The moderate life of Decimus Magnus Ausonius

The Bordeaux-born teacher and scholar, Decimus Magnus Ausonius, exemplified broad-mindedness. His life offers us a glimpse into the last days of the Roman Empire and the value of toleration in a polarised society.

The poet Decimus Magnus Ausonius
Portrait of Decimus Magnus Ausonius. Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The fourth-century AD writer Decimus Magnus Ausonius started life as a humble teacher in Bordeaux, and ended up as a consul of the Roman Empire. He was a scholar, poet, lawyer, letter writer, politician, tutor to emperors, travel writer, and keen social observer whose works give us an intimate insight into the dying days of the western Roman Empire.

His interest lies not just in his varied career, but also in his negotiation of a period of rapid cultural and intellectual change. Many in the Empire had been won over to an intolerant form of Christianity, which demanded the elimination of traditional pagan elements from public life. This included the removal of the old gods’ statues from public places and their exclusion from the school syllabus. Ausonius not only had to deal with this culture war, but also with questions of personal identity. He boasted of his Gallic ancestry, but was also proud of his status as a Roman citizen, and devoted to Roman literary culture.

Ausonius was born around AD 310 in Bordeaux. His father, Julius, was a doctor. Although of humble origins, he married well and was able to give his son an excellent education in Bordeaux, then a leading academic centre of the Roman west. In 334, Ausonius obtained a teaching position in his native city. At the same time he made an advantageous marriage to a woman named Attusia, who traced her descent from various families of Gallo-Roman tribal nobility. She died nine years later, leaving Ausonius with three children. He never remarried. Up to this point, he had spent some time working as a lawyer as well as in the classroom, but following his wife’s death he dedicated himself to teaching, gaining a professorship in rhetoric around 344.

In 364, his career took an extraordinary turn. He was summoned by Emperor Valentinian I to tutor his son, Gratian, heir to the imperial throne. Ausonius may have been chosen not just for his reputation as a teacher, but because his maternal uncle had previously worked as a tutor in the household of Emperor Constantine. Ausonius occupied this position for just over ten years. It was by no means an easy academic sinecure. Ausonius had to accompany the imperial household when they travelled, and in 368-9 he was with them as they led a military campaign on the German frontier. However, his position allowed him to develop friendships with a number of the Empire’s leading men of letters, including the arch pagan traditionalist Symmachus.

When Gratian succeeded to the emperorship in 375 he gave ample proof to the old adage that you never forget a good teacher. Ausonius moved into the imperial civil service, and Gratian showered him with honours and grand positions. He started as quaestor of the imperial palace. In 378 he was appointed prefect of Gaul. His father, who was still alive, was given the honorific title of Prefect of Illyrium. His son was appointed proconsul of Africa, and other relatives were also given similar accolades. The following year Ausonius was appointed consul, the highest position one could aspire to below the imperial ranks.

His good fortune was not to last. In 383, an usurper, Maximus, made a bid for the throne. Gratian was killed in fighting at Lyon, and Ausonius, as a member of the old regime, was compelled to step down. He retired to his estates near Bordeaux and occupied his later years in poetry, scholarship, and letter writing. He died around 394, in his mid-80s.

Ausonius wrote throughout his life, and around 300 pages of his work survive. But the lingering prejudice which arose in the Renaissance against later Latin writers means his work has been neglected and is little known. Earlier twentieth-century critics disparaged it as being unoriginal, formulaic, and devoid of true feeling. Such judgements are misplaced. Ausonius was writing within a highly developed literary tradition, and he used this to express himself to the full. Indeed, one does not need to refer to any tradition to acknowledge the true feeling in a number of his poems. These include love poems to his wife on their marriage, which have the intensity of those by Catullus, and others lamenting her early death and the loneliness of widowerhood. His epigrams on his family and teaching colleagues at Bordeaux are heartfelt. His long poem describing his journey down the River Moselle whilst returning from the campaign on the German frontier in 369 is a pioneering piece of travel literature that owes much to personal observation, offering a vivid picture of everyday Roman life.

One of the most arresting parts of Ausonius’ work is his correspondence with his star pupil Paulinus of Nola. Paulinus was born in Bordeaux in 352. Thanks to Ausonius’ teaching, and perhaps his imperial connections, Paulinus rose quickly to the consulship in 377, and then became governor of the south Italian province of Campania. Like Ausonius, he fell from favour on the death of Gratian and returned to Bordeaux. However, there  their paths then diverged. Paulinus married a Christian woman from Spain, Therasia. Under her influence he was baptised in 389, and they went to live in Spain. Shortly afterwards, their first child, a son, died when only a few days old. In response, they gave themselves over to a stern and ascetic Christian life.

Before Paulinus converted, he and Ausonius shared a frequent correspondence in high literary style, exchanging Latin verses, compliments, and scholarly observations. Such was the warmth of their relationship, Paulinus would address Ausonius as ‘father.’ Yet, after Paulinus converted and moved to Spain, he stopped replying to his old teacher’s letters. The silence left Ausonius confused and bitterly upset. He wrote to his old pupil again and again in an increasing pitch of bewilderment and despair, berating him for the cruelty of his silence, and, in an ungallant moment, blaming his wife for ruining their relationship. ‘Even enemies say ‘salve’ (‘greetings’) to each other in battle. Rocks and caves are not so rude as to refuse to echo the human voice.’

Eventually, Paulinus replied. He partly blamed the slowness of the post for his failure to respond, but the real reason was his conversion. His Christian beliefs meant that he no longer wished to indulge in writing about the old gods or traditional Roman culture: ‘Hearts which have been consecrated to Christ give refusal to the Muses, and are closed to Apollo… God forbids us to spend time on empty things… and on literature full of idle tales… For these things steep our hearts in false and vain ideas, and train our tongues to say nothing worthwhile, nothing that could bring the truth…’

Paulinus’ response belied an important fact about Ausonius: he too was a Christian. Yet, Ausonius was the proponent of a different type of Christianity. His poems about daily life portray his piety, showing him starting every morning with prayer. He knew scripture well, and could expound points of Christian theology and doctrine at length. However, for Ausonius, Christian piety did not stand opposed to Roman cultural and educational traditions. Indeed, for him the old forms of Latin poetry could serve as a vehicle for the praise of the Christian God. Yet, there was no harm in enjoying the old poets, or using the old gods as a literary convention. To share with others these literary traditions was not only a source of intellectual pleasure, but also a mark of a shared inheritance and civilisation. Ausonius’ moderation was able to reconcile the best of Christianity with pagan Roman tradition, seeing the good in the latter, not simply writing it off as evil because it came from an earlier and ‘unenlightened’ dispensation.

Ausonius’ moderation is also visible in his exploration of his own identity. He speaks with pride of his descent from ancient Gallic tribes, including the Aedui, who had fought both for and against the Romans in Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul four centuries earlier. He waxes lyrical on the beauties of Aquitaine, and speaks with rapture of Bordeaux: the temperate climate, the rivers and vine-clad hills, the elegant streets of the city, towers, and the great marble fountain at its centre. Yet, he is able to reconcile his deep sense of belonging to his ancestral terroir of Bordeaux with his equally profound allegiance to Rome: ‘This is my own country; but Rome stands above all countries. I love Bordeaux, Rome I venerate; in this I am a citizen, in both a consul; here was my cradle, there my curule [consul’s] chair.’

Caesar had conquered Gaul in the first century BC with a level of violence extraordinary even by the standards of the ancient world. According to Pliny the Elder, he killed a million people in his campaigns, and enslaved a million more. The Romans themselves, as part of their earlier literary traditions, had disdained the Gauls, portraying them as dangerous barbarians. Yet, any rancour caused by this history had ebbed away by Ausonius’ time. There was no desire to revive it or to incorporate it in contemporary Gallic identity, despite the disruption caused by the rise of Christianity and the growing weakness of the western Roman empire. This is perhaps owing to the way Rome handled Gaul after the conquest – it did not attempt to extinguish the identities of the Gallic tribes. Rather, it encouraged Gauls to maintain their original tribal identities, but to accept that the more they participated in Roman provincial government and culture in Gaul, the greater  their prestige would be amongst their own tribes. For a Gaul to hold a local Roman office, such as a priesthood or a town councillorship, or to excel as a Latin-speaking orator at local law courts, would add lustre to the holder not only in the eyes of the Romans but amongst Gauls themselves. The more proficient one was at Roman culture, the more successful one was within Gallic society. Thus, Roman and Gallic cultures ended up working in tandem rather than in opposition. Ausonius, with his cultural broad-mindedness, is a prime example of how this cultural synergy worked in practice.

Perhaps at the end of his life Ausonius felt despair for the future of Roman culture. His old age saw vicious disputes between the extreme ascetics such as Paulinus, who wished to efface the pagan past, and hard-line traditionalists such as Symmachus, who fought desperately to stop the pagan statue of the goddess of Victory being removed from the Roman senate house. Ausonius may have felt his moderation would be scorned in this increasingly polarised society. And yet, within a century, his approach had triumphed. Christians in the West had generally come to accept that the use of traditional pagan texts in education could go hand-in-hand with Christian life, and that pagan philosophy could contribute to a Christian understanding. Ausonius’ life reminds us that there is still hope to be found in a moderate approach.


Bijan Omrani