Thursday 30 April 2015

Review of Bocci on Ammianus' Later Books

To appear in Classical Review 65.2 (2015), now pre-published online (copyright, the Classical Assoication)

BOCCI (S.) Ammiano Marcellino XXVIII e XXIX. Problemi storici e storiografici. (Il Potere e il Consenso 3.) Pp. 271. Rome: Aracne, 2013. Paper, €16. ISBN: 978-88-548-5349-2. doi:10.1017/S0009840X1500013X

This book is the publication of B.’s second Ph.D. thesis (Universit√† Roma Tre, 2012), some 25 years after his first. The title is misleading. Having started with the intention of writing a commento storico on Ammianus Marcellinus’ 28th and 29th books (p. 10), B. decided instead to write on themes arising from Ammianus’ final six books, 26 to 31, which cover the reigns of Valentinian and Valens. An extensive introduction and substantial conclusion frame chapters on (1) Ammianus’ satirical digression on the senate and people of Rome, 28.4, along with the similar digression at 14.6; (2) the frontier policy of the western emperor Valentinian (364–75); (3) the characterisation of Valentinian. It is hard to agree with B.’s claim in the title and elsewhere that a particular focus remains on the two books that first caught his interest: fewer than half of the twelve chapters in those two books receive any detailed attention and there is plenty of worthwhile discussion of elements from Books 26, 27, 30 and 31. The book’s main contribution is on Ammianus’ portrait of Valentinian and his government of the west.

Presumably one of the deterrents to a focus specifically on Books 28 and 29 was the fact that the Dutch commentary team of Den Boeft, Drijvers, Den Hengst and Teitler has been efficiently working through Ammianus’ latter books, reaching Book 28 in 2011 and Book 29 in 2013, and perhaps B.’s work was originally intended for earlier completion and publication. There is certainly a lack of reference to more recent works suggestive of a book whose publication has somehow been unfortunately delayed. One or two works from 2007, including Den Boeft et al.’s edited volume Ammianus after Julian (2007), are cited plentifully; but the only later item in B.’s bibliography, sporadically cited in the text, is their 2011 commentary on Book 28. Among books important for the theme that are entirely absent from the bibliography or notes are D. Brodka’s Ammianus Marcellinus: Studien zum Geschichtsdenken im vierten Jahrhundert n. Chr. (2009), J. Drinkwater’s The Alamanni and Rome (2007), my own Ammianus Marcellinus: the Allusive Historian (2008) and R. Lizzi Testa’s Senatori, popolo, papi (2004). The absence of the most important Italian book on the reign of Valentinian, and plentiful reference to English, French and German scholarship, make clear that the problem is not with works being in foreign languages. Still, in a book that tends to start arguing not so much from the text as from judicious and sometimes overly courteous consideration of the opinions of earlier scholars, these are striking gaps. There are also plenty of less striking gaps throughout the work; in general B. is better with works on Ammianus than those on other authors or on the history of the period. The worst effects of his bibliographical shortcomings are to be seen in the introduction. It treats various long-standing assumptions about Ammianus’ life as undoubted fact (see now Chapter 3 of my Ammianus); the idea, originating with Seeck in 1894, that the last six books are an addition to the original publication, is left all but unchallenged. But there is plentiful scholarship that undermines this claim, including both the uncited Lizzi Testa and various items that are cited, and B.’s own plausible belief that Ammianus was inspired to write by Valens’ defeat at Adrianople should itself be seen as an argument in favour of unitary publication in c. 390.

The chapters proper merit greater attention. In Chapter 1, ‘Ammiano e Roma’, the digression at 28.4 on the senate and people of Rome is rightly considered alongside its twin at 14.6: these are treated as essentially serious pieces of moral analysis, for all their satirical tone. The conclusion, that Ammianus’ audience should be sought in the administrative classes outside Rome, has been well argued already by D. Rohrbacher in Marincola’s Blackwell Companion to Greek and Roman Historiography (2007, not cited). Chapter 2, ‘La securitas dell’ impero: la frontiera settentrionale’, argues against Drinkwater’s view (as expressed in articles of the 1990s, rather than in his uncited 2007 book) that the Alamanni were not a serious foe, and for the importance and efficacy of Valentinian’s frontier policy, which is placed in its historical context. Chapter 3, ‘Ammiano e Valentinano’, turns to Ammianus’ portrayal of Valentinian in the round, which embraces both damning accounts of his cruelty and admiring accounts of his military prowess, and takes on those such as Paschoud who have overplayed its negativity and denied the possibility that Valentinian might be seen as in some ways exemplary. To the suggestion that Ammianus’ starkly mixed judgement might reflect now lost sources, B. admits the possibility of influence but argues for the essential autonomy of Ammianus’ judgement. He reflects thoughtfully on how Ammianus might relate to senatorial retrospection on Valentinian at the time of writing (in his interesting discussing of engagement with Symmachus, he could also have cited Den Boeft et al. on 26.2.2 and 6, where there is unquestionably allusion to the Orationes). The conclusion, ‘Ammiano e l’impero al fine del IV secolo’, reiterates the argument that Valentinian could rightly be treated as an exemplary military emperor in the world after Adrianople (Brodka’s book, mentioned above, would have helped the argument here). The chapter on Valentinian and the thoughtful conclusion are likely to be the parts of B.’s work most valued by scholars.