whether Firmus can accurately be described as a usurper. He then tries to explain the disproportionate length of the episode. Its ample detail, he suggests, is made possible by Ammianus’ use of an official report. The motivation for its length is partly due to a desire to balance his narrative of east and west, but a number of reminiscences of Sallust’s Iugurtha and Tacitus’ Tacfarinas (both African challengers to Roman power) suggest Ammianus’ desire to declare his place within the grand tradition of Roman historiography. Ammianus’ praise of Theodosius the Elder need not be read simplistically as the desire of the author to flatter the memory of his current emperor’s father: Drijvers shows that by innuendo and apt comparison to Tacitus’ Corbulo, Ammianus is actually quite critical of him.

The book’s second section, devoted to “Literary Composition,” begins with Daniël den Hengst’s paper on the so-called “second Roman digression” at 28.4. The digression is examined with respect to its immediate and broader narrative contexts, its points of similarity and difference with the first Roman digression (at 14.6), and its satirical qualities from the perspective of genre and ethics. Den Hengst argues that while many of Ammianus’ criticisms of contemporary Rome cannot be accepted at face value, a vivid portrait of the historian as an individual can be constructed e contrario. Among other things, he is one who places a high value on education, especially so far as it can safeguard the Roman cultural heritage, sadly neglected in the city of his day. A surprising revelation of the paper is that the digression does not show much direct verbal allusion to Juvenal, Ammianus’ most obvious predecessor in satirical treatments of Rome, and an author with whom he was familiar. Instead, den Hengst produces some convincing instances of allusion to Lucian, finally observing that in his satirical modes Ammianus is not at all out of place with contemporary authors in Greek and Latin. The chapter ends with a most useful appendix that surveys the contents of Ammianus’ two Roman digressions in parallel columns.

Stéphane Ratti links Ammianus’ description of the Visigoths’ crossing of the Danube in 376 (31.4.1-13) to the traditional epico-historiographic topos by which individuals are heroized by their mastery of water, and specifically in their crossing of rivers. After examining the instantiation of this topos in various Greek and Roman historians, Ratti argues that Ammianus inverts its terms in his depiction the Gothic passage. He thus adds a flourish to his disapproval of the policy that allowed them to cross, a policy he saw as disastrous to the empire. In this criticism, Ammianus joins with other contemporaries, such as Jerome.

Ammianus is very fond of seeding his narrative with learned exempla. The premise of Giuseppe Zecchini’s paper is that while much work has been done on Ammianus’ exploitation of previous Roman authors, not much has been done on his liaisons with the Greek heritage. Zecchini limits his study to exempla in which Ammianus compares Greek and Roman events or figures, of which he adduces thirty. The study produces five main conclusions, two of which are quite surprising: (1) Ammianus stresses the superiority of Greek attainments in not only astronomy, but also law; (2) he does not admit Greek inferiority in either political or military terms. Zecchini generally compares Ammianus’ balance of Greek and Roman to Plutarch’s project in the parallel lives, and where the Greek comes out on top, he imputes to the historian not just pride in his own Greek origins, but a deep understanding of empire as cultural symbiosis.

Gavin Kelly’s innovative work on Ammianus’ historiographical technique is taken up by several of his fellow contributors in the body of their papers. In his own offering, G. Kelly considers Ammianus’ famous sphragis at the very end of Book 31 (31.16.9), in which the author identifies himself as miles quondam et Graecus, claims truthfulness undistorted by wilful omissions, and advises those who would follow his project in the reign of Theodosius to “forge their tongues to grander styles” ( ad maiores stilos). Past interpretation of this advice has taken sides on whether the last phrase encourages historiographical grandiosity as Ammianus himself had practiced, or in fact recommends panegyric, thus concealing a sardonic observation on the climate of repression in the Theodosian regime. In a subtle argument, G. Kelly proposes that Ammianus intends a studied ambiguity in his closing, and that both readings should be preserved: Ammianus naturally favours grand style history, but in his own Book 31 his narrative approach has changed: though its main burden is to relay the sad end of Valens in his Adrianople debacle, it in fact contains much implicit criticism of Theodosius’ Gothic policy.

The final section of the book, dedicated to the “Crisis of Empire,” begins with a piece by Sigrid Mratschek, in which she too considers the ways in which a literary mode of thinking affects Ammianus’ presentation. She identifies the shift in narrative intensity beginning in book 28 with an increased theatricality, and finds an essentially tragic pattern in Ammianus’ presentation of the elder Theodosius: he is heroic in his service to Rome and unjustly executed by an unjust emperor (though the execution itself is not mentioned by Ammianus). In the aftermath, personified Iustitia fails in her duty of retribution, but the historian steps in and unmasks Theodosius’ anonymous enemies. Mratschek, in contrast to Gavin Kelly’s conclusions, sees Ammianus using the tragic perspective as a solace for the depression of the Valentinian regime and the paralysing shock of the Valens’ defeat at Adrianople. The example of Theodosius the Elder falls in line with that of Julian, and in the new Theodosian regime there is hope for a better world. Several of the papers comment on the qualitative difference of the narrative of Books 26 to 31. Christopher Kelly makes it his overarching theme, proposing that the shift from a narrative organized around a central heroic figure to the contrary, inharmonious actions of two or more emperors results in a tortuous narrative that artfully mirrors reality, and that a certain degree of confusion, irresolution, and even contradiction is the historian’s self-conscious strategy for challenging the reader to recognise this world for what it is. C. Kelly focuses especially on the magic and treason trials at Rome in 28.1 and 29.1-2. His conclusion, that the lack of coherence in these books calls into question the very possibility of traditional grand-scale historiography is one of the bleakest takes on the crisis of empire in the book, yet it shares the view of other contributors that Ammianus is in control of his historiographical art, if not of the destiny of his country.

In a paper that serves as an admirable conclusion to the collection, Jan den Boeft discusses Ammianus’ approach to history writing in terms of his deepest motivations and purposes. Den Boeft notes that while Ammianus is less a personal actor in the narrative of the last six books than in those preceding, his authorial intrusions increase. While these are motivated by despair at the apparent decline in civil society and culture during the reign of Valentinian and Valens, den Boeft believes that Ammianus’ outrage is in part sustained by a hope for better things. He is in short a moral historian, aware both of the positive educative value of history, and of the perils of writing in the way he does for the age in which he lived. Beyond exposing himself to the criticism of those who want more salacious details or who resent them, Ammianus understands that the inclusion of examples of bad behaviour might induce harmful imitation rather than encourage avoidance. If any scholar writing today has a right to put words in Ammianus’ mouth, it is perhaps den Boeft. His paper concludes with an unconventional but delightful mock interview between a fictitious Roman civil servant of the fourth century and Ammianus himself. In taking stock of his whole work with a somewhat sceptical and pessimistic interlocutor, the historian expresses some confidence in the present regime, in the constancy of heavenly justice, and in the eternity of Rome — implicit confirmation of the moral and educational efficacy of his work.

This is a very important collection, the influence of which is already noticeable in the editors’ commentary on Book 26. The broad categories into which the papers are organized are quite porous, and naturally the papers can be consulted individually with profit. Nevertheless, to read these papers sequentially is to appreciate the organizational acumen of the editors: there is no place here for the complaints commonly made by reviewers of conference proceedings. Whether through similarity of method or topic, each paper leads nicely to the next. Even inevitable points of scholarly disagreement, some of which are noted above, are a point of strength rather than weakness: the reader is invited into healthy debate on clear terms. The book includes handy abstracts of each paper, and has good indices of names and topics at the back. The only apparatus I felt lacking was any form of bibliography, but one can remedy this by consulting the editors’ latest commentary.

Authors and titles:

I History and Historiography
Bruno Bleckmann, “Vom Tsunami von 365 zum Mimas-Orakel: Ammianus Marcellinus als Zeithistoriker und die spägriechische Tradition”
Hartmut Leppin, “Der Reflex der Selbstdarstellung der valentinianischen Dynastie bei Ammianus Marcellinus und den Kirchenhistoriken”
Hans Teitler, “Ammianus on Valentinian. Some Observations”
David Hunt, “Valentinian and the Bishops: Ammianus 30.9.5 in Context”
Noel Lenski, “The Chronology of Valens’ Dealings with Persia and Armenia, 364-378 CE”
Jan Willem Drijvers, “Ammianus on the Revolt of Firmus”

II Literary Composition
Daniël den Hengst, “Literary Aspects of Ammianus’ Second Digression on Rome”
Stéphane Ratti, “La traversée du Danube par les Goths: La subversion d’un modèle héroïque (Ammien Marcellin 31.4)”
Giuseppe Zecchini, “Greek and Roman Parallel History in Ammianus”
Gavin Kelly, “The Sphragis and Closure of the Res Gestae”

III Crisis of Empire
Sigrid Mratschek, ” Et ne quid coturni terribilis fabulae relinquerent intemptatum… (Amm. Marc. 28.6.29). Die Göttin der Gerechtigkeit und der comes Romanus”
Christopher Kelly, “Crossing the Frontiers: Imperial Power in the Last Book of Ammianus”
Jan den Boeft, ” Non consolandi gratia, sed probose monendi (Res Gestae 28.1.4). The Hazards of (Moral) Historiography”


1. J. den Boeft, D. den Hengst and H.C. Teitler, Philological and Historical Commentary on Ammianus Marcellinus XX-XXI, Groningen, 1987-91; J. den Boeft, J.W. Drijvers, D. den Hengst and H.C. Teitler, Philological and Historical Commentary on Ammianus Marcellinus XXII-XXIII, Groningen, 1995-98; J. den Boeft et al., Philological and Historical Commentary on Ammianus Marcellinus XXIV-XXVI, Leiden, 2002-2008.

2. The commentary on Book 26 appeared earlier this year. A similar collection of conference papers marked the completion of the Book 21 commentary: J. den Boeft et al. (eds.), Cognitio Gestorum: The Historiographic Art of Ammianus Marcellinus, Amsterdam, 1992.

3. G. Kelly, “Ammianus and the Great Tsunami,” JRS 94 (2004) 141-167.

4. F. Paschoud, “Valentinien travesti, ou: De la malignité d’Ammien” in J. den Boeft et al. (eds.), Cognitio Gestorum: The Historiographic Art of Ammianus Marcellinus, Amsterdam, 1992, 67-84.