Ethnographical digressions. Barbarians in Ammianus Marcellinus' Res Gestae -- By Sara Wijma
The period of time which is covered by Ammianus in the extant books of the Res Gestae (AD 353-378), was one in which barbarians of all sorts were pressing upon the borders of the Roman Empire. The historians ethnographical digressions are written in the context of military campaigns against these foreign peoples. How does Ammianus present some of these barbarian peoples in his ethnographical digressions?
In 1986 Wiedemann wrote an important article on this subject. He first underlines that, in general, one tends to see a person who does not behave as oneself does, as marginal, mostly as morally marginal, like a sinner or some sort of beast. One who thinks his own way of life - the Graeco-Roman way of life - normal, tends to consider other ways of life as hostile and tends to ascribe abnormal features to them. If one writes a ethnographic digression from this perspective, it is rather a moral evaluation than descriptive ethnography.
In general, ethnographical passages in classical literature contain a series of stereotypes associated with barbarians. Typical of barbarians is their inversion of behaviour; so because Egypt is unlike Greece, it must be the opposite of it, and therefore Egyptians do some things the other way around, like writing. Romans are living sedentary, barbarians are nomads, etc.
Wiedemann sets up a stereotype of a barbarian people as it can be found in classical literature. He sums up various characteristics of barbarians, such as wearing no real clothes, practising of polygamy or even incest, and not living in houses but in caves, and in wagons or tents. These are, however, no objective descriptions but illustrations of the marginality of barbarians.
We would expect to find the same classical stereotypes just described in Ammianus' `ethnographical' digressions. He was a soldier and an official who wanted to stick to the rules of classical historical writing. Therefore his digressions do indeed contain the classical stereotypes, which were already used by Herodotus. The Saracens do no agricultural work and their sex life and food habits are peculiar (29.36.4). The digressions about the peoples living around the Black Sea (22.8), the eastern provinces of the Persian Empire (23.6), ancient Thrace (27.4), and the excurus on the Huns (31.1-2) contain more of the same prejudices.
These collections of commonplaces, going back to Herodotus, are exactly what we would expect in a classical ethnographic digression. The digression on the Huns, hardly been touched upon by earlier writers, is the best example of how Ammianus applies stereotypes to barbarians. Objectivity seems to have left Ammianus' mind when writing one of the fullests of his digressions (31.1). He sees the Huns as two-legged beasts, scarcely human at all (31.1.2). Here Ammianus is clearly influenced by rhetorical convention. So the Huns never ate cooked meat, but warmed it a little by putting it on the backs of their horses and sitting on it as they rode (31.2.3). This was a particular characteristic exaggeration of a barbarian habit, widely assumed in classical sources.