Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae XXII.5

Comparison between Christians and Jews in terms of having less capacity for reason than barbarians
Name of the author: 
Ammianus Marcellinus
388 CE to 390 CE
Literary genre: 
Title of work: 
Res Gestae

For a presentation of Ammianus’s life and of his work, the Res Gestae, see Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae XIV.6.3-6.

It is commonly assumed that Ammianus composed books XX to XXII of his Res Gestae between 388 and 390 CE (on the dating see Fontaine, Frézouls and Berger, Ammien Marcellin, p. vii). The text presented here is an excerpt from book XXII dealing with events that occurred in 361-362 CE, that is at the very beginning of Julian’s reign as sole Augustus. The book opens with the account of Julian’s trip to Constantinople immediately after he heard the news of Constantius II’s death. He entered in the city on the 11th of December 361 CE. After having narrated how Julian succeeded to prevent unjust condemnations against dignitaries of Constantius and to restore order into the imperial palace, Ammianus narrates how Julian re-established pagan cults while authorising the Christians and other religious groups to observe freely their religion. This last development is also the occasion to deal with the numerous dissensions existing among Christians, dissensions that are highlighted by Julian through an echo to a famous exclamation of Marcus Aurelius about Jews. First, this statement of Marcus Aurelius is interesting in itself because it fits in with the negative Roman representation of the Jews, with a clear emphasis here on their rudeness and ungovernable nature. Second, the fact that through this exclamation of Julian, echoing that of Marcus Aurelius, Ammianus proposes a comparison between Christians and Jews is also interesting, and has to be investigated.

In the text presented here, Ammianus deals first with the way the emperor Julian progressed in his religious beliefs and finally chose to profess freely and publicly that he worshiped the gods when he was Augustus. As a consequence of this religious change, Ammianus enumerates some of the measures taken by Julian when he was the sole Augustus: the opening of the temples; the authorisation of sacrifices, and the re-establishment of the worship of gods (§ 2). It is important to contextualize this account and to associate it with the evolution of the imperial legislation towards pagan cults and sacrifices.
Actually, even though a historiographical tradition had misinterpreted some constitutions of the Theodosian Code and led to the conclusion that Constantius II, and even for some scholars Constantine I, enacted laws prohibiting the practice of public sacrifices and more generally the pagan cults, a majority of scholars agree today on the fact that there had not been any systematic anti-pagan imperial policy before the last decades of the fourth century. Actually, until the anti-pagan measures taken in 381-382 CE by Gratian, the official religion in the Roman Empire remained traditional Roman religion. The reign of Gratian marked a progressive shift in the religious policy of the imperial power. On the one hand, the imperial legislation of the time that has been preserved shows that the decisions taken by the emperors in terms of religious policy fitted in with a tradition: the interdiction to perform divinatory sacrifices and the necessity to preserve temples as public buildings were recalled (CTh XVI.10.7 and 8). On the other hand, the years 381-382 CE were also a period during which some measures were taken in order to undermine the economic resources of numerous pagan cults or priesthoods, and also to assert more openly the Christian orientations of the imperial power (on the removal of the Altar of Victory from the Roman Curia by Gratian in 382 CE, his refusal of the title of pontifex maximus, and the suppression of the stipends granted to the Vestals, see Symmachus, Relatio III.8). However, even if there was a progressive shift of the imperial policy towards a more pro-Christian perspective in the 380s, it is clearly in the 390s that these transformations accelerated. One of the most obvious was the systematic and durable interdiction of all kinds of sacrifices – and not only of the divinatory sacrifices performed in a private context – via successive laws in 391-392 CE (see Belayche, “Realia versus leges,” p. 343-347, 357-358; and Codex Theodosianus XVI.10.12 (8th November 392 CE)).
Ammianus, a follower of Roman traditional religion, wrote this book and this passage dealing with Julian’s religious policy at the very end of the 380s, or even in 390 CE, that is slightly before the series of anti-pagan laws made by Theodosius. The contrast may have thus been obvious for the author between the context in which he wrote these lines and the historical events he narrated. The way Ammianus depicts Julian’s measures gives the impression that the religious policy he undertook was the strict opposite of that of Constantius II before him. Unlike Constantine who had had a very liberal and tolerant attitude towards the practice of sacrifice – under his reign only the practice of divinatory sacrifices performed in a private context was prohibited (this point has been well shown in De Giovanni, Costantino, p. 15-104) –, Constantius II led an active anti-pagan policy essentially at the end of his reign. Actually, two constitutions of 356 CE have been preserved, one of them forbidding the performance of any sacrificial practices on penalty of death (CTh XVI.10.6 of the 19th February 356), the other strengthening the legislation regarding the closing of temples while renewing the interdiction to perform sacrifices (CTh XVI.10.4 of the 1st of December 356 CE). Constantius had thus been the first emperor who had legally attacked and punished the performance of public sacrifices. These measures fitted in a broader interventionist pro-Christian policy (on the legislation of Constantius II see Belayche, “Realia versus leges,” p. 354-357). It has to be noted that Constantius’s policy must have been efficient, as in 361 CE Julian expressed his regrets that he then saw either people who refused to perform sacrifices, or people who did not know how to do them (see Julian, Letters XXXV [375c], Loeb edition vol. III, quoted in Belayche, “Realia versus leges,” p. 349). The anti-pagan measures taken under Constantius II may thus have led to the temporary suspension of the public sacrifices, even if it is highly probable that this suspension must have been effective in Constantinople and in some Eastern cities where Constantius II spent most of his time, and not in the other cities of the Empire in which there was an equal proportion of pagan and Christian officers. For instance, the altar of Victory that was located inside the Roman Curia was only temporarily removed for the visit of Constantius to Rome (example quoted in Belayche, “Realia versus leges,” p. 356). Thus, Julian’s policy of re-establishment of the pagan cults has to be understood as being a reaction to some of the anti-pagan measures taken by Constantius at the end of reign, and many of these measures were not fully applied in all the regions of the Empire. For Nicole Belayche, Julian’s policy has to be understood not only as a reaction to the imperial policy of his predecessor, but also as a reaction to the contemporary growing disaffection towards pagan cults and some form of cultic practices, such as blood sacrifices. This disaffection was not general, it varied according to geographical contexts and the social milieux, and was provoked by diverse causes such as the increase of Christian faith, the transformations of the ways the elites appeared in public, or a growing aversion towards blood sacrifices due to the debates raised by hermeticist or neoplatonician philosophers on the utility of these kinds of practices (see Belayche, “Realia versus leges,” p. 348-349). So, when Ammianus sums up Julian’s policy at the very beginning of his reign as having led to the re-establishment of the pagan cults and sacrifices, he wants to contrast Julian’s policy with the anti-pagan one led by Constantius II at the end of his reign. However, even if Constantius II’s policy constituted a real break in the imperial attitude towards Roman official cults, it is highly probable that the imperial legislation produced at that time was not implemented in all regions of the Empire with the same strength.

After having recalled the measures taken by Julian in favour of pagan cults, Ammianus takes the trouble to recall that this policy was not undertaken at the expense of religious diversity and tolerance, Julian thus authorising all the Christian groups to practise their cults freely (§ 3). We can imagine that Jews must have also been included in this tolerant policy (on Julian’s alleged plan to support the reconstruction of the temple of Jerusalem, see Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae XXIII.1.2-3). Interestingly, when Ammianus writes that Julian “politely advised them (i.e. the Christians) to lay aside their differences, and each fearlessly and without opposition to observe his own beliefs (religioni suae),” it gives the impression that the Christian groups are so divided amongst themselves that they formed different religiones. By presenting Christianity as a kind of polytheistic religion, Julian answers here the opponents of his own policy of restoration of the pagan cults (see Fontaine, Frézouls and Berger, Ammien Marcellin, p. 267, n. 562). To strengthen his argumentation, the rest of the narrative remains clearly focused on the violence and multiplicity of the dissensions between Christians. In § 4 Ammianus implicitly states that Julian also undertook this policy of tolerance because he knew that it would increase the dissensions between the Christians: “[Julian knew] that no wild beasts are such enemies to mankind as are most of the Christians in their deadly hatred of one another.” Behind these animalistic aversions between Christians, Ammianus must have had in mind the constant opposition between orthodox Christians and Arians. Moreover, the comparison of the divided Christians with “wild beasts” (infestas bestias) can be interpreted as a rhetorical inversion also used by Julian in order to further discredit Christians. Actually, comparisons or assimilations with wild beasts are often attested as being used by Christian authors themselves in order to denigrate and condemn persecutors and especially persecutor emperors (this is well attested in Lactantius’s work; see also Nummus depicting the head of Constantine and the labarum spearing a snake (337 CE)), pagans (see Kahlos, “The Shadow,” p. 178-180) or heretics (on the assimilation of heretics with bestiae see TLL II, col. 1939, l. 62-64).

One very interesting point of the text presented here is Ammianus’s development about the comparison between Christians and barbarians that he assigns to Julian, and that the latter used to echo a previous remark of Marcus Aurelius. Ammianus actually says that Julian often recalled that the most obstinate Christians had to listen to him as the Alamani and the Franks did after his victory over them. Ammianus then adds that by saying these words, Julian “thought to imitate” (imitari putans) a previous quip of his model, the emperor Marcus Aurelius, without seeing that the spirit of Marcus Aurelius’s remark was quite different from his. Ammianus then makes explicit the remark that Marcus Aurelius pronounced in 175 CE, while he was crossing Palestine on his way to Egypt in order to tame the usurper Avidius Cassius. Ammianus states that Marcus Aurelius was “disgusted with the malodorous and rebellious Jews (Iudaeorum fetentium et tumultuantium),” and that this feeling inspired him to reflect that the barbarian peoples he recently tamed were in fact less unruly than these Jews. This story is interesting for various reasons.
First, concerning Marcus Aurelius’s quip we do not have any other source that confirms its veracity. To present Jews as being odorous is a depreciative feature which is rarely attested in other texts composed by Roman authors. One should remember Martial’s remark about the bad smell of the breath of women celebrating the Sabbath (Martial, Epigram IV.4). Nevertheless, to highlight the unruly nature of the Jews is a much more understandable criticism forty years after the beginning of the Bar Kokhba revolt (for other examples see Goodman, Rome & Jerusalem, p. 498-499).
Second, it is important to question the use that Julian makes of Marcus Aurelius’s quip. According to Jean Bouffartigue, it is possible that Julian knew some words or written works composed by the philosopher emperor. Bouffartigue thus quotes the example of two letters of Julian in which there may exist some connections with letters of Marcus Aurelius (Bouffartigue, L’Empereur Julien, p. 75-76). Whatever the historicity of Julian or of Marcus Aurelius’s words, what remains important is that Julian and Marcus Aurelius’s remarks are here presented as being based on a similar idea. In both cases, men living inside the Empire and distinguishing themselves by of their religious beliefs, namely the Christians and the Jews, are considered to be more difficult to administrate than barbarians against whom the imperial power had been obliged to fight recently. For Christians, this was due to their inclination towards internal dissensions; for Jews, it was due to their rebellious nature.

Bibliographical references: 

Ammien Marcellin, Histoire. Tome III, Livres XX-XXII

Fontaine, Jacques, Frézouls, Edmond, Berger Jean-DenisbookAmmien Marcellin, Histoire. Tome III, Livres XX-XXII edition, notes and translation by Jacques Fontaine, with the collaboration of Edmond Frézouls and Jean-Denis BergerParisLes Belles Lettres1996
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