John S. Ott
Portland State University
HST 354U - Early Medieval Europe, 300-1100

Reading Guide :

Orosius, Ammianus Marcellinus, the Roman panegyrics, and Rutilius Namatianus

Week I. The Later Roman Empire

For the next week, we will be reading texts that revolve around a series of core issues which will form for us the basis of our discussions.  For each class "unit," I will highlight a few of the major historical questions we will consider in order to map out historical change and analyze historical texts in their contemporary contexts.  For the first week, consider the following questions:

The Latin panegyrics exist in a single collection twelve such texts.  The four from which we are reading excerpts were composed between the years 291 and 313, and delivered before the Tetrarchs, Maximian, Constantius, and Constantine at Trier, a provincial capital of the empire on the Rhine River.  A panegyric was a formal public address, delivered in the emperor's presence and presumably at his invitation, by appointed court orators.  It is a praise text: the contents flatter and elevate the recipient.  Whether the events they describe give the whole historical picture is another question entirely.

Rutilius Namatianus lived in the decades around 400; this poem, then, was written after the sack of Rome in 410, and is thus perfectly contemporary with Orosius's History against the pagans (below), and remains his only known surviving work.  Of the poem itself, far more has been lost than preserved.  As to whether Namatianus was Christian or remained an unconverted polytheist is uncertain, but the consensus seems to be strongly pointing to the latter.

Ammianus Marcellinus was a Greek, born around 330 C.E. at Antioch. He was a pagan and a military officer, a supporter of the emperor Julian, and often involved in the political intrigues of the late fourth-century empire. He wrote in Latin, and was a close observer of many of the events he describes, which he often appraises from the standpoint of a military tactician.  His Histories were written in 31 books, the first 14 of which have been lost, and his goal was to continue the history of the first-century Roman historian Tacitus. He wrote the surviving books of his Histories in the late 380s and early 390s.

Paulus Orosius (b. ca. 375, died sometime after 418) was a Christian priest; a Spaniard (he may have been born in Braga, in modern Portugal); a contemporary and friend of the famous Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo; and a citizen of the Roman Empire. He was very well-connected with the Chrisian intelligentsia of his day and travelled the breadth of the Mediterranean to study and live with Augustine and Jerome, another leader of the early Christian church. He wrote a total of three works, the most famous of which is his Histories against the Pagans, which he had finished by around 418. Orosius wrote his work to respond to the criticisms being raised in some quarters about the growth of Christianity, and whether it bore some of the blame for the sack of Rome by the Visigothic king Alaric in 410. That event also led Augustine of Hippo to begin work on his monumental treatise On the City of God.

(1) Analyze the different rhetorical pairs present in the works, that is: Christian/pagan, Roman/barbarian, civilized/uncivilized.  What are the positive or negative characteristics of each?
(2) How do Christian and non-Christian authors react to the destruction of (largely Christian) Rome in 410? How does Orosius' conception of history influence his recollection of historical events?
(3) What evidence does Orosius provide of God's will at work in historical events? What are his assumptions about God's role in human affairs?
(4) Examine the different documents and narrative styles of each: what kind of historical evidence for the period does each text offer?