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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an article in
Classical Philology
Vol. 33, No. 1 (Jan. 1938), pp124‑126.

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Ammianus Marcellinus, Vol. I. With an English translation by John C. Rolfe. ("Loeb Classical Library"). 3 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann, Ltd., 1935. Pp. l + 583; frontispiece and maps.

Ammianus Marcellinus is a leading figure in the fourth-century Renaissance of Latin letters with Claudian, the last of the great Latin poets, and  p125 Jerome and Augustine, the founders of Latin Christian literature. He was a staff officer under Julian and Valentinian, and during his later years wrote a history of Rome to continue that of Tacitus (whom he admired and imitated) up to his own day. The first thirteen books are lost; Books XIV‑XXXI cover, however, Ammianus' active years, A.D. 353‑78 and are in general a judicious and trustworthy record of a critical period in Roman history. Its importance was recognized in Renaissance days, and fifteen manuscripts of that period are known, all based on a Fulda ninth-century manuscript still preserved in the Vatican. The first printed edition was published as early as 1474, from the worst manuscript of all, as often happened; and its corruptions, still further twisted by ingenious editors, perverted the text for generations and vitiated Philemon Holland's stately Elizabethan translation of 1609. Even Yonge's Bohn translation of 1862, the latest available in English, was published before the first modern critical editions of the Latin text, those of Eyssenhardt of 1871 and Gardthausen of 1874‑75. The relations of the manuscripts to one another were only straightened out thirty years ago, and the text finally put on a sound basis; so the time was ripe for a new translation. The Loeb editors invited me to undertake it, using my edition (Weidmann, 1910‑16), and I accepted; but the demands of other work forced me to resign after I had finished Books XIV‑XVII.4; the editors were fortunate in inducing Professor Rolfe, of the University of Pennsylvania, to take up the task, and we now have the first fruits of his devoted labors of many years.

If we imagine a West-Pointer whose native language was French, who admired the style of Henry James and Theodore Dreiser and William Jennings Bryan as well as that of Shakespeare and Gibbon, who aimed at highly rhythmical prose, and who had a penchant for unusual words and expressions, we shall have some idea of the extraordinary combination of intricate antiquarianism and modern touches which Ammianus affected. Educated in the Greek rhetorical tradition of his native city of Antioch, disciplined by long experience on the Roman military staff all over the Empire, he utilized the leisure of his retirement at Rome in polishing off this history, as intrinsically valuable as it is stylistically complicated. Professor Rolfe had the choice inevitable under such circumstances; he could simplify Ammianus' long and cumbrous periods or he could turn them into corresponding English. Either course is lined with pitfalls; he has chosen in general the latter, which keeps closer to the spirit of the original, while passing on much of the difficulty to the reader. He has gone so far as to use the phrase "make tracks" for repedare, and the excellent "hard-tack" for bucellatum. In his Preface he begs our indulgence for his version, in view of all the circumstances; it is granted, at once, but we can reassure him; his translation is as easy reading for us as Ammianus' Latin must have been for his contemporaries. And he has put us under further obligation by a painstaking summary, in his Introduction, of our knowledge of Roman imperial bureaucracy, both civil and military. Anyone who has tried  p126 to find out the precise duties of the magister officiorum, for instance, will appreciate the diligent learning with which Professor Rolfe has assemble these data. And he has revised the Latin text, adopting some recent emendations and filling out numerous lacunae in order to make sense. Painstaking bibliographies, indexes, and maps add to the value of this book; may the succeeding volumes follow soon.​a

Charles Upson Clark

City College, New York City

Thayer's Note:

a They did: Vol. I came out in 1935, and Vols. II and III, completing the set, in 1939, and Prof. Clark reviewed those as well.

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Page updated: 5 Jun 07