BMCR 1994.06.18

Response: Sivan on Booth on Sivan

Response to 1994.06.04

Response by

Anyone who writes a book, especially one that proposes radically new interpretations, is virtually asking for a critical response from members of the scholarly community, particularly from those who represent the “current orthodoxy”. I was certainly expecting, even hoping for, a critical evaluation of the theses which I presented in my book Ausonius of Bordeaux. Genesis of a Gallic Aristocracy (Routledge 1993). But the uniformly negative review of Alan D. Booth (BMCR 94.06.04) surpassed even my own expectations for criticism.

At the beginning of his review, Professor Booth states his primary and only stated objection to my thesis as follows: “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.” Professor Booth subsequently concludes his remarks by stating, “In sum, there is no reason to suppose that fourth-century Gauls were hindered by imperial distrust from pursuit of an official career” and that Ausonius “cannot plausibly be cast as a midwife in the birthing of a Gallic aristocracy.”

The borderline sexist language gives pause, but let me press on to the more portentous question of just what evidence does he offer to contradict the 219 pages that I spent developing the thesis 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 had Ausonius not been there to open doors readily and widely” (p. 140). In fact, no single example of factual error is alleged in the review.

This leaves “violence to … probability”, which is difficult to distinguish from violence done to preconceptions.” Booth states: “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.” Well, not exactly. As I show (pp. 14-20), we do in fact know something about Gallic appointments under the Tetrarchy and the house of Constantine—and there is nothing to suggest that Gauls were normally appointed to office, and especially to high office.

The most that Booth can offer is two Gallic professors who educated imperial family members in the first half of the fourth century and to ask: “If there was no imperial bias against Gallic professors, why should there have been any general imperial distrust of the graduates of Gallic schools?” But this argument is doubly specious. First, one simply cannot assert with any confidence that professors and high officials were chosen according to the same criteria. To reduce this argument ad absurdum, one might as easily suggest that the Greek schoolmasters in Rome in the first century BCE should have been made Roman consuls. Furthermore, clearly all the graduates of Gallic schools were NOT distrusted, for all were not Gauls, as Booth’s own examples attest.

The only other argument advanced against my thesis concerns Ausonius’ own career, when Booth states: “We need not doubt Ausonius’ own testimony where he indicates that such a career was open to him as a young man”. Elsewhere Booth comments: “Ausonius 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.”

But Ausonius’ apologia for pursuing the career of a grammarian and rhetorician does not, in fact, give any support to Prof. Booth’s contention that Ausonius did so purely by choice. The actual text reads (Praef. 1.15-18):

nos ad grammaticen studium convertimus et mox rhetorices etiam, quod satis, attigimus. nec fora non celebrata mihi, set cura docendi cultior, et nomen grammatici merui…

Nothing here to indicate that an official career was “open to him as a young man”. Nothing about a “normal path whereby he would have entered imperial service earlier in life”. Here, it would seem that it is Professor Booth who is doing “violence to fact”.

Indeed, a critic might well ask whether Ausonius was so lacking in ambition that he languished in the teaching profession for 30 years by choice. Surely his later career indicates that he was lacking in ambitions neither for himself nor for other family members. If anything, therefore, Ausonius’ failure to hold earlier office, coupled with his ambition when he finally did, offers support to my contention that Gauls prior to Julian did not find an open path to imperial office holding.

In sum, I am disappointed not so much because Professor Booth disagrees with me, but because he fails to offer useful or helpful evidence or argument to cast light on the disagreement. His objections are based on simple denial, without any significant reference to the wealth of evidence presented in the book. Nor does he offer any alternative hypothesis. Given the tone of his review, I think other readers than myself might have expected it to have more substance.