Geographical digressions in Ammianus Marcellinus' History -- By Jan Gerrit Post
Ammianus Marcellinus wrote his Res Gestae as a narrative, leaving the setting and context of the story to be described in digressions. These digressions, or formal excursuses, thus allowed the audience to grasp the events presented by the author. Because of the comprehensive nature of ancient historiography, books like the Res Gestae included digressions on various topics. In doing so, Ammianus picked up the historiographical tradition of Herodotus, Thucydides and Tacitus. Yet, the Antiochene obviously loved to digress, for the excursuses are typically numerous and relatively long. This is especially true for the geographical digressions. In this contribution, I will focus mainly on the discussion these digressions.
First, one should notice that the nature of Roman historiography is still being under discussion. In treating Ammianus Res Gestae, scholars mainly focus on the difference between narrative and digression. According to M. Schanz, the Res Gestae included twenty-six digressions: eleven geographical, eight physical or mathematical, three philosophical or religious, and four social. However, the term digression is defined more rigorously by H. Cichocka, after having deduced three criteria from passages in the Res Gestae. Each excursus should include a brief introduction on the topic described, usually closed by an introducing formula. Accordingly, the excursus is ended by an ending formula. Furthermore, there should be a development op the topic in the digression. Using these criteria, Cichocka came to a number of twenty-five excursuses. A. Emmett presents another numberalthough she adheres to the criteria of Cichocka, some passages that neither have an introduction nor ending are considered digressions too. The number Emmett came to thus accounts thirty-four. In his recent work on Ammianus, T.D. Barnes put several arguments together. He tried to find a compromise by proposing his own criteria. Barnes listed all passages that Ammianus himself formally typifies as excursus. In his Res Gestae, Ammianus uses phrases like quae genera morborum unde oriri solent, breviter explicabo (19.4.1) to digress on a topic. At the end of the digression, he includes an ending formula that leads the reader back to the main narrative, such as the phrase hactenus de natione perniciosa; nunc ad textum propositum revertamur (14.4.7). Using these criteria, Barnes came to a number of thiry-one digressions.
Below, I will list the excursuses appearing in the Teubner edition of the Res Gestae. One should note that the latest English translation of the historical work (Penguin ed. 1986), choose not to include most of the digressions, because Ammianus accountse.g. those on geographywould seem unrealistic to the modern reader. However, I would like to argue that Ammianus Marcellinus did not share the modern readers frame of mind, as we will see below.