Christianity In Ammianus Marcellinus -- By Bouke van Laëthem
The fourth century saw a rapid spread and eventually the rise of Christianity as state religion of the Roman Empire under Theodosius I. The fierce debate between Christians and non-Christians in this century left behind many polemic writings. The non-Christian Ammianus also occasionally refers to Christians and Christianity. The difference between the Res Gestae and the polemic writings is Ammianus attempt at objectivity. In 1627 this even gave a certain Chifflet the idea that Ammianus Marcellinus had been a Christian (Thompson 1947, 114). Since then this interpretation has been rejected as incorrect, but still the tone of the Res Gestae leaves room for speculation until today about Ammianus views on Christianity. The first main theme of this ongoing controversy is the question why Ammianus apparently wrote so little about Christians and Christianity. The second important part of the discussion focuses on how we should interpret the pieces of the Res Gestae that Ammianus does devote to Christianity and its followers. On these two issues there is a wide spectrum of views, which will be discussed below.
For the fact that Ammianus wrote so little about Christianity, Hunt offers the explanation that the Res Gestae must be contemplated within the historiographical tradition of the Graeco-Roman world. This tradition shunted an ecclesiastical or religious explanation were a secular one could be given. Not only did Ammianus avoid mentioning Christian influences and motives (15.7.6; 16.10.13; 27.3.11; 22.11.3; 22.11.10; 22.11.5; 22.12.8; 22.13.2; 14.10.2; 18.7.7; 19.3.1), but he also tried to find secular reasons where religious motives for actions are obviously important. A good example of this attitude toward religion is found in the secular motives Ammianus gives for the restoration of the Temple of the Jews by Julian (23.1.2-3; 22.7.3; 14.3).
Yet, there also are passages where Ammianus did refer to Christianity (15.5.31; 26.3.3; 20.7.7; 29.5.15; 31.12.8-9; 15.6; 27.10.2; 28.6.27; 21.2.5; 18.10.4; 25.10.15; 22.11.9; 27.7.5-6; 22.11.9; 22.5.4). And though not always without the mockery that sometimes occurs in his work (21.16.18), Hunt does not see an indication for a cynical Ammianus unless a general undercurrent of hostility can be found. Because Ammianus did not emphasize Christian misconduct when he could have done so (22.7.9; 15.5.31; 26.3.3; 25.3.6), and furthermore refused to see Christianity as flaw or a source for the flaws of persons (27.11; 30.5.4; 16.8.13; 15.13.2; 16.9.2; 25.6.1), Hunt sees no such undercurrent.
Matthews also sees Ammianus avoiding Christian terms that were in general more widespread then the Res Gestae might suggest (31.12.8; 21.2.5; 15.7.6; 21.16.18; 15.7.3; 29.5.15; 15.5.31; 27.3.13; 26.3.3; 15.5.31; 18.10.4; 22.11.3), but, like Hunt, he attributes this to Ammianus writing in a historiographical tradition. In the cases where Ammianus does use Christian words, Matthews sees, contrary to Barnes (see below), a more flexible attitude (20.7.9; 15.7.7; 27.4.12; 22.11.9; 21.2.5; 28.6.27; 27.3.11). Matthews concludes that though Ammianus did not favour Christianity, he does not express indiscriminate hostility towards it; if he would have done that, he would has lost his (partly Christian) audience. Secondly, Matthews point to the fact that Ammianus tried to be a historian of moral intent, which gives him room for reasonable comment on Christian misconduct (15.7.7; 22.11.10; 27.3.11; 27.3.14; 22.5.4; 16.8.12; 22.4.3; 16.8.13; 27.11.3; 15.13.2; 21.16.18).