The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Jeroen W.P. Wijnendaele
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
Over the past few years, I have kept Ammianus Marcellinus’ Res Gestae at my bedside. As a historian – and human being! – I cannot help but feeling slightly apprehensive should I even try describing it as “comforting” or a “feel-good-read”. I doubt that the occasional slaughter of non-Roman communities, imperial paranoia resulting in kangaroo trials, or extortion of provincial citizens, makes anyone feel better (if so, please tell us again why you’re studying the ancient world?). Having uttered these caveats, I will immediately proceed to state that as a piece of writing it is immensely enthralling. Ernst Stein, one of last century’s finest scholars of the Late Roman Empire, once described Ammianus as the greatest literary genius between Tacitus and Dante. While you do have to keep up with his jewelled style, Ammianus is a fantastic narrator.
When did you first come across Ammianus?
I knew Ammianus _existed_ from reading an abridgment of Edward Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in late secondary school. The odd excerpt passed by during my undergrad years. But it wasn’t until my PhD that I started looking into him. My doctorate actually dealt with the period swiftly following his history: the disintegration of the imperial state apparatus in the fifth century Roman West (the volatile cocktail formerly known as “The Fall of Rome”). It is a period for which I sorely missed authors like him, since I had to deal with an eclectic puzzle of fragmentary histories, terse chronicles, opaque letters, and all that jazz. Ever since, I’ve found myself coming back to him, even when I should be working on later periods. He illuminates one of the most fascinating eras of Roman history.
Can you tell me a bit about his work and its context?
At face value, Ammianus’ Res Gestae looks like a continuation of Tacitus. At the end of his work, he claims to have covered imperial history from Nerva’s accession (96 CE) to the death of Valens (378 CE). Sadly, however, the first half of his books are lost so we only get to read him from the early 350s on. If we had access to his entire work, we probably would get a very different picture of the rise of Constantine and his dynasty, since Ammianus wrote as a Graecus (i.e. non-Christian) in an empire rapidly Christianising. He hailed from the area around the metropolis of Antioch and served as a junior officer and guardsman in the staff of a magister militum (the most senior commanders of the imperial army). Ammianus is almost unique among Roman historiographers, for having had first-hand experience with warfare and military violence. The only one coming close is Julius Caesar, but he gives his audiences the general’s view. Not so Ammianus, who self-consciously styled himself a miles quondam (“former soldier”). At one point he was part of an imperial hit-squad that was sent to Gaul to pre-emptively take down a commander who was suspected of staging a coup. But even more dramatic are his experiences at Amida near the Tigris, when the city was besieged by Persia in 359. He was pinned down for two months and all along he presents you the horrors of war, from tending the wounded to people ripped apart by artillery in the heat of battle. When the city fell, he only narrowly managed to escape. As you can tell from these incidents, this is a man who had travelled the entire breadth of the empire from the Rhine to Mesopotamia. Tacitus very much looks like an armchair historian in comparison.
What is it about this text that appeals to you most?
As a Belgian hailing from what George Orwell would have called the “lower-upper-middle class”, and as a scholar-of-fortune having served in places as far and wide as Australia, Ireland or Italy, it is hard not to feel sympathetic towards Ammianus and his world. We deal with an era where a stable girl could become empress, a farmer’s son emperor, or a man born miles and miles beyond the imperial frontier a Roman field marshal. By Roman standards, the fourth century was an era of peak social mobility. That does not necessarily mean Ammianus approved of such “parvenus”; he often maintained his gentry’s disdain for commoners who climbed the ladder too fast. But he could write with great nuance and subtlety about what would have been clear-cut boundaries for most other Greek or Roman historiographers.
Take the concept of “the barbarian.” By Graeco-Roman standards it should mean everyone who is not a Greek or a Roman, no matter if we are talking about nomad societies north of the Black Sea like the Huns, agricultural communities near the Rhine like the Franks, or imperial superpowers like Persia. Ammianus, however, had witnessed and felt the might of the Sassanids and he never called them barbarians in his work. And even though he believed that the Gothic rebels who emerged victoriously from the fiasco of Adrianople (378) should have been wiped from the earth, he writes with sympathy about the plight of the refugees whose maltreatment by Roman officials lay at the root of that uprising. Furthermore, he often writes with great approval of the various imperial soldiers and officers who were originally not born on Roman soil. In one throwaway sentence he might refer to people’s ethnicity, but sometimes he does not even bother. What often made someone a Roman for Ammianus was not birth or citizenship, but loyal service in the army and devotion to the empire. True Romans were his brothers-in-arms.
And finally… what do you do, outside of studying the ancient world, to cheer yourself up?
Since the pandemic, I have managed to maintain my sanity by doing a lot of cycling and cooking. For sheer leisure, I have grown rather fond of re-watching older shows such as Boston Legal, Deadwood or The West Wing. Last but not least, I love to entertain people whether it’s through teaching or organizing (virtual) table-quizzes. I am happy to let you know that half of my department still knows all the words to the Backstreet Boys – I want it that way. To quote Jake Peralta: “Chills. Literal chills.”
Dr. Jeroen W.P. Wijnendaele is a Senior Postdoctoral Research Fellow of Ghent University’s History Department.
His research centres on the impact of violence at the highest level of politics in the Late Roman empire. He is the author of ‘Romeinen en Barbaren’ (Leuven, 2013) and ‘The Last of the Romans’ (Bloomsbury Academy, 2015), and guest-editor for the Journal of Late Antiquity’s 2019 theme-issue on ‘Warfare and Food Supply’. At the moment, he is preparing a new monograph on ‘Rome’s Disintegration. War, Violence and the End of Empire in the West’ (Oxford University Press) and an edited research volume on ‘Late Roman Italy. Imperium to Regnum’. When live conferences become a thing again, he will be happy to return as your friendly neighbourhood live-tweeter.
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.