Ammianus Marcellinus: Biographical Record in the Res Gestae

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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.[1] 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.”[2]

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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.[3]  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’[4].  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.[5]  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.[6] 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.”[7]  Matthews even likens the author’s writing to scenes from a play.  The confrontation, for instance, between Leonitus and Peter Valvomeres[8] exhibits “contrasting emotions and postures” leading to “ritual violence.”[9]  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.[10] 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.[11]  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.[12]  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.[13]  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.[14]  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.[15] This is a view which is in contrast with many others such as Browning’s who asserts that Julian broke completely away from Christianity.[16]  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.[18]  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.[19]  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.[20]  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.[21]  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.”[22]  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.”[23]  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.[24] 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’[25] 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.[26]  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.[27] 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…”[28] 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.[29]  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.[30]  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.

[1] Matthews, J., ‘Ammianus’ (1989), p.228

[2] Barnes, T.D., ‘Ammianus Marcellinus and the Representation of Historical Reality’ (London, 1998), p.viii

[3] Such authors in this canon include Tacitus and Livy which Ammianus’ works are often read in relation and comparison to

[4] 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

[5] Barnes, op.cit., p.8

[6] Matthews, op.cit, p.28

[7] Barnes, op.cit., p.198

[8] Ammianus, op.cit., 14.11

[9] Matthews, J., ‘Homo Victor. Classical Essays for John Bramble’ (Bristol, 1987), p.279

[10] Barnes, op.cit., p.18

[11] Ammianus, op.cit, 15

[12] Seager, R., ‘Roman Policy on the Rhine and the Danube in Ammianus’ The Classical Quarterly, New Series, Vol.49, No.2 (1999), p.579

[13] Ammianus, op.cit., 10

[14] Seager, op.cit., p.580

[15] Ammianus, op.cit., 25.3-7

[16] Browning, The Emperor Julian (Los Angeles, 1978), p.109

[17] Ammianus, op.cit., p.248 – Julian’s extensive sacrifice made even the pagans uneasy, Ammianus’ criticism as a pagan scholar illustrates this uneasiness

[18] Auerbach, ‘Mimesis’ (1953), p.53-60

[19] Barnes, op.cit., p.14

[20] Thompson, E.A., ‘Ammianus Marcellinus and the Romans’Greece andRome, Vol.11, No.33 (1942), p.132

[21] ibid.134

[22] Matthews, J., ‘The Roman Empire of Ammianus’ (Baltimore, 1989), p.7

[23] Thompson, op.cit., p.133

[24] ibid.132

[25] Ammianus, op.cit., 31.16.9

[26] Barnes, op.cit., p.1, Ammianus, op.cit., 23.5.7

[27] Ammianus, op.cit., 23.5.7

[28] Ibid., 14.9

[29] Barnes, op.cit., p.56

[30] Ibid., p.55


2 thoughts on “Ammianus Marcellinus: Biographical Record in the Res Gestae

    GraecoMuse Turns One « GraecoMuse said:
    October 13, 2012 at 12:51 am

    […] Ammianus Marcellinus: Biographical Record in the Res Gestae – 23/03/12 […]

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