Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.05.36

A. T. Fear, Orosius. Seven Books of History against the Pagans. Translated Texts for Historians 54.   Liverpool:  Liverpool University Press, 2010.  Pp. 456.  ISBN 9781846312397.  $39.95.  

Reviewed by Peter Van Nuffelen, Ghent University (


This is the third modern English translation of Orosius ‘Seven books of history against the pagans’,1 testifying to a renewed interest in the most influential of late antique historians. Although Orosius presents himself as a collaborator of Augustine, his fortunes have been inversely proportional to those of his ‘master’. The more the subtleties of the City of God were understood, the less esteem was left for Orosius. Scholarship since the second World War has increasingly widened the gap between the towering intellect of the bishop of Hippo and the verbose historian who seemed to have misunderstood Augustine. In particular, Orosius’ belief in the enduring power of Rome seemed to clash with Augustine's radical questioning of the earthly city. As a consequence, Orosius' history is not very often studied in its own right, with most attention going to the last book, where his theology of history is elaborated. One hopes that this new translation will provide a new impetus for the study of Orosius as a historian.

The succinct introduction of 24 pages provides a clear overview of all the traditional cruces of Orosius scholarship, such as his place of birth (Fear suggests Corunna) or the dates of his journeys to Africa (411-418 according to Fear although many options remain open.2) He does not eschew the occasional debatable psychological insight: ‘While we have no evidence of how the relationship between Jerome and Orosius worked in practice, the two men’s similarity of character implies that they would have got on well together’ (4) or the assertation that Orosius’ ‘pugnacious character’ must mean that his disappearance from the record after 418 indicates an early death (6). More importantly, Fear underlines that the Seven Books of History were very rapidly written, possibly in less than a year. This conclusion is supported by the minor errors based on misreading his sources, that are studiously inventoried in the footnotes to the translation.

Fear's interpretation of the intention of the work is traditional: he sees it as an apologetic work addressed to pagan intellectuals so as to refute the argument that Christianity had ruined Rome, and based on a ‘post-millennarian’ view according to which the thousand years after the birth of Christ were to be a time of peace. Here one notes that scholarship on Orosius may be lagging behind that of Augustine. It has been noted repeatedly that although Augustine’s City of God polemicises against the pagans, it is actually targeted at elite Christians whose faith was shaken by the events of 410.3 Given the fact that Orosius presents his history as an appendix to the City of God , one is justified to ask if the target audience would not be the same.

As Fear shows, many of the innovative aspects of Orosius’ history serve a polemical intention and are hence not fully developed. The description of the world at the beginning establishes a claim to true universality, which allows Orosius to triumph over pagan historians, but geographical universality is of little concern in the later books that focus on traditional, mainly Roman, history.4 Equally, the so-called four-empire theory establishes a parallelism between Rome and Babylon to demonstrate that Rome is the culmination of God’s plans, but little more is done with it. Importantly, Fear devotes little space to the ‘clash with Augustine’, the apparent divergence of opinions between both (23-4). This usefully allows the reader to understand Orosius in his own terms, rather than as a failed Augustinian.

The translation is based on the Budé edition by M.-P. Arnaud-Lindet.5 Translating Orosius’ florid prose is not an easy task, and Fear generally renders the meaning accurately. His translation makes the text more lucid than it is at first sight in Latin, thus helping the reader to grasp its meaning immediately. There are obviously instances where one would have made different choices or where some of the flair of the Latin is lost. The following comments just highlight a few of such minor differences of opinion.

In Fear translates nos uim rerum, non imaginem commendare as ‘to give an account of the true forces of history, not a mere picture of the past’. The translation suggests that Orosius refers to the powers that drive history, whereas vis rather refers to the ‘force’ or ‘reality’ of history. Deferrari's "the essence of things" (p. 77) is to be preferred in this instance.

The sack of Corinth in 146 B.C. is narrated as follows by Orosius (5.3.6): permissa crudeliter etiam captiuis praedandi licentia sic omnia caedibus ignibusque conpleta sunt, ut de murorum ambitu quasi e camino in unum apicem coartatum exundaret incendium. itaque plurima parte populi ferro flammisque consumpta reliqua sub corona uendita est. urbe incensa muri funditus diruti sunt. muralis lapis in puluerem redactus, praeda ingens erepta est. In Fear's translation: ‘Mummius cruelly gave permission to plunder even to his prisoners and so the entire town was filled with fire and slaughter to such a degree that the fire surged up from the city walls narrowing to a single flame, as if came from a furnace. Most of the population were put to the sword or consumed by the flames, the rest sold into slavery. After the city had been burnt down, its walls were razed to their foundations and their stones ground to dust. An enormous amount of booty was stolen.’ This is a smooth translation, but one notices a few points of deviation from the Latin that may not have been necessary. Caedibus ignibusque is inversed into ‘fire and slaughter’. The rhythm of the last three sentences vendita est/diruti sunt/redactus...erepta est is not really rendered in English, especially because Fear combines the second sentence with the first part of the third and renders the second part of the third as an independent sentence.

Orosius' version of the slave revolt in Sicily 133 B.C. runs as follows (5.9.8): Misera profecto talis belli et inextricabilis causa. pereundum utique dominis erat, nisi insolescentibus seruis ferro obuiam iretur. sed tamen in ipsis quoque infelicissimis damnis pugnae et infelicioribus lucris uictoriae quanti periere uicti tantum perdidere uictores. In translation this becomes: ‘Certainly such a war as this had tragic, complex causes. Their masters would have perished had they not marched on the insolent slaves with the sword, but as regards the terrible losses in the fighting and the even worse prizes from victory, the victors lost as much as numbers of the vanquished that perished.’ The first sentence seems unclear: does it make a statement about causation, as Fear has it, or is it rather a statement of fact: in the latter case, a translation could be ‘a sad affair out of which there was no issue’. This last version accords better with the subsequent sentences, which point out the conundrum that faced the Roman masters. In the second sentence utique is implied in Fear's translation, but it could have been made explicit, allowing to make a connection between the first and the second sentence. The translation ‘terrible losses’ and ‘even worse prizes’ does not have the same force as the repetition of infelicissimis/infelicioribus in the Latin.

Even if one can differ of opinion regarding specific details, Fear's translation renders the meaning of the text in general accurately and smoothly. He thus provides scholars, students, and, one may hope, also a wider audience an additional instrument for a personal acquaintance with the text.

In comparison with previous English translations, Fear's clearly has the edge as regards the notes. The earlier translations are sparsely annotated and even an experienced historian is sometimes overwhelmed by the sheer amount of facts crammed into the history. Moreover, Orosius often copies his sources directly but equally often gives them a peculiar twist. Fear's notes are very helpful in this respect, assiduously inventorying sources and errors, and providing additional explanations. As in any undertaking of this magnitude, he could have gone further in some instances. There is, for example, no reference to the use made of the consularia constantinopolitana in 7.34, as was already noted by R.W. Burgess.6 On page 378 (note 339), Fear rehearses a debate that was well explored by N. Lenski.7 There would have been some profit in digging up the Vienna dissertation of G. Hingst, who, besides identifying a few additional sources, suggest a dependence on Cicero in many an expression.8 There are a few instances where, in my view, Fear leads the reader astray. For example, when Orosius criticises pagans for believing that ‘there was no beginning to the world or creation of mankind’, he is not attacking a cyclical view of history, as Fear states (p. 34 note 12), but rather the idea of the eternity of the world, which was indeed debated between pagans and Christians (and within these groups too). Such instances are rare, and in general Fear is a good guide.

A good bibliography concludes the book. Besides the suggestions for additions made above, my greatest regret is that there is no reference to what is probably the best interpretation of Orosius so far, namely Herzog's 1980 paper ‘Orosius oder Die Formulierung eines Fortschrittskonzepts aus der Erfahrung des Niedergangs’.9

This is not a full and detailed study of Orosius as a historian, nor does the book aim at this. Yet as a translation it achieves its aims: this fine rendering of Orosius, especially in combination with the notes, will provide a very useful, new access to the Seven books of History against the Pagans, and thus allow future readers to discover this historian for themselves.


1.   The other two are: I.W. Raymond, Seven books of history against the pagans; the apology of Paulus Orosius. New York: 1936; R. Deferrari, Orosius. Seven Books of History against the Pagans. Washington, D.C.: 1964. Fear does not refer to the latter.
2.   It could have been useful to at least refer to the other options that have been proposed. See the overview of J. Vilella, ‘Biografía critica de Orosio’, Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum 43 (2000): 94-121.
3.   See, e.g., C. Tornau, Zwischen Rhetorik und Philosophie. Augustins Argumentationstechnik in De civitate Dei und ihr Bildungsgeschichtlicher Hintergrund. Berlin - New York: 2006.
4.   Fear thus distances himself from A.H. Merrills, History and Geography in Late Antiquity. Cambridge: 2005.
5.   M.-P. Arnaud-Lindet, Orose. Histoires (Contres les païens) (Collection des Universités de France. Paris: 1990-1991. She is not a man, as Fear seems to think (26).
6.   R.W. Burgess, The Chronicle of Hydatius and the Consularia Constantinopolitana. Two contemporary accounts of the final years of the Roman Empire. Oxford: 1993.
7.   N. Lenski, ‘Were Valentinian, Valens and Jovian Confessors before Julian the Apostate?’, Zeitschrift für antikes Christentum 6 (2002): 253-276.
8.   G. Hingst, Zu offenen Quellenfragen bei Orosius. Diss. Vienna: 1973.
9.   R. Herzog, ‚Orosius oder Die Formulierung eines Fortschrittskonzepts aus der Erfahrung des Niedergangs‘, in Id., Spätantike. Studien zur römischen und lateinisch-christlichen Literatur. Herausgegeben von P. Habermehl. Göttingen: 2002, 293-320 (= Id., in R. Koselleck, P. Widmer (edd.), Niedergang. Studien zu einem geschichtlichen Thema. Stuttgart: 1980, 79-102).

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