Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.06.07

Ralph W. Mathisen, Society and Culture in Late Antique Gaul. Revisiting the Sources.   Aldershot:  Ashgate Publishing, 2001.  Pp. xiii + 328.  ISBN 0-7546-0624-4.  $84.95.  

Contributors: Andreas Schwarcz, Michael Kulikowski, Jill Harries, Richard Burgess, Ralph W. Mathisen, Guy Halsall, Kevin Uhalde, Bailey Young, Mark A. Handley, Richard Bartlett, Danuta Shanzer, Charles Brittain, Ian N. Wood, Mark Vessey, Michael Roberts.

Reviewed by Raymond Van Dam, University of Michigan (

From Martin of Tours to Gregory of Tours Gallic society changed dramatically, with the disappearance of Roman rule, the establishment of barbarian kingdoms, and the increasing prominence of bishops, monks, and saints. The meticulous chapters in this fine collection edited by Ralph Mathisen and Danuta Shanzer discuss various aspects of this transformation, primarily during the fifth and early sixth century. Most of the authors are established scholars; a few are young scholars whose contributions are previews of forthcoming books. These chapters are all fairly technical and specific studies (and are summarized below). They focus primarily on the exegesis of texts, such as a law code, a collection of letters, or some poems. Several chapters discuss problems arising from material culture and archaeology, while one highlights numismatics and another epigraphy. Together they represent both the benefits and some of the disadvantages of these sorts of anthologies.

Collective enterprises have the great advantage of offering differing points of view. Already in the first two chapters Schwarcz and Kulikowski disagree about the date and impact of the Visigothic settlement in Aquitaine, while Shanzer discusses the letters of Avitus of Vienne and Wood his poetry. But one disadvantage is the absence of a unifying perspective. Not only was all of fifth-century Gaul soon divided into three primary parts, a Gothic section in the south, a Frankish section in the north, and a Roman remnant in the center. Much modern scholarship seems to follow the same faultlines. In particular, there is an odd split between scholars who focus primarily on the Franks and those who focus primarily on the Goths. In English-language scholarship this distinction goes back at least to the influential books by J. M. Wallace-Hadrill on the Franks and E. A. Thompson on the Goths. Since most of the chapters in this book consider texts and events from fifth-century Gaul, the Goths receive more discussion than the Franks. But only rarely, as in Mathisen's overview of Ruricius' letters, are there hints of the interactions among Goths, Franks, and Romans.

Another consequence of anthologies is the sense of fragmentation and isolation. All the chapters concentrate on specific texts, events, or material remains. Although these texts certainly have contexts, they seemingly have little connections with each other. Because even individual authors end up with split personalities, it is difficult to identify the Avitus who wrote "comic letters about food" with the Avitus who composed theological exegesis in verse. The specific topics of the chapters are isolated; so is Gaul itself. Only Bartlett's chapter looks outside Gaul in order to contrast the attitudes of Gallic and Italian aristocrats about episcopal service.

The chapters in this book all seem to have been written in the shadow of Gregory of Tours. Since Gregory's account of Gaul before the reign of Clovis is so cursory (or wrong), "the history of fifth-century Gaul is peppered with lacunae" (Kulikowski, p. 35). The chronicles that Burgess edits, the collections of letters by Sidonius, Ruricius, and Ennodius, and early law codes are seemingly no substitute for Gregory's extensive historical narrative. As a result, it is apparently difficult for modern historians to imagine a fully integrated fifth-century Gaul. Yet fifth-century Gaul has become central to modern interpretations of the transformation of the western empire. In particular, it has lately been presented as more Roman than barbarian, more classical than post- classical. Once fifth-century Gaul was consigned to the first volume of the Cambridge Medieval History; now it has been included in the final volume of the new second edition of the Cambridge Ancient History. The expert chapters in this anthology now need to be located in the larger historical themes that will help explain the transition of late antique Gaul from medieval history to ancient history.

1. From Roman to Barbarian Gaul

Andreas Schwarcz argues that the settlement of the Visigoths in Aquitaine should be dated to the summer of 419. He then explains the puzzling absence of distinctive material remains for their presence in Gaul by suggesting that these "Goths" had already assimilated many non-Gothic peoples, including many who had been Romanized through service in the Roman army. In Aquitaine, therefore, "the Visigoths ... did not possess any material culture that could be differentiated from that of late antique Gallo-Roman society" (p. 19). In contrast, Ostrogoths who moved west after the breakup of the Hunnic empire influenced the settlement of the Goths in Spain during the later fifth century. Since these Ostrogoths brought a material culture with distinctive central and eastern European characteristics, the archaeological remains for the Gothic settlement in Spain clearly distinguished them from Romans.

Michael Kulikowski prefers the traditional date of 418 for the settlement of the Visigoths in southwestern Gaul. His discussion highlights the conflicting motives for this settlement. The Goths themselves were split by internal discord, and the great Gallic notables who had acquired senatorial rank may have disagreed with lesser Gallic landowners. The emperor Honorius, however, was single-minded in his concern over the appearance of usurpers in Gaul. Kulikowski hence correlates the settlement of the Visigoths in southwestern Gaul with the foundation of a council for Gallic aristocrats in southeastern Gaul at Arles. "The council provided Gauls with a means of asserting their individual interests short of outright rebellion. Its counterpart ... was a Gothic settlement that would inspire fear" (p. 32). Honorius hoped to ensure the loyalty of Gallic notables by presenting them with a choice between a Gothic threat or participation in a court-sponsored council.

Jill Harries discusses the law code drawn up by Euric, king of the Visigoths in southern Gaul during the later fifth century. Her analysis highlights the differences between the Code of Euric and conventional Roman law, such as that codified only a few decades earlier in the Theodosian Code. One obvious difference was an accommodation to the power of local notables and warlords, who were charged with acting as arbitrators in disputes. Backing up these local judges was the king himself, who issued the Code in order to promote his authority among both Goths and Gallo-Romans. "The Code of Euric ... was about power" (p. 46).

Richard Burgess provides new editions of two of the more important chronicles of the fifth century. One is the Gallic Chronicle of 452, a continuation of Jerome's continuation of Eusebius' chronicle, that covered the period from the accession of Theodosius to Attila's attack on Italy. The other is the Gallic Chronicle of 511, which had the same starting point but concluded with the advance of the Franks into southern Gaul. Editing these texts requires resolution of numerous complicated problems arising from interpolations in the manuscript traditions, odd spellings, and contradictions among different systems of chronology. Since Burgess is the unrivaled master of these chronicles, his new editions are very valuable and should now be considered the standard critical editions. (In passing, note the repetition of the bottom line of the text of the Chronicle on p. 99 as the top line on p. 100.)

Ralph Mathisen uses the letters of Ruricius, bishop of Limoges during the late fifth and early sixth century, to help bridge the transition from the world of Sidonius, the illustrious bishop of Clermont during the 470s and early 480s, to the world of the Franks, who defeated the Visigoths in 507. Sidonius has acquired a reputation for being the most obstinate defender of Romanness against the expansion of the Visigoths. Ruricius too was a descendant of an aristocratic Roman family. But since he rarely mentioned the Visigoths, Mathisen concludes that their rule in fact had little impact at the daily, local level. In his perspective, Ruricius and his peers may not have minded the "genteel and conciliatory Visigoths," since the alternative was the "more unrefined and obdurate Franks" (p. 113).

Guy Halsall considers the grave of Childeric, a Frankish king who was a contemporary of Sidonius and the father of the great Clovis. This grave site was discovered in Tournai in the mid-seventeenth century, although most of the artifacts were lost in the early nineteenth century. The date of Childeric's death is debatable; so is the significance of the lavishness of the grave furnishings. "No previous king of the Franks was inhumed in such a way and ... no later one was either" (p. 120). Halsall suggests that this extravagant tomb was a display by Clovis of his authority in the Frankish heartland in northern Gaul. "Clovis was demonstrating his right to succeed his father" (p. 129).

Kevin Uhalde discusses a group of gold coins minted in Provence in the late sixth and early seventh century. Because these coins carried the portraits and names of eastern emperors, they are now known as "quasi-imperial." Uhalde suggests that the governors of Provence, who were appointed by Frankish kings and known as patricians, may have issued these odd coins. He also supplies an updated corpus of the coins.

2. Religion and Society:

Bailey Young describes a small church that he and colleagues excavated at Saint-Pierre l'Estrier, on the outskirts of Autun. This church was constructed during the first half of the fourth century in a cemetery, on top of the foundations of an older square building. Many Celtic shrines had square plans, and hagiographical texts from late antiquity suggested that bishops sometimes replaced pagan shrines with churches. But after a careful review of the archaeological evidence, Young concludes that churches rarely replaced pagan shrines directly. Many traditional pagan temples had already been destroyed during the later third century, before the great age of the construction of Christian churches. "By the sixth century, churches defined a new Christian sacred topography quite distinct from the neglected monuments of the pagan past" (p. 180).

Mark Handley examines the relevance of the Christian inscriptions from Trier for adding nuance to the study of saints' cults. When Gregory of Tours mentioned some cults and their miracles at Trier at the end of the sixth century, his stories highlighted activities in the saints' churches outside the walls in a cemetery north of the city and barely mentioned the cathedral inside the city. Epigraphical graffiti in the cathedral, however, suggest the existence of an important saint's cult that many pilgrims did visit. Other dedications and epitaphs imply that a church in a cemetery south of the city was important already in the fourth and early fifth century, before being eclipsed by the popularity of the churches in the northern cemetery.

Richard Bartlett investigates a contrast between the attitudes of Gallic and Italian aristocrats during the fifth and early sixth century. Gallic aristocrats became bishops, often after having embraced monasticism, while Italian aristocrats continued to follow traditional careers of public service and office holding. Ennodius seemed to bridge these contrasting attitudes, since he was a member of a Gallic aristocratic family who became a cleric at Milan and then bishop of Pavia in the early sixth century. But he nevertheless encouraged his Italian friends to practice asceticism in their secular lives, and to participate in theological debates while remaining laymen.

Danuta Shanzer wins the prize for the punniest title: "Bishops, Letters, Fast, Food, and Feast." Her chapter is a lighthearted discussion of references to food, "with special attention to fish" (p. 217), in the letters of Sidonius, Ruricius, and bishop Avitus of Vienne. Avitus sometimes sent gifts of fish with his letters, in part perhaps because they provided an opportunity to indulge in mock moralizing about fasting and comic exaggeration about feasting. Then again, Avitus' Latin is sometimes so obscure that it is easy to miss the joke. Through her extensive philological comments on translating his letters Shanzer generously restores Avitus' sense of frivolity and irony.

3. Intellectual Life:

Charles Brittain analyzes a theological controversy that upset Gallic churchmen during the 470s. Bishop Faustus of Riez had argued that the soul was corporeal, while Claudianus Mamertus (although Brittain prefers to reverse the order of his names) argued that the soul was incorporeal. Claudianus was a priest at Vienne, and his disparaging personal invective reflected disagreements over the appropriate use of classical philosophical ideas by churchmen. His own reliance on a Platonist psychology about the relationship between soul and body was apparently derived from the ideas of Porphyry (in a Latin translation) and Augustine. Because "his learning from Latin philosophical sources was impressive" (p. 259), Brittain concludes that Claudianus deserves respect as a serious philosopher.

Ian Wood discusses an epic poem by bishop Avitus of Vienne. "The Events of Spiritual History" offered metrical versions of early biblical events, including creation, the fall and expulsion from paradise, the great flood, and the crossing of the Red Sea. Avitus' source for the first half of his poem was Augustine's long commentary on Genesis; in the second half he continued to apply Augustine's techniques of biblical exposition. His poem "introduced the reader to an Augustinian reading of Genesis and Exodus, while at the same time providing literary pleasure" (p. 275).

Mark Vessey provides a contextualized reading of a letter written in the mid-fifth century by the priest Rusticus to bishop Eucher of Lyon. As a boy Rusticus had seen a portrait of Virgil among other images of famous classical orators and poets in a library. As he now reacted to the publication of Eucher's new book of biblical exegesis, he suggested that the bishop's reputation would surpass the fame of Virgil. By both praising Eucher for his deference to the authority of the Bible and flattering him as a peer of the great poet, Rusticus had redefined the notion of authorship. Eucher's self-effacing humility should have left him as an anonymous author; but association with Virgil made him into another classic.

Michael Roberts analyzes a long elegy of Galswintha, the wife of the Frankish king Chilperic, composed by Fortunatus. Although ostensibly a consolation on Galswintha's death in 570, the poem included several speeches that demonstrated Fortunatus' familiarity with classical motifs. Since the poem also included a description of the girl's journey from Spain to her wedding in northern Gaul, Roberts suggests that perhaps Fortunatus identified with Galswintha. She had come as a Visigothic princess to a foreign Frankish court, and he had recently arrived in Gaul as an exile from his native Italy.

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