Salvian – You Cheery Fellow

06 Feb

I’m a bit disappointed today. I was going to head over to Purdue for the Comitatus Annual Conference. Even though my job is in “nothistory” I enjoy hearing the Purdue students and was planning on reporting on the papers here either tonight or tomorrow.

Unfortunately, last night we had 6-8″ (15-20 cm) of snow and continue to have 30 mph (50 kph) winds resulting in a local travel emergency. No travel except for essential services – which basically means the county’s thrown in the towel and won’t be trying to clear the roads until conditions improve. So today I stay home.

I thought maybe I’d throw in a Geek’s opinion of a contemporary Late Antique Source. One of the nice things about not doing this for a living is I can read pretty much what I want. Typically I’ll read several secondary works, take lots of notes, and when I feel the urge I start wading through a bunch of the sources mentioned (this tends to be a very good period for booksellers). This fall I spent a few months reading Halsall, Goffart, Burns, James, Kulikowski, etc., mainly to raise my knowledge about the whole “Why did the Barbarian Cross the Rhine” issue that Peter Heather discusses in the Journal of Late Antiquity (I’d previously read a few other books on the subject) along with the more comprehensive question of why Rome “fell.” Over the last couple of months I’ve been going after the sources – the ones I can get, anyway. I don’t generally comment on primary/contemporary sources but Salvian recalled a memory – rather vividly – from my younger days.

When I was 19 I spent some time working on a ranch in Nebraska to make some money to help me finish my last two years of undergrad. Nebraska does not happen to be filled with a lot of social activities for people in their late teens/early 20’s. As an example of the lengths we were willing to go to find something off-ranch to do, one week during the summer there was a Baptist tent revival a few miles down the road – tents appeared all over some fields and thousands of Baptists converged. We decided to head over there one evening.

I’m not sure what inspired us to do this (there were three of us, the oldest 22 so maybe that explains it) but we certainly overestimated the entertainment factor. We followed a large number of folks into the largest tent on the place. There I had my first experience with a hardcore “hellfire and brimstone” sermon. I don’t know what version of Baptist this was, but I can assure you that a couple of hours later (I was afraid to leave in the middle) I walked out 100% certain that when I died I was going someplace where you don’t need to bring any charcoal for the barbecue. Salvian would have felt right at home in that tent.

Salvian’s message in The Governance of God (De gubernatione Dei) is simple, though he goes into great detail about it. God has not deserted us (the Romans) – he’s still in charge. It’s just that we have sinned so monstrously that God is giving us our just desserts. Why has God favored the barbarians? They are less evil than us. He proceeds to expound on the ways in which Rome has sinned and how, by comparison, even as heretics or pagans, the barbarians have not. This goes one step beyond the typical “God has visited the Barbarians upon us as punishment” to “God has punished us while rewarding them.” This is a significant amendment to the typical punishment by God and the implication is that – from Salvian’s perspective – the Barbarians are not a temporary visitation, present only until the Romans clean up their act, but a permanent affliction that will be the end of the Empire; “For, who can be eloquent about freebooting and crime because the Roman State is dying or already dead or certainly drawing its last breath?” (Salvian 4.6, p 100)

This aspect of Salvian is pretty simple. What’s more interesting is analyzing it for its historical value. Items of interest he discusses include; corruption of public officials (Salvian 3.10, pp 85-86); how taxation is destroying the empire, particularly where the rich are exempt and the poor bear the burden (Salvian 4.6, pp 100-101); how Romans welcome the barbarians as Roman governance is so oppressive (Salvian 5.5, pp 135-136); the creation of the Bagaudae (roaming groups of bandits – they were also prevalent in the third century – see Van Dam, 1985 and Halsall, 2007) being the direct result of people fleeing Roman oppression (Salvian 5.6, pp 136-137); Romans voluntarily becoming coloni to escape the burden of taxation (Salvian 5.8, pp 141-144) and; the overall poverty of the Roman state (Salvian 5.8, pp 165; 5.9, 167-168). Other items are of less critical interest to me such as the Romans craving games and the circus to such an extent that in Carthage citizens were cheering in the circus while Carthage’s walls were breached. Salvian really doesn’t like the Africans.

Salvian is pointed to as an example of how Roman governance broke down as the end approached, and rightly so. However it is important to use him with caution and place what he says in context. Salvian should not be used as an example of earlier innate weaknesses of the Empire, particularly regarding taxation, which would doom it to its end. Salvian likely wrote between 440 and 450. He speaks at length of the loss of Carthage to Geiseric and the Vandals which happened in 439, and does not prominently discuss the Huns, as would be expected if he were writing after 450 when they became a threat to the Western Empire.

Salvian’s perspective is based on a Western Empire which has lost its wealthiest province and its tax revenues thereof, yet, as most societies do, was attempting to maintain itself – through increasing taxes in other regions. There are other sources discussing the disparity in the tax burden during earlier periods, however Salvian cannot be used to discuss a weakness in the Empire that existed prior to the loss of Africa – certainly not to the extent he speaks of. What he can be used for is to illustrate how Rome attempted to respond to the loss of Africa and how devastating this was to the Gallic provinces (though some consideration must be given to exaggeration).

Salvian is a fascinating source to me for two reasons. First, he is one of the few sources who was writing, not before the end of the Empire appeared imminent, or afterwards when sources could use hindsight, but during the period when things were crumbling. He and Sidonius Apollinaris, writing of events two to three decades later, combine to present a picture of the last days of the Empire. Second, his message, at least as presented in O’Sullivan’s translation, is very clear. For me, The Governance of God is a source which helps provide a picture of an Empire in severe crisis, very possibly at or approaching the point of no return. I had braced myself for something which would be tedious, along the lines of Augustine’s City of God, and was pleasantly surprised.

At some point I’d like to get my hands on Prosper of Aquitaine, Hydatius, and the Gallic Chronicle of 452 but the available translations are out of my price range.

NOTE: In the near future I’ll re-learn html and post real footnotes instead of what’s in this post – I promise.

Burns, Thomas S. (2003). Rome and the Barbarians, 100 B.C. – A.D. 400 (Baltimore, MD).

Goffart, Walter (2006). Barbarian Tides: the Migration Age and the Later Roman Empire (Philadelphia, PA).

Halsall, Guy (2007). Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 (Cambridge, UK).

Heather, Peter (2009). “Why Did the Barbarian Cross the Rhine”, Journal of Late Antiquity 2: 3-29.

James, Edward (2009). Europe’s Barbarians, AD 200-600 (Harlow, UK).

Kulikowski, Michael (2004). Late Roman Spain and its Cities (Baltimore, MD).

Salvian the Presbyter, On the Governance of God: The Writings of Salvian the Presbyter, trans. O’Sullivan, J.F. (New York, 1947)

Sidonius Apollinaris, Sidonius I: Poems, Letters, Books I-II, ed. and trans. Anderson, W. B., (London, 1936)

Sidonius Apollinaris, Sidonius II: Letters, Books III-IX, ed. and trans. Anderson, W. B., (London, 1936)

Van Dam, Raymond (1985). Leadership and Community in Late Antique Gaul (Berkeley, CA).


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