Friday 6 July 2012

A review of Brodka's book on Ammianus

This is an English version of a review published in Historische Zeitschrift 294 (2012), 757-59. The German version is available here.

Darius Brodka, Ammianus Marcellinus: Studien zum Geschichtsdenken im vierten Jahrhundert n. Chr. (Electrum vol. 17) (Jagiellonian University Press, Kraków, 2009 [2010])

Much has been written on the great historian of the fourth century in recent years, as source, as historiographical practitioner, and as literary artist. Brodka’s main interest in this book is a theme which he claims is comparatively neglected in the recent boom: his focus is on causation in Ammianus’ Res gestae, with a particular focus on non-human aspects of causation such as fatum, Fortuna, and god or the gods. Various scholars have looked at providentialist aspects of the Res gestae, but it is certainly true that modern readers are likely to view causation as a human level as much more important in Ammianus’ text, and to view his abundant references to Fortuna etc. as literary flourishes.

The first chapter is a conventional discussion of Ammianus’ life, followed by a laborious trawl through the most important programmatic passages (e.g. 15.1.1, 26.1.1, 31.16.9). In the second (and also the third) he bravely attempts to define the role of phenomena such as fatum, fortuna, and numen in Ammianus’ history; these definitions are then developed in the rest of the work. I must admit that even after reading Brodka’s book, and despite some undoubted successes in his argument, I have some scepticism about attempts to infer a consistent philosophical or theological system from Ammianus’ references to "metaphysische Kräfte"; after all, one can also read references to fate or fortune in narratological terms, given that they often occur at transitions or at points when future events are anticipated. Indeed Brodka shows that there are many inconsistencies in Ammianus’ presentation: he identifies two contradictory senses of Fortuna, for example. 

The third to the seventh chapters illustrate Brodka’s views about causation with examples from the work: on the fall of Gallus, Julian’s victory at Strasbourg, his elevation to Augustus, his disastrous Persian campaign, and Valens’ defeat at Adrianople. The chapters on Julian contain some excellent and fascinating arguments; these chapters and the chapter on Adrianople seemed to me much the most successful part of the work, because they engage with the historical situation and with Ammianus’ broader narrative. His portrayal of Julian’s death as a devotio is intriguing, that of Valens at Adrianople as an anti-Julian is thoroughly convincing. The book ends with two further chapters with a more general outlook (‘Kontingenzerfahrung und Kontingenzbewältigung’, ‘Kaiser und Fatum’) and a useful summary.

The book is not without flaws. While commendably comprehensive on Ammianus scholarship, he can be out of date on other subjects: for example, the very first page gives the Breviarist Festus the name Rufus, repeats the exploded idea that the Symmachi “edited” Livy, and proposes a dating of Eunapius’ history which will convince nobody. Ammianus is abundantly quoted, but the text is rarely engaged with at a close linguistic level: for example, Brodka does not consider that the last words spoken to Julian by the Genius at 20.5.10, which are important for his argument, can be interpreted very differently in the context. The Latin is printed with very little punctuation to help readers, and has many typographical errors. There are quite a few German typos too, and some repetitions: the book has not been well edited. But Brodka’s ideas are important, and deserve to be widely discussed, above all his discussion of Ammianus’ Julian.