Ammianus Marcellinus was a Greek who wrote in Latin. He was a soldier. And he may have been an even better historian than Tacitus, though I haste to add that surely, nobody ever was a better historian than Tacitus. Ammianus certainly saw himself as successor to Tacitus, and Sir Ronald Syme, that great historian of the 20th century, whose seminal monograph The Roman Revolution he worthily followed with his Tacitus, to which his Ammianus was in its turn fit successor, shows by his own preoccupation the intrinsic interest of Ammianus as an author.
Ammianus was a lieutenant of the fourth-century Roman general Ursicinus, and it was as a pagan soldier who had lived through the reign of Julian the Apostate that he chronicled the times of that emperor and his successors. Julian, called apostate by posterity for his defection from his Christian upbringing to paganism, enforced an anti-Christian policy upon his subjects which, though unjust, was nevertheless probably less burdensome to Christians than some of his predecessors’ and successors’ persecutions of paganism were.
Still, it is for some of his absurd pronouncements against Christians, which survive today in the Theodosian Code, that he is accurately named “apostate”. In the sense that the office of Augustus was now increasingly—and especially in the East—a Caesaropapist Christian office, Julian was in fact a “rebel” (the literal Latin translation of the Greek “apostate”).
But I oughtn’t to get carried away, even if my students’ filling out course evaluations has given me an extra hour this afternoon. Besides, the best thing I read today has almost nothing to do with religion, unless you count the lack of perspective with which Caesar’s perfectly cynical materialism had crippled him.
As is so often the case, the best thing I read today is about education, and, to the reader with Latin, the difficulty of translation emerges today too, as we see it always does when we read a poetic genius.
o praeclara informatio doctrinarum munere caelesti indulta felicibus, quae vel vitiosas naturas saepe excoluisti! quanta in illa caligine temporum correxisses, si Valenti scire per te licuisset, nihil aliud esse imperium, ut sapientes definiunt, nisi curam salutis alienae, bonique esse moderatoris, restringere potestatem, resistere cupiditati omnium rerum, et implacabilibus iracundiis, nosseque (ut Caesar dictator aiebat) miserum esse instrumentum senectuti recordationem crudelitatis, ideoque de vita et spiritu hominis, qui pars mundi est et animantium numerum complet, laturam sententiam, diu multumque cunctari oportere, nec praecipiti studio, ubi inrevocabile factum est, agitari, ut exemplum est illud antiquitati admodum notum. Res Gestae 29.2.18
O renowned Formation bestowed upon the happy by the gift, which comes from heaven, of education, which has often polished even those of base nature to a finish! What you would have corrected in that fog of the times, if only Valens could have known through you that imperium is nothing else, as those who are wise define it, if not concern for the preservation of the other, and that it is the mark of a good governor to rein in power, to stand firm against the desire to control all affairs, and against fits of implacable anger, and to know (as the Dictator Caesar used to say) that “the memory of cruelty is a poor prop for old age,” and therefore, that when one is about to pass sentence on the life and breath of a man, who is part of the world and comprises the number of living creatures, one ought to hesitate long and much, nor to treat with partisan hastiness, when what is done cannot be called back, as is a lesson well-known to the ancients.
Why is it that under persecution we find it easier to seek for ourselves and demand for others fairness, while peace and wealth are such great enemies to virtue—Hamlet’s “imposthume of much wealth and peace, that inward breaks and shows no cause without why the man dies”?
Thanks, dear reader, should you ever find me, for being the gadfly of my discipline. Hopefully if one of us ever has to decide the other’s fate, we can judge one another as members of the group of the animals of the world, and hesitate to deprive of life or liberty.