Matthews gives us a closer look on the information which can be distilled from Ammianus' digressions, where Wiedemann could only conclude that Ammianus uses the expected classical stereotypes for barbarians. Matthews shows Ammianus was indeed revealing some physical features, religious customs and something of the political, social and economic organisation of the barbarians.
Noteworthy is that the matters Ammianus writes about, are the things unusual in the eyes of the Graeco-Roman observer. This means that the things which are in contrast with the Roman way of life are noticed and not the things which are the same; no Roman would expect to find an arisocracy like the civilised Roman one among the uncivilised Goths. A lot remains unseen or unwritten. A large part of the barbarian way of life is only indirectly presented.
Also something to be aware of is that it seems that Ammianus has paid a lot of attention to the barbarian way of living, using terms like nomadic, pastoral, sedentary and agriculturalist. But he doesn't go one step further to differentiate this. So all nomadic peoples are alike, either living in the Arab desert or on the south Russian steppe.
Ammianus wrote about the wars and history of the Roman Empire of his time. In this context he also deals with the peoples with which the Romans came into contact and which lived at the very end of the civilised world. Information about the foreign nations he links to what was known to his Graeco-Roman public from their familiar readings, like Herodotus. He wrote these digressions, with the obvious stereotypes of barbarians as marginal and rootless peoples, because it was the historiographical tradition to do so and because his audience expected him to.
- Barnes, T.D., Ammianus Marcellinus and the Representation of Historical Reality, Ithaca/London 1998.