I love these fifth century authors – they’re even better than the folks in the fourth. I’ve just finished going through the Chronicle of Hydatius. Seriously cool.
Before I get started, Hydatius was a bishop in the province of Gallaecia, in northwest Spain. He was born around 400 and died around 470. His chronicle is a continuation of Jerome’s and covers the years 379-468.
The reason I love the fifth century folks is they all have a different take on what was taking place. Now I’m willing to admit that for 85% of the people living in those days; slaves, coloni, the poor free, etc., life went on pretty much as it always had, though with a change at the top. I’m not willing to go so far as to say that nothing changed except who was at the top of the pyramid for society, social structure, the economy, etc. To an elite with a classical education, including Hydatius, this was a massive upheaval. However each of these authors has a unique perspective which is not echoed by the others.
For Hydatius, this was it. The world was ending. He wasn’t a witness to the Apocalypse itself but to the days leading up to it. Hydatius may even have had a date in mind of May 27, 482.1 He expresses a belief that he did not have long to live and wouldn’t live to see the end, but it would surely come; “Such then are the contents of the present volume, but I have left it to my successors (to include an account of) the Last Days, at that time at which they encounter them.” 2
If you’re looking for a source to support the old, tired tradition that the End of the Roman Empire was basically an invasion by a bunch of animalistic barbarians intent on rape, pillage, plunder and the destruction of all that’s good in the world, Hydatius is your man. You have your pestilence, sack and destruction of cities, slaughter of innocents, and even cannibalism. Hydatius’ picture of the fifth century is monstrous. 3
Interestingly, for all Hydatius’ belief that these are the last days, he does show some balance. He includes that during Alaric’s sack of Rome, those who hid in churches were spared. Theoderic’s sack of Bracara on October 28, 456 is horrible but “was accomplished without bloodshed.” Hydatius himself was taken prisoner by some Suevi and held captive for three months. Throughout his account, Aetius appears as someone who constantly fights and defeats barbarians. 4
So for Hydatius, life sucks, the world sucks, and while creation itself doesn’t suck, its suckiness is such that God has decided to end it. I once mentioned that I found Salvian to be rather anti-jovial in his outlook. Compared to Hydatius, he was the Good Humor Man.
So here’s where perspective comes into play. Christians had been predicting that the Apocalypse would come soon ever since Paul (by the fifth century some exceptions, notably Augustine, were showing up). Hydatius clearly believed that the signs were there. The problem is, Hydatius was a bishop of an obscure (by that time) province in Spain which became a major battleground between the Goths, Vandals and Suevi. Gallaecia appears to have been a mess. Unsurprisingly, Hydatius did not possess much of a world view. While he knows of major events such as Geiseric’s sack of Carthage, much of his account, particularly from 460 on, is focused exclusively on his home province. Were things as bad as Hydatius says? They may have been, locally. However there’s little evidence that you can broaden his account to include the entire Roman West. For all that he seems to believe it is, things were not the same everywhere. 5
It’s also interesting to consider how Hydatius’ perspective compares with other sources. Salvian, while the world sucks for him too, does not see an Apocalypse. What he believes is happening is that the barbarians are being sent as a Divine Punishment for the sins of the Romans and, to take this concept one step further, believes the barbarians have become God’s favored people over the Romans because of the latter’s sins. Sidonius Apollinaris is also an unhappy camper, particularly when the Auvergne was ceded to the Goths, but does not seem to believe in an imminent Apocalypse either. Augustine comes to not place much stock in Rome at all and believes the advent of the barbarians is (among other reasons) so Christianity can be spread among other groups and to new regions. I’ve not read Prosper of Aquitaine’s Chronicle but my understanding is that (as might be expected) his thinking roughly echoes Augustine’s.
Hydatius is at the Apocalyptic end of the spectrum of fifth century sources. Some people certainly believed as he did and considered that the end was coming. But this outlook was not the rule among fifth century authors.
Whatever his worldview, Hydatius is an important fifth century source. For me, he’s going to fit in with Sidonius and Salvian as my favorite sources for the period where the Empire was ending. I have many of the Eastern sources including Sozomen, Theodoret, Evagrius Scholasticus, Socrates Scholasticus, Zosimus and the Paschale Chronicle. But while these all have value in recounting events, they weren’t written by authors who lived in the West. The folks who lived those days, on location, provided us with not just a record of events, but how some people, at least among the elites, may have felt about it. 6
NOTE: An interesting aside, or at least it struck me as interesting, is that Hydatius discusses the Huns leaving Italy in 452. He mentions that Aetius slaughtered many of them (that this happened is debatable – and there’s a second Aetius) and they were afflicted by “heaven-sent disasters” such as plague and famine. However Hydatius says nothing of Pope Leo’s delegation or that the Huns left because of, or even after, this meeting. This may mean nothing beyond Hydatius not having a good handle on things going on outside of Spain but it sure caught my attention. 7
1 Burgess (1993), p 9.
2 Hydatius, Introduction, 1, p 73, “… as much at the end of the world as at the end of my life …” and Introduction, 6, p 75. NOTE: The Burgess edition is a facing translation with the original Latin and the English. My notes will reference the page of the English translation. And as long as I’m including a note on notes, I don’t like using “ibid” and won’t.
3 Not sure where to start with these – if this was an academic paper or book this is where you’d see half a page of notes. For cannibalism for the year 410 we have Hydatius 40, p 83, “A famine ran riot, so dire that driven by hunger human beings devoured human flesh; mothers too feasted upon the bodies of of their own children whom they had killed and cooked with their own hands … And thus with the four plagues of sword, famine, pestilence, and wild beasts raging everywhere throughout the world, the annunciations foretold by the Lord through his prophets came to fulfilment.” This is the worst but, among others(there’s a wide selection), you can also see Hydatius 164, p 107, Hydatius 167, p. 107 and Hydatius 179, pp 109-11.
4 For Alaric, see Hydatius 35, p 81. For Bracara, see Hydatius 167, p. 107. For his captivity, see Hydatius 196, p 113 and 202, p 115. The portrayal of Aetius by various sources is interesting and may be worth its own post at some point. For Hydatius, Aetius almost comes across as a heroic figure, valiantly battling to save civilization until his murder.
5 For a good assessment of Hydatius’ portrayal of Spain during this period, see Kulikowski (2004) pp 197-203. It’s hard to prove a negative but I’m unaware of anything like a massive burial pit which shows evidence of human cannibalism. In fact, I’m unaware of any massive burial pit which would provide evidence for the sort of rapid depopulation during the 5th century as was once commonly believed to have happened.
6 I hope people will forgive me if I don’t include the Eastern authors in my bibliography. I’m happy to provide that information on request though to be honest, many of these are cheap reprint editions as I bought them when I was more concerned about my budget than I am now.
7 Hydatius 146, p 103.
Hydatius, Chronicle in, The Chronicle of Hydatius and the Consularia Constantinopolitana: Two Contemporary Accounts of the Final Years of the Roman Empire, R.W. Burgess, ed. and trans. Oxford: Oxford University Press (1993). ISBN: 978-0-198-147879.
Kulikowski, Michael, Late Roman Spain and Its Cities. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press (2004). ISBN: 978-0-801-879784.
Salvian the Presbyter, On the Governance of God: The Writings of Salvian the Presbyter, J.F. O’Sullivan, trans. New York: CIMA Publishing (1947).
Sidonius Apollinaris, Sidonius: Letters, W.B. Anderson, trans. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (1997). ISBN: 978-0-674-994621.
Sidonius Apollinaris, Sidonius: Poems, Letters, Books I-II, W.B. Anderson, trans. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (1996). ISBN: 978-0-674-993273.