BMCR 2001.11.05

Response: Conybeare on Kirstein on Trout

Response to 2001.10.16

Response by

I noted with interest K(irstein)’s review of T(rout), Paulinus of Nola. Life, Letters, and Poems (The Transformation of the Classical Heritage XXVII), but feel it needs supplementing. K has produced reasons to read T’s book for those of us who already have some interest in Paulinus—but that is a mere handful, and we will have read the book anyway by now: this is the most substantial work on Paulinus produced in decades. But K does not make it sufficiently clear that the book deserves to find a far wider readership. All those interested in the production of historical biography, in the face of a distressing paucity of evidence, using an artful marriage of diverse disciplines and inspired guesswork—and that should include all readers of BMCR with any respect for historiographical traditions—will find this Life a superb example of its genre; meanwhile, there is plenty of interest for those intrigued by the mechanisms by which our image of ‘late antiquity’—and by extension, of any artificially-designated historical period—is created.1

T’s Paulinus does not approach the revisionary sophistication recently called for by O’Donnell on Augustine;2 but then, the biographical situation for Paulinus is very different, there being no extended biography in any modern language, and very few biographical summaries significantly richer than the conventional one reiterated by K at the beginning of his review. So not only the scale of T’s biography, but his reflections, in the context of Paulinus’ life, on the complexities of biographical writing, the attractions and perils of memorialization, are very welcome.

Memorialization includes, for T, self-memorialization and self-representation, and he launches his work with a virtuoso comparison of the autobiographies which Paulinus produced at different stages in his life (15-22)—developing the theme of his earlier critique of the perennial treatment of Paulinus as monolithic exemplar 3 (an exemplary status uncomfortably repeated in a comment by K).4

T is clearly aware throughout of the paradox of ‘great man’ biography (acknowledging the perils of hindsight, 269): the life would not be being written at all were the ‘man’ not considered in some way ‘great’; at the same time, there is a laudable desire to avoid facile teleology. Paulinus is both a compliant and a resistant candidate for this type of life: compliant, because there is no single ‘great work’ or obvious goal of the life (indeed, we know almost nothing of Paulinus’ last quarter-century!); resistant, because of the abiding tendency to view him as emblematic (see fn. 3). Throughout this extensive work, no explanation of Paulinus’ trajectory seems forced: T succeeds in making clear the experimental nature of life as lived—then as now; the way in which the subject tries to negotiate provisional, shifting patterns and power structures.

T’s biography is not methodologically ground-breaking. Indeed, it owes much to the style of Peter Brown’s life of Augustine 5 though with, as befits the times (ours, not theirs) and the relative lack of evidence, more methodological anxiety and self-analysis. Yet nothing is ever given out of context; and by the use of contextual information and suggestive parallel, an extraordinarily rich picture emerges. The work is like one of those exquisite late antique mosaics: you may have to stand back a little to get the full effect; some pieces may be lost forever; but each minute fragment has been painstakingly angled to catch the light and make the most of its position. For examples, we may look at T’s discussion of rhetorical training in the late fourth century (‘the stakes were high’ [29]); his sympathetic account of the rarefied aristocratic pleasure of poetic letter-exchanges (56-8); his suggestion of Nummius Aemilianus Dexter as a possible link between Paulinus and Jerome (91), or of Olybrius’ unsavoury ‘land grab’ as a pattern for Paulinus’ own continued involvement with his proprietary concerns (186-7); and his contextualization of Paulinus’ possible motives for writing a panegyric to Theodosius to launch himself in Italy in 395 (though could he have been simply hedging his professional bets? rendering unto God and Caesar simultaneously? T is sometimes too unsuspicious of his subject).

One of the inevitable consequences of this technique is that T admits a great number of tentative auxiliary verbs—’may’ and ‘might have’ frequently recur. The carefully-paced buildup to Paulinus’ conversion (93) is almost all well-informed supposition; but the cumulative effect is impressive. Occasional lapses of methodological caution (‘the personal reproaches of Ausonius’ letters stung Paulinus acutely’ [80]) are almost inevitable in the interests of producing a pungent narrative.

However, the generally assured tone of T’s narrative marks the immense strides forward which he has in fact made in situating Paulinus, as T himself puts it, ‘within the complicated nexus of political, military, cultural, and spiritual forces shaping the late antique world’ (104). We get little sense from K’s review either that this is T’s avowed aim or that this is, in fact, what he does best.

In this context, the chapter on Paulinus’ relationship with his saint of choice, Felix, is a tour de force. ‘Staging and explaining were the twin prerogatives of a saint’s impresario’, writes T (161), crediting Peter Brown with the coinage of the key term;6 but the chapter becomes a wonderfully rich and nuanced case study of what in many ways is a very alien social practice: the maintenance, advertising, control, and image presentation of a shrine. T is especially good on the ‘staging’ aspects: look at his excursus on clothing and demeanour (173). Moreover, he reverts later in the book to the readings built up here, reflecting on Paulinus’ relations with Sulpicius and his saints’ cults (243), and—most poignantly—to the aftermath of the Felix cult: ‘Ironically… [Paulinus] had cast and refined the very religious, intellectual, and social structures that now gave meaning to his own death and allowed him to continue his patronal role from above’ (264). Of course, in many ways Paulinus had bestowed his own status on Felix, not vice versa; the contribution of Felix was to underline his protégé’s claims of humility. It was probably inevitable that Paulinus should posthumously upstage his otherwise negligible patron.

A great stength of this work is that T is as well versed in the epigraphy and prosopography of late antiquity as in the literary sources for the period. In fact, though he has the capacity for compressed pronouncement on literary matters,7 he is generally more at ease with literary materials used as historical sources. Hence, his chapter on ‘Latin Christian Culture’ is at its best with the emphasis firmly on cultural history, extending its insights to such issues as the circumstances of Augustine’s composition of the De Cura Pro Mortuis Gerenda.

T is incredibly thorough; but occasionally, the evidence he presents could be pressed further. For example: to what degree could the dismissal of Ausonius, carmen 11, have been an advertisement of Paulinus’ willingness to accept the ordination which was miraculously imposed upon him shortly afterwards? Could it not be read as a declaration that he was willing to submit to the ‘yoke of Christ’ in more formal terms? How coincidental is it that we find the same language in both ep. 1, to Sulpicius, and carmen 12, the first Natalicium? Certainly, what little we know of Paulinus’ ordination at Barcelona contrasts sharply with the excruciating episode of Pinian’s ordination at Hippo a few years later: from beginning to end, Paulinus seems far more firmly in control of the situation.8 However, it is entirely due to T’s own systematic instruction and careful marshalling of evidence in this book that I have been able to make these connections now.

Notwithstanding the cogency of T’s reflections on the limitations of biography, we must be grateful to him for not giving in to aporetic paralysis, and for producing so rich and lucid a work within a (impressively muscular) traditional matrix. Those of us who are engaged in more trendily meta-historical pursuits depend on the accounts of which this is so accomplished an example.9


1. Note Mark Vessey, ‘The Demise of the Christian Writer and the Remaking of “Late Antiquity”: From H.-I. Marrou’s Saint Augustine (1938) to Peter Brown’s Holy Man (1983)’, JECS 6 (1998), 377-411.

2. James J. O’Donnell, ‘The Next Life of Augustine’, in The Limits of Ancient Christianity: Essays on Late Antique Thought and Culture in Honor of R. A. Markus, ed. William E. Klingshirn and Mark Vessey (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999), 215-31. For a marvellous example of a more edgy, against-the-flow biographical style, see John Henderson, Juvenal’s Mayor: the professor who lived on 2d. a day (Cambridge 1998).

3. Dennis E. Trout, ‘History, Biography, and the Exemplary Life of Paulinus of Nola’, Studia Patristica 32 (1997), 462-7.

4. ‘In sum, what makes Paulinus, as historical figure, so fascinating is the fact that he reflects in his personal life the overall cultural change which took place in the 4th and 5th centuries AD, when the elite of the Roman Empire finally converted to Christianity and transformed the culture of the ancient world into something new.’

5. Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: a biography (London / Boston 1967). Brown is warmly acknowledged in T’s preface.

6. ‘The felicitous term is Brown’s, from The Cult of the Saints, 90, a study to which this section owes debts all too obvious’ (161 n.11).

7. For example: ‘A similarly subverted recusatio also energized the roughly contemporary carmen 11, but now a Biblical rather than Virgilian chamber offers its literary riches’ (90).

8.This ‘excruciating episode’ occurred in about 411, and is narrated (with some chagrin) in Augustine’s epp. 124-6. Pinian, husband of Melania the Younger, was like Paulinus an extraordinarily rich and well-connected young man, and both would have been extremely desirable patrons for the respective churches.

9. At which (final) point, I should declare my own indebtedness: I came first to T’s work as few years ago while preparing my own study of Paulinus’ thought, and did indeed—and still do—find it invaluable.