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This webpage reproduces an article in
Harvard Theological Review
Vol. 47, No. 4 (Oct. 1954), pp319‑321.

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though, please let me know!

p319 St. Peter in Ammianus?

In his digression on Egypt, Ammianus Marcellinus tells of the influence which Egyptian learning exerted on Pythagoras, Anaxagoras, and Solon. He then continues: Ex his fontibus per sublimia gradiens, sermonum amplitudine Iovis aemulus Platon, visa Aegypto militavit sapientia gloriosa (XXII.16.22). Such is Clark's standard text (1910): Gardthausen's edition of 1874 printed the non of the codices in place of Valesius' suggested Platon, and Iesus (from an assumed ihs.), a clever emendation of Gutschmid's, after his. At this late day it would be superfluous to observe that the reading non is the more probable point of corruption in the received text; Iesus, I believe, has vanished forever from this passage, leaving us without a single specific allusion to Christ in the surviving portion of the history. Of course Ammianus has much to say about Christianity and its bishops and other devotees, but an expression of warm regard for its founder would have changed our estimate of his attitude, which, as matters now stand, seems one of tolerance at best.

A recent interpretation of another passage gives rise to an analogous situation, with the difference that it would weigh on the other side of the balance. At XXIX.2.17 we read that the Emperor Valens surprisingly released without punishment a tribune who had confessed a shocking crime: . . . Pollentianum (Clark: Numerium) tribunum malitia quendam exsuperantem isdem diebus convictum confessumque, quod exsecto vivae mulieris ventre atque intempestivo partu extracto, infernis manibus excitis de permutatione imperii consulere ausus est, . . . abire iussit inlaesum. Léon Herrmann suggests that ". . . l'historien écrit que Pollentianus . . . avait encore dépassé quelqu'un d'autre en méchanceté . . . ," and he sees a cryptic reference to a wicked individual supposed to have assisted St. Peter in similarly gruesome rites performed with the object of ascertaining how long Christianity would endure.1 Augustine, our source for this well-known story (De civitate Dei, XIII.53‑54), says that the prophecy allegedly obtained by St. Peter promised that the faith would live for a "year of years," that is, 365 years, and his concern is to show that this term has long since safely expired.

If malitia quendam exsuperantem referred with certainty to this p320episode, the passage would assume great interest for students of Ammianus, because Herrmann's interpretation of the prophecy would tempt them to revive an older conjecture about the historian. Herrmann follows Seeck in accepting that chronological reckoning which would place the expiry of the year of years in 394, when Theodosius defeated the pagan usurper Eugenius, and he assumes, reasonably enough, that the anti-Christian prophecy must have been forged not many years before that event by one of Eugenius' followers. Perhaps the most ardent of these was Virius Nicomachus Flavianus, the author of Annales which Seeck (Hermes, XLI [1906] 536) regarded as a source for Ammianus. It was in these chronicles, Herrmann maintains, that both Ammianus and Augustine must have read the anecdote about St. Peter, for Flavianus, of all men, would have had the least scruple about divulging it.

Ensslin once theorized that Ammianus may have supported the dissident faction, because a letter of Symmachus (Ep. IX.110), presumably addressed to him, was later published without his name, like all of those which had been written to the usurper and his following.2 The supposed reference to St. Peter occurs in Book XXIX, one of a series (XXVI‑XXXI) which was probably composed in 392‑94, the period of Eugenius' rebellion, but was published only after his downfall.3 So one would surmise that Ammianus alluded to the prophecy in such veiled and indirect terms — and with a lingering rancor — because he prudently wished, at the time of publication, to avoid offending the triumphant Christian emperor.4

Yet I am afraid that there is a dangerous weakness in this structure. The fact of the matter is that Ammianus likes to introduce minor characters with quidam, as a few random examples will show: Clematii cuiusdam Alexandrini nobilis (XIV.1.3); Abdigildum quendam tribunum (XVIII.5.12); Strategium quendam ex palatino milite senatorem (XXVI.6.5). In the passage in question, Pollentianum (or: Numerium) tribunum malitia quendam exsuperantem may therefore owe its ambiguity5 to sheer awkwardness — the phrase Paulus. . . coluber quidam sub vultur latens (XIV.5.6) is also awkward, if not ambiguous — p321and Rolfe's translation would seem more evidently correct than Herrmann's: ". . . the tribune Numerius, a man of surpassing wickedness . . ." Could Ammianus have deliberately introduced a double meaning into this common formula of his? I doubt that he was capable of such subtlety, and philologists would probably frown upon so fine-drawn an interpretation. Finally, there is no compelling reason for connecting his statement with the story in Augustine, because ancient literature provides instances in which various persons were charged with murdering women or children for magical purposes.6

Roger Pack

University of Michigan


The Author's Notes:

1 Annuaire de l'Institut de Philologie et d'Histoire Orientales et Slaves, X (= Mélanges Grégoire) (1950) 329‑32.

2 W. Ensslin, Klio, Beiheft XVI (1923) 9; E. A. Thompson, The Historical Work of Ammianus Marcellinus (Cambridge, 1947), 18.

3 See Thompson, op. cit., 18, 117.

4 Thompson, op. cit., 108‑17, argues plausibly that Ammianus felt restricted in the suppression of his opinions, especially on religious topics, when he was writing Books XXVI‑XXXI in the last years of Theodosius' reign.

5 Exsuperare is common enough in both the absolute sense (e.g.Virgil, Aeneid, XII.19‑20: quantum ipse feroci/ virtute exsuperas) and as a transitive. According to the index verborum in Ernesti's edition (1773), Ammianus uses the verb in only two other passages, once with an object and once without: . . . quas (sc. gentes) exsuperant Tochari (XXIII.6.57); leges . . . inter quas diritate exsuperant latae contra ingratos et desertores (XXIII.6.81).

6 See Cicero, In Vatinium 14; Horace, Epode 5; Juvenal, Sat., VI.551‑52; an epigram attributed to Seneca, De sacris evocantis animas Magnorum (Baehrens, Poetae Latini Minores, IV, p60), which Herrmann, by an ingenious but hardly cogent argument, would relate to St. Peter (Latomus, V [1946] 303‑10); Eusebius, Hist. Eccles., VIII.14.5, concerning Maxentius; and two such charges brought against Julian: Theodoretus, Hist. Eccles., III.21 (cf. Cassiodorus, Hist. Tripart. VI.48, in Migne, PL, LXIX, cols. 1062‑63), and a Syriac text (published by J. G. Ernst, Kiel, 1880; inaccessible) which alleges that the Apostate tore out the hearts of five infants for use in magic (see P. Labriolle, La réaction païenne [Paris, 1934], p427).


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