BMCR 1994.10.20

1994.10.20, Mathisen, Roman Aristocrats in Barbarian Gaul

, Roman aristocrats in barbarian Gaul : strategies for survival in an age of transition. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993. xv, 275 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780292770515.

This work complements recent books on fifth-century AD Gaul, in particular Van Dam’s Leadership and Community in Late Antique Gaul (Berkeley, 1985) and Elton and Drinkwater’s conference Fifth-Century Gaul: A Crisis of Identity? (Cambridge, 1992), as well as M.’s own Ecclesiastical Factionalism and Religious Controversy in Fifth-Century Gaul (Washington, 1989). Late-antique Gaul is a fruitful area of study and this book is a welcome addition to the literature.

M.’s title is ‘barbarian’ Gaul, which he strictly interprets as the fifth century, though he makes occasional use of Gregory of Tours to reach beyond 500. ‘Roman’ is also interpreted in a very tight fashion. This focus gives the work great coherence. The price paid is in the bigger picture, masking the transition from separate Roman and barbarian aristocracies in the fifth century to a single Gallic aristocracy in the sixth century. This process is alluded to at the end of the work (ch. 12), but before this there is no discussion of Frankish, Visigothic or Burgundian aristocracies (though such a section would admittedly be short, by nature of the limited evidence).

The book is composed in a highly compartmented style, examining a number of themes and the way each developed over time, e.g. ‘Flight and Dislocation’, ‘The Rise of an Ecclesiastical Aristocracy’ or ‘The Pursuit of Literary Studies’. This produces a kaleidoscopic and highly informative picture of the Roman aristocracy in Gaul. This is a fascinating contrast to the more wide-ranging approach taken by Van Dam. Mathisen’s Gauls seem, for the most part, to be passive reactors, rather than participants in the drama unfolding around them. They are happy to make use of the empire while it benefits them, but are limited in their readiness to preserve it when it began to crumble. St. Germanus seems exceptional. Many ran away (ch. 6). And any such imperial tendencies that might have developed were neutralized by the appearance of ecclesiastical opportunities (a topic handled particularly well) (ch. 9), or else service with barbarian kings (ch. 7, 11). Spare energy was spent on writing (ch. 10).

This focus on the aristocracy, rather than their context, is illuminating. Unfortunately, many developments of marginal relevance to the aristocracy themselves, but of great importance to Gaul, are thus ignored. The clear cessation of Gauls holding government offices in the region is documented (ch. 5). What is not clear, because it is not discussed by our sources, is how the aristocrats reacted to the disappearance of these offices. They did not disappear at the same rate and Praetorian Prefects and “magistri militum” in Gaul are found after mid-century, but there are very few “vicarii” or provincial governors. Is this the result of our sources (the same pattern is found in most other areas in the west), or a genuine development, perhaps reflecting growing discontent with the increasing demands and diminishing benefits of all but the highest imperial offices, as well as the growth of alternate opportunities? The strength of M.’s approach is that it poses such questions, some of which are answered in the chapter dealing with ‘Conflicting loyalties’, highlighting the differing perspectives that could be used to interpret aristocratic conduct vis-à-vis the central empire (ch. 8).

This study, showing the changes in aristocratic customs and attitudes, could only be attempted for a few areas of the ancient world. Other possibilities are the Italys of Cicero, of Ambrose, Claudian and Symmachus, and of Cassiodorus, Syria in the time of Libanius, and, perhaps, Constantinople around 400. As is obvious from this list, letter collections are critical for an understanding of the aristocracy, though they need to be supplemented by other material, hence the exclusion of the societies of Pliny and Augustine. But why are there so many collections from late antiquity? M. estimates that between 420 and 520, there survive 475 letters written by Gauls. Yet, in the two centuries between the Younger Pliny (368 letters) and Fronto (c200) and Libanius (c1600), there are no large collections of letters (with the exception of Cyprian’s 80). From the mid-fourth century there is a plentiful selection. Letter writing was not a lost art in the third century, nor is the problem simply related to Christianity, as the impressive collections of Libanius and Symmachus attest.

Secondly, why is there so much material from fifth-century Gaul? Sidonius Apollinaris provides almost a third of this, with 147 letters and Ruricius of Limoges nearly as many. Almost as important are his three imperial panegyrics, which tell us much about the change in Sidonius’ political perspective. M.’s work highlights the need for a modern study of Sidonius (see Harris, Teitler, in Fifth-Century Gaul). Was the Gallic devotion to literature special in the fifth century, or was this normal for Late Roman aristocrats? From what we know of Italy, Syria, Africa and Constantinople, Gauls seem typical of the fifth century aristocracy, while the attention paid to literature and letter-writing by earlier aristocrats, e.g. Libanius and Ausonius (or even Pliny), suggest this was normal for earlier periods of the Empire.

In the fourth century there is less source material (with fewer letters), which means that we can say little about the Gallic aristocracy, though Ausonius provides a good starting point (see recently Sivan, H., Ausonius of Bordeaux (London, 1993)). This would be an interesting question, to show how they differed from the aristocracy in the fifth century, a question again prompted by M.’s structure. The variable survival of source material also constricts our ability to write narrative, often a limiting or dangerous endeavor and one carefully avoided by M. (Wood, in Elton and Drinkwater). But poor sources do not limit our ability to ask interesting questions. M. has used the available material not only to draw a picture of the Gallic aristocracy, but also to pose other interesting questions about late antique Gaul.