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In Search of a Western Julian: Ammianus and the Latin Tradition

Alan Ross

This paper will assess Julian in the context of fourth-century literature and history by addressing perceptions of Julian among his contemporaries, specifically in the West. It will reveal the particular (and generally overlooked) view of Julian that was available in the West before Ammianus Marcellinus wrote his dominating narrative of Julian’s reign in Rome in the late 380s.

Ammianus provides the most detailed historiographic narrative of Julian’s reign, and the reign itself is the high-point of the extant portion (and, arguably, of the original entirety) of his Res Gestae, but his text is largely examined against the backdrop of Eastern, Greek discussions of Julian, particularly those of Libanius, Gregory Nazianzen, and Julian himself. There has been a recent shift in scholarly attitudes to Ammianus, however, away from Barnes’ view (1998: 65-78) that Ammianus was really a Greek author writing in Latin, or that Ammianus wrote in Rome but for non-Roman audience (Matthews 1989: 8-9; Frakes 2000; Rohrbacher 2007). Kelly’s (2008) illumination of the sophistication of Ammianus’ Latin prose, particularly his complex allusive practices to earlier Latin texts both prose and verse, chimes with previous arguments (Seyfarth 1969; Sabbah 1978: 507-39) that Ammianus must have written for an élite Roman audience (see now also Ross 2015). Alan Cameron (2011: 527-66) has also recently argued that Ammianus’ Rome of the late fourth century was becoming an increasingly monolingual society at the expense of expertise in Greek. Ammianus’ contemporaries in Rome may well have been ignorant or ill-informed about Greek discussions of Julian.

This paper, then, will examine to what extent there was an existing ‘Latin discourse’ on Julian that may have exercised a strong influence on Ammianus’ compositional context, and thus shaped our prime narrative account of Julian. It will address this topic from two perspectives, each of which will be related briefly to Ammianus’ work. Firstly, via the historical significance of Julian’s absence from Italy generally and from Rome particularly during his reign as both Caesar and Augustus, and on the inverse effects of Constantius’ presence in Rome during his Adventus in 357. For example, the epigraphic evidence from honorific statues set up by City Prefects to mark Constantius’ visit offers the image of a city that favored the Augustus over his Caesar. Ammianus is open about Julian’s hostile relations with the Roman senate (20.10.7) but finds other ways to attempt to rehabilitate Julian with the urbs aeterna (e.g. 25.10.5)

Secondly, the corpus of Latin literary texts that mention Julian are highly negative on account of religious partisanship (Jerome, Ambrosiaster, Ambrose), are necessarily brief for generic reasons (Aurelius Victor, Eutropius, Festus), or offer narrative of only a short part of Julian’s reign (Mamertinus). In the case of these latter ‘secular’ authors, who offer Latin accounts written for eastern audiences, Ammianus neatly inverts their position by presenting himself (most explicitly stated in the ‘sphragis’ 31.16.9) as a Greek writing for a Roman audience in the West.

In conclusion, it will be argued that by the 380s the existing Latin discourse on Julian at best offered a truncated depiction of his reign and at worst was openly hostile. Ammianus’ choice to write in the West, in Latin, and in a largely positively way about Julian should be seen as a decision to fill this lacuna. The paper will have sketched out some possible ways of understanding Ammianus’ relationship to this tradition, but it will also act as an invitation for future study of Ammianus’ creation of a ‘Western’ Julian. 

Session/Panel Title

The Emperor Julian

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