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Ammien Marcellin: the military historian.

After a fairly noticeable eclipse in the third century, the art of writing among the Romans found a new hour of glory when the Empire was reborn, from the reign of Diocletian (284-305). Indeed, late Antiquity conceals very great authors who carry high the Roman know-how in literary matters. Thus, Aurelius Victor produced around 360 a compendium of Roman history, Macrobe writes The Saturnalia and Saint Augustine writes The city of God. Ammien Marcellin holds a rather atypical place among them, and we are going to try to transcribe as well as possible what were the specificities of his style and how his work fits into Latin literary production.

A Syrian in the Roman army in the 4th century.

Ammien was born around the year 330 in Syria and more precisely in Antioch. Son of an aristocrat, he embraced the military career as protector domesticus. Member of this prestigious private guard of emperors and high dignitaries of the Empire (the emperor Jovien leaves it directly at the time of his acclamation as Augustus), the young soldier that he is then travels the Roman world in all directions, and acquires an excellent knowledge of it. Attached to Urcisin, master of the Eastern cavalry, by Emperor Constance II, he found himself caught in the turmoil of war and was nearly killed during the terrible siege of the city of Amida in Mesopotamia. The city falls after many adventures, and Ammien owes his salvation only to a postern which allows him, with some companions (Ursicin is not with him, they were separated by a Persian attack while they were riding to recognize the enemy positions) to flee through the scorching desert. After having found the general, he left for Gaul with him in order to settle the problem of the usurpation of Silvanus, the master of the infantry and the Western cavalry, who had just adorned himself with the imperial purple, in a dark affair of struggles for influence in power groups. Ursicin and Ammien have him murdered. In Gaul too, he met the Emperor Julian, and he was at his side during his campaign against the Persians. He probably left the profession of arms around 375 and then settled in the vicinity of Rome and it was then that he began his literary work.

The work.

Claiming to be Tacitus, he wishes to be its continuator. His story therefore begins with the reign of Nerva and ends symbolically in 378. The first thirteen books have been lost, but they undoubtedly represented only a compendium of Roman history, as late Antiquity produced so many. (Eutrope, Aurelius Victor ...), because they retrace there nearly two hundred years of history while the following seventeen only cover the events from 353 to 378. From book XIV, he therefore tells us about the history of which he was able to be an active witness. Thus we meet Caesar Gallus, whom Constance II named in the East and who stands out for his great cruelty, to such an extent that the Augustus decides his assassination. His brother Julien was then placed at the head of Gaul, under close surveillance (Constance fears more than anything the usurpations, because he had to fight against Magnence, the assassin of his brother Constant), where he shows great warlike qualities. And then it is the escalation and Julien seeks supreme power. Constance dies, leaving Julien as the sole heir. The apostate of legend then launches out against persia, where he loses his life. Ammien gives on this occasion a vibrant description of the last moments of the emperor wounded to death, much more convincing than that of Christian authors elsewhere. Then we witness the acclamation of Jovien who signs the disastrous treaty with the Persians to end the war, because he wishes to consolidate his new power in the Empire. He died shortly after, and gave way to Valentinian I and his brother Valens, the defeated future of Adrianople in 378. A story therefore rich in twists of which we have only transcribed here a meager substance in comparison with the story by Ammien Marcellin.

The style.

Its writing is distinguished above all by a certain archaism, inscribing itself in a classical tradition, which recalls, in this period of doubt, the glorious ancients. Contrary to The Augustus Story or in Suetonius, he never lapses into purely defamatory or sordid commentary, but tries to be impartial as much as possible. Thus, he always traces the portrait of emperors, and even those who find little favor in his eyes are not systematically criticized. Ammien always paints a picture of the qualities and faults of these men to balance his point. He thus carries a contrasted look on Julien for whom he nevertheless has an enormous admiration. He criticizes in particular his lack of moderation in sacrifices.

Direct involvement.

The story told by Ammien is also occasionally his. Thus, as we have seen above, he attends the siege of Amida from within and thus gives us an uplifting chronicle of the event. Step by step, we can follow the unfolding of hostilities and measure the courage of the cornered Roman fighters, but also the horror of war, of diseases spread by the putrefaction of bodies. During his flight, we clearly have the visual sensation of Ammien and his companions walking in the fiery sands of the East. They find in their wandering a well from which they draw water using bands of their torn tunics, attached to a protective cap of the head that one of the men wore under his helmet and which is here used in the manner of a sponge so that they can quench their thirst. This is also the work of Ammien; moments of everyday life, far from the hustle and bustle of politics and war. He likes to train us with him at the bottom of society and in particular alongside the soldiers, of whom he also gives us here a contrasting portrait, but very often human. Between alcoholism and bravery, between gluttony and sobriety, he paints a striking picture of these men who spend a large part of their lives in the service of Rome, in often appalling conditions.

A moralizer.

On the other hand, he hated the depraved and idle life that he attributes to the inhabitants of Rome (and that he denounces in a particularly acid tirade), as much as members of the imperial court of Constantinople and in particular eunuchs, Eusebius in head. A great moralizer, Ammien is an ardent defender of the traditional values ​​of Rome. Throughout his work, we also meet amusing descriptions of the different peoples of the time, from the Gauls to the Huns, which he does by following the traditional canons of Roman ethnography and therefore with little discernment as he uses widely accepted ideas. But this is one of the rare negative points of his work. Very well informed about the events, of which he is sometimes the direct witness, he even has the honesty to cite his sources, which he copies scrupulously. Thus, during the rupture between Julien and Constance, letters are exchanged by the two emperors. Ammien tells us about it and we can therefore compare it with the version given by Julien himself in his work; they are identical. During the exchange of letters, Ammien even informs us that other much less official letters were exchanged, undoubtedly more "flowery", and that he was not authorized to consult them, which gives us some insight on his working method. Besides that, Ammien liked to get lost in digressions and thus gives us a clear vision of the knowledge of a scholar of this time. He thus explains his vision of earthquakes.

The goal of history at Ammien Marcellin

Like any ancient historian, Ammien writes with a goal in mind, a key idea that structures his subject. For him it is about the inexorable march to the catastrophe of 378, when the Romans are defeated in Adrianople by the Goths, and where the emperor Valens falls in battle. He describes the battle, particularly bitter, which was engaged before the reinforcements sent from the West joined the forces of Augustus from the East. Here, he clearly attributes the responsibility for the disaster to Valens, who, in his pride, preferred to fight in haste. But Ammien does not simply point out this defeat as the cause of future woes; for him the decisive event was the crossing of the Danube by the Goths in 376, under pressure from the Huns. Indeed, defeated, the Goths seek asylum from Valens, who agrees to settle them in Thrace. There, starved by the State, they end up revolting, and once victorious, they create an uncontrollable political and military force on Roman territory. From then on Rome was under a permanent threat. Ammien probably died around the year 400, shortly before the first fall of Rome in 410 before the Goths of Alaric. He remains one of the greatest Roman historians, and undoubtedly the most atypical by his military commitment and his exceptional existence.


- P.-M. Camus, Ammien Marcellin, witness of cultural and religious currents at the end of the 4th century, Paris, 1967.

- G. Sabbah, Ammien Marcellin's method. Research on the construction of historical discourse in the Res Gestae, Paris, 1978.

- From Ammien Marcellin, Histoires, volume 1, books XIV-XVI. Beautiful letters, 1979.

- From Ammien Marcellin, History of Rome: Volume 1, Years 353 to 359, Constance II, emperor. Paleo, 2007.

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