Ammianus Marcellinus – The Later Roman Empire

With the end of the (undivided) Roman Empire the tradition of the classic historians also came to an end. Ammianus Marcellinus is regarded as the last of them. In so far that his work is the most recent to survive. After him history was mostly written by churchmen who had a very different perspective or historians who presented their work in their own way. What defines the classic historian is that he does research on events, at times he questions his sources and events, he adds long speeches to historical persons at important moments and he adds plenty of digressions to provide background information on a variety of topics.

The translation that is widely available is called The Later Roman Empire (c. 390). It covers the history of the Roman Empire from the years 354 to 375.  Not much else has survived but this can be considered the most important part as it covers a period Marcellinus lived in himself. Even more important is that Marcellinus was present during certain events so certain sections can be considered autobiographic. Many of his other sources he knew or he could ask people from the region by traveling there. He thus did not have to rely much on the works of other historians for this part of his history. Of course this does not guarantee the truth as memories deteriorate over time and opinions on events can change.

This edition is an abridged version in which most of the digressions have been left out to provide a more coherent reading of the history. Some digressions have been left in to give an example and to be honest I don’t really rue their absence.

The period covered is interesting because it is a transition period. First it describes a time when the Roman Empire has gone through a period of recovery and relative stability, mostly markedly by the reign of Constantine the Great. The history starts with his descendants and there is much fighting to keep the empire secure. The second part contains events that herald in a new decline, one that will lead to a final division of the Roman Empire. Second is another transition. Christianity is on the rise, but paganism is still widely spread. Marcellinus himself is a pagan and he is more interested in prophetic events than the activities of the early Christian church. Religion is not very important in history for him. Something that will change very much in the next centuries where the religion factor will play a major role in politics and history.

What about the history itself? The coverage of events depends much on the sources available. Two events in which Marcellinus himself was present hold the most detail and largest coverage. A large part of the history is about the emperor Julian, who reigned for only 2 years (361-363). There are 3 reasons why. The first is that Marcellinus saw in Julian much good, especially compared to most of the other emperors whose rule was often cruel and random. The second is that Julian wrote memoires and these provide one of the few written sources Marcellinus has available. And third is that Julian did not really rule the empire. Most of his reign he spent on a long campaign attacking the Persian Empire, which ended in his death. Marcellinus was a lower officer in that army.

As a historian Marcellinus frequently voices his opinion. He is critical on corruption and injustice. Frequently he describes the brutal and cruel behavior of the emperors and a number of his governors, who despite their deeds rarely are punished. They only fall when an emperor dies and new ambitious men try to replace them. All these kinds of misrule seem a sign of the decline of the empire, certainly if you compare them to the early centuries when there the incidental bad ruler still had some restraint and could be brought to justice.

The Later Roman Empire is a very interesting history. With a historian describing events of his own time there is no distance to what he is writing about. Here and there he makes choices on what to provide more detailed information on and these cases give a great view on events, life and behavior. As the writer holds strong opinions he does not hesitate to voice them, which can be considered refreshing compared to other classic historians. It also gives the reader insight to the historians mind and views.

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