Back List of Latin Authors and Figures

Ammianus Marcellinus
(✶325÷330   †?)

Ammianus Marcellinus (325x 330– after 391) was a fourth-century Roman soldier and historian. He wrote the penultimate major historical account surviving from Antiquity (the last was written by Procopius). His work chronicled in Latin the history of Rome from 96 to 378, although only the sections covering the period 353–378 are extant.

Ammianus was born between 325 and 330 in the Greek-speaking East, possibly at Antioch on the Orontes. The surviving books of his history, the Res Gestae, cover the years 353 to 378.

Military career

Ammianus served as a soldier in the army of Constantius II (and possibly Julian) in Gaul and Persia. He was "a former soldier and a Greek" (miles quondam et graecus), he tells us, and his enrollment among the elite protectores domestici (household guards) shows that he was of noble birth. He entered the army at an early age, when Constantius II was emperor of the East, and was sent to serve under Ursicinus, governor of Nisibis in Mesopotamia, and magister militum.

He returned to Italy with Ursicinus, when he was recalled by Constantius, and accompanied him on the expedition against Claudius Silvanus, who had been forced by the allegedly unjust accusations of his enemies into proclaiming himself emperor in Gaul. With Ursicinus he went twice to the East. On one occasion he was separated from Ursicinus and took refuge in Amida during the siege of the city, which was then attacked by the Sassanid king Shapur II; he barely escaped with his life. When Ursicinus lost his office and the favour of Constantius, Ammianus seems to have shared his fall from grace, but under Julian, Constantius's successor, he regained his position. He accompanied this emperor, for whom he expresses enthusiastic admiration, in his campaigns against the Alamanni and the Sassanids. After the death of Julian, he took part in the retreat of Jovian as far as Antioch. He was residing in Antioch in 372 when one Theodorus was thought to have been identified by divination as a new Emperor, the successor to Valens. Making it clear that he is speaking as an eyewitness, Marcellinus tells us, in his history, of how Theodorus and several others were made to confess their deceit through the use of torture, and cruelly punished.

continue below

He eventually settled in Rome, where his History would be written. The precise year of his death is unknown, but scholarly consensus places it somewhere between 392 and, at the latest, 400.

Modern authors generally describe him as a pagan who was tolerant of Christianity. Marcellinus writes of Christianity as being a pure and simple religion that demands only what is just and mild, and when he condemns the actions of Christians, he does not do so on the basis of their Christianity as such. His lifetime was marked by lengthy outbreaks of sectarian and dogmatic strife within the new state-backed faith, often with violent consequences (especially the Arian controversy) and these conflicts sometimes appeared unworthy to him, though it was territory where he could not risk going very far in criticism, due to the growing and volatile political connections between the church and imperial power.

He was not blind to the faults of Christians or of pagans; he observed in his Res Gestae that "no wild beasts are so deadly to humans as most Christians are to each other." and he condemns his hero Julian for excessive attachment to (pagan) sacrifice, and for his edict effectively barring Christians from teaching posts.


At Rome, he wrote in Latin a history of the Roman empire from the accession of Nerva (96) to the death of Valens at the Battle of Adrianople (378), in effect writing a continuation of the history of Tacitus. He presumably completed the work before 391, since at 22.16.12 he praises the Serapeum in Egypt as the glory of the empire; but in that year the Emperor granted the temple grounds to the Christian bishop, which provoked the pagans to barricade themselves in the temple, plundering its contents and torturing Christians, leading to the temple's destruction in the ensuing mob violence. Res Gestae (Rerum gestarum Libri XXXI) was originally in thirty-one books, but the first thirteen are lost (modern historian T.D. Barnes argues that the original was actually thirty-six books, which would mean that eighteen books had been lost). The surviving eighteen books cover the period from 353 to 378. As a whole it has been considered extremely valuable, being a clear, comprehensive and in general impartial account of events by a contemporary. Like many ancient historians, Ammianus had a strong political and religious agenda to pursue, however, and he contrasted Constantius II with Julian to the former's constant disadvantage; like all ancient writers he was skilled in rhetoric, and this shows in his work.

continue below

His work has suffered terribly from the manuscript transmission. Aside from the loss of the first thirteen books, the remaining eighteen are in many places corrupt and lacunose. The sole surviving manuscript from which almost every other is derived is a ninth-century Carolingian text, Vatican lat. 1873 (V), produced in Fulda from an insular exemplar. The only independent textual source for Ammianus lies in Fragmenta Marbugensia (M), another ninth-century Frankish codex which was taken apart to provide covers for account-books during the fifteenth century. Only six leaves of M survive; however, before this manuscript was dismantled the Abbot of Hersfeld lent the manuscript to Sigismund Gelenius, who used it in preparing the text of the second Froben edition (G). The dates and relationship of V and M were long disputed until 1936 when R. P. Robinson demonstrated persuasively that V was copied from M. As L.D. Reynolds summarizes, "M is thus a fragment of the archetype; symptoms of an insular pre-archetype are evident."

His handling from his earliest printers was little better. The editio princeps was printed in 1474 in Rome by Georg Sachsel and Bartholomaeus Golsch from "the worst of the recentiores", which broke off at the end of Book 26. The next edition (Bologna, 1517) suffered from its editor's "monstrously bad conjectures" upon the poor text of the 1474 edition; the 1474 edition was pirated for the first Froben edition (Basle, 1518). It wasn't until 1533 that the last five books of Ammianus' history were put into print by Silvanus Otmar and edited by Mariangelus Accursius. The first modern edition was produced by C.U. Clark (Berlin, 1910-1913). The first English translations were by Philemon Holland in 1609, and later by C.D. Yonge in 1862.


Edward Gibbon judged Ammianus "an accurate and faithful guide, who composed the history of his own times without indulging the prejudices and passions which usually affect the mind of a contemporary." But he also condemned Ammianus for lack of literary flair: "The coarse and undistinguishing pencil of Ammianus has delineated his bloody figures with tedious and disgusting accuracy." Austrian historian Ernst Stein praised Ammianus as "the greatest literary genius that the world produced between Tacitus and Dante".

According to Kimberly Kagan, his accounts of battles emphasize the experience of the soldiers but at the cost of ignoring the bigger picture. As a result it is difficult for the reader to understand why the battles he describes had the outcome they did.

Ammianus' work contains a detailed description of the tsunami in Alexandria which devastated the metropolis and the shores of the eastern Mediterranean on 21 July 365. His report describes accurately the characteristic sequence of earthquake, retreat of the sea and sudden giant wave.

continue below

Texts, references, and further reading

  • Wolfgang Seyfarth (ed.) Rerum gestarum libri qui supersunt (in 2 vols). Leipzig: Teubner, 1978.
  • Latin text and facing English translation (by J.C. Rolfe) in the Loeb Classical Library, 1935‑1940 with many reprintings.
  • Walter Hamilton (trans.) The Later Roman Empire (AD 354–378). Penguin Classics, 1986. An abridged English translation.
  • Barnes, Timothy D. Ammianus Marcellinus and the Representation of Historical Reality (Cornell Studies in Classical Philology). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998 (hardcover, ISBN 0-8014-3526-9).
  • Clark, Charles Upson. The Text Tradition of Ammianus Marcellinus. Ph.D. Diss. Yale: 1904.
  • Crump, Gary A. Ammianus Marcellinus as a military historian. Steiner, 1975, ISBN 3-515-01984-7.
  • Drijvers, Jan and David Hunt. Late Roman World and its Historian. Routledge, 1999, ISBN 0-415-20271-X.
  • Kelly, Gavin. Ammianus Marcellinus: The Allusive Historian. Cambridge University Press, 2008, ISBN 978-0-521-84299-0.
  • Matthews, J. The Roman Empire of Ammianus. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.
  • Rowell, Henry Thompson. Ammianus Marcellinus, soldier-historian of the late Roman Empire. University of Cincinnati, 1964.
  • Sabbah, Guy. La Méthode d'Ammien Marcellin. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1978.
  • Seager, Robin. Ammianus Marcellinus: Seven Studies in His Language and Thought. Univ of Missouri Pr, 1986, ISBN 0-8262-0495-3.
  • Thompson, E.A. The Historical Work of Ammianus Marcellinus. London: Cambridge University Press, 1947.
  • This articleincorporates text from a publication now in the public domain:Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Ammianus, Marcellinus". Encyclopædia Britannica 1 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.

Source: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Back List of Latin Authors and Figures