Sources – Primary

These are a selection of Primary Sources used by Gibbon in writing the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

A primary source is a document from the past which is of historical significance (ex. law books, ancient contracts, etc) from the actual period of time being studied (ie contemporaneous).

Secondary Sources are histories which quote/use primary sources, and summarize and explain (and create) a history or a historical narrative. What is a secondary source for most modern historians (ie histories) is usually the only primary source we ancient historians have available – so our definition of primary sources is a little broader than theirs.

An overview of Primary Sources from Wiki here.

Cassius Dio
(155?-after 229). Greek. A Greek writing in Greek was a Roman Senator who wrote an 80 volume history (most not surviving) from 1400 BCE through 229 CE. Reliability: Good fro prior to Commodus (son of Marcus Aurelius 186 CE), very politically correct afterwards – which makes sense considering the life-expectancy of a Roman Senator during the next 30 years was often less than that of a housefly. He came under the death threat of the Praetorian Guard more than once, but managed to die from old age.

(170-240). Greek. A Greek writing in Greek, writing history for 180 – 238. Probably from Antioch, Syrian coast as he is more knowledgeable about the East than the West than Rome itself.

Aurelius Victor
(~ 320-390)(Sextus Aurelius Victor). Latin. He (probably) wrote 4 small volumes on Roman History (some of which seem to be falsely attribute to him). This from Wiki (based on Ammianus Marcellinus, xxi, 10): “Aurelius Victor was the author of a History of Rome from Augustus to Julian (360), published ca. 361. Julian honoured him, and appointed Aurelius prefect of Pannonia Secunda. Possibly he is the same person who was consul in 369, jointly with the son of Valentinian I, and the prefect of the city of Rome (389).”

Ammianus Marcellinus
(~ 350 CE). Latin. Writing in middle 300’s, Ammianus is a soldier and a Greek (and a pagan in a christian empire). He served in the household guard under Constantinus II. He served in many Persian campaigns, lastly under Julian (the Apostate – last pagan emperor 350’s). The surviving portions of his work are mostly Julian’s time – an emperor for whom he was wildly enthusiastic. This from Wiki: “Ammianus Marcellinus (325/330-after 391) was a fourth-century Roman historian. His is the second-to-last major historical account written during Antiquity (the last was written by Procopius). His work chronicled in Latin the history of Rome from 96 to 378, although only the sections covering the period 353 – 378 are extant.” I’ve read some of Ammianus – he is definitely a brisk soldier-writer and a tireless pagan in a nation of first/second generation christians. A very interesting man.

Augustan Histories
(395 CE ?). Latin. Written to appear as if it were written in the beginning of the 300’s (Constantine), actually probably dated to 395 CE. Its a book full of consciously placed contradictions, elaborate ruses and jokes, blatant lies, and (probably) solid fact. It is, agonizingly, also the sole source for a great deal of information about this Crisis (211-285). The equivalent of a Mad Magazine review of Roman History.

(~490 CE). Greek. Writing in the 490’s, just before Justinian (in a very different Roman Empire), he is one of the few pagan sources we have for this period (the conversion of the Empire under Constantine is just around the corner in 312). He is good because he (unconsciously?) uncritically transcribed the works of other historians writing closer to the actual time of the histories.

(~ 550 CE). Latin. Jordanes (also Jordanis or even Iornandes), was a 6th century Roman bureaucrat, and a Goth, was also a secretary in Justinian’s administration in Constantinople. He was asked to write a summary of Cassiodorus History of the Goths, and so wrote Getica which has become one of the only primary sources to have survived of Gothic history. A fascinating history by a minority person writing within the majority culture about his natal culture.

(~1100 CE). Greek. Medieval Byzantine historian writing in the early 1100’s. He wrote an 18 volume work Extracts From History which stretched from the creation of the world to the death of Alexis (1118). Increasingly reliable as the volumes approach his own time, Zonaras is valuable in preserving extracts of texts from the 2nd and 3rd centuries that are otherwise lost. Gibbon says “little dependence is to be had on the authority of a modern Greek, so grossly ingnorant of the history of the third century, that he creates several imaginary emperors, and confounds those who really existed.” (DEF Bibl Index (end of vol 3) p.1276).

Theodosian Code (promulgated 438). Latin. A digest of the state of Roman Imperial Law at the time it was published – which includes duties, responsibilities, names, processes, etc relating to the internal workings of the government, but mostly a preservation of (what was considered relevant) imperial letters, laws, rescripts, opinions, regulations, etc for the last 400 years. It was written in the declining years of the West (the western section of the empire was at the point of being run by puppet emperors under German warlords circa 430’s, and will fall completely in 30 years to become a German kingdom). The complete text is online (in Latin) here.

Notitia Dignitatum (circa 420 for the West, 400 for the East). Latin. A list of officials (a hierarchy) of the empire drawn up for the imperial government as a reference work!. It’s amazing we have a copy of this – our current copy descends from only one copy extant around 1520 (itself a copy from the 800’s) which was lost, but before being lost was copied again multiple times – talk about luck! Because of this we have a broad overview, down to minuscule detail of the bureaucracy/military/civil officials of Constantine’s time (and hopefully for the next century or so). A Latin version (with illustrations) here – check out the useful late Roman pictures of the Great Candlestick and Wagon of the Imperial Treasurer – among many others – very interesting.





Julian (emperor) (called the Apostate)






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