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Ammianus Marcellinus: Empowering the military…with foreseeable results

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Greek and Roman writers on war and peace

Ammianus Marcellinus: War’s landscape: discolored with the hue of dark blood

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Ammianus Marcellinus
From History
Translated by John C. Rolfe

I shall declare openly that Valentinian was the first of all emperors to increase the arrogance of the military, to the injury of the commonwealth, by raising their rank and power to excess; moreover (a thing equally to be deplored, both publicly and privately), he punished the peccadilloes of the common soldiers with unbending severity, while sparing those of higher rank; so that these assumed that they had complete licence for their sins, and were aroused to shameful and monstrous crimes. In consequence, they are so arrogant as to believe that the fortunes of all without distinction are dependent on their nod…

[A]lmost all the Halani are tall and handsome, their hair inclines to blond, by the ferocity of their glance they inspire dread, subdued though it is. They are light and active in the use of arms. In all respects they are somewhat like the Huns, but in their manner of life and their habits they are less savage. In their plundering and hunting expeditions they roam here and there as far as the Maeotic Sea and the Cimmerian Bosporus, and also to Armenia and Media. Just as quiet and peaceful men find pleasure in rest, so the Halani delight in danger and warfare. There the man is judged happy who has sacrificed his life in battle, while those who grow old and depart from the world by a natural death they assail with bitter reproaches, as degenerate and cowardly; and there is nothing in which they take more pride than in killing any man whatever: as glorious spoils of the slain they tear off their heads, then strip off their skins and hang them upon their war-horses as trappings. No temple or sacred place is to be seen in their country, not even a hut thatched with straw can be discerned anywhere, but after the manner of barbarians a naked sword is fixed in the ground and they reverently worship it as their god of war, the presiding deity of those lands over which they range…

For without distinction of age or sex all places were ablaze with slaughter and great fires, sucklings were torn from the very breasts of their mothers and slain, matrons and widows whose husbands had been killed before their eyes were carried off, boys of tender or adult age were dragged away over the dead bodies of their parents. Finally many aged men, crying that they had lived long enough after losing their possessions and their beautiful women, were led into exile with their arms pinioned behind their backs, and weeping over the glowing ashes of their ancestral homes.

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