Ammianus Marcellinus is considered the last great Roman historian. He was not a writer or historian by profession, but he was an army officer of Greek origin born in Antioch. The events he describes in the Later Roman Empire were events he lived through and witnessed first hand as a man serving in and traveling with the Roman military. He had hoped to continue the histories of Tacitus from AD 96 to his own present day. The first thirteen of his thirty-one books are lost. The rest describes a period of twenty-five years from AD 354-378. Embodied in these books are discussions of the imperial reigns of Constantius, Julian, Jovian, Valentinian, and Valens, and his works are the primary source and authority on these emperors. Marcellinus was a pagan and admirer of Emperor Julian the Apostate, which likely explains why half of the remaining books he composed are dedicated to Julian’s reign. However, his approach to Christianity in his histories is free of prejudice. Throughout modern scholarship he has been upheld and compared to historians of “Golden Age of Latin” such as Livy and Tacitus.
Things to consider while reading:
- How does Ammianus use religion and omens to indicate that impending invasion and Roman defeat was on the horizon?
- What picture does the author paint of the Alans, Huns, and the Goths? What affect does this have on the narrative? Why does Ammianus make this choice?
- What positive attributes do the Goths possess?
- How does Ammianus describe Valens, the emperor of Rome until August 9, AD 378? What were his major flaws?
- What portrait is constructed of Gratian? What makes him similar and/or different to Valens? What successes does he have?
- Under what circumstances do the Goths and Romans come to blows? How does it happen? Where does it happen? Why does it happen?
- Recount the details of the Battle at Adrianople. How and why were the Romans ultimately defeated?
- Who are stronger, the Romans or the Goths? Why?
- Who is to blame for the ultimate fate of Rome at Adrianople? Why?
- Is there anything about Ammianus’ account that seems exaggerated or inaccurate? Why or why not? How would you describe his narrative style?
- Why do the Goths fail to take Constantinople?