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Julian II’s Supernatural Publicist: Fama in the Res Gestae of Ammianus Marcellinus

Angela Kinney

University of Vienna

This paper will examine the role of personified divine rumor (Fama) and public opinion in the Res Gestae of Ammianus Marcellinus. It focuses specifically on passages in which Ammianus uses Fama, with all her literary trappings, to publicize Julian’s successes and his ultimate succession.

Rumors are a staple of historical accounts, especially those related to military endeavors. Ammianus’s Res Gestae is no different. The word rumor appears 46 times in the extant books; fama appears an additional 26 times. Among these references, Ammianus also employs the personification of rumor – the classical goddess Fama – in his narrative. The notion of rumor as a divine, immortal force dates back to Homer: the first extant personification of rumor as a divinity occurs in the Iliad where rumor (ὄσσα) is called “the messenger of Zeus” who “blazed” among the assembled Greeks. References to the goddess occur outside of literary contexts as well. In the 4th c. BCE, Aeschines calls upon rumor (here φήμη) as a witness in court and recounts the story behind her altar at Athens, which Pausanias also mentions in his Periegesis Hellados. In the Latin tradition, divine rumor is known as the goddess Fama. She is famously depicted in the fourth book of Virgil’s Aeneid with monstrous physical characteristics, among them wings, multiple eyes (as well as tongues, mouths, and ears), supernatural speed, enormous size, and sleeplessness. This depiction was highly influential, coloring subsequent descriptions of Fama and rumor throughout history, including those found in the Res Gestae.

A specific treatment of the prominence and use of Fama in the Res Gestae has not so far appeared, although other deified abstract concepts (e.g., Fortuna, Iustitia) have received attention (Lewandowski 2001, Brandt 1999, Marié 1989, Paschoud 1986, Naudé 1964). Nor is Fama discussed in examinations of Ammianus’s intertextuality and use of classical sources (e.g., Kelly 2008, Fornara 1992; Hagendahl 1921 discusses a single allusion at 18.6.3). Ammianus is absent from Philip Hardie’s large volume on representations of Fama in antiquity and beyond (2012). Kelly’s work (2008) on Ammianus’s methods and use of allusion has established that his literary allusions have political import: they are not merely window drapery for the historical material, nor are they included merely for the purpose of elevating the literary status of the work. Fama’s appearances in the Res Gestae should thus be evaluated in light of their historical and political significance.

This paper will examine Ammianus’s use of personified rumor in relation to his support of Julian II. Close readings of four passages will show that the goddess Fama appears at critical junctures in Julian’s rise to power, often showing up after attempts at usurpation. After the rout of the Alamanni at Strasbourg (where the army hailed Julian as Augustus), Fama subverts imperial propaganda, refusing to allow Constantius to be praised at Julian’s expense (Res Gestae 16.12.70). Fama performs the same job after the Gallic insurrection at Paris: she ensures that Julian’s glory is on everyone’s lips (RG 20.4.1). After Constantius’s refusal to share imperial power, Julian deliberately manipulates rumor (circulated by Fama herself) on his way to Sirmium, where he enjoys a splendid adventus (RG 21.9.3). Finally, Julian’s journey culminating in his imperial adventus in Constantinople (RG 22.2.3-5) is described as propelled by Fama, whose Virgilian characteristics both aid and transform him. These instances paint a picture of a goddess who works for Julian as a publicist, at times undermining Constantius’s official propaganda campaigns. The rhetorical and political role of Fama in the Res Gestae will be explored as well, including broader questions about the goddess’s connection to panegyric, the authority she lends to public opinion, and her role in the legitimization of Julian’s usurpation in the historical narrative.

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Spectacle and Authority

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