Ammianus as a military Historian -- By Bouke van Laëthem
When considering Ammianus as a military historian, one should never forget the historiographical tradition and the literary demands of his time. The title of Ammianus Marcellinus work, Res Gestae, means amongst other things: the deeds of men. Ammianus work focuses largely on warfare. However, to the frustration of many scholars of our days, his writings about warfare pivot mainly around the decisive deeds of (important) men in battles, not on technical detail such as tactics, command structure or equipment.
N.J.E. Austin and G.A. Crump have both written an analysis of Ammianus' work, trying to bridge the gap between modern standards of military history and the Res Gestae. Besides an extensive survey of Ammianus' military accounts, they both focus on the question whether or not Ammianus understood the parts of warfare we nowadays emphasize: Strategy and Tactics. Another focus of their attention is whether Ammianus is an honest (military) historian. This short essay focuses on Ammianus' abilities as a military historian, not on the military facts that can be found in his Res Gestae. This essay is furthermore limited to the works of both authors mentioned above. I will start with their conclusions on Ammianus sincerity as an historian, leaving out most of their, abundant, examples.
Both authors accept to al large degree Ammianus' rectitude, even though artistic arrangement and the literary consensus of his days demanded that Ammianus omitted some facts, whereas others where emphasized. When, for instance, Ammianus compared the battle of Adrianople (378) to the (in his days) traumatic defeat at Cannae (31.13.19; 31.5.11-17), it is logical that some differences were neglected. Ammianus, on the other hand, many times emphasized deeds of rulers as examples of their traits as military leaders, exaggerating minor details. Yet, Ammianus repeated claim to austerity is acceptable. Ammianus treatment of personalities and issues is fair and balanced as well as self-consistent.
Ammianus literary language in his reports on warfare is irrelevant to Crump. He feels many important facts still have a solid place in the story and none of the characters or events described becomes a stereotype. Austin is less optimistic, because Ammianus does have some biases and can distort occurrences. A good example is Julian's brief expedition against the Frankish Chamavi and Sali (17.8). Ammianus had superior sources and could tell the story from headquarters point of view, yet he left out Constantius role because he wanted to emphasise Julians part. Even when we leave out Ammianus' apparent willingness to write according to his sympathies, there still remains one problem evaluating Ammianus sincerity.
This problem arises when he has to depend on sources. Willingly or unwillingly, he could be telling rumours or distortions as truths. Crump does allow for some faults in the works of Ammianus, but also argues that Ammianus came from a tradition of sound historical principles. The author used methods for uncovering facts tested for centuries. Ammianus, in his remaining books, wrote about contemporary history and could rely on autopsy and oral reports, comparing them and backing this all up with archival records.