Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.05.29 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.05.29

Philip Burton (ed.), Sulpicius Severus’ 'Vita Martini'.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2017.  Pp. xiv, 298.  ISBN 9780199676224.  $155.00.  

Reviewed by Raymond Van Dam, University of Michigan (

Sulpicius Severus’ Life of Martin is a short text, only twenty-nine pages in the standard edition in Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, vol. 1. But that text was the starting point and the foundation for the most influential saint’s cult in post-Roman Merovingian Gaul. It has also been featured widely in modern scholarship on the later Roman empire during the fourth century, not only in studies of hagiography and saints’ cults, but also in accounts of the rise of bishops and monks, the authority of emperors and their administrators, the influence of Gallic notables, the effectiveness of the Roman army, and the coming of the barbarians.

In the late 1960s Jacques Fontaine revitalized study of the Life of Martin with a new critical edition and French translation. Fontaine should be considered one of the important founders of modern late antique studies, and his publications combined great philological skills with sensitive literary criticism and significant historical interpretation. His interests were primarily in Latin prose and poetry, and his study of the Life of Martin set a high standard. It also set a rather elephantine standard. In addition to the edition and translation, the three volumes of his study included an introduction of 240 pages, a commentary of almost one thousand pages, and another seventy pages of indices.

Sulpicius thought that any value in his “little book” would have to come entirely from its subject, bishop Martin of Tours. He claimed to be so embarrassed by his own “grammatical lapses” that he suggested a friend publish his book anonymously. False modesty was just another sophisticated trope, however, and Philip Burton rightly highlights Sulpicius’ “virtuosity” (52, 63) as a stylist. His new book is an excellent introduction to and overview of the many noteworthy literary aspects of the Life of Martin.

Burton’s book includes an edition of the Latin text, largely based on Fontaine’s edition but with a few variant readings, and a very readable translation. Following the format of Fontaine’s edition, the text is preceded by an introduction and followed by a commentary. But both are more compact and hence more accessible, and both are important contributions to our appreciation of late Roman and early medieval Latin.

Burton’s introduction includes an overview of Sulpicius’ life, compiled largely from his own writings and the letters of his friend Paulinus of Nola. An overview of Martin’s life is more difficult, however, because it requires evaluating the accuracy and reliability of the Life of Martin. Even though Sulpicius visited Martin at Tours and could describe him firsthand, the sources for his information about Martin’s earlier life and episcopacy remain largely unknown. Sulpicius furthermore shaped that information to represent his own agenda, and in the process he obscured the chronology. Burton explains the uncertainties about Martin’s age and the length of his military service by appealing to the conventions of genre. Sulpicius was writing under the influence of the Gospels, whose narratives consisted of a series of short episodes; the passions of martyrs, which emphasized confrontations and conflicts; and biographies of Christian holy men, such as the Life of Antony. As a result, even as he modeled Martin’s actions on the behavior of biblical characters, he offered Martin as a model for others to imitate: “the language of imitation is effectively used to describe a typological theology” (40). This emphasis on literary styling and theological concerns implies that the Life of Martin cannot be read straightforwardly as a trustworthy depiction of the life of the historical Martin.

The most useful section of Burton’s introduction is the meticulous analysis of the prose style of the Life. This analysis includes a detailed discussion of vocabulary, concluding that Sulpicius was “a careful traditionalist rather than a linguistic antiquarian” (49). His syntax and morphology recalled “the archaizing style of Sallust” (55). In fact, the influence of Sallust and the Sallustian tradition often reappears: “Sallust… stands in a similar relation to the Vita Martini as the Iliad or Odyssey does to the Aeneid” (81). Burton furthermore highlights the rhythms of Sulpicius’ prose, which featured classical quantitative or metrical patterns over the accentual cadences that became more common in late antiquity. Some of his rhythms turned into fragments of dactylic verse, often close to full hexameter verses. As a result, these rhythms linked Sulpicius “to the traditions of classical hexameter poetry, as represented by Virgil, Ovid, and their successors” (81). Like many modern scholars of late antiquity, Sulpicius apparently had a background in classical studies, and he seems to have prepared to write hagiography by reading classical Latin prose and poetry.

Burton’s commentary examines the Life section by section, often word by word. Some of his comments are extended discussions of relevant topics and themes: prose prefaces (139); the influence of military hagiography (146-51); clothing and Martin’s cloak (158-160); Sulpicius’ theology (178-80); resurrection stories (184-85); the selection and consecration of new bishops (190-92); sacred trees (213-14); Martin’s apparent inclination toward Origin’s doctrine that God’s love might redeem even the Devil (242-43); and visions of the Devil wearing a diadem and an imperial robe (247). Most of Burton’s comments are remarks on the meanings, morphology, and syntax of words and phrases: for instance, the comparative of the adjective incultus (134); the scarcity of gerundives (135), and the archaic form of a third- conjugation gerundive (151); the use of rex as the title for an emperor (153), and the appropriation of candidatus as the term for a neophyte after baptism (157); the odd use of vis with a noun in the genitive (160); the meanings of virtus (138), religiosus/a (176), sacerdos and fides (179), deformis (“tonsured,” 193-94), altare (rather than ara, 206), pallium (221), signum (244), and videbantur (the equivalent of English “scare quotes,” 258-59); the form of the pluperfect subjunctive passive (185); sentences that begin with verbs (216); the use of hyberbata as “a stylistic tic” (227); and the “dangling nominative” (234). The sequence of topics really is as haphazard and unpredictable as it appears in this summary. Only a few obvious mistakes pop up. For instance, “the defeat of Licinius at the Milvian Bridge in 307” (169): the defeated emperor, the battle, and the date do not match. Despite the eclectic nature of the comments, everyone planning to translate a late Roman or early medieval Latin prose text should read Burton’s commentary as a very sensitive and astute primer.

Even though Sulpicius professed misgivings, his style was worthy of his subject. His “little book” became a bestseller at Rome, and his friend Paulinus of Nola was pleased to read it aloud to a visitor. These days historians of late antiquity are increasingly aware of the “literary turn” in historical studies that questions the reliability of ancient texts by interpreting them as presentist representations of the past, and literary critics amplify the aesthetics of ancient texts by examining intertextual allusions. Sulpicius’ Life of Martin was certainly a literary construct that incorporated allusions to classical authors. But the underpinning for its representation and intertextuality was its grammar and style. Burton’s book is a very helpful exposition of the impressive artistic and philological infrastructure of the Life.

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