Ammianus Marcellinus was a man of Greek ancestry who was born in the year 330 at Antioch. He spent his early life as a warrior in the Roman military and, although he gained little renown as a tactician, he did achieve a high rank as an officer. He began pursuing his true calling, however, when retired from the military around 371 to focus on his scholarly ambitions. This calling ultimately brought him to Rome, where he wrote a 31-book text in Latin that traced events from the time of Emperor Nerva (r. 96-98) to his own time in the 4th century. The resulting Res Gestae, also known simply as the History, was highly praised in his own time, and continues to be admired to this day. His work is regarded as ancient Rome’s last great history, and Ammianus, as its author, is often remembered as the last great Roman historian.
Ammianus Marcellinus was indeed a great historian and he produced a history of priceless value to our understanding of the 4th century, but he had peculiar differences that made him unique from his fellow Roman greats, such as Livy and Tacitus. The two renowned Roman historians just mentioned were not only known for their historical research, but also for the aura of eloquence and artistry that emanates from their work. Ammianus, too, had a knack for drama and imagery, but unlike his successful predecessors, Ammianus’ text was in no way regarded as a literary masterpiece in the way it was composed. Quite the opposite, Ammianus had his own unique style and tone—his History is filled with bizarre or gaudy wording, as well as huge digressions off into all sorts of subjects that piqued his interest. Such characteristics might be detrimental to the average writer, but Ammianus’ narrative skill and talent for imagery turned his bizarre digressions into a charming and entertaining strength. The appeal of his peculiar, but refreshing, writing style can be easily ascertained from a humorous and vivid description of tough, kickboxing Gallic women found in Ammianus’ History:
“Almost all Gauls are tall and fair-skinned, with reddish hair. Their savage eyes make them fearful objects; they are eager to quarrel and excessively truculent. When in the course of a dispute any of them calls in his wife, a creature with gleaming eyes much stronger than her husband, they are more than a match for a whole group of foreigners; especially when the woman, with swollen neck and gnashing teeth, swings her great white arms and begins to deliver a rain of punches mixed with kicks, like missiles launched by the twisted strings of a catapult” (History, 15.12).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Greco-Roman man and woman painted by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Ammianus Marcellinus’ History, translated by Walter Hamilton as The Later Roman Empire. London: Penguin Classics, 1986, 2004.