20 Years Before Fall of Rome, Ammianus Described “a World Exhausted by Crushing Taxes”

(p. 48) . . . ghosts surged up from the Roman past. An ancient literary critic who had flourished during Nero’s reign and had written notes and glosses on classical authors; another critic who quoted extensively from lost epics written in imitation of (p. 49) Homer; a grammarian who wrote a treatise on spelling that Poggio knew his Latin-obsessed friends in Florence would find thrilling. Yet another manuscript was a discovery whose thrill might have been tinged for him with melancholy: a large fragment of a hitherto unknown history of the Roman Empire written by a high-ranking officer in the imperial army, Ammianus Marcellinus. The melancholy would have arisen not only from the fact that the first thirteen of the original thirty-one books were missing from the manuscript Poggio copied by hand–and these lost books have never been found–but also from the fact that the work was written on the eve of the empire’s collapse. A clearheaded, thoughtful, and unusually impartial historian, Ammianus seems to have sensed the impending end. His description of a world exhausted by crushing taxes, the financial ruin of large segments of the population, and the dangerous decline in the army’s morale vividly conjured up the conditions that made it possible, some twenty years after his death, for the Goths to sack Rome.

Source:
Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.
(Note: ellipsis added.)

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