Ammianus Marcellinus is often proclaimed as the ‘last great Roman historian’ and his Res Gestae (history from AD354-378) as an accurate and objective account of events in the fourth century. But just how useful and reliable is this text in relation to the recounting of events? How does the author himself affect the way these events are portrayed in the Res Gestae? And how does it stand as an autobiographical text?
The Res Gestae is often acclaimed as a reliable history as told by its author, Ammianus Marcellinus; but can this interpretation really be upheld? Matthews asserts that Ammianus’ depiction of the period from Nerva to the battle of Adrianoplein in 378 is an accurate representation of the authors own times. An assessment of the Res Gestae could also suggest a different view. Ammianus’ works are recognised as our fullest source for the period of the fourth century but their objectivity is also questioned. Barnes maintains a conviction quite opposite to Matthews and states that “Ammianus failed in his obligation as a historian to strive to transcend personal bias.”
Ammianus belonging to a select canon of great historians, who are known for reliability, immediately has an affect on the assessment of the Res Gestae. One is tempted to believe that Ammianus’ history is truly an objective account. But how can any author really create a work, factual or fictional, that does not contain any amount of bias? When Gibbon examines the ecclesiastical politics of Constantius’ reign, he gives Ammianus praise as an ‘unbiased witness’. This view of Ammianus and his Res Gestae is debatable because no writing can ever be free of the author’s own bias and self-involvement.
An analysis of the Res Gestae as a historical account of events suggests that it is highly subjective. Barnes asserts that Ammianus writes with unusual violence and ferocity indicating a subjective view of depicted events. This is in contrast to the ideas of Gibbons and Matthews. Matthews does not appear to regard Ammianus as a historian but as a writer of the present period. Gibbons praises Ammianus as the author of an ‘objective history’. Matthews views the Res Gestae more as a narrative that accurately depicted the period of Ammianus through the eyes of the author and the ideologies of the time. The Res Gestae has been critically discussed in two dimensions, one portraying it as a purely historical work and another as a narrative depicting the times as viewed by the author.
The Res Gestae in modern analyses is seen as a “work of imaginative literature” which “exhibits the creative and imaginative powers of a novelist.” Matthews even likens the author’s writing to scenes from a play. The confrontation, for instance, between Leonitus and Peter Valvomeres exhibits “contrasting emotions and postures” leading to “ritual violence.” This suggests that the Res Gestae was created in part as an entertainment piece, written for a certain audience. In order to formulate this type of work the author has clearly emphasised and omitted several events. This assessment indicates that as an account of the times, the Res Gestae may well be incomplete and inaccurate, more to the likening of a narrative than a distinctly objective work.When critically assessing the Res Gestae as an account of the author’s times one notices several inconsistencies within the text in comparison to contemporary works suggesting that the Res Gestae does not fully incorporate the most significant events and issues but more so those that concerned the mind of its author. With this in mind, it is indicative that the Res Gestae does not serve the purpose of a history due to its inability to present events in an objective manner. For instance, the lack of references to the uprising Christian values could be seen as a failing on behalf of Ammianus. Ammianus leaves out the majority of ecclesiastical events and affairs such as those that occupied Constantius’ reign. Elliot describes Ammianus as a pagan apologist who treats Christianity unfairly and it appears that there is an irremovable inconsistency in what the author does say about Christianity. Despite the debates, the Res Gestae still is the fullest account of the fourth century that survives to the present day. The surviving half of Ammianus’ works provides an overview of events and subjects from the Caesar Gallus to the siege of Adrianople. Particularly significant is its use as a source for Roman policy. Seager examines the account of events on the Rhine and the Danube, asserting that such accounts show that policy was “fundamentally defensive” with a priority of keeping out barbarians or to drive them out. This theme of action in response to barbarian frontier violations is a constant throughout the narrative.
Ammianus also appears to manipulate events subtlety to imply alternate motives of those concerned. This is seen in the account of Constantius on the Rhine against the Alamanni in 354; where Constantius took responsibility in the new found peace. Ammianus recounts that the peace was in fact a result of a fluke and offers religious grounds for the Alamanni seeking peace rather than the actions of Constantius. What Ammianus thought of those concerned shaped his narrative, such as his favourable tone with the emperor Julian and unfavourable tone in reference to Constantius. This while showing the great bias, within the writings which would be unsuitable for a historian, gives the reader an important look at the character of important figures through the eyes of someone who lived under their influence.
The Res Gestae provides a look into the character of the empires and important people of the times. This shows a biographical streak to the writing which is often not so closely associated with the writing of a history. For example, Ammianus gives us an overview of Julian which is almost unrivalled. Ammianus both praises and criticises Julian and provides a unique look into his personality. Ammianus tells us that Julian had an inclination towards pagan practices and gods from a young age but kept up the pretence that he was a Christian for survivals sake, and later his Christian education influenced his take on paganism. This is a view which is in contrast with many others such as Browning’s who asserts that Julian broke completely away from Christianity. Ammianus in regards to this biographical theme discloses both his likes and dislikes of the individuals concerned with an unusual vigor. The Res Gestae in terms of this could be seen as more a record of personalities and critics of them, rather than a history of the author’s times.
The question still remains whether or not Ammianus faithfully reflects the world that he describes or a completely subjective view. Auerbach analyses Ammianus as portraying a highly grim view of the events of the fourth century and failing to adequately indicate historical and social contexts. This idea is criticised by Matthews who believes that scholars are purely being evasive and that the Res Gestae can not be judged in this manner. Ammianus should instead be seen as a writer of his own times; it will of course have been subject to Ammianus’ pessimistic and optimistic views on certain events which he himself witnessed and was affected by.
While the events of the Res Gestae are open to interpretation, Ammianus’ writing does give us a rare look into the attitudes of certain social groups. Firstly, Ammianus was a military man and his writings were subject to the attitudes that accompanied this status. One could assert that the Res Gestae can be used as a source for Military attitudes, especially those of the common soldier with which Ammianus was acutely conscious of. The use of the first person in the text within the campaigns he describes indicates that Ammianus had indeed lived and worked hard throughout his life and understood the workings of the military and war. Ammianus’ direct involvement in the events of the fourth century provides a rare outlook. Matthews clearly defines this assessment, stating that “Ammianus deserves to be treated as the living product of time, place and memory.” With this in mind, the account of the author’s times in the Res Gestae regains ground as a significant fourth century text.
From the Res Gestae the reader also gets a look into the priorities and attitudes of the Roman upper classes from Ammianus’ treatment of them. One of the most defined of these is their attitude towards foreigners. Thompson states that Ammianus doubted the existence of “sincere friendship at Rome.” The Res Gestae accounts several incidents where the attitude towards foreigners is severely negative in the minds of the Roman citizens. Often Ammianus finds significant fault with the Upper classes and their prizing of pride, popularity, wealth and superstition over the intimacy of their fellows, lower classes and foreigners. He also brings particular attention to how they quickly lost interest in new comers when they did greet them.
In the surviving books of the Res Gestae, Ammianus only makes one clear reference to his background. This appears in the closing statements when he reveals ‘haec ut miles quondam et Graecus…pro virium explicavi mensura’ that he is writing as a soldier and a Greek. Apart from this statement, the life of Ammianus must be interpreted through the many indirect references and the grammar used in the Res Gestae, which holds a strong autobiographical tone. This is firstly illustrated by the author’s use of the first person plural with the events of 363 onwards. The assessment that Ammianus was a military man who served in Julian’s expeditions is noted from his account of the crossing of the Khabur at Cercusium during Julian’s advance in book 23. Here, Ammianus changes his writing to include first person plurals opposed to the third person plurals he had been using in previous books. The Res Gestae provides us with a fair timeline of the author’s life through his associations with the military campaigns he recounts, and an overview of his status and background. Ammianus first appears on the staff of Ursicinus in 354 as it clearly states “…Ursicinus, to whose staff I had been attached by the Emperor’s order, was summoned from Nisibis…” Ammianus’ personal involvement in events becomes more pronounced in progressing Books. He often associates himself with the trials and tribulations of Ursicinus to whom he had great loyalty, as well as indicating his involvement in campaigns of Julian and events close toAntioch, where he may have originated from. Ammianus’ on occasion seems to omit himself from the text where one may expect to see him. This suggests that in the intervening years in Julian’s reign he was not himself held highly-regarded. What the reader gathers from the Res Gestae about the life of Ammianus is itself bias material which is subject to the author’s own wish to glorify himself and his peers and proclaim his own ideas.
Scholars have made reference to a letter of Libanius to a Marcellinus residing in Rome, and regard it as a strong standpoint as to which one can reconstruct the background of Ammianus Marcellinus. There is however argument for and against this Marcellinus being the Marcellinus who penned the Res Gestae. Where Matthews asserts that this Marcellinus is indisputably the author of the Res Gestae, other scholars have critically analysed it with the belief that this letter could have been penned to another with a similar name. Fornara, Bowerstock and Barnes are three such scholar that in recent years have challenged the traditional identification of the recipient. These three scholars have brought to light disputes concerning the place of origin for the recipient being Antioch, however in more recent debates Barnes has moved slightly towards Matthews’ view.
With this in mind the modern scholar should turn their attention back to the writing of the author himself and the indications that he personally makes to his life. Barnes asserts that it is necessary to use both indirect indications within a text and any explicit external evidence to recreate the author’s life. While this is indeed an important way of exploring evidence and interpretation, in the case of Ammianus where the most accessible external reference is in dispute, the Res Gestae becomes the most significant source of information for the author’s own life.
Ammianus Marcellinus’ Res Gestae can be assessed from several standpoints. As a historical account it is full of bias and subjectivity that many scholars believe is a failing on the part of the author. But when seen as an account of the author’s own life and times, as an account of the present day rather than a historical work these failings emerge as a unique eyewitness view of events. In critically analysing the Res Gestae one sees that the inconsistencies in the text obscure much of the history and as an account of events may be seen as unreliable. The Res Gestae on the other hand provides a record of social ideologies and caricatures, as well as an autobiographical streak that allows for a fair account of the life of the author through indirect references. Ammianus is by no means an objective historian and his works are subject to fault and omission but as an account of his life and times they are invaluable.
 Matthews, J., ‘Ammianus’ (1989), p.228
 Barnes, T.D., ‘Ammianus Marcellinus and the Representation of Historical Reality’ (London, 1998), p.viii
 Such authors in this canon include Tacitus and Livy which Ammianus’ works are often read in relation and comparison to
 Gibbon, E., ‘A Vindication of Some Passages in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Chapters of the History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ (London, 1779), p.110-111; ‘The English Essays of Edward Gibbon’ ed. Craddock, P.A., (Oxford, 1972), p.299
 Barnes, op.cit., p.8
 Matthews, op.cit, p.28
 Barnes, op.cit., p.198
 Ammianus, op.cit., 14.11
 Matthews, J., ‘Homo Victor. Classical Essays for John Bramble’ (Bristol, 1987), p.279
 Barnes, op.cit., p.18
 Ammianus, op.cit, 15
 Seager, R., ‘Roman Policy on the Rhine and the Danube in Ammianus’ The Classical Quarterly, New Series, Vol.49, No.2 (1999), p.579
 Ammianus, op.cit., 10
 Seager, op.cit., p.580
 Ammianus, op.cit., 25.3-7
 Browning, The Emperor Julian (Los Angeles, 1978), p.109
 Ammianus, op.cit., p.248 – Julian’s extensive sacrifice made even the pagans uneasy, Ammianus’ criticism as a pagan scholar illustrates this uneasiness
 Auerbach, ‘Mimesis’ (1953), p.53-60
 Barnes, op.cit., p.14
 Thompson, E.A., ‘Ammianus Marcellinus and the Romans’Greece andRome, Vol.11, No.33 (1942), p.132
 Matthews, J., ‘The Roman Empire of Ammianus’ (Baltimore, 1989), p.7
 Thompson, op.cit., p.133
 Ammianus, op.cit., 31.16.9
 Barnes, op.cit., p.1, Ammianus, op.cit., 23.5.7
 Ammianus, op.cit., 23.5.7
 Ibid., 14.9
 Barnes, op.cit., p.56
 Ibid., p.55
‘War Minus the Shooting’, is what Orwell in Spivey’s ‘The Ancient Olympics’ states as being what serious sport amounts to. But, can this be said to be the sole idea behind competition at the Olympic Games in the seventh and eighth centuries BC, or did competition amount to more?
Competition at the Olympic Games was not just about ‘war minus the shooting’ especially since one of its key bases was in religion. By competing, athletes were attempting to become closer to the gods. Spivey asserts that in Greek Myth all the events that appeared at the Olympic Games during the eighth and seventh centuries BC were first participated in by gods or heroes. This suggests that by participating in these competitions, the athletes were striving to reach what those gods associated with those events, represented. Spathari explains that the competition and training was essentially an attempt to attain and evolve physical, intellectual and spiritual powers. In striving to perfect their physical and spiritual wellbeing the Ancient Greeks believed that they would follow the path which led to the divine.
Excavators have uncovered evidence of altars in and around the sanctuary of Zeus in the form of ashy deposits, which could be attributed to the seventh and eighth centuries, along with a number of votive offerings. The Olympic Games were primarily a religious festival and the competition was a way of worshipping the gods: primarily Zeus who came to Olympia in the tenth century with the Eleans. It is also argued by such as Sansone that “all sport is a ritual sacrifice of bodily energy” suggesting that the competitor and competition at Olympia doubled as both a dedicator and a dedication.
Early competition in the Olympic Games also held associations with the heroic ideal. Competition at Olympia was in part a means to gain attributes of the heroic ideal as set out by Homer. Tyrrell assesses that one of the most important aims of competition at the Olympic Games was to become the best of men. Tyrell’s assessment is backed up by Homer’s statement “always to be best and superior to others” (Iliad VI 208), which was transformed into an idea that became the essence of competition in the Ancient Greek World. It became a purpose of competition to achieve this superior status amongst your fellow competitors.
Heroic poetry had a very significant role in competition in Ancient Greece and in particular at the Olympic Games. The competitive ethos within these texts influenced the people’s ideas of what was important in life and how these ideals could be achieved. This heroic poetry expresses that fame, honour and glory are the most important things to strife for, and this was an idea internalised by ancient Greek society to the extreme. Competition at events such as the Olympic Games was the only way one could achieve the glory only otherwise gained in war. In this way the Olympic Games could be viewed as “war minus the shooting,” but not in the sense which Orwell refers to. Spivey notes that Homer can be assessed as a great influence on competitive ethos throughout the whole of society due to becoming a “set text for school children, a poet whose lines were widely known and often quoted.”
Tyrrell explains that the ancient Greeks admired and “strove to emulate the values of the Homeric warrior,”  chief among these values being his arete, his valour. The Iliad and the Odyssey illustrate the shame culture in Ancient Greece and the Homeric values of honour and fame. This competitive ethos was internalized from the heroic poetry, and competitions such as at the Olympic Games were a means of achieving what all Greeks desired, kleos (κλέος) and arete (ἀρετή). Homer’s account of the funeral games of Patroclus demonstrates the quest for kleos (fame/glory) and arete (valour) though athletic competition. When Menelaos and Antiochos are arguing over the prize of second place in the chariot race, essentially they are arguing for their kleos and to retain their arete. Homer’s account of this event illustrates the importance of these values to Greek society in the ferocity of the arguments of these two characters.
Tyrell asserts that the “study of Greek athletes begins with the warrior’s arete because in many ways his values continued to impel men to pursue through athletics the glory no longer obtainable in war.” During the eighth and seventh centuries BC the quest for individual honour was forced out of war by the introduction of the hoplite form of fighting. This suggests that the quest for honour moved to other “competitive areas”, among them the athletic contest.
Good strife being born of “a coupling between Zeus and the night, encouraged mortals to make the most of their brief time on earth…nurture desires for wealth and fame.” Due to the popularity and influence of this idea worded by Hesiod, it can be asserted that competition at the Olympic Games was not only about “war minus the shooting,” but a means to create this good strife. Spivey assesses that Homer and Hesiod “established and exemplified the principle of positive strife” and promoted contests and challenges as the “necessary trials of all creative endeavour.”
Orwell believed that competition was bound up with “hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence.” Though in many ways competition in the Olympic Games does reflect the acts of warfare, it was also about friendship and unity of states and a reflection of the individual and society. Eusebius asserts that Iphitus consulted the Delphic oracle and introduced the Olympic festival in response to the concern for wars, and he proclaimed a truce for those involved in the Olympic Games. Homer in ‘The Odyssey’ demonstrates that rivalry ceased to be hostile and became friendly competition as the character of the Odyssey’s games is the same as that attributed to the Panhellenic games.
An assessment of competition at the Olympic Games suggests that spectators did not just see competitions as mindless violence, but as a reflection of themselves and their emotions. This idea can be seen clearly in the ancient term ‘Olympiakoi Agones’ (Ολυμπιακοί Αγώνες) meaning the ‘Olympic Games’. Agon which is the Greek word for contest is related to the English word ‘agony’ and is hence a reference to the contest being a reflection of one’s emotions in relation to Olympic competition.
The idea of “war minus the shooting” though is by no means unprecedented in relation to competition at the Olympic Games in the seventh century BC at least.  Spivey states that sport was a “sublimated form of human aggression, a channelling of the biological instinct to fight.” In other words, though the competition’s main purpose was the quest for honour and glory, the desire for which was the result of the internalisation of competitive ethos from heroic poetry, the platonic essence of athletics was an act of mimicry of fighting. This relation to the mimicry can be seen in eighth century black figure pottery where the sports illustrated, such as wrestling and hand to hand combat, can be rationalised as a set of drills for “infantry fighting” in later centuries.
From the analysis of the Olympic Games in the seventh and eighth centuries BC we see that competition did not just amount to “War Minus the Shooting.” Competition was not only the mimicry of war acts but was seen as a religious dedication and was concerned with trying to achieve a status close to the gods and divinity by trying to be the best of men and participating in events associated with the gods. Though later on in the seventh century, competition did reflect many of the acts of warfare, it was first and foremost a quest to gain and retain honour and hence considerably more than “War Minus the Shooting.”
 Spivey, N., The Ancient Olympics (Oxford, 2005), p.4
 Spathari, E., the Greek Spirit of Competition and the Panhellenic Games, in 1000 Years of the Olympic Games (Sydney, 2000), p.16
 Ibid., Book VI
 Raschke, W.J., The Archaeology of the Olympics (Wisconsin), p.21
 Golden, M., Sport and Society in Ancient Greece (Cambridge, 1998), p.17
 Tyrrell, B., The Smell of Sweat: Greek Athletics, Olympics, and Culture (Illinois, 2004), p.4
 Homer, Iliad, Translated by A.T. Murray, 1924, Book VI 208
 Tyrell, B., op.cit., p.2
 Spivey, op.cit., p.15
 Tyrell, op.cit., p.2
 Homer, op.cit., Book VI – Presentation of the prizes for the chariot race at the funeral games of Patroclus
 Ibid., Book VI 208
 Tyrell op.cit., p.2
 Ibid., p 8
 Spivey, op.cit., p.3
 Ibid., p.5
 Ibid., p.5
 Ibid., p.1
 Eusebius, Chronicle, p 193
 Homer, Odyssey 8.97-253 – Odysseus in the tenth year after the Trojan war stays with the Phaeacians and participates in athletic contests as a guest of the Phaeacians.
 Eusebius chronicle – shows that events that emulated war like activities only start to occur around 708BC with introduction of wrestling and the pentathlon later followed in the early seventh century BC by chariot and boxing competitions.
 Spivey, op.cit., p.2
 1000 Years of the Olympic Games (Sydney, 2000), p.18
 Spivey, op.cit., p.3
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