Decline in three dimensions

Late Antiquity was not just a story of Decline and Fall - Roman elites thrived in a changing world.

Engraving of the Sack of Rome by the Visigoths led by Alaric I in 410, during the reign of Emperor Honorius.
Engraving of the Sack of Rome by the Visigoths led by Alaric I in 410, during the reign of Emperor Honorius. Credit: Prisma/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Even in the modern world of scientific history, both our narrative reconstructions and our analysis of the process by which the western Rome empire collapsed still depend heavily on the sifting of literary sources – the poems, sermons, treatises, panegyrics, biographies and autobiographies of those who witnessed, and experienced, the events. These sources rarely do what historians would want them to do. There is no major narrative historian in the Latin West to continue the grand, classicizing sweep of Ammianus Marcellinus. Most surviving literature from the period is Christian, and serves a programmatically Christian agenda where the power of sin enjoys a much higher profile than do the sinews of state power – few of these authors are explicitly interested in the Roman Empire, and fewer still in the barbarian invaders.

As a result, our knowledge even of decisive events often hangs by the most slender of threads. The Rhine crossing of the early fifth century is thus dated by a single chronicle entry (which modern scholars have felt free to juggle); the terms of the decisive treaty by which the Goths were settled in Aquitania in 418 are recorded in three curtly impressionistic summaries, the different implications of which have helped generate wildly different interpretations; the deposition of the last emperor of the West, notoriously, receives barely a mention in any contemporary source.

But historians must use this literary material not merely to help establish the essential framework of what happened and when; our authors provide shape and colour as well as line, providing a hinterland enlivened by expressions of horror and fear, of resolution and hope, of anger and puzzlement and despair, in the face of the emergencies of the age. A cluster of soundbites reappear to illustrate almost all our standard works on the period. The scholarly Jerome, even in faraway Bethlehem, struggles to continue his dictation at the thought of the Gothic sack of Rome, his voice sticking in his throat and sobs choking his words; a poet attempting to justify the ways of divine Providence wrestles with a picture of a despoiled Gallic homeowner, watching his wine-cellar drunk dry by marauding Goths and his jewels being divided up among their brides; Salvian berates his decadent and exploitative fellow-Romans, each city councillor a tyrant, as responsible for their own ruin; Sidonius Apollinaris, battling to come to terms with the new world, expresses mild horror at a friend’s success in mastering the language of his Burgundian masters.

But the danger with these snapshots is that they are extracted from their context, whether the longer literary work of which they are a part or a larger literary project of which they represent but one instalment. It is easily forgotten, for example, that Jerome’s sobs come two years after the event; and even his more immediate reactions, memorably expressed in the preface to his commentary on Ezekiel, are built into the packaging of a massive project for which he needed to find a patron, and ideally a patron from Rome. Likewise with the poem on Providence: the poet’s famous vignette of the householder’s plundered necklaces and drained cellar is in fact a subordinate part of an argument about the prosperity of unjust Romans and the evils they inflict on the just, a theme to which the poet promptly returns.

My purpose is to explore the third dimension to these testimonies: that is, the hinterland behind each of the texts which provide evidence of the empire’s difficulties, the argument which the author is driving forward and the assumptions that he makes in doing so – even when these arguments and assumptions have little directly to do with the processes that the historian is attempting to analyse. Five authors who feature with particular prominence in our presentations of fifth-century decline and fall, and who are regularly presented as straightforward witnesses to the scale and impact of the disasters that befell the western empire, will be reviewed. Each of them, as should become clear, deserves an essay to himself, but the distinctive questions raised by each text are usefully brought out by comparison and contrast to others.

By sketching a fuller context for these texts, I shall argue that their testimony is less straightforward than it has seemed. The intention is not to argue that they are claiming (or indeed giving grounds to suppose) that the successive crises of the period were not genuine, still less to remove them from the struggles of their contemporary society into a purely literary sphere, but rather to suggest that their perceptions of these crises, and responses to them, might have been more complex than recent scholarship has generally allowed. Above all, it will emerge that assumptions about the permanence of the empire died hard, rather harder than much modern scholarship has acknowledged. And it might be that the tenacity of these assumptions played its own part in shaping the course of events. The longevity of an empire is not best served, arguably, by comfortable faith in its indestructibility.

Orosius’ Seven Books of History Against the Pagans

The pugnacious Spaniard Orosius is in several respects a paradoxical starting-point for an exploration of authorial assumptions and agendas, for he is one of the most blatantly agenda-driven writers of the period. Commissioned by Augustine in the aftermath of the Gothic sack of Rome in 410 to respond to critics who were drawing connections between the imperial government’s abandonment of its traditional gods and Rome’s recent embarrassments, he compiled an extensive catalogue of the carnage and catastrophe that had marked the first thousand years of Rome’s history.

Orosius’ Seven Books of History Against the Pagans have received more sympathetic treatment from recent critics than in previous generations (Eric Hobsbawn in 1955 imperiously  declared  that  no  historian  ‘cares  a  rap’  for  Orosius,  or  thought  him ‘worth a moment’s attention’) but he still sits uncomfortably in the shadow of the vastly more sophisticated theology of history developed by his mentor Augustine in his City of God. Historians continue to regret that he has provided ‘less a history than a polemical tract.’ Even the most recent reappraisal, which identifies the rhetorical subtleties in the History, traces a subtle web of intertextual allusions (especially to Virgil), and shows Orosius both creatively rewriting his sources and skilfully deploying his own ‘rhetoric of pathos’, is primarily concerned with literary features rather than with Orosius’ commentary on contemporary events.

A central assumption even in the most recent work on Orosius is that he was engaged in a self-consciously uphill struggle, to explain away the embarrassingly inexplicable, the first violation of the city of Rome in eight hundred years. And this in turn is linked to enduring assumptions about the seismic significance of the sack of 410, not in military, political or economic terms (historians agree that it was of negligible importance in these areas) but for the morale of the Roman elite.

But the overall shape of Orosius’ work does not bear out this assumption. The arrival of Alaric at the gates of Rome indeed provides a rhetorically charged moment (the trembling city is beset, bewildered and burst open, in one of Orosius’ more ambitious rhetorical sequences), and the episode is set off against two other set-pieces, the depredations of Brennus and the Celts in 390 BC and Nero in 64 AD. However, in the overall context of the seven books, the city shrinks to much more modest proportions. The sack of 410 is presented as a subplot in the machinations of the traitorous generalissimo Stilicho, and proves strikingly inconsequential; Rome itself hardly features elsewhere in the narrative of Orosius’ own times. Orosius’ horizons extend far beyond the ancient capital. He begins his work with a geographical excursus that reduces Italy to an incidental detail, and has been seen as an important conceptual and ideological development; and as far as we can tell, he never visited Rome itself.

Perhaps the most telling single indication of his perspectives, and the city of Rome’s place in them, is his discussion of the siege of Troy, in his first book. The lengthy siege, the brutal sack, even the prize of a woman, all had their obvious analogies with the Roman experience of 410, and each point was calculated to show Rome as the less drastic case. However, this was not the connection that Orosius drew. He indeed presents Troy as relevant to contemporary discussion, and particularly to those ‘angry with this present state of affairs’; but they should reconsider their anger in the light of the most recent developments, which had seen ‘their enemies, through the workings of God’s hidden mercy, pursue them over every sea to offer peace and surrender hostages, although they could have armed themselves for battle and pursued them in war over every land; moreover, in case it is thought that they have done this through a love of peace and quiet, they are offering to risk themselves against other peoples to keep the peace for the Romans.’

The significance of the passage is that it is matched exactly by the discussion at the very end of the book, of the peace agreement made between the Gothic king Wallia and the emperor Honorius: no fewer than five separate phrases recur. It is his native Spain and its prospects, rather than the fortunes of the ancient capital, that exercise the more consistent grip on Orosius’ imagination; and this has important implications for what the name of Rome and the idea of its empire signified for him.

The point can be reinforced by consideration of a point which Orosius makes in his discussion of Alexander. He draws a contrast between the global scale of the sufferings inflicted by the Macedonian king and the parochial difficulties experienced by his own generation. The peoples of northern Gaul and Spain had sent envoys as far away as India and Assyria in order to beg peace with Alexander:

So do we think that we shall set in our memory forever the fact that when for the most part it remains secure, a fugitive brigand has violated a single corner of the world? It is as if, reversing the situation [sc. with Alexander], an Indian or an Assyrian asked the Goths and Sueves for peace; or even the very Spaniard who is enduring the enemy, did so.

Editors and commentators have identified the latro as Alaric, thus inflicting on Orosius an enduring, reflexive obsession with Rome and its sack. But Alaric is elsewhere in Orosius regularly a ‘king’; the scope of this brigand’s operations is explicitly said to be Spain, and the point is that not even the Spaniards themselves think of begging him for peace. Instead of Alaric, we should think, for example, of the Sueves who had seized Gallaecia (Orosius’ probable home). The perspective, that is, is again determined by the situation in 418, the peace negotiations described in the final chapter. The Goths and Sueves alike are queuing up to submit to Rome – the idea that the Spanish provincials would sue for terms with the invaders is now safely absurd.

Orientius’ Commonitorium

Orientius presents a very different set of questions. He is known to us only through the bundle of works that are preserved under his name in a single surviving manuscript; although it is tempting to identify him with the bishop of Auch whose diplomatic feats are celebrated in a hagiographical account, any connection remains tenuous. The thousand verses of his Commonitorium, overwhelmingly the most substantial work attributed to him, offer a wake-up call to his readers, directing their attention with dramatic urgency to the state of their souls, and towards the final judgement that awaited them. The poem belongs within a group of poetic responses by Gallic Christian authors to the invasions and civil wars of the first two decades of the fifth century; it differs from them, as a recent study has well brought out, in being more accepting of the claims of ordinary human society, and less committed to radical ascetic renunciation. Historians treasure the work for one twenty-line passage in particular, where Orientius meditates upon the devastation caused by the barbarian attacks of the early fifth century. His language shows just how vividly these memories were imprinted. Nothing could withstand the rampage: not forests, mountains, rivers, fortresses or cities, seas or deserts, caves or hollows in cliff faces. He works up to a memorable climax:

Throughout the estates, the villas, throughout the countryside, the crossroads, and through all the villages, on all the roads leading here and there, was death, sadness, destruction, squalor, fires, lamentation: All Gaul smoked on one funeral pyre.

These climactic lines are duly repeated, with appropriate acknowledgement of the poetic license being employed, in all standard treatments of the invasions.

However, Orientius offers much more than a mere soundbite; and examination of the poem as a whole requires us to reconsider the emphasis that has traditionally been placed on Orientius’ testimony, as evidence for the destructiveness of the invasions. In the first place, the barbarian irruption is placed firmly in the past. ‘Look back’, the poet says ‘How swiftly death grasped the whole world’. The past tense here and in the following lines interrupt a sequence placed firmly in the present, where the reader is instructed to imagine all the good things in this life, as poor shadows of the good things to come; he then leaves the Gallic pyre to survey death’s inexorable grip in its more everyday forms. Interestingly, it is here that the reader’s own response is directly solicited and his experience consulted. For all its vividness, the picture of Gaul’s devastation is held up at a distance.

But the poem offers more than this largely negative point. Orientius, it becomes apparent, is assuming a world that remains very Roman indeed. His verses channel Ovid and Juvenal, as was perhaps inevitable for a cultured satirist writing elegiacs; but the hardships which he berates his reader for voluntarily undergoing proclaim the enduring power of a pattern of self-advancement ingrained in Roman consciousness for half a millennium. His foolish reader thus rises at dawn to haunt the vestibule of a powerful patron, to jostle with rivals for the opportunity for an interview and to face the brutal whims of the door-keeper. The summit of this laborious career, moreover, is a ‘long-lasting honour’ which proves fleeting:

But say that a long-lasting honour swells you, drives you: Will it not have its end too?

Come, imagine that enduring monuments will proclaim your name And that the year goes happily, inscribed as yours:

What good will your power do, when it is gone?

It is most unlikely indeed that any Gallo-Roman aristocrat of the early fifth century imagined himself securing the immortality that the consulship, after which years were still named, could confer; but it is nevertheless telling that this still provides the framework by which ambition is defined. There is no suggestion, moreover, that the game is any less worth playing than previously, that office-holding might be even emptier than previously in a state which was already but a shadow of its former self.

Similarly, the great procession which Orientius steers towards its destiny in hell at the climax of his work is a very traditionally Roman one. At its head are:

… those once mighty as commanders and kings, Those adorned with rods and purple gowns

Whose golden plates held choice dishes, and crystal goblets Falernian wine whose couches were laid with purple

Whose strength was famous and whose beauty was renowned, Who trusted, alas, in material resources …

Again, the power of the image rests in the significance these images of power and its paraphernalia enjoyed in the contemporary world. The traditional trappings of Roman authority still dominated the moralist’s imagination.

There are further aspects of Orientius’ work, too, which deserve more attention from historians than they have received. His survey of the disasters inflicted on past peoples by feminine beauty, for example, naturally included the ‘Spartan wiles’ (of Helen) and the wars of Troy, but moves to apostrophize Rome and remind it of its own near-calamity: ‘And the rape – how nearly, Rome, your destruction!’ The reference is clearly to the Sabine Women; what is significant is that as far as the poet was concerned this near-calamity (from pagan times, as he hastens to point out) was not complicated by any actual destruction in more recent times. He even uses the same language for the city’s destruction as had Augustine when discussing the sack of 410.

Paulinus of Pella’s Eucharisticos

With Paulinus of Pella, we have a more straightforwardly human story, and a much more circumstantial and personal perspective upon the sufferings of the Romans of fifth-century Gaul. Like Orientius, Paulinus speaks to us through a single poem (of roughly the same length as the two books of the Commonitorium), but rather than a moralizing sermon he offers us a full autobiography, wrapped in a prayer of thanksgiving, which works painstakingly through the eighty-three years of his life. Born in 377, so a few years before Orosius and (probably) Orientius, Paulinus adds to their perspectives a further thirty years of largely painful experience, which makes him the most complete single source for the vicissitudes of Roman aristocrats in fifth-century Gaul.

Paulinus’ story is certainly a dramatic one, a trajectory from riches to rags. He writes as a pensioner of the church of Marseille, living on ‘the expenses of others’; yet he had been born into the highest echelons of imperial society. His account of his infancy reveals him as an ‘empire brat’, criss-crossing the Mediterranean as his father moved from one prestigious post to another. His father’s term as governor of Macedonia explains Paulinus’ birth in Alexander’s ancient capital of Pella, and promotion to the proconsulship of Africa brought the family to Carthage shortly afterwards. Paulinus’ first ‘homecoming’ to Gaul, aged two, marks his father’s transition (following an established pattern) from imperial office-holder to local aristocrat – and in a calculated aside Paulinus lets slip that this was all in fact a chapter in one of the greatest (and certainly the best documented) success stories of later Roman upward mobility, for the grandfather who welcomed him home was none other than the irrepressible Ausonius, the schoolmaster’s son who when he first embraced little Paulinus was ‘consul of the ‘same year’, having realized the dream that Orientius would impute to his ambitious readers.

Paulinus lingers with dispassionate disapproval (which sounds very much like tender regret) on the luxury in which he was raised, the horses, hounds, and falcons; the golden ball (specially imported from Rome) for his games, the scented clothes and sexual experiments with the household staff. He shows himself maturing into a prestigious marriage, immersion in estate management, and frank enjoyment of the good life of rural leisure.

And then, in his thirtieth year (so 407, according to his meticulous chronology) everything went wrong. His father dies and the barbarians ‘plunge into the vitals of the Roman state’; and this marks the beginning of a downward spiral of dispossession and despoliation. Orientius’ pyres crystallize, with Paulinus, into smoke from his burning house (or houses); he finds himself embroiled in a civil war and has the misfortune to hold office for the losing side; overtures to the Goths backfire, and various projects to relocate to estates held abroad come to nothing; the debilities of old age defeat his attempts to repeat his youthful success at agricultural improvement.

Paulinus has often been treated as a straightforward case study in Roman decline, his misfortunes mirroring those of the empire. The very clumsiness of his verses (notably less smooth or classically inflected than Orientius’) have seemed to confirm the essential transparency of his testimony. But any such reading misses the tenacious argumentativeness that runs through the poem, much like the combative spirit that informs Orosius’ History. Paulinus was arguing not with stubborn pagans but with his own Christian neighbours who (one suspects) had been taxed by his own stubbornness: this is a pugnacious Apologia pro sua Vita, addressed to God in order to enlist the deity against those whom Paulinus is inviting to overhear the conversation. The battles that Paulinus is fighting in presuppose a territory – cultural, social and political – that was still utterly Roman, and was still worth fighting for. The only decline that he explicitly notes is in educational standards, which have slipped since his own early inoculation against what he pretentiously called ‘the ten special signs of obtuseness’ and the ‘faults contre le sens commun’:

And although this discipline has long since fallen out of use through the corruption, doubtless, of the age,

Yet, I declare, the antique Roman fashion I have preserved

Delights me more: the age matching his own is more pleasing to an old man.

Paulinus is here playing a very traditional game of cultural one-upmanship, combining the mystique of an unusually expensive education with the moral advantages of old age, as an unanswerable reproach to upstart critics.

What is most important here is that Paulinus was thinking in terms of a Roman world which is still that of his youth. If Rome had lost its hold upon Gaul, he appears not to have noticed. This applies also to his dealings with the barbarians. He proclaims that his purpose in aligning himself with the usurper Attalus (the direct cause of his expropriation) was to pursue ‘a Gothic peace’ – his only mistake, as he sees it, had been to be premature in his efforts, since ‘now in our state we see full many prospering through Gothic favour.’

Forty years after the establishment of the Gothic state-within-a-state, the Goths are thus still regarded as an instrument in Roman domestic politics. Similarly, Paulinus’ own losses are attributed more to the wickedness of Roman law-breaking than to damage inflicted by the barbarians ‘under the law of war’. He develops his theme by lamenting that ‘names dear to me’ had been involved in this serial depredation: his picture, then, is of a man on the losing side of a particularly bitter inheritance struggle.

Another point easily missed is that Paulinus’ own story has a happy ending. He declares himself rejuvenated in the closing passage of his poem, following the unexpected arrival of a sum of money from a Gothic stranger, who had sent this as payment for a piece of land ‘which had once belonged to me’. The transaction was not ‘just’, but was ‘welcome’ to Paulinus, enabling him to stave off any further damage to his self-respect.

Commentators have tended to take this as another example of the abasement of Paulinus (and the Gallo-Roman gentry in general) before the invaders, forced to dispose of their land in a brutal buyers’ market. But there is a play on words here which shows that the correct reading of the Latin must be that Paulinus no longer had any ‘rights’ to the land in question (quondam … iuris), so the money he received for it was not ‘rightful’ (iustum). This is of no small significance. The passage shows the Gothic newcomers, a generation after their settlement, attempting to insert themselves into the Roman property-owning fabric, and doing so (at least in this case) rather ineptly. The poet’s world, in this sense too, is still a thoroughly Roman one.

The Chronicle of Hydatius

Hydatius, some thirty years younger than Paulinus but writing a decade later, also grew up in a world in which Roman horizons were shrinking, and experienced firsthand the trauma of barbarian invasion. Like Paulinus and Orientius he survives through a single literary work, a chronicle which provides our fullest year-by-year account of the unravelling of Roman control over provincial society – in this case, the provinces of the Spanish peninsula. Hydatius’ own occasional appearances in his chronicle seem to reflect the contraction of his world’s horizons. As a boy he crossed the Mediterranean, on a family pilgrimage to the Holy Land where (like his compatriot Orosius) he met Jerome in his Bethlehem sanctuary; he went to northern Gaul on an embassy in 431 to enlist the services of the generalissimo Aetius against the Suevi; but he last appears, in 460, as the victim of a kidnapping operation by his local enemies.

Hydatius is indispensable to students of his region at the end of the imperial period: ‘If there were no Chronicle of Hydatius, there would be no history of Spain in the fifth century.’ It is not a happy picture. The laconic entries offer glimpses of a prolonged seven-sided contest for control of the Iberian peninsula, between the Roman state, Bacaudic bandits, Alans, Sueves, Goths and two groups of Vandals, which add up to ‘a highly depressing account’. Hydatius has been suspected, indeed, of over-accentuating the negative. His most recent editor has established that his chronicle is organized so as to count down to the Apocalypse – and that Hydatius (with the help of some decidedly unorthodox reading material) had calculated this to be alarmingly imminent, due in May 482.

This, it has been suggested, put him ‘at pains to make the reader feel the same despair’ that he did, with the result that ‘he constantly glosses events as pessimistically as possible.’ The gaps between Hydatius’ entries have therefore been differently filled by historians in their reconstructions of events, depending on how far Hydatius’ ideological perspectives have seemed to distort his presentation: where some scholars infer ‘a great deal of unpleasant military activity throughout’, others have argued that where Hydatius does not explicitly denote conflict, we should postulate relative stability.

But it is also possible to find in Hydatius himself reflections of a more complex world-view than is suggested by his favourite modern roles as skeletal chronicler or prophet of imminent doom.

There are clear indications, as with our other authors, of the tenacity of traditional Roman modes of thinking, and the enduring power of traditional Roman points of reference. Tensions can be identified in the preface that introduces his work. He gives here a tantalizing account of how, from the point at which he was consecrated bishop (in 427) he was no longer compiling second-hand reports but was adding to the existing record:

Both the boundaries, which will collapse, of a Roman empire which is confined within narrow bounds and (what is more painful) the disfigured state of church order … the death of honourable freedom … and the collapse of almost all religion based on divine instruction … inside Gallaecia, at the edge of the entire world.

Almost buried between the convolutions of this overloaded sentence is a world-view based on a conscious interplay between the imperial and the local – the embattled imperial frontiers and the travails of Hydatius’ remote province are presented as parallel concerns, but with the former decidedly subordinated to the latter.

Not the least important aspect of the presentation is that the Roman empire is shown as intrinsically contracted rather than currently shrinking, for the ruination of the frontiers is displaced into the future: moreover, the loss of territory is not a theme in the account that follows. Rather, the empire is being relativized against the wider world, a safe haven that might recede but which remains within reach. Hardly less significant, moreover, is the following sentence, where Hydatius consigns the ‘consummation’ of his project to posterity. The wording (which invokes plural successors, to add to the ninety-year span that he had single-handedly covered) does not suggest that he was here thinking merely of the fourteen years which should have been all that was left of history. We should conclude that the chronicler was ultimately too rooted in his world to adhere consistently to the timetable which he had in principle imposed on himself.

Attention to Hydatius’ perspective suggests that he was as much a creature of the Roman past as of an eschatological future. He clearly thinks of his Gallaecia as belonging to the Roman world, despite half a century of suffering at the hands of Suevic and Gothic kings and warlords; his determined tracking of the exchange of embassies can be construed as an exercise in normalization, and one which would ensure that Rome retained a place at the top of the hierarchy; the Roman empire is still the most important actor in this complex world. At the very end of the Chronicle, the arrival of the latest emperor in the West is reported with considerable fanfare:

Anthemius, the brother of Procopius, dispatched according to God’s plan from Constantinople by Augustus Leo along with Marcellinus, other picked men as comites, and a well-equipped army of vast proportions, arrived in Italy.

Hydatius is not normally given to adjectival adornment, or to invoking the mandate of heaven. And the reverberations of this arrival reach deep into Hydatius’ world, as even an abortive expedition against the Vandals spreads panic among the Goths of Spain; Rome is last seen purging its ranks and preparing a further campaign. Even at ‘the furthest end of the world’, faith in the efficacy of Roman arms had not failed.

The Life of Saint Severinus by Eugippius

A final text to be considered is The Life of Saint Severinus by Eugippius, which gives us our fullest and most circumstantial account of the definitive loss of the Roman government’s control over a particular province, Noricum on the upper Danube. Eugippius reports Severinus’ arrival in the province ‘at the time of the death of Attila’, so c. 453, and charts his various mediations with the warlords from across the Danube who routinely marauded through the territory, until his death some thirty years later in c. 482; the Life then deals with the migration of the ‘Roman’ inhabitants of the province to the safety of Italy, accompanied by the relics of Severinus. The episodic character of the Life makes dramatically clear, again and again, that ‘the process of invasion was highly unpleasant for the people who had to live through it.’

Eugippius does not attempt to deny that the Danube region had fallen completely beyond the reach of the Roman empire. He speaks explicitly of the hunger to which the populace was exposed as a result of ‘the harsh dominion of the barbarians’; in setting the scene for one of his most vivid vignettes, a last attempt by a Roman regiment to claim their pay from the imperial authorities in Italy (an attempt, predictably, that ends badly, with the Danube stained red with the blood of the paymasters’ bodies), he explains that ‘so long as the Roman dominion lasted, soldiers were maintained in many towns at the public expense to guard the frontier.’ But this was a ‘custom’ which had subsequently ‘ceased’. Here, then, is an author explicitly confronting the end of empire.

But when using the Life, historians have too readily conflated the author and his subject. Eugippius is only occasionally a presence in his Severinus’ story, and only comes into his own at the very end: he presents himself as a witness to the last of his hero’s miracles, and accompanied the cortege during the evacuation of Noricum in c. 488. But he wrote his biography, it must be emphasized, two decades later, from the comfort of the former (and famously luxurious) villa of the Republican general Lucullus on the Bay of Naples, now a monastery over which he presided.

In his account of the evacuation of Noricum he distinguishes himself carefully from the ‘provincials’, who made the journey ‘with us’. His remark that Severus owed his ability to remain active ‘in a land of most bitter cold’ to a special gift from God argues against his being a native himself.

This has an important bearing on our understanding of the narrative. For Eugippius is not telling a story of decline and fall: Noricum is a safely remote laboratory in which Christians can be subjected to successive experiments, to test their trust in divine providence and Severinus’ inspired teachings. Eugippius’ own world is suggested by the exchange of letters with the Roman deacon Paschasius, with which the work is introduced: the text is sent to Paschasius as a crude draft in need of properly Roman polish, and is returned untouched except by the burnish of an authoritative imprimatur. In the process, other claimants to the memory of Severinus are elegantly side-lined, notably an established hagiographer (a layman of senatorial rank) who had been asserting his own stake.

The biography, that is, belongs in a very Italian, and (even after the abdication of the last western emperor thirty years earlier, into retirement in the same Campanian resort from which Eugippius was writing) a very Roman setting. Its function, as Paschasius noted approvingly, was to bring Severinus into the lives of his readers, so that his presence might illuminate Italy; the loss of a province, in this equation, is more than balanced by the acquisition of a saint, the more so in that there is in fact no sense of lost territory in the text, but rather decades of persistent insecurity and danger resolved by the triumphant escape of the populace at the end of the story. Historians using this as a foundation for narratives of imperial decline or collapse are thus reading against the grain of Eugippius’ narrative, and imposing an arc that his contemporary readers are most unlikely to have recognized.

Much happened in the century between Orosius’ composition of his History and Eugippius of his Life, not least the quiet disappearance of the last of the western emperors in whom Orosius (and Hydatius two generations later) had placed such faith. But our authors share in common a refusal to admit defeat in the face of military and political adversity. Each in his own way is exhibiting resilience in the creativity with which he identifies, and the determination with which he stakes his claim to, a patch of moral high ground, from which to offer instruction and derive authority. The voices that survive are admittedly those of a tiny elite minority, equipped with resources that enabled them to spare them the worst of the sufferings to which the ordinary provincials of Gallaecia, Aquitania and Noricum were clearly exposed. They are nevertheless voices which require our close attention, for from their nuances we can catch the techniques by which this elite simultaneously adjusted to the demands of a changing world, and imposed their own sense of stability upon it.

Decline in three dimensions by Neil McLynn was first published in Decadence and Decay, 2019, Axess Publishing


Neil McLynn