BMCR 1994.06.04

1994.06.04, Sivan, Ausonius of Bordeaux

, Ausonius of Bordeaux : genesis of a Gallic aristocracy. London: Routledge, 1993. xv, 242 pages : illustrations, maps ; 23 cm. ISBN 9780415086141. $59.95.

1 Responses

This book, which shared with Thomas Wiedemann’s Emperors and Gladiators the Routledge Ancient History Prize for 1991, makes not unpleasant reading. The chatty preface includes an anecdote, worthy of an Ausonian epigram, telling how the author, emerging dust-covered from a crypt at Narbonne, startled a bystander into believing herself witness to a resurrection. Again, quips such as “Ammianus’ silence about Ausonius is deafening” (p. 197 n. 119) show verve worthy of a rhetor’s auditorium. Charming touches and cute turns of phrase cannot, however, conceal the weakness of the work’s central thesis, which depicts Ausonius’ career at court as the epoch-making event in the evolution of a Gallic aristocracy. This construction does violence to fact and probability.

Born at Bazas, Julius Ausonius, a doctor by profession, moved to Bordeaux where he married Aemilia Aeonia. From this union Ausonius was born about 310. Educated in grammar and rhetoric, as befitted a member of the richer echelon of curial class (that is, the local aristocracy), Ausonius eventually gained a municipal appointment as grammaticus, then as rhetor in his native city, where he taught until the mid 360s. At that time, he was summoned to court by the emperor Valentinian I to instruct his son Gratian, whose birth is dated to 359; it just so happened that Valentinian arrived in the west when his son was reaching the age at which formal education began. At court Ausonius was honoured with the rank of comes, and, before the death of Valentinian in November 375, he had been appointed ‘quaestor of the sacred palace’, minister responsible for drafting imperial correspondence and constitutions. On his father’s death, Gratian, who had been accorded the title Augustus in August 367, became the ruling emperor in the west. Ausonius, it appears, was made praetorian prefect of the Gauls in 377; in 378, ‘and of Italy’ was added to his title. The highest civilian office in the Roman world, the prefecture charged its holder with the general administration of his section of the empire. In 379, Gratian conferred upon his former teacher the consulship, the honour most coveted by the nobility of the empire, to whose highest ranks Ausonius had now technically acceded. Gratian was to lose his life in August 383 when he made a futile attempt to defend Gaul against the invasion of Magnus Maximus, who had been proclaimed Augustus in Britain. Ausonius lived through Maximus’ rule in Gaul, which ended in August 388. He was still alive in the early 390s, and, so far as we know, he suffered no reversal of fortune before his death.

Ausonius’ life, then, whose stages are variously recalled in his works, constitutes quite a remarkable success-story in a century where ambitious curials did avidly seek actual or honorary tenure of imperial offices, which brought equestrian and, with increasing frequency, senatorial rank. In this way, they could effect passage from local aristocracy into the nobility, whose marks of distinction (not all of which graced each individual) were identified as wealth, breeding, culture, character, tenure of high office. According to Sivan, however, Ausonius was not only signally fortunate in his own rise, but he would also have played a crucial role in the emergence of a fourth-century Gallic aristocracy, in the development of a provincial class whose wealth and standing, on the one hand, and loyalty to the empire, on the other, commended its members as suitable candidates for such offices as brought senatorial rank. On the score of loyalty, Sivan contends that Gauls had traditionally been regarded with suspicion by emperors, who had inclined therefore to exclude them from high office; this situation would have changed under Julian, who was proclaimed in Gaul. Now Gaul in general and Aquitania in particular clearly underwent an economic recovery in the fourth century. In Sivan’s view, it was only in the 360s that there would have appeared a provincial aristocracy possessed at last of the wealth needed to render its members acceptable in high office; Ausonius’ family would have been busy accumulating such wealth at Bordeaux and, by a happy coincidence, just as Ausonius was summoned to court, there were his relatives finally poised for accession to the highest offices. Consequently, Ausonius would have been acting as something of a catalyst in a process favoured by a historical conjuncture when he secured high office for himself and his relatives, the vanguard, as it were, of this newly evolved and imperially approved Gallic aristocracy. Evidently Sivan subscribes to the view that, throughout his life, Ausonius would naturally have harboured ambition to hold high office and to obtain in this way senatorial rank (note pp. 89, 101), ambitions that would have been hampered by imperial distrust of Gauls. So, while Sivan does recognize that Ausonius’ summons to court was brought about by unpredictable events and academic considerations, we are urged to believe that “the dominant presence [of Ausonius] at the Treveran court signalled a stage of maturity [for the Gallic upper class] which could have been delayed ha d Ausonius not been there to open door readily and widely” (p. 140).

The hypothesis about imperial reluctance to charge Gauls with high office before Julian’s time rests on a fragile foundation, and Sivan acknowledges so much. One simply does not know enough about the provenance of fourth-century dignitaries to claim that Gauls were excluded from important office in any systematic way. Nor have we such attestations of imperial attitudes as would justify our even suspecting that Gauls might have been subject to this sort of exclusion. On the other hand, Eumenius of Autun, who had been magister memoriae to the Caesar Constantius, assumes that students from the school of rhetoric at Autun, revitalized through imperial assistance, will have access to imperial office ( Panegyrici Latini [Budé] 5. 5; cf. 7. 23). Again, in the 330s, Ausonius’ uncle Aemilius Magnus Arborius was summoned from Toulouse to tutor a Caesar at Constantinople, and Exuperius of Bordeaux, who had also taught rhetoric at Toulouse, instructed sons of the imperial family at Narbonne. If there was no imperial bias against Gallic professors, why should there have been any general imperial distrust of the graduates of Gallic schools? In short, despite Sivan’s insistence that, before the period of Ausonius’ ascendancy, accession to imperial office and acquisition of senatorial rank were more difficult for Gauls than, say, for Spaniards or Africans, nothing is adduced to support this notion, and one must doubt that the notion could ever be substantiated. Ausonius’ own thinking about an official career is difficult to determine, for his various statements on this score were made clearly or arguably after his elevation at court, when he had achieved nobility and could magnanimously deny ever having thirsted after office. In the Preface to the reader (15-23), he does, however, report having made, as a young man, a deliberate career-choice: he abandoned forensic practice, which would have paved the way to office, and consecrated himself rather to the teaching of grammatice. Since he spent 30 years in the teaching-profession in an age where the ambitious found so many avenues of entry to the imperial service, Ausonius may well be telling the truth when he claims to have turned his back on an official career. As he himself specifies in the Gratiarum actio, his rise to high offices did not follow the normal path whereby he would have entered imperial service earlier in life, an option that seems never to have been closed to Gauls specifically.

In sum, there is no reason to suppose that fourth-century Gauls were hindered by imperial distrust from pursuit of an official career. We need not doubt Ausonius’ own testimony where he indicates that such a career was open to him as a young man. In the event, he allowed his career to follow a different course. Through fortuitous circumstances, when he was in his 60s, Ausonius did acquire high office for himself and, as one would expect, for his family-members. But it was principally the fortunes of a single family, which just happened to be Gallic, that his luck thus enhanced. He cannot plausibly be cast as midwife in the birthing of a Gallic aristocracy. So few will be convinced by Sivan’s attempt to fabricate a context wherein “the Ausonian phenomenon enabled the late Roman Gallic aristocracy, still in its formative stages by the third quarter of the fourth century, to reach maturity” (p. 145).