It was probably summer, and the four men were probably accompanied by others. They met with a representative of the Visigothic king, Euric, so it was very likely to have been in summer. But despite all the others in the room, they were the ones charged by the western emperor, Julius Nepos, with the negotiations he instructed them to undertake.
The four men were all bishops: Leontius was bishop of Arles, and as a friend of Pope Hilary, had established his see as the leading one of Gaul. Then there was Basilius of Aix, Graecus of Marseille and Faustus of Riez, the Briton considered the foremost Christian writer of his day. The men they met were not Visigoths by background; they were Roman officials who had changed sides to save their own hides. In Euric’s delegation, perhaps leading it, would have been Victorius, who Euric made Duke of Aquitania Prima in 479. He may have been, or been related to, another Victorius of Aquitaine, a contemporary intellectual and mathematician.
A year before, Euric’s troops had occupied Provence. Julius Nepos wanted it back. The negotiation with Euric’s men was to determine what price might be needed. They would have had in their minds the Battle of Arles in 458, in which the Visigothic king Theodoric, elder brother of Euric, had been massively defeated by the Romans under Majorian. Now Euric (who had overthrown his brother) had broken the pact (foedus) which governed de facto Visigothic rule in southern Gaul.
Euric promised the Romans could have Provence back, if he could have the Auvergne (Arvernia). The bishops agreed to this on behalf of the emperor. With Roman connivance, Euric invaded the Auvergne and took it in 475. Then he invaded Provence again and seized that in 476. The loss of Gaul was a catastrophe, and Odoacer used this to depose the boy emperor Romulus Augustulus and seize power.
Arles had become the capital of Gaul in the early fifth century, when Trier, an imperial capital a mere twenty five years earlier, was abruptly abandoned. Leontius would have had in his mind the substantial fees and earnings Arles received because of the Elisii Campi (Elysian Fields), now known as the Alyscamps. This was a highly fashionable burial ground, so popular that people were ferried across the Mediterranean from North Africa to be interred there. Even the guild of Rhone bargemen made a small fortune ferrying the dead of the empire to the must-have funeral they aspired to. They had to be stacked three deep to be accommodated there.
Around the table, next to Leontius no doubt, was Faustus of Riez. He was the leading clergyman of his day for theology. He was aged about 48 and British, and travelled back to Britain from time to time, testing the still widespread belief that his homeland was being devastated by the Anglo-Saxons. Faustus was quite probably the son of the British king we call Vortigern. The Historia Britonnum refers to St Germanus of Auxerre returning from Britain to Gaul with an illegitimate and allegedly incestuous son of Vortigern called Faustus (‘Lucky’) to make the boy a priest, and the ages match. In addition, Faustus of Riez was known as a ‘semi-Pelagian’, one holding a modified version of the teachings of Pelagius, a Briton condemned as a heretic a generation back. Germanus had travelled to Britain to resolve a dispute between the teachings of the Church and the popular philosophy of Pelagius.
Basilius of Aix must have been a young man, because he was still bishop in AD500, when he caused to be built a spanking new cathedral, on top of the Forum, which survived for centuries until being destroyed in Saracen raids. But we can imagine the young bishop (not so uncommon, as life expectancy was quite low) thinking about how he might be able to remodel his city for the glory of God, and perhaps himself. The baptistery of Aix cathedral was built over a temple to Apollo and survives to this day. His name suggests he might have been of Greek ancestry, but there were other Greek settlements along the coast.
Graecus of Marseille sounds like he ought to be of Greek ancestry, but since Marseille was so Greek, the name holds no distinction. Perhaps it was a nickname which became his church name. He was an older man, and had a reputation as a bit of a maverick. Faustus had rebuked him harshly for espousing Nestorianism, a Christian sect that became a heresy (Ralph Mathiesen Ruricius of Limoges and Friends: A collection of letters from Visigothic Gaul, Liverpool University Press, 1999). So in that room in Arles, there would have been little love lost between Faustus and Graecus.
We should pause for a moment to consider what these four men had done: they had handed fellow Romans, who had managed to hold the Visigoths at bay, over to the enemy. They had in doing so betrayed their friend and fellow bishop, Sidonius Apollinaris. They had failed to see that Euric had already conquered Provence once, and knew how to do it again.
Once he had taken Arvernia and its capital Arvernis (formerly Augustonemetum and from the 9th century Claremontum (now Clermont-Ferrand)), and taken Sidonius prisoner, transporting him in chains to Liviana, near Carcasso (modern Carcassonne), then to Bordeaux, putting him in prison there for some time, Euric almost surrounded Provence, enabling him to take it anyway.
Sidonius wrote letters, and eventually published nine books of them, in emulation of Pliny the Younger (all translations derived from O.M. Dalton, 1915 Loeb edition). If he imagined there would be a tenth book compiled by his admirers, that never occurred, although several people tried to engage him in writing the history of his times.
But Letter 7.7 to Graecus of Marseille is the bitter gall of a man who has been betrayed by his friends. It came after a siege of the Auvergne for four years (471-5) by the Visigoths. Clermont was his wife’s home town, but he had adopted its defence as his life’s cause.
Letter 7.7 is quietly furious at the betrayal: ‘Our enslavement is the price paid for the safety of others’ he says, adding that he now finds himself ‘amidst an unconquerable, yet alien people’ . Sidonius knew that Vercingetorix had been king of the Arveni facing Caesar and echoes Lucan’s Pharsalia in condemning ‘the servitude of the Arvernians who dared once to call themselves “brothers of Latium” and counted themselves “a people sprung from Trojan blood”’.
The sense of betrayal Sidonius expresses is keen: ‘you are the channel through which embassies come and go; to you first of all, although the emperor is absent, peace is not only reported when negotiated, but entrusted to be negotiated’ , adding later ‘you are surrounded by those most holy pontiffs, Leontius, Faustus, and Graecus; you have a middle place among them in the location of your city and in seniority, and you are the centre of their loving circle; you four are the channels through which the unfortunate treaties flow; through your hands pass the compacts and stipulations of both realms’.
Sidonius sums up his condemnation with these words: ‘You should be ashamed of this peace treaty for it is neither useful nor honourable’.
So who was Sidonius?
Sidonius Apollinaris was born in Lyon on 5 November 430; he came from a rich family with a long history of public office. His grandfather Apollinaris was praetorian prefect of Gaul for part of AD408, replacing a certain Limenius, but had quit in protest at the corruption of politics. In one of his letters, Sidonius talks of visiting his grandfather’s grave, which was neglected and overgrown, and mourned this; but his grandfather had been a rebel, prefect for Constantine III, so maybe somebody held a grudge.
The father of Sidonius was also Praetorian Prefect of the Gauls, as was Tonantius Ferreolus, a kinsman, related to Sidonius by blood and marriage. The father in law of Sidonius, Marcus Avitus, was Prefect in 439 and the father of Avitus, Flavius Julius Agricola, had been Prefect in 416 – 421. Marcus Avitus, the candidate of the Visigoths, was acclaimed emperor by their king Theodoric in Toulouse, the Visigothic capital, 455 after the assassination of Valentinian III. Sidonius wrote a panegyric to his own father in law on his elevation. He grew up and lived within the nexus of power.
With the coming of Christianity into the power structures of the Roman Empire, a new channel was opened for status and display. Bishops were elected by their parishioners and for life; decurions were expressly forbidden to enter the Church, but several time, so the law must have been quite ineffective. Constantine had given bishops the power to run courts and dispense summary justice. And while bishops were forbidden to marry, there has never been a law preventing a married man becoming a bishop. Sidonius had sons and daughters too. A middle aged bishop with grown up sons to effectively inherit episcopal power was far from unusual.
Had Avitus held the throne for any time, he might well have made Sidonius Prefect of Gaul. However Avitus, once the richest man in Gaul, was deposed as emperor, but then made Bishop of Placentia (modern Piacenza). Although that didn’t stop Avitus being murdered, it does show that becoming a bishop was an alternative route to power.
Forgiven his connection to Avitus, Sidonius rose again to become Urban Prefect of Rome, a position he had to resign from because his friend Arvandus was found guilty of treason for supporting the Visigothic king Euric. The epitaph of Sidonius, discovered recently, stresses his civic roles
noble through his titles, powerful through his office, head of the administration, magistrate at the court, quiet amid the world's billowing waves, then managing the turmoil of lawsuits, he imposed laws on the barbarian fury; for the realms that were involved in an armed conflict he restored peace by his great prudence.
His death is noted at ‘August 22, under the reign of Zeno’, as if the Roman Empire still existed at that time. By that date in AD489, there had been no western emperor for thirteen years. Note it stresses his public role, not his clerical one.
Making ex-leaders into bishops was a kind of exile. Once tonsured as priests, they could not in theory return to civilian life. Julius Nepos, once dethroned, was made Bishop of Salona, the capital of Dalmatia, the former province, which he had ruled for a long time before briefly becoming emperor. All of this can be dated back to St Ambrose, bishop of Milan, who had been the local provincial governor before that.
Sidonius also attacks (Ep.7.6, to Basilius, dated 474) the damage to the Church:
Diocese and parish lie waste without ministers. You may see the rotten roofs of churches fallen in, the doors unhinged and blocked by growing brambles. More grievous still, you may see the cattle not only lying in the half-ruined porticoes, but grazing beside altars green with weeds. And this desolation is not found in country parishes alone; even the congregations of urban churches begin to fall away.
Noting that ‘Bordeaux, Périgueux, Rodez, Limoges, Javols, Eauze, Bazas, Comminges, Auch, and many another city are all like bodies which have lost their heads through the death of their respective bishops. No successors have been appointed to fill their places’ and that ‘for every bishop snatched from our midst, the faith of a population is imperilled. I need not mention your colleagues Crocus and Simplicius, removed alike from their thrones and suffering a common exile’. He ends the letter
To you these miserable treaties are submitted, the pacts and agreements of two kingdoms pass through your hands. Do your best, as far as the royal condescension suffers you, to obtain for our bishops the right of ordination in those parts of Gaul now included within the Gothic boundaries, that if we cannot keep them by treaty for the Roman State, we may at least hold them by religion for the Roman Church.
This shows a change in perception from Rome as state to Roman as the body of the faithful. In Ireland at about the same time, St Patrick was telling the soldiers of the king of Strathclyde ‘you are not Romans but demons’, when they were never politically Romans in the first place.
Sidonius adds a comment about the successes of Euric:
I must confess that formidable as the mighty Goth may be, I dread him less as the assailant of our walls than as the subverter of our Christian laws. They say that the mere mention of the name of Catholic so embitters his countenance and heart that one might take him for the chief priest of his Arian sect rather than for the monarch of his nation. Omnipotent in arms, keen-witted, and in the full vigour of life, he yet makes this single mistake – he attributes his success in his designs and enterprises to the orthodoxy of his belief, whereas the real cause lies in mere earthly fortune.
The thinking behind this comment is that of Orosius: the victories of the enemy cannot be because God favours them, but because of simple numbers and main force. It should be noted that Arians called themselves Catholics; Sidonius is engaging in a little rhetoric here.
In a letter (Ep. 7.1, dated 474) to Mamertus, bishop of Vienne, Sidonius refers to
earthquake, shattering the outer palace walls with frequent shocks; now fire, piling mounds of glowing ash upon proud houses fallen in ruin; now, amazing spectacle! wild deer grown ominously tame, making their lairs in the very forum. You saw the city being emptied of its inhabitants, rich and poor taking to flight.
The earthquake of September 470 is recorded by Gregory of Tours, quoting the now lost Chronicle of Angers (Historiae 2.18,19). Mamertus invented Church Rogations, still practised today; by doing so, he encouraged the panicked people of Vienne to return to the city. The bishop remaining in his city seems to have been crucial to that city’s survival. If a bishop left it and settled his see elsewhere, the former see tended to collapse and the latter to survive. In addition, where no replacement bishop could be appointed after a bishop died or was exiled, there were sometimes too few bishops left to ordain another, something which Sidonius alludes to in his letter (Ep.7.5, dated 472) to Agroeclus, bishop of Sens, a famous grammarian, where he says ‘Clermont is the last of all the cities in Aquitanica Prima which the fortune of war has left to Rome; the number of provincial bishops is therefore inadequate to the election of a new prelate at Bourges, unless we have the support of the metropolitans’.
Sidonius ends Letter 7.7 with unerring bitterness:
I ask your pardon for telling you hard truths; my distress must take all colour of abuse from what I say. You think too little of the general good; when you meet in council, you are less concerned to relieve public perils than to advance private fortunes. By the long repetition of such acts you begin to be regarded as the last instead of the first among your fellow provincials. But how long are these feats of yours to last? Our ancestors will cease to glory in the name of Rome if they have no longer descendants to bear their memory. Oh, break this infamous peace at any cost; there are pretexts enough to your hand. We are ready, if needs must, to continue the struggle and to undergo more sieges and starvations. But if we are to be betrayed, we whom force failed to conquer, we shall know beyond a doubt that a barbarous and cowardly transaction was inspired by you. … The other conquered regions have only servitude to expect; Auvergne must prepare for punishment. If you can hold out no help in our extremity, seek to obtain of Heaven by your unceasing prayers that though our liberty be doomed, our race at least may live. Provide land for the exile, prepare a ransom for the captive, make provision for the emigrant. If our own walls must offer an open breach to the enemy, let yours be never shut against your friends.
That the Auvergne was singled out for punishment does bring to mind the famous practice of the pharmakos of Marseille, where someone was singled out as a scapegoat for all society’s ills, kept apart and eventually killed. Letter 7.7 was written to Graecus of Marseille, a bishop who must have been aware of the ancient practice, and I think Sidonius is hinting at it to make Graecus squirm.
We are beginning to see a picture of former imperial officials starting to become rulers of new semi-autonomous states: Syagrius in what became Neustria, Julius Nepos in Dalmatia, Theodoric in Acquitaine, Childeric, father of Clovis, in Belgica Secunda, under the guidance of St Remigius (and portrayed in Roman uniform on his seal ring) and Sidonius in the Auvergne. As the former urban prefect of Rome, Sidonius became de facto the ruler of the Auvergne.
We should end as Sidonius ended Book 7 of his letters (Ep.7.18 to Constantius of Lyon, the author of the Vita of St Germanus of Auxerre, dated 479):
while Christ is my defender I will never suffer my judgement to be enslaved; I know as well as any one that with regard to this side of my character there are two opinions: the timid call me rash, the resolute a lover of freedom; I myself strongly feel that the man who has to hide his real opinions cuts a very abject figure.