Ammianus Marcellinus (c. 4th century) was a man of Greek ancestry who was raised in Antioch. He joined the Roman military and, although he did not distinguish himself in battle, he gained a high rank as an officer. He eventually retired from the military to pursue his scholarly ambitions, a drive which ultimately led 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 times in the 4th century. The resulting Res Gestae, also known simply as the History, then and now has been an object of rave reviews, and Ammianus Marcellinus remains commonly known as the ‘last great historian’ of ancient Rome.
Although indeed a great historian who produced a history of priceless value to our understanding of the 4th century, Ammianus Marcellinus could at times be quite unique from his fellow Roman greats, such as Livy and Tacitus. Renowned Roman historians, such as the two just mentioned, were not only known for their historical research, but also for the eloquence and artistry with which they presented their information in writing. Ammianus, too, had a knack for drama and imagery, but unlike his successful predecessors, his text was in no way regarded as a masterpiece of sentence composition. Instead, Ammianus had his own unique (sometimes bordering on gaudy or simply bad) writing style and blatantly embraced his own quirks while he wrote. As a result, his History is filled with bizarre wording and huge digressions off into all sorts of subjects that piqued his interest. Yet, whereas the average writer may find such attributes to be detrimental to their work, Ammianus’ narrative skill and talent for imagery turned his bizarre digressions into a charming and entertaining strength. Take, for example, Ammianus’ unforgettably vivid description of the tree-on-tree orgies that go on in date-palm groves:
“We are told that palms themselves mate, and that the sexes may easily be distinguished. It is said too that female trees conceive when they are smeared with the seeds of the male, and that they take delight in mutual love, which is shown by the fact that they lean towards each other and cannot be separated even by a strong wind. If the female is not smeared with the seed of the male in the usual way, she miscarries and loses her fruit before it is ripe. If it is not known with what male tree a female is in love her trunk is smeared with her own nectar, and nature arranges that another tree senses the sweet smell. This is the evidence on which belief in a kind of copulation is based” (History, 24.3).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Palm tree landscape modified with the addition of a dryad painted by Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919) and a nymph painted by James Carroll Beckwith (1852–1917), all [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Ammianus Marcellinus’ History, translated by Walter Hamilton as The Later Roman Empire. London: Penguin Classics, 1986, 2004.