Arnaldo Momigliano on Ammianus Marcellinus
Web Publication by Mountain Man Graphics, Australia
--- Ammianus Marcellinus
Quoting A.M. on A.M.
His histories might have for motto his own words:
--- Ammianus, Res Gestae 24.3.1.
It is symbolic that the greatest feat of his military career was to escape unnoticed from besieged Amida while the Persians were breaking into the city. He may have become more reticent about religion in the Books xxvi—xxxi which he wrote after 392 when Theodosius hardened against the pagans. But even the earlier books, written as they were in more tolerant years, are not much more explicit. He dislikes the Germans, yet his unwillingness to analyse the causes of the barbarian successes is notorious. He deplores the greed and avarice of some Roman aristocrats, especially of the Anicii who were just then turning to Christianity. But he cannot have had any general objection against the senatorial class among which he had his pagan friends, Praetextatus, Eupraxius and Symmachus. An acute and passionate judge of individuals, he avoids our direct questions and leaves us wondering. His master Tacitus is a paragon of directness by comparison.
If reticence, love of the pagan past, moderation and erudition were the prominent features of these Latin historians, the Christians did not have much to fear from their work. Historians of this kind could please other historians. Ammianus Marcellinus, the Historia Augusta and the now lost histories by Nicomachus Flavianus were read in the sixth century in the circle of Symmachus and Cassiodorus, when there was a revival of interest in Roman history (29). But Ammianus, the Historia Augusta, and Aurelius Victor were never popular for all we know.
The fact that at least one of these historical works, the Historia Augusta, is guilty of professional dishonesty is not a sign of strength, for historiography of this kind. It would be unfair to generalize since so much of the fourth-century historical production is lost. Within the limits of our knowledge we are constantly reminded of the fact that the true pagans of the fourth century found their most profound satisfaction, not in writing new history, but in copying existing histories, trying to solve problem of antiquarianism, commenting on Virgil and other classics, reading and writing poetry in a pagan spirit. The real passion was in those who tried to revive the past by direct religious worship, by discussion of ancient custom, by the study of ancient writers.
Our instinct is right, I think, when we consider Macrobius, Symmachus, Servius and Donatus more typically pagan than Ammianus Marcellinus Festus who wrote the historical breviarium has sometimes been identified with Festus Avienus, the translator of Aratus. The identification is not to be maintained. The historian Festus was even accused of atheism by Eunapius (p. 481). The poet Festus Avienus, a friend of the Nicomachi Flaviani, was warmly devoted to Jupiter and to the Etruscan goddess Nortia of his native country (30). When he died, his son wrote on his tomb that Jupiter was opening the skies to him — the son echoing in his lines his father’s lines:
Nam Iuppiter aethram
Pandit, Feste, tibi candidus ut venias
Iamque venis ( I.L.S. 2944)
Therefore, St Augustine, who knew where to look for the real enemy, was not worried by contemporary pagan historians in the Latin tongue, such as Ammianus Marcellinus. Greek historians, such as Eunapius, worried him even less because he probably did not know them: his command of Greek was modest. But he was disturbed by the idealization of the Roman past which he found in fourth-century Latin antiquarians, poets and commentators of poets. He saw in them the roots of the new resistance against Christianity which became evident towards the end of the century.
He went back to the sources of their antiquarianism, and primarily to Varro, in order to undermine the foundations of their work. He fought the antiquarians, the sentimental and emotional pagans, of his time — not the contemporary historians. The latter might be left to die from natural causes. But the former had to be fought. The result is to be seen in the De civitate dei. It is also to be seen in the work of St Augustine’s pupil Orosius who was induced by him to write against the readers of Livy, not against the readers of the Historia Augusta or of Ammianus.
All went according to plan, except that the pagan historians of the fourth century were not really going to die. They were only going to sleep for some centuries. They belonged to that classical tradition in historiography for which ecclesiastical history, whatever its merits, was no substitute. Though we may have learnt to check our references from Eusebius — and this was no small gain — we are still the disciples of Herodotus and Thucydides: we still learn our history of the late empire from Ammianus Marcellinus.
--- Pagan and Christian Historiography in the Fourth Century A.D.
This essay first appeared in A. Momigliano, ed., The Conflict Between
Paganism and Christianity in the Fourth Century,
The Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1963, pp. 79—99