Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae XIV.6.3-6

Praise of Rome and reflection about the old age of the Roman people.
Name of the author: 
Ammianus Marcellinus
384 CE to 385 CE
Literary genre: 
Title of work: 
Res Gestae

Ammianus Marcellinus was of Greek origin. It has been suggested that he came from and had a residence in Antioch on the Orontes (Matthews, The Roman Empire, p. 8-9). He fulfilled a military career the first step of which had been admission in 354 CE into the protectores domestici, that is the elite troops of the imperial guard, where he remained probably until 363 CE. In 354 CE, when Constantius II was the sole emperor (350-361 CE), Ammianus had been attached to the magister equitum Ursicinus who was in charge of controlling the further eastern area of the Roman Empire, nearby the Persian kingdom. With the exception of the period 354-356 CE during which Ammianus went to Italy and Cologne to escort Ursicinus, Ammianus spent most of his military career in the far East of the Empire. In 359 CE, because of the incoherencies of the imperial orders, Ammianus and Ursicinus suffered an important defeat against the Persians at Amida and were obliged to withdraw to Armenia and finally return to Antioch. Because of this defeat, Ammianus was temporarily set aside. After the death of Constantius II in 363 CE, Ammianus became influential again. During the summer 362 CE, Julian was present in Antioch to prepare the future campaigns against the Persians. The military campaigns started in March 363 CE, and Ammianus took part in them. After four difficult months, Julian was killed during a battle in June 363 CE. This event marked the end of Ammianus’s military career; he went back to Antioch where he stayed for many years before going to Rome where he composed the Histories during the 380’s. In a letter of 392 CE, Libanius recalls that Ammianus lived in Rome and gave public lectures of parts of his Histories to a Roman audience that welcomed him as one of the most famous historian of his time (Libanius, Letters 1063).
As a continuation of Tacitus’s Histories, Ammianus chose to write a work entitled Res Gestae starting with Nerva’s reign (96 CE) and ending with the death of the emperor Valens (378 CE). As the first thirteen books of the work have been lost, the narrative starts with the events of the years 353-354 CE. The work ends in book XXXI with the disaster of Adrianople, on the 9th of August 378 CE, which saw the defeat of the Roman army by Gothic troops and the death of the emperor Valens. For Ammianus, as for all the Roman contemporaries, this defeat was a shock. He asserts that even the most tremendous historical defeats of Rome (with the exception of Cannae, see XXXI.13.19) or the most recent setbacks experienced against the Persians – that he saw with his own eyes – were far less dishonouring and cruel than this defeat against the Goths. This defeat was followed by a period commonly called the “Theodosian restoration” or “recovery,” during which Theodosius I tried to settle and integrate the various barbarian groups inside the Empire. After the foedus (peace treaty) of 382 CE, the Goths were allowed to settle on lands located between the Danube and the Balkans. As Ammianus may have been present in Rome around 383 CE, he may have followed from a distance this policy led by Theodosius I in the eastern regions of the Empire. At the same time, in Rome, the climate was very tense because of the Altar of Victory affair. Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, a senator who was at that time Prefect of Rome, asked the new western emperor, Valentinian II, to restore the Altar in Rome (the altar had been removed from the Curia under Constantius II, reinstalled by Julian, and finally removed again under Gratian), in 384 CE. In Milan, where the imperial court had been then transferred, Valentinian II was under the influence of the bishop Ambrosius who was against any proposal of restoration. This affair divided Pagan and Christian aristocracies in Italy until the very end of the fourth century. Ammianus wrote his Res Gestae in this context and, even if he was pagan and had been a great admirer of Julian, he never engages himself in polemical religious statements into his work. Some kind of religious neutrality actually pervades the praise of Rome which is presented here.

The text presented here is an excerpt of the fourteenth book that narrates the events of the years 353-354 CE. An allusion in XIV.6.19 to the fact that foreigners had been expelled from Rome not long ago because of risks of starvation – an event that occurred in 384 CE –, makes it possible to date the writing of this book to slightly after this event. As in most of the other books, Ammianus deals with a large variety of subjects as he narrates the most important events that occurred in every part of the Empire. Thus, in book fourteen, Ammianus starts with a discussion of the cruelty of the Caesar Gallus, and then jumps to the invasions of the Isaurians, to the failure of one military operation led by the Persians, to some invasions of the Saracens, to the torture of some partisans of the usurper Magnentius, and to a long section concerned with the vices of the Senate and of the Roman people. Inside this later development, Ammianus inserts a praise of Rome that corresponds to the paragraphs 3 to 5 of the text presented here. Even if nearly all the modern editions of this text considers that § 6 is part of the praise of Rome, Timothy D. Barnes has rightly noticed that, in fact, this paragraph serves as some kind of introduction to the rest of the narrative which is focused on the denunciation of the vices of the Roman people (Barnes, Ammianus, p. 30, n. 30). When he wrote this praise of Rome, Ammianus was also influenced by other works using the model of the four ages of the Roman people. He adapted this model to suit his perspective, which appears as less optimistic and smooth than that of two other famous praises of Rome composed a few years after (see Claudian, On the Consulship of Stilicho III.130-161; Rutilius Namatianus, On His Return I.47-92; these three praises are compared in Zarini, “Histoire, panégyrique”). 

Ammianus starts his praise of Rome by highlighting the extraordinary growth of the city (surgeret, sublimibus incrementis, perfectam summitatem in § 3), even if we understand by reading the rest of the passage that this growth occurred during the Republican period, and not in recent times (Zarini, “Histoire, panégyrique,” p. 170). In this introductive part of his praise of Rome, Ammianus deals with the divine factors that can explain her impressive progression. Instead of summoning Venus, Mars or any divine ancestors of the Roman people (see for instance Rutilius Namatianus, On His Return I.67-72), Ammianus appeals to the philosophical motif of Hellenistic origin and explains Rome’s extraordinary growth by the balanced influence of Fortuna and Virtus. This argument obviously echoes the words of Plutarch in his treaty On the Fortune of the Romans in which he defends the idea that the Roman Empire became such an extraordinary entity thanks to the balanced collaboration of τύχη and ἀρετή. In addition, Ammianus must have been inspired by the preface of Florus’s Epitome of the Roman History of Titus Livius. Florus actually praises the fact that the Roman Empire was established thanks to the competition of Virtus and Fortuna. The creation of a universal empire and the settlement of the pax romana under Augustus is thus presented as the moment at which the balance between Virtus and Fortuna was most optimal (Bessone, “Floro,” p. 115-117). In Ammianus’s text, if we read the § 5 and 6, in which he insists upon Rome’s conquests and rule – see below –, we have however clearly the impression that he gives greater credit to the virtus of the Roman people than to Rome’s Fortuna to explain Rome’s supremacy. Such kind of vision would perfectly echo Aelius Aristides’s opinion in his Roman Oration (Zarini, “Histoire, panégyrique,” p. 172-173).

One essential point of this text is Ammianus’s presentation of the four ages of the Roman people (in § 4). Once again, Ammianus follows the model already exposed by Florus in the preface of his work, Florus being himself influenced by previous authors that had also explained the history of Rome through a biological scheme (especially Cicero in De Republica II.1.3, and Seneca the Elder/the Philosopher as far as we know it through Lactantius in The Divine Institutes VII.15.14-16; for more details see Florus, Epitome of the Roman History of Titus Livius, Preface). A quick comparison between Florus’s and Ammianus’s models shows their similarities (see Jal, Florus, p. lxxvi-lxxviii). First, both authors apply this biological metaphor to the populus Romanus. Second, even if Ammianus’s model is exposed in a shorter and simplified way, the ages of the Roman people are divided in nearly the same way as in Florus. During his first age, his childhood, pueritia (corresponding to Florus’s infantia), the Roman people controlled its surroundings, that is the Latium. Then, during his adolescence, adulescentia, the Roman people conquered Italy and the surrounding territories. Then, during his third age, that is when he was a iuvenus, and when he became a man, vir (third age corresponding to Florus’s iuventus), he conquered the whole world. We can notice that, for this third age, both authors make the connection between manliness, victory and the endless expansion of the Roman Empire. By writing “Grown to youth and manhood, from every region which the vast globe includes, they brought back laurels and triumphs,” Ammianus uses a topos that appears in most praise of Rome: the celebration of the immensity of the Roman Empire that extends over the whole earth (the equation between the urbs and the orbis is also celebrated in Claudian, On the Consulship of Stilicho III.138-140; Rutilius Namatianus, On His Return I.55-62; Zarini, “Histoire, panégyrique,” p. 170-171).

In Florus’s, as in Ammianus’s model, the fourth age is that of the old age of the Roman people (vergens in senium, “declining into old age,” § 4). If Florus says explicitly that this senectus started under Caesar Augustus’s reign, Ammianus implies it when he stresses the contrast between the time when Rome tamed savage peoples or spread her laws and when she “has entrusted the management of her inheritance to the Caesars, as to her children” (§ 5). Ammianus, as Florus, associates the senectus/senium of the Roman people with a decline of his vitality, implying thus a break in Rome’s policy of conquests. Ammianus’s statement that the Roman people “ha[ve] come to a quieter period of life” (ad tranquilliora vitae discessit) during his fourth age, is smoother than Florus’s assertion that the Roman people grew old because of the “inactivity” (inertia) of previous emperors. Ammianus’s perspective is thus slightly different, as he does not accuse the Roman emperors of being responsible for Rome’s decline. To make sure that he is not nostalgic of the Republican period, he recalls in § 5 that the emperors have always been the administrators of Rome’s wealth and thus of her power. Moreover, by writing that, in his fourth age, the Roman people were “often owning victory to its name alone,” Ammianus fits in with the common praise of Rome’s expansionism which is also reasserted at the end of the praise with the metaphor of Roma domina – see below. However, this statement can be also understood in a much less positive perspective. It can actually give the impression that Rome does not deserve her new victories, which would have been acquired not because of the exceptional strength and courage of the Roman soldiers, but because of the latter’s reputation based on past events and glorious victories.
In Florus’s model, at the beginning of his senectus, the Roman people experienced an improvement thanks to the martial policy led by Trajan that enabled the old empire (senectus imperii) to regain strength (revirescere). Following the Ciceronian acceptance of the term senectus and contrary to Seneca who defends a cyclic vision of the evolution of Rome (the loss of the Republican libertas meaning for him the regression to infantia; see Facchini Tosi, Il proemio, p. 36-37), Florus understands the senectus of the Roman people as a linear and permanent state. For him, Rome would not die of old age, but rather would stay in this state of senectus, with alternating ups and downs (Bessone, “Floro,” p. 91 and n. 50). As Florus, Ammianus implies that the Roman people will remain in his old age in “his quieter period of life,” and that Rome will remain highly respected in every parts of the world (§ 6). Such kinds of laudatory statements fit in with the commonplaces of the literary exercise, but are of course far from the reality Ammianus was confronted with: the tremendous defeat of Adrianople against the Goths in 378 CE, the fact that the Persians persisted in challenging Roman armies on the eastern frontier, and the numerous usurpations that occurred during the second half of the fourth century (as that of Magnus Maximus in Britain in 383 CE). These various events show that, at the time Ammianus had started to compose his Res Gestae, Roman power was far from experiencing the quiet time described. Instead of mentioning these contemporary issues, in the rest of the chapter the historian limits himself to the enumeration of the various vices (greed, boasting, debauchery, idleness) that corrupted the morality of the Roman people (see XIV.6.7-25). He highlights in particular a recent decision that had led to the temporary expulsion, in 384 CE, of the foreigners present in Rome because of the risk of starvation (Symmachus took this decision when he was Prefect of Rome, see Symmachus, Letters II.7.3). Even if we ignore whether Ammianus had been personally concerned by this decision, the historian presents it as a dishonourable act that went against the vocation of Rome to be capital of the world. The depiction that he gives of the Urbs is that of a city controlled by a decadent and withdrawn Roman aristocracy (see XIV.6.19-25). Thus, in his presentation of the ages of the Roman people and more particularly in the part related to his old age, it is striking that Ammianus does not allude to the real threats that demonstrably challenged the stability of the Roman Empire. The only reservations he expresses fit within a tradition of denunciation of the moral decadence of the Roman people which seems largely outside of time.

Having exposed how the four ages of Rome were divided, Ammianus deals again with the transition from Rome’s age of conquest to her old age, which is equated with some kind of peaceful retreat. He may have wanted to present the senium under a more positive light than the term first implies. To do so, Ammianus uses common tropes that can be found in other praises of Rome, even if we can notice some specificities of his point of view.
In § 5, Ammianus recalls the two main bases of Rome’s power: her military strength and her laws. This conception is clearly echoed in a passage of another praise of Rome written approximately fifteen years later, in which Claudian assimilated Rome to the “parent of arms and of law” (armorum legumque parens, Claudian, On the Consulship of Stilicho III.136). The idea that the victory of Rome throughout the world equated to a victory of law is well-attested. Rutilius Namatianus speaks about the fact that Rome “has embraced the world with [her] legislative triumphs (legiferis triumphis)” (Rutilius Namatianus, On His Return I.77). Rutilius even goes further by praising Rome who “[gave] to the conquered a share in [her] law” (… offers victis proprii consortia iuris; Zarini, “Histoire, panégyrique,” p. 171-172). In a less explicit perspective, Claudian wrote that Rome dedit, “gave,” “the cradle (cunabula) of the beginnings of law” (Claudian, On the Consulship of Stilicho III.137). The fact that Claudian later praises Rome for her generosity in her capacity to integrate so many foreigners into her civic body implies that she was also generous to share her laws with them. If Ammianus actually praises Rome for her legal production, he does not insist upon her capacity to share her laws with foreigners. It is thus meaningful that Ammianus does not use the verbs dare, offere or any words related to the lexicon of sharing, but prefers a technical formulation latasque leges (from the construction leges ferre) meaning thus “laws were passed”. Instead of highlighting the fact that Rome shared her laws with the foreign peoples she integrated into her civic body, Ammianus highlights a different aspect: the imposition of Roman law went along with the success of liberty (libertas) (idea already expressed in Cicero, On behalf of Cluentius 146; On behalf of Balbus 31.3; De Jonge, Sprachlicher, p. 90).
The second important point of Ammianus’s praise of Rome is that he clearly insists on Rome’s power of domination. The way he depicts the barbarians in the sentence “after having crushed the proud necks of savage nations” (§ 5, post superbas efferatarum gentium cervices oppressas) fits with the usual way of representing the submission of barbarians by strength (see for instance the reference made by Florus: “the proud and haughty necks (cervices)” of all the foreign nations of the Empire that “struggled against the yoke that had been recently forced upon them”; Epitome of the Roman History of Titus Livius II.21[IV.12].2). However, contrary to Claudian and Rutilius who, in their later praises of Rome, insisted on the idea that Rome generously integrated all the peoples that she submitted and made them part of her civic body, Ammianus does not deal at all with this idea (see Claudian, On the Consulship of Stilicho III.150-158; Rutilius Namatianus, On His Return I.63, 65-66). In Ammianus’s text there is absolutely no praise of Rome’s capacity to assimilate the numerous peoples she conquered by the past. The defeated barbarians remain defeated enemies that have to be subdued. This idea is confirmed by the personifications of Rome used by Ammianus in § 5 and 6. Rome is actually presented as the perfect parent, parens, of the emperors (§ 5), but she remains the mistress, domina, and the queen, regina, of all the peoples on the earth. This point is meaningful as, from the end of the third century CE, Rome is much more frequently identified as a mother, mater, of all the peoples of the world. This maternal metaphor is attested in both Claudian’s and Rutilius’s praises of Rome (see Claudian, On the Consulship of Stilicho III.150-152; Rutilius Namatianus, On His Return I.49), and we can also quote Symmachus who, in a letter of 397 CE, recalls that Rome is the “parent of all peoples” (populum omnium parens, Symmachus, Letters III.11.3; about the transition from Roma domina to Roma mater, see Lavan, Slaves to Rome, p. 208-210). Thus, if the evolution of the language depicting Rome’s relationships with the peoples of the Empire is characterised, during Late Antiquity, by the emergence and the affirmation of the maternal metaphor of Rome, Ammianus preferred to reduce these relationships to a dominant/dominated one. This particularity of Ammianus can be explained by the traumatic record of the defeat at Adrianople and by the fact that he spent ten years of his life engaged in numerous military campaigns against barbarian peoples – especially the Persians. The impression that emerges from his Res Gestae is that the barbarians who challenged Rome’s authority and strength during the fourth century CE could never be integrated into the Empire (see Zarini, “Histoire, panégyrique,” p. 176-177).

To conclude, some motifs, such as the praise of Rome’s exceptional growth or of her universal expansion, are common to Ammianus’s praise of Rome and to those of Claudian and Rutilius Namatianus written fifteen and thirty years later. In that perspective, Ammianus’s praise of Rome fits in with a traditional literary motif that predates and postdates it.  However, we have noticed some particularities of Ammianus’s approach which can be explained by his personal experience. He presents barbarians only through the prism of domination and does not praise Rome for her capacity of integration of foreign peoples. In addition, contrary to Claudian or Rutilius who more or less explicitly refer to the pacific customs of Rome and to the advantages brought by the pax romana, Ammianus does not deal at all with this point. He just mentions the tranquilliora vita of the Roman people during the imperial period. Thus, even if Ammianus’s praise of Rome seems slightly more realistic than those of Claudian or Rutilius, Ammianus nevertheless does not mention the recent troubles that severely affected the stability of the Empire, even when he deals with the old age of the Roman people. He limits himself to the presentation of a respectable ageing Roman people who entrusted Rome’s wealth and power to the emperors and who remained in a peaceful retreat. As Florus before him, Ammianus does not imply that this fourth age will end. In that perspective, Ammianus’s praise becomes that of a Rome who is both eternal and aged, but, contrary to Florus or to Rutilius after him, he does not imply that Rome will rejuvenate or even recover strength.

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