Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.10.16

Dennis E. Trout, Paulinus of Nola. Life, Letters, and Poems. The Transformation of the Classical Heritage XXVII.   Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1999.  Pp. xx, 326.  ISBN 0-520-21709-8.  $55.00.  

Reviewed by Robert Kirstein, University of Münster, Germany
Word count: 1567 words

Meropius Pontius Paulinus, better known to us as Paulinus of Nola (ca. 352/53-431 AD), has attracted a remarkable degree of scholarly attention over the last decades. Most noteworthy, this attention comes equally from all three branches of the Klassische Altertumswissenschaften, History, Philology and Archeology, and also from Theology and the History of Religion.1 No wonder: born near Bordeaux into a very wealthy, well known and highly aristocratic family of the later Roman Empire, Paulinus entered his adult life as a typical representative of his class by following the usual steps of the cursus honorum. But soon, when he served as consular governor in Campania (380-381), he started to convert to Christianity and subsequently devoted his life more and more to his new faith. He married the dedicated Christian Therasia, was baptized by Delphinus of Bordeaux, withdrew to Spain (ca. 389), became an ascetic, sold his and his wife's enormous properties in Gaul, Italy and Spain (after 393),2 was ordained a priest (December 25th, 394), and moved finally to Nola (395), where he was elected bishop (408-431). In this function he served until his death on June 22nd, 431. Paulinus' conversion to an ascetic life caused a sensation and word of it spread quickly all over the Roman empire.3 Nola, a small town near Naples in Campania, he had visited twice before his final move in 395, first as a young boy and later during his governorship in Campania. In Nola it was the already popular and venerated tomb of the 3rd century martyr St Felix which attracted Paulinus and which would play a central role in his further life and work.

As bishop Paulinus composed letters, which kept him in touch with friends and colleagues all over the Roman empire such as Augustine, Jerome, Sulpicius Severus, Delphinus and Ausonius.4 One of the central themes in these letters became Christian friendship. Famous is the exchange of verse-letters with Ausonius, in which Paulinus defended his spectacular conversion against the fruitless arguments of his disappointed teacher and defined what he regarded as the duty and goal of Christian poetry. Many of the poems he composed are dedicated to the day of St. Felix, the patron of Nola (the so-called Natalicia on each January 14th between 395 and 407, as far as they are preserved). Other poems transform classical genres like the consolatio (carm. 31), the epithalamium (25) and the propemptikon (17).5 As bishop he renovated old and erected new buildings in Nola, among them a new basilica, which has been restored and excavated in recent years. That Paulinus describes these buildings himself in his letters and that these very buildings have been preserved so well creates an extraordinary lucky situation in its combination of archeological and literary evidence.6 In sum, what makes Paulinus, as historical figure so fascinating is the fact that he reflects in his personal life the overall cultural change which took place in the 4th and 5th centuries AD, when the elite of the Roman Empire finally converted to Christianity and transformed the culture of the ancient world into something new.

Trout is an ancient historian and his approach is an historical one, but his book benefits very much from the fact that he also has mastered the complicated philological matters involved. The book is arranged in 10 chapters. Chapter 1 serves as a general programmatic introduction. Chapters 2 to 5 are chronologically arranged and follow the four major steps of Paulinus' life: "2. The Early Years: Aquitaine and Italy", "3. From Otium ruris to Contemptus mundi", "4. Renunciation and Ordination", and "5. Paulinus at Nola: 395-431". Chapters 6 to 8 deal more thematically with some fundamental aspects of Paulinus' development: "6. Salvation Economics: The Theory and Practice of Property Renunciation", "7. The Cult of Saint Felix", and "8. Paulinus and Latin Christian Culture". Chapter 9 has again a more chronological title: "The Final Years", and chapter 10 contains a brief epilogue. Trout has put some effort into making the book reader-friendly: the indices (a general index and an index locorum) are detailed, accurate and clear. There is a map of the Ancient Mediterranean world in Paulinus' time, plans of the buildings in Nola, and a chronology and concordance of the 14 Natalicia written between 395 and 407. There are, in addition, four appendices: A describes briefly the transmitted corpus of Paulinus' writings, B discusses the complicated and controversial chronology of his early life and his cursus honorum, C presents a useful chronological table of Paulinus' whole lifespan, and D presents an English translation of the letter which the presbyter Uranius wrote to Pacatus in 432 on the death of Paulinus (De obitu Sancti Paulini).

Out of the numerous themes that Trout's book deals with, three might suffice to illustrate its variety. Chapter 1 opens the book with some fundamental considerations of the character and reliability of the ancient and mediaeval sources for Paulinus' life:

In their [i.e. the Christian aristocratic circles'] hands, Paulinus quickly emerged as an example for his own age, and the general tone and thrust of contemporary literary representations by the likes of Ambrose, Augustine, and Jerome set in place a framework for generations, even centuries, of thought and writing about Paulinus...Consequently any new study of Paulinus's life and works or any reappraisal of his world should be prefaced by a consideration of the value and limitations of the ancient literary traditions that have shaped modern images of Paulinus of Nola... (p. 2; italics are the reviewer's).

In what follows Trout examines lucidly and carefully three aspects: (1) the contemprary sources for Paulinus such as Ambrose, Augustine,7 Jerome and Sulpicius Severus. Trout shows how "they consciously drained Paulinus's life of many of its particularizing details as they fashioned him into a stylized type and assimilated his secular renunciation to a select body of scriptural images and metaphors" (p. 3). (2) The reception of Paulinus in the subsequent generations from Eucherius of Lyon to modern scholars, Momigliano and others: "The image of Saint Paulinus, however, like that of so many other late-Roman holy men, shifted subtly in the two centuries after his death... Indeed, throughout the former provinces of the western empire, anecdote and legend enhanced Paulinus's mystical powers, although in the literary tradition he never fully assumed the mantle of the thaumaturge" (p. 11). Very informative and illuminating is the brief account of the Paulinus-reception in the 19th century (more positive), in the first three-quarters of the 20th (more critical) and in contemporary scholarship (again more positive; p. 12-15). (3) Paulinus' autobiographical self-presentation: "Seldom, it seems, did Paulinus write about himself or others without considering the reception of his words. His autobiographical reflections...resonate with polemic, didactic, and self-fashioning impulses. The overlapping of the epistolary circles of the late Roman elite only abetted such acute self consciousness" (p. 22). Trout's principal attitude to biography becomes clear from the epilogue: "I believe that a life lived in collusion as well as collision with the spirits of its age must have presented many seemingly paradoxical faces of the world" (p. 269).

Certainly most decisive for any biographer of Paulinus are the years between Paulinus' return from Italy to Gaul after he had finished his governorship in Campania in 383/384 and his final settlement in Nola in spring or summer 395. Trout explores this period very sensitively in chapters 3 and 4 ("From Otium ruris to Contemptus mundi" and "Renunciation and Ordination") by following the internal change of Paulinus' mind which culminates in his ordination and which is documented in his writings and by illuminating the external circumstances which accompanied this change such as his marriage with the dedicated Christian Therasia, the death of their young child Celsus, the murder of his brother and the general background of political crises. He also discusses the intricate chronological problems involved8:

This period...[i.e. of 383 to 395] is unevenly documented and even spiced with intrigue and bloodshed; yet it is pivotal in his biography, for in the fourth decade of his life Paulinus of Bordeaux [i.e. in opposition to the Paulinus of Nola from 395 onwards] experienced the conversion from vir consularis to monachus that made it possible for some to fashion him as a verbal icon. (p. 55)

When Paulinus converted to Christianity and renounced the secular world to become an ascetic for the rest of his life he faced the problem of being rich. How he dealt with this situation theoretically as well as practically in terms of property management and donations is the topic of chapter 6 on "Salvation Economics" and "The Theory and Practice of Property Renunciation". Paulinus decided to invest his money for the poor and the church rather than rejecting it completely, which stands in contrast to other more severe contemporary views such as Jerome's: "When Jerome first wrote to Paulinus in 394 to encourage his renunciation of the world,9 he advised him immediately to reject all his possessions, explicitly warning him against the type of progressive distribution of his wealth that seems to have been Paulinus's method after 394" (p. 157).

Trout's book is of great value for Paulinus of Nola as well as for the intellectual history of the 4th and 5th centuries AD in general. It is well written, comprehensive, original in thought, and will certainly instigate further research. And it contributes to a much sharper and broader picture of this fascinating figure of a time in which everything was changing.


1.   For an annotated bibliography until 1976 see J. Lienhard, Paulinus of Nola and Early Western Monasticism. With a study of the Chronology of his Works and an Annotated Bibliography, 1879-1976 (Theophaneia 28), Cologne: Peter Hanstein Verlag, 1977, 192-204.
2.   Ausonius could speak, referring to Paulinus' father, of the Paulini regna (epist. 24.108 Green).
3.   Cf. the letter which Ambrose wrote to the bishop Sabinus in 395 (epist. 27).
4.   There is forthcoming a fundamental and extensive study on Paulinus' circle of friends by Sigrid Mratschek.
5.   Cf. e.g. R. Kirstein, Paulinus Nolanus. Carmen 17 (Chrêsis VIII), Basel: Schwabe & Co., 2000.
6.   D. Korol, Die frühchristlichen Wandmalereien aus den Grabungen in Cimitile/Nola. Zur Entstehung und Ikonographie alttestamentlicher Darstellungen (JbAC-Erg. Bd. 13), Münster 1987; Th. Lehmann, Paulinus von Nola und die Basilica Nova in Cimitile/Nola, [forthcoming].
7.   Famous is Augustine's remark on Paulinus' courage during the time of the Gothic invasion in De civitate Dei 1.10.
8.   Trout has treated some of the chronological questions before in "The Dates of the Ordination of Paulinus of Bordeaux and of His Departure for Nola." Revue des études Augustiennes 37 (1991): 237-260.
9.   Epist. 53.

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