Although a saint, a bishop, and an important figure in a turbulent age, Sidonius is remembered particularly because of his somewhat dubious literary talents.
By Dr. Lynn Harry Nelson
Emeritus Professor of Medieval History
The University of Kansas
Europe in 451 CE
Although a saint, a bishop, and an important figure in a turbulent age, Sidonius is remembered particularly because of his somewhat dubious literary talents. These were so admired until the revival of appreciation for good Latin that some 147 letters and twenty-four poems of his have survived. It is not a simple matter to reconstruct an entire life from such materials, and much of what follows may not be correct in detail. Its account of the course of events and descriptions of some of the institutions of the Late Roman Empire are true enough, however, and the attempt to weave the life and attitudes of Apollinaris Sidonius into this context accords well enough with what we do know of the man and his works.
Youth (c.430-456 CE)
General Situation in the Empire in the West
The condition of the empire had deteriorated badly by the time of Sidonius’ birth in Lyon in about the year 430, and the situation of the western provinces deteriorated rapidly during his youth.
By 430, the first invaders of the Empire, the Vandals, had moved to Africa, the richest grain area of the Empire, which they took and held in defiance of imperial authority. They took to the sea and their piratical attacks soon destroyed Roman commerce on the Western Mediterranean.
The Visigoths, who had sacked Rome in 410, were settled in Aquitaine by a treaty with the imperial government. They soon threw off their federate status and established themselves as a separate kingdom. Always seeking to operate in a favorable manner with the Romans, the Goths nevertheless sought to expand: into Spain, against the Vandals and Alans left in the northwest of the peninsula, and in every other direction against Roman provinces of the region, Tarraconensis, Narbonnensis, and Lugdunensis — the province of Lyon — which stretched along the valleys of the Rhone and Loire.
The Burgundians had been allowed to settle in Savoy, along the upper Rhone, perhaps as a counterweight to the Visigoths.
North of the Loire, the rebel Bretons were poised and, the greatest Germanic force that would emerge in the future, the Franks who were experiencing a slow but steady growth of population that would eventually drive them to cross the lower Rhine and establish themselves in what is now Belgium.
The Empire had not responded well to this threat.
The Italian Provinces, especially Rome, had been favored at the expense of the more exposed regions.
Rather than putting aside personal interests, the central government had become the site of almost continuous conspiracy and treachery. Barbarians used this factionalism to advance their own candidates for the throne, hoping to gain advantages thereby.
The heavy expenses of government; salaries, bribes, and, most particularly, defense, were met by an extremely uneven taxation, in which the provinces paid more than Italy, and in which the poor and the middle class bore the entire burden.
Despite these conditions, the tone of Sidonius’ letters suggests that the class to which he belonged were hardly aware of the direction in which Roman affairs were moving.
Birth and Education
Roman Theatre in Lyon
Sidonius was born in the pleasant city of Lyon, situated on the Rhone River in what is now southern France. His family was of the praefectorial class and was one of the more influential of the region. His grandfather and father had both been Praefect of the Gauls, a position at the time of real responsibility. The family had accepted Christianity in his grandfather’s time, but like most of the noble families of the region, they had not become fanatic about it. At least they had not yet, as some other families had already done, produced a saint.
When the time came, Sidonius entered the Roman equivalent of a university located in his own city of Lyon. For some time, the caliber of the schools of Gaul had been improving, although those in the rest of the West were in a state of decline. Lyon was not one of the first rank of Gallic schools, but it was respected. The emperor Gratian (370-383) had attended the “university” of Bordeaux and had appointed his old professor, the poet Ausonius, to the consulship in 379. This remarkable appointment had brought Bordeaux prestige and funds, and it had assumed a rank in Gaul not unlike that of Harvard in the United States. If Bordeaux was the Harvard of the Western empire, Toulouse and Marseilles might be considered the Princeton and Yale. Lyon was, then, the equivalent of a great state university such as Michigan or the University of California at Berkeley.
The organization and purpose of the Roman school was considerably different from the medieval or modern concept, but education was certainly as highly regarded. The central government endowed chairs and, more commonly, required municipalities to do so. In many cases, the government built public lecture halls where the professors could discourse. Normally, however, the lecture was only a part of the education. The serious student would pay his professor a fee to work with him personally.
The school of Grammar was the basic level, corresponding, one might suppose, to the first and second years of a modern American university, although the student might spend more or less time in studies at this level. In a fully-staffed institution, the school of Grammar consisted of two divisions, Greek grammar and Latin grammar. Faculty generally began teaching at this level, and, if they were sufficiently skilled, might move up to the better pay and greater prestige of the school of Rhetoric.
The curriculum and teaching methods of the schools of Grammar were more or less standardized. There were certain great works of literature recognized as suitable for study, some more important than others; the poets were particularly emphasized. Homer’s Iliad and Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days were the most important works for Greek Grammar, and Virgil’s Aeneid and Cicero’s orations and letters were basic to the study of Latin Grammar. The professor would read a passage to his students, and then comment extensively upon it, discussing its style, allusions, comparing it with similar passages in other authors, clarifying archaic words, etc. At best such training could have been a fine liberal education. In practice, it sometimes rose to literary criticism, and more often sank to providing massive footnotes and glosses.
Upon completion of the both the Greek and Latin curricula of the school of Grammar, student were prepared to move on. Many chose to end their formal education at this point, and, if the institution provided such, some entered the professional schools of medicine and law. The brightest and wealthiest students, and those from the most important families, however went on to enter the school of Rhetoric. The school of Rhetoric was composed, like that of Grammar, into divisions of Greek and Latin Rhetoric, and the student normally took one as a major and the other as a minor field of study.
At the level of the school of Rhetoric, the student was not expected simply to study past authors, but to create. But the emphasis was upon creation in the style of the past masters, especially extemporaneous compositions and speeches. The great orations of the past were studied, and the students learned to speak in the style of Cicero, with literary allusions drawn from Virgil, discussing some episode of Homer’s Iliad. Achievement was measured by style, not by content.
This was the sort of education that Sidonius pursued, although he did not enjoy the benefits that would have come with a full curriculum of study. By this time, the lack of funds, the rise of Christian thought, and other factors were leading to the “downsizing” of the late Roman universities, and few could afford to maintain a full faculty. Lyon appears to have dispensed with Philosophy and Law, and did not emphasize Greek Rhetoric. Sidonius thus knew his Greek authors reasonably well, but not to the point that he could think in Greek. His letters and poems were solidly based on Latin models, and he attempted to demonstrate the extent of his learning with frequent allusions and images drawn from the Greek classics. He was not too different from others of his class in this respect. The cultural ties that had bound the Western nobility to the Greek tradition of scholarship were weakening, although every attempt was made to disguise that fact.
What was the purpose of this sterile and imitative talent, and why did the children of noble families spend their youth in learning how to write and give public speeches in a centuries-old style? Why did they memorize Greek and Latin fables and myths, and fill their writings and speeches with obscure references and ponderous evocations of long-dead authors? The answer was, as is often the case, that they were educated in the skills that might gain them advancement. In the world of fourth-century Gaul, however, there were few areas in which demanded any real ability from the nobility. The Roman nobles had for so long attempted to avoid the burdens of empire that there were very few areas of life in which they could demonstrate real ability.
They were forbidden to serve in the army, and, even if they had been able to do so, there would have been little role for them to play. Military command authority was usually in the hands of a barbarian chieftain, like Merobaudes, who led Roman armies that consisted primarily of Germanic mercenaries.
The traditions of their class forbade them to go into manufacture, their great estates were self-sufficient and managed by trained slaves. They continued to make money, but could do nothing with it except loan it out at interest. Since, under the declining economic conditions of the period, loans were often note repaid. This meant that the nobility simply gained more land. Even if their loans were repaid, this simply provided them with more money that they could use only in making more loans. Since families of the senatorial rank or above were tax- exempt and their estates relieved them of having to buy anything but the most exotic of luxuries, the wealth of the Roman nobles grew no matter what they did. The distance between them and the mass of the Roman population increased until they were virtually isolated within their own society.
The local government was entrusted to the middle-class curiales, and senatorial scions were debarred from these onerous functions.
Positions of responsibility within the central government were in the hands of professional bureaucrats.
The nobles could simply retire to their estates and wear themselves out with excesses, and some did. Most, however, sought a “nobler” life. Basically they attempted to add to the honors of their family by holding some position of prestige within what was called the cursus honorum, something that might best be translated as “The Ladder of Offices.” Many of the old imperial administrative offices had been preserved and the emperors had even added new ones. These had once been offices of prestige and responsibility. Although the responsibilities had been long since been assumed by professional civil servants, the prestige remained, and members of the Roman nobility gained honor of serving as figurehead administrators of these offices. The offices of the cursus honorum formed a ladder of positions, a ladder on increasing prestige and social status. There were numerous lower ranks, but the three highest — those of prefect, patrician, and consul — were avidly pursued, especially since the person who served a short term in one of these higher offices earned social status that became hereditary in his family. The young Roman, after having finished his education, would use his family connections to enter the cursus honorum at as high a level as possible. Once having obtained such an office he would attempt to ingratiate himself with his superiors so that they might appoint him to another office further up the ladder.
How did one ingratiate himself with one’s superiors? By demonstrating one’s social skills. These skills consisted primarily of culture, wit, and urbanity. Clever and polished conversation, the ability to make and to recognize literary allusions, facility in publicly praising one’s sponsors and patrons in fashionable poetry, personally declaimed in public, graceful manners, mastery of the art of conversation, and other genteel accomplishments were the signs of merit that gained one favor and advanced one’s career. Certainly these were artificial and mannered affectations, but their mastery demanded an education that only the wealthy could afford and only the noble could value. Privileged classes often close their ranks to outsiders in this way, as one will see with the hereditary nobility of Medieval Europe or the nobility of Restoration London.
The term of service in each of these offices was short, often only a year, and the average noble reached the limit of his ability to rise in the cursus honorum relatively early in life, often by his early thirties and then had nothing to do but to retire to his country estate and to the company of neighbors much like himself. He Superannuated in the prime of his life, the Roman noble devoted himself to reading, writing, conversation, mild sports, and his gardens.
Thus the school education of the day while, admittedly artificial, achieved three basic ends: it gave the nobles a sense of identity and protected them from encroachment by the lower classes; it provided them with the skills necessary to achieve success in their terms; and it provided the best of them with a cultured mind which could survive a lifetime of retirement years without falling into excess or simple vegetation.
This was Sidonius’ education, and this was the type of life which lay before him. His first step was to marry, and he did quite well, marrying a daughter of the family of the Avitii, perhaps the most prestigious and wealthy family in the region. She brought with her as a dowry, the great estate of Avitacum, which Sidonius mentions a great deal more than he does her. After making himself at home here, By about 455 he was ready to enter politics.
Entering the Cursus Honorum (456-458 CE)
The situation was somewhat unusual when Sidonius was ready to begin public life in his mid-twenties. In the year 451, the western provinces had been menaced by the invasion of Attila the Hun and a large army. Attila and his forces crossed the Rhine River, and a remarkable Roman general, Aetius (pronounced aye-EE-tee- uhs), had been able to patch together an equally remarkable confederation to meet them. He convinced the Germanic tribes residing in the area to join in resistance and, under his leadership, Visigoths, Franks, Bretons, and Burgundians joined forces with the small regular Roman army in defeating the enemy in battle at Chalons-sur Marne. More to the point, Aetius had been successful in enlisting the active assistance of some of the nobles resident in the area, among them being Sidonius’ father-in-law, Avitus. The results of this co-operation were very encouraging to the West, and the Germanic leaders were impressed with the advantages of forming a western confederation under the leadership of Aetius. The Visigoths returned to their former status of Roman allies, the Sueves gave the Spanish province of Carthaginensis back to imperial administration. and the new Visigothic king, Theodoric II, began to search for new avenues of mutual action.
County Gentleman (458-467 CE)
The affairs of the West steadily declined during these years. Majorian failed in his attempts to defeat the Vandals, losing Africa definitively, as well as Sardinia, Corsica and the Balearics. Most of Lugdunensis, including Lyons, was turned over to the Burgundians, and the Visigoths were allowed to take Narbonnensis Prima. Finally, the Vandals took Sicily, the last granary of the West (468). At this point, the Eastern emperor, Leo, intervened, and appointed Anthemius, his own man, as emperor in the West. Matters had gone too far for imperial fortunes to be repaired, however, and Anthemius’ reign was, in retrospect, the last gasp of the Roman Empire in the West.
This steady decline in Roman fortunes seems to have had little effect upon Sidonius during these nine years. He appears to have accepted the curtailment of his public career as an unfortunate, but not unusual, event, and retreated to retirement at Avitacum. His letters from this period. as well as a few incidental poems provided us an unparalleled picture of the life of the leisured classes of the time.
The nobles lived on great estates, of which they might own a number. The estate formed a separate world, self-sufficient in virtually all things. Slaves did all the necessary work, although the owner supervised building, decorating, and some of the more refined activities such a flower gardening. The mansion formed the heart of the estate, and embellishing its amenities and enjoying them were the profession of the owner. Much time was spent in visiting, reading, hunting, bathing, and generally resting. The nearest society to it that springs to mind is that of the Ante-Bellum south pictured in MGM movies from the thirties, such as the opening scenes from Gone With the Wind.
Unbeknownst to Sidonius, who appears to have given up all political ambition, events were moving him towards a second excursion into public life.
Second Attempt at Politics (468-469 CE)
The new Emperor, Anthemius, was attempting to reconcile the West and restore some order. The people of the district of Auvergne asked Sidonius to present a petition to Anthemius while he was in a conciliatory mood, and Sidonius travelled to Rome to do so.
He arrived in Rome in time for the marriage of Anthemius’ daughter and seized the opportunity to write a poem about the event, and read it publicly. The acclaim was great and much to Sidonius’ joy, he was made Prefect of the City, only two steps away from the golden prize of the consulship. He encountered problems, however, since one of the major responsibilities of the Prefect was to ensure the regular distribution of grain to the city. Of course, the Prefect had no power to do anything about the matter, but he was praised when grain was plentiful and condemned when it was short. With Sardinia, Sicily, and Africa in the hands of the Vandals, the city’s grain supply was no longer as assured as it once had been. Sidonius spent the entire year in fear that something would go wrong and that people would boo him in the theater. Even the idea of such humiliation horrified him, and, by the end of his term, he seems to have suffered what might best be termed a nervous breakdown. As soon as he was relieved of office, and before his successor had been installed, he had gathered his household and fled to his villa at Avitacum. He did not even wait for the ceremony that raised him and his family to the Patrician status, a dignity that his service as Prefect of the City had won him.
Once again, he retired to Avitacum. This time, he should have definitely given up any ambitions. He had broken down under the pressure of office and being placed in the public eye, he was in his late forties, and he had accomplished enough to bring honor to his family’s name and to be remembered and honored by his descendants.
Roman Bishop (c.470-474 CE)
This was not to be the case, however. Within the year, he was called by the people of Auvergne to become their bishop. This brings up the problem of why they would have chosen a retired gentleman with no record of spirituality and little proof of personal administrative ability. One must understand that different cities had different needs, and two types of men during this period were considered as prime candidates for the post of bishop, a post that was, to all intents and purposes, filled by someone chosen by members of the congregation. the bishops of the time were more like elected representatives than any other officials of the West.
The superficiality of the public educational system had led the Church to concentrate Christian education in the monasteries, and a number of these were springing up in the West. The major one in Lugdunensis was at Lerins, off the coast of France. where St. Honoratus had established an institution modelled upon the monasteries and schools of Egypt and Syria. In such places, which were usually in close and frequent contact with Eastern centers, real philosophy was being developed and a peculiar western version of Christianity — the semi-Pelagian school — was showing great promise of revivifying Roman life.
On the other hand, an ascetic thinker was not always what a given church needed. Sometimes it needed a wealthy man to help endow it; sometimes a cultured man to impress Germanic neighbors; sometimes a man of good birth to handle its properties honestly; sometimes a man of position simply as a compromise candidate. Generally speaking, since local needs were peculiar and paramount, the people of the diocese elected their own man.
It is difficult to ascertain what Sidonius’ special qualifications were, but the call to serve as bishop represented for the nobility of the time a public charge which, unlike all others, it was impossible simply to refuse. It was possibly the only really public obligation the senatorial class still recognized.
The position of Sidonius’ diocese was perilous. The Visigoths under the stern and Arian king Euric coveted the territory and threatened it from the south, while it was cut off from other Roman territories by the Bretons and Burgundians to the east and north. Many of the officials of the region were in despair. Roman taxation was heavy, and benefits were nil. Corruption was endemic, and many residents of the district had come to the conclusion that they were simply being exploited, which was indeed the case.
Bishop Sidonius and his brother-in-law Ecdicius stiffened the resistance of the inhabitants of the territory, and Euric finally invaded and laid seige to the city of Auvergne. Sidonius managed supplies and morale during this difficult period, while Ecdicius formed a body of eighteen commandos which made life hell for the besiegers by their sudden raids and ambushes. Both Sidonius and Ecdicius showed a strength of character that one would not have believed possible of men of their tender upbringing and impractical background. Upon arriving at his seat of Aurillac, already under Visigothic threat and menaced by famine, Sidonius ordered his flock to scrape the algae and lichens from the walls of the city to make soup, and to eat the dogs and cats instead of feeding them. Before the matter was over, he would have his congregation dining on rat rather than surrender to a bunch of heretical barbarians. For his part, Ecdicius and his friends are said to have enjoyed slipping out of the city at night to cut the throats of unwary Germans. Some of these accounts may be more than a little romanticized, but they illustrate what the people of the time believed that their urbane and sophisticated leaders were capable of doing. In any event, the Visigoths, who had terrorized great expanses of the empire in the West, were unable to dislodge the bishop and his followers.
In 474 the Visigoths lifted the seige, and a Roman official arrived to pour praise on the defenders. Arrangements were made for peace talks with Euric. The bishops of Arles, Marseilles, Riez, and Aix were the Roman negotiators, and they appeased Euric by giving him Auvergne in exchange for his promise not to attack their own territories. It was betrayal plain and simple, but these were perilous times, and self-preservation was the order of the day. In the year 475, Sidonius ceased to be a Roman citizen and never seems to have recovered from the blow.
Later Years (475-483 CE)
Sidonius was thrown into a Visigothic prison as a recognition of how steadfast had been his resistance to Euric’s designs. His imprisonment seems to have been light, but of a sort that must have been particularly painful. He was exiled to a small villa high in the Pyrenees Mountains, where he was isolated from others of his class and culture. Interestingly enough, this little district still exists, a patch of land of about a mile square called Llivia, a piece of Spanish territory completely surrounded by the lands of France. After a while, he was simply released and allowed to go his own way. This lack of regard was perhaps only a further punishment. Sidonius wandered to Bordeaux, where Euric was holding his court, and being attended by many of the Gallo-Roman nobles who, like Sidonius, now found themselves subjects of a barbarian king. After a period of being ignored in Bordeaux, Sidonius finally returned to Avitacum. His friends apparently feared that the shocks of recent years might drive him into a permanent state of depression, and suggested that he occupy his time by editing some of the best of his letters and poems. He did so, with great pleasure, and it is to this period — his final retirement — that we owe the written works which have kept his name alive.
He seemed to have paid little attention to events in Italy, where the barbarian commander of the Roman army, Odoacer, found himself faced with a steady increase in the price of food, now that the peninsula could no longer relay on imports from the imperial granaries of Sicily, North Africa, Spain, and southern France. His troops could no longer feed themselves on the pay they were given, and salary increases were only eaten up by inflation. In the year 476, he went to Orestes, regent for the boy-emperor, Romulus Augustulus, and asked that each of his soldiers be given a piece of land and a slave family to till it and produce enough food to maintain the soldier. These lands and slaves were to be donated, naturally enough, by the nobility who owned most of the land and slaves. Orestes flatly refused, and Odoacer had him killed. He then brought in monks to give the eleven-year old Romulus Augustulus the monastic tonsure. The last of the Roman emperors on the West spent the rest of his life in a lovely monastery overlooking the Bay of Naples. Odoacer, meanwhile had packed up the imperial regalia, the diadem, purple cloak, and red shoes that were the official dress of a Roman emperor. He had sent them to the emperor of the East with he message that they were no longer needed. There was no more Roman Empire of the West.
Sidonius died of unknown causes on the 21st of August, probably in the year 483. He was buried in the church in Auvergne, and was immediately regarded as a saint by popular, if not overly excited, acclaim. The shrine of St. Apollinaris was venerated until the disorders of 1794, when it was destroyed by mobs inspired by the more radical of the ideals of the French Revolution to erase from the face of France all signs of its superstitious and monarchical past.
Europe in 476 CE
The career of Sidonius suggests a cause for the fall of the Roman Empire which is not generally emphasized: that the empire trained a noble class superbly well to compete in an artificial fashion for a series of empty honors. Their education blunted their creativity, and their energy was dissipated in meaningless pursuits. The late Roman noble was brave and honorable; talented and dogged, as Sidonius and Ecdicius proved during the siege of Auvergne. Such men could have saved the empire if they had not been so finely trained to waste their time. Sidonius had every opportunity to see the sham and waste; he lived to learn of the deposition of the boy emperor Romulus Augustulus, the last Roman Emperor in the West and yet seemed unable to comprehend that it was all over. His last letter to his wife closed with the words,
… I pray in our common name that just as we of this generation were born into prefectorian families, and have been enabled by divine favor to elevate them to patrician rank, so (our children) in turn may exalt the patrician to the consular’ dignity. V, xvi
Originally published by Dr. Lynn Harry Nelson, Lectures in Medieval History to the public domain.