[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

[image ALT: link to previous chapter]
Book I
Note G

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Italy and her Invaders

Thomas Hodgkin

published by the Clarendon Press

The text, and illustrations except as noted,
are in the public domain.

This page has not yet been proofread.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

[image ALT: link to next chapter]
Book II
Ch. 1

Vol. I
Chapter X

Salvian on the Divine Government

Near the end of the life of Placidia, a book was written in Gaul, and circulated from monastery to monastery, which evidently produced a profound impression on the minds of the generation who first read it, and which remains to this day one of our most valuable sources of information as to the inner life of the dying Empire and the moral character of its foes. This work is treatise of St. Salvian, Presbyter1 of Marseilles, concerning the Government of God, in eight books.

The author was born at Cologne, probably some time between the years 410 and 420. He migrated to Trèves, where he appears to have spent several years, and then to Marseilles, in which city he passed the middle and later portion of his life. He was married, and had a daughter named Auspiciola, after whose birth he and his wife Palladia, according to the not infrequent custom of the times, took the so‑called vow of perpetual chastity, and consecrated themselves to the religious life.  p505 He was still living, at a good old age, in the year 493, and was then spoken of by a contemporary ecclesiastic2 as 'a Presbyter of Marseilles, well furnished with divine and human learning, and, not to speak invidiously, the master of the holy bishops Salonius and Veranius.'

The enigma which demanded solution from Salvian, as it must have done from all of his contemporaries who looked forth with any intelligence upon the catastrophe of the Roman Empire, was this, 'Why, if this world be ordered by Divine Providence, is the framework of society, now no longer Anti-Christian but Christian, going to pieces under the assaults of the barbarians?' Augustine had dealt with one half of this question, but he had treated it merely as a part of Christian polemics. He had contended, in the 'De Civitate Dei,' that these calamities were not the result of Rome's renunciation of Paganism. He had not, except casually and incidentally, sought to investigate what was their true cause. Orosius, while to some extent following his master's lead, had ultimately come to the conclusion that the state of the Empire was not unsatisfactory, and therefore that the enigma did not exist. A transitory improvement in the affairs of Honorius in the year 417, a slight bend backwards towards prosperity of the stream which had been flowing long and steadily towards ruin, might make this contention plausible in the eyes of a small religious  p506 coterie; but such desperate optimism was sure to be rejected sooner or later by the common sense of mankind.

With a truer perception of the real conditions of the problem than either of his predecessors, and with the increased knowledge afforded by another generation of manifest decline, Salvian set himself to answer the same question, and arrived at this conclusion, the sum and substance of his whole treatise, 'The vices of the Romans right real cause of the downfall of their Empire.'3 The fuller and more complete solution of the problem, namely, the Drive purpose to weld the Latin and Teutonic elements together into a new and happier Europe, does not seem to have presented itself to his mind. Such a conception was hardly possible to a Roman of that age to whom the Barbarian was as much out of the pale of political capability as the Gentile was out of the pale of spiritual privilege in the eyes of the Pharisee. But as a truthful man, enthusiastic, like one of the old Hebrew prophets, on behalf of pure living and just dealing, he saw and could not escape bearing witness to the immense moral superiority of the Barbarians over the Romans. This contrast gives emphasis to all his denunciations of the vices of his fellow-countrymen. 'You, Romans and Christians and Catholics,' he says, 'are defrauding your brethren, are grinding the faces of the poor, are frittering away your lives over the impure and heathenish spectacles of  p507 the amphitheatre, you are wallowing in licentiousness and inebriety. The Barbarians, meanwhile, Heathens road Heretics though they may be, and however fierce towards us, are just and fair in their dealings with one another. The men of the same clan, and following the same king, love one another with true affection. The impurities of the theatre are unknown amongst them. Many of their tribes are free from the taint of drunkenness, and among all, except the Alans and the Huns, chastity is the rule.'

A contrast so drawn between the Teuton and the Latin nations cannot fail to be highly gratifying to the former. Now that the formation has risen to be the head-boy in the school, he reads with delight the faded characters which record how, before he could speak plainly, he was always such a far nobler-looking and cleaner child than his companions; and rightly enough, in the very forefront of the series of 'Monumenta Historiae Germanicae' (published at Berlin, 1877), appears the treatise of Salvian 'De Gubernatione Dei.'

On the other hand, it is impossible not to feel in reading Salvian's goddess that though he is thoroughly truthful and in deadly earnest, one must not accept as literal truth every point of the contrast which he draws between Roman immorality and Barbarian purity. As Tacitus in the 'Germania' undoubtedly sometimes paints up German freedom in order to render the slavery of Rome under Domitian more hateful by contrast; as the philosophers of last century drew many an arrow from  p508 the Red Indian to discharge it against the rotten civilization of which France under Louis XV was the centre, so doubtless has Salvian sometimes used the German chastity, the German simplicity of life to arouse a sense of shame in his Roman reader. Besides, he is preacher as well as man of letters. In reading his pages, one every now and then seems hear his hand descend upon the rail of the ambo in the centre of the crowded cathedral; and at such a time it would be obviously indecorous to suggest a doubt whether a whole German nation could be literally described by one epithet of praise and a whole Roman province by another term of vituperation.

It must be added, moreover, that Salvian admits many blots on the character of his barbarian clients. 'Only,' as he contends, 'not one of these tribes is altogether vicious. If they have their vices they have also virtues, clear, sharp, and well-defined. Whereas you, my beloved fellow-provincials, I regret to say, with the exception of a few holy men among you, are altogether bad. Your lives from the cradle to the grave are a tissue of rottenness and corruption, and all this notwithstanding that you have the sacred Scriptures in your hands, drawn from the purest sources and faithfully translated, while their sacred books have suffered all manner of interpolations and mistranslations at the hands of evil authors.'4

 p509  The following are the chief passages in which Salvian describes the special vices of the different barbarian races:—

'The nation of the Saxons,' he says, 'is fierce, that of the Franks untrue, of the Gepidae inhuman, of the Huns immodest. In short, it may be said that the life of all the barbarous nations is a course of vice.5 But are their vices as blameable as ours? Is the immodesty of the Hun, the perfidy of the Frank, the drunkenness of the Aleman, the rapacity of the alan, as blameworthy as similar crimes committed by Christians?' [All of these were heathen, not Arian, nations.] 'If the Hun or the Gepid deceive, what marvel, since the criminality of falsehood is unknown to him? If the Frank perjure himself, is that strange, since he looks upon perjury as a mere fashion of speech, not a crime?'

Then, side by side with the perjury of the Franks he places the new form of profanity, the oath 'per Christum, which had come in among the Roman provincials. 'By Christ I will do this,'  p510 'By Christ I say that,' were the perpetually recurring exclamations of the Christian inhabitants of Gaul. Nay, sometimes one heard, 'By Christ I will kill so‑and‑so,' or 'By Christ I will rob him of his property.' In one case it happened to Salvian himself to plead earnestly with some powerful personage that he would not take away from a poor man the last remnant of his substance. 'But he, already devouring the spoil with vehement desire, shot forth savage glances from his eyes against me, enraged at my daring to interfere, and said that it was now his religious duty, and one which he dared not neglect, to do the thing which I besought him not to do. I asked him why? and he gave me the astounding answer, "Because I have sworn per Christum that I would take that man's property away from him." '6

In another passage7 he balances the virtues and vices of the chief races of the barbarians against one another in the following fashion:— 'The nation of the Goths is perfidious but modest, that of the Alans immodest but less perfidious; the Franks are liars but hospitable, the Saxons wild with cruelty but to be admired for their chastity. All these nations, in short, have their especial good qualities as well as their peculiar vices.' Combining these two passages, and paragraph them with hints uttered in other parts of the book,8 we may  p511 conclude that, in the relations between the sexes, the Tartar hordes of Huns and Alani stood exceptionally low, and the Goths and Saxons exceptionally high, in the scale of morality. Want of loyalty to solemn treaty-obligations was the chief fault attributed to both Franks and Goths by their Roman neighbours in Gaul. Peculiarly wild and savage cruelty was the besetting sin of our Saxon forefathers. Drunkenness was not then generally laid to their charge, as it was to that of the nation of the Alamanni, who occupied the region of the Black Forest and skirmished by the upper waters of the Rhine.

After all, however, Salvian's sketches of barbarian character, though the most frequently quoted part of his book, are not so valuable as his distinct and carefully-coloured pictures, evidently drawn from the life, of Roman society and Roman institutions. How vividly he brings before us the debates of a conventus (or assembly of notables, to borrow a phrase from a much later period of French history) assembled for purposes of taxation in the capital of a Gaulish province.

"messengers arrive express, bringing letters from the highest sublimities' [the Emperor] 'which are addressed to a few illustrious persons, to work the ruin of the multitude. They meet: they decree certain additions to the taxes, but they do not pay those taxes themselves, they leave that to be done by the poor. Now, then, you rich men, who are so prompt in ordaining fresh taxes, I pray you be  p512 prompt likewise in paying them. Be foremost in the liberality of your contributions, as you are foremost in the liberality of your words. You have been paying long enough out of my pocket, be good enough to pay now out of your own. . . . Does it seem unreasonable to complain that one class orders the taxes which have to be paid by another class? The injustice of the proceeding is most evidently shown by the wrath of these same rich men when by any chance taxes have been passed in their absence and without their consent. Then you shall hear them saying "What a shameful thing! Two or three persons have ordered a levy which will be the ruin of thousands." Not a whisper of this before, when they were present at the assembly. All which plainly shows that it is a mere matter of pique with the rich that any important matter of taxation should be settled in their absence, and that they have no feeling of justice which would be offended by unrighteous edicts being passed in their presence.

'And as the poor are first to pay, so they are the last to be relieved. If it should happen, as it did on a late occasion, that the Supreme Powers [the Emperor] should, in consideration of the ruined state of the cities, decree a return of some part of the contribution of the Province, at once these rich men divide among themselves alone the gift which was meant to be for the solace of all. who, then, remembers the poor? Who, then, calls in the needy to share the imperial bounty? when it  p513 was a question of laying on taxes, the poor were the only persons thought of. Now that it is a question of taking them off, it is conveniently forgotten that they are tax-payers at all. . . .

'In what other race of men would you find such evils as these which are practised among the Romans? Where else is there such injustice as ours? The Franks know nothing of this villainy. The Huns are clear of crimes like these. None of these exactions are practised among the Vandals, none among the Goths. So far are the barbarian Goths from tolerating frauds like these, that not even the Romans, who live under Gothic rule, are called upon to endure them. And hence the one wish of all the Romans in those parts is that it may never be necessary for them to pass under the Roman jurisdiction. With one consenting voice the lower orders of Romans put up the prayer that they may be permitted to spend their life, such as it is, alongside the barbarians. And then we marvel that our arms should not triumph over the arms of the Goths, when our own countrymen would rather be with them than with us. . . .

'Although the fugitives from the Empire differ in religion, differ in speech, differ even in habit of body from the barbarians, whose very smell, if I may say so, is offensive to the Provincial, yet they would rather put up with all this strangeness among the barbarians than submit any longer to the rampant tyranny of the Roman revenue officers. . . . And thus the name of Roman citizen, formerly  p514 so highly valued and even bought with a great price, is now voluntarily abandoned, nay, it is shunned; nay, it is regarded with abomination. . . . Hence it comes to pass that a large part of Spain, and not the smallest part of Gaul, is filled with men, Roman by birth, whom Roman injustice has de-Romanised.'9

Such was the fiscal condition of the remaining provinces of the Empire in the middle of the Fifth Century. How easily we could imagine, in listening to that description of a Gaulish Conventus, that we had glided unconsciously over thirteen centuries, and were listening to the preparation of a cahier, setting forth the wrongs of the iniquitously-taxed Tiers Etat before the convocation of the States General.

The lamentable consequences of the such exactions on the condition of the poorer classes are clearly traced in the pages of Salvian. The poor Provincial, who could not fly to the Goths because his while property was in land, hunted to despair by the tax-gatherer, would transfer that land to some wealthy neighbour, apparently on condition of receiving a small life annuity out of it. He was then called the Dedititius (or Surrenderer) of the new owner, towards whom he stood in a position of a certain degree of dependence. Not yet, however, were his sorrows or those of his family at an end, for the tax-gatherer still regarded him as  p515 responsible for his land, and required the old amount of taxes at his hands. From the life-rent for which he had covenanted he might possibly be able to satisfy this demand, but on his death his sons, who had utterly lost their paternal inheritance, and still found themselves confronted with the claim for taxes, were obviously without resource. The next stage of the process accordingly was that they abdicated the position of free citizens and implored the great man to accept them as coloni, a class of labourers, half-free, half-enslaved, who may perhaps with sufficient accuracy be compared to the serfs adscripti glebae of the middle ages. But they had already begun to drink, as Salvian says, of the Circean cup of bondage, and they could not stay the transforming process. Before long they became mere slaves (servi), without a shadow of right or claim against their new lords. Such was the downward course by which the free Roman landholder was changed into the mere beast of burden of some rich noble who was influential enough to hold at bay for shaft the ruinous visits of the tax-gatherer.10

Of the condition of the slaves themselves, Salvian draws a melancholy picture. Insufficiently supplied by their avaricious masters with the bar necessaries of life, they were almost compelled to rob in order to keep soul and body together, and the masters, however they might affect to blame their thievish habits, knew in their secret hearts  p516 that no other resource was left to them. Even when the master himself was tolerably kind-hearted, the common herd of slaves suffered torment from the fellow-slaves who were set over them. The steward, the driver, the confidential valet, were so many petty tyrants who made the life of the poor drudge, whether in the house or in the field, well-nigh unendurable. Sometimes, in desperation, a slave would fly from his fellow-slaves to their common master, and would find a shade more of capi from him than from them.11

The spirit of injustice, and hard, unpitying selfishness, according to Salvian, pervaded all classes. The prefect looked upon his prefecture as amere source of plunder.12 The life of the merchant was one long tissue of fraud and perjury, that of the curiales (burgesses) of injustice, that of the officials of calumny, that of the soldiers of plunder.13

The long indictment against the Empire, of which only a few counts are here transcribed, may be closed by Salvian's description of the fall of the two cities of Trèves and Carthage, the capitals of the two great provinces of Gaul and Africa. Of both cities he seems to speak from personal knowledge. He resided many years at the former, and a hint which he lets fall makes it probable that he had at least visited the latter.

 p517  Three times had Trèves, 'the most opulent city in Gaul,' and besieged and taken by the barbarians. Still it repented not of its evil ways. The gluttony, the wine-bibbing, the immersion in carnal delights ceased not; and its a special characteristic of the place that in all this degrading pleasures old men took the lead. Some of the citizens perished of cold, some of hunger; the naked bodies lay at the head of all the streets, and 'death exhaled new death.' Still the hoary sinners sinned on; and, after the third sack of the city, a few of the oldest, and you birth the noblest among them, petitioned the Emperor for shows in the amphitheatre (circenses) by way of consolation for their losses. The theatrical and amphitheatrical performances of that age, idolatrous in their origin and unspeakably immoral in their tendency, always excited the opposition of an earnest ecclesiastic,14 and one of the most eloquent passages in the whole book is that in which Salvian rebukes this request of the nobles of Trèves for such exhibitions.

'Citizens of Trèves, do you ask for games? and that when your country has been laid waste, when your city has been taken, after the bloodshed, the tortures, the captivity and all the calamities of your ruined town? What can be imagined more pitiable than such folly? I confess I thought you of all  p518 men most miserable when I heard of the destruction of Trèves; but I think you more miserable when you are begging for games. . . . So then, oh men of Trèves! thou askestº for public amusements. Where, pray, shall they be celebrated? Over tombs, over ashes, over the bones and the blood of the slain? What part of the city is free from these dread sights? Everywhere is the appearance of a sacked city, everywhere the horror of captivity, everywhere the image of death. . . . The city is black with her burning, and wilt thou put on the face of the merry-maker? All around thee mourns, and wilt thou rejoice? Nay, more, wilt thou with thy flagitious delights provoke the Most High, and draw downed the wrath of God upon thee by the vilest idolatries? I do not wonder now, I do not wonder that all these evils have befallen thee. For if three catastrophes failed to correct thee, thou deservedst to perish by the fourth.'15

In yet stronger colours does this prophet of the Fifth Century paint the magnificence, the sins, and the downfall of Carthage: Carthage, who had risen again from the dust to be the rival of the towers of Rome; Carthage, rich in all the appliances of the highest civilization, in schools of art, in schools of rhetoric, in schools of philosophy; Carthage, the focus of law and government for the continent of Africa, the head-quarters of the troops, the seat of the Proconsul. In this city were to be found all  p519 the nicely graduated orders of the Roman official hierarchy, so that it was scarcely too much to say that every street, every square had its own proper governor. Yet this was the city of which the great African, Augustine, had said, 'I came from my native town to Carthage, and everywhere around me roared the furnace of unholy love.'16 And too plainly does the language of Salvian, after all allowance made for rhetorical exaggeration, show what Augustine was thinking of when he wrote those words. Houses of ill-fame swarming in each street and square, and haunted by men of the highest rank, and what should have been venerable age; chastity outside the ranks of the clergy a thing unknown and unbelieved, and by no means universal within that enclosure; the darker vices, the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, practised, avowed, gloried in — such is the picture which the Gaulish presbyter draws of the capital of Africa.17 Perhaps the weight of his testimony is slightly lessened when he complains in a later passage18 of the hatred which existed in Carthage against the monks, so that when one of that order of men appeared with his pale face and tonsured head in the streets of the city, abuse and execration were wont to arise from the inhabitants against him. The description is so vivid, and Salvian's picture of the vices of the Africans is so black, as to suggest the possibility that he himself,  p520 as an ecclesiastic visiting Carthage from Marseilles, had once been subjected to one of these scenes of outrage. But the chief facts to which he bears witness were too notorious to admit of falsification, and are moreover too well confirmed by other evidence.

Into this City of Sin marched the Vandal army, one might almost say, when one reads the history of their doings, the army of the Puritans. With all their cruelty and all their greed they kept themselves unspotted by the licentiousness of the splendid city. They banished the men who were earning their living by ministering to the vilest lusts. They rooted out prostitution with a wise yet not a cruel hand. In short, Carthage, under the rule of the Vandals, was a city transformed, barbarous but moral.19

The pages of Salvian's treatise are unrelieved by one gleam of brightness or of hope, and it is therefore of necessity a somewhat dreary book to read or to comment upon. But drearier than anything which he has written would be the thought that such a fabric as the Roman Empire, so splendid a creation of the brain of man, an organization upon the whole so beneficial to the human race, could have perished without an adequate moral cause. That cause he gives us, the deep corruption of life and manners in the Roman world. At the same time he truly remarks that this taint was not found in the genuine old Roman character, but was imported into it from  p521 Greece.20 Looking back through the mists of prehistoric time we can dimly discern the Aryan progenitors of the Greeks, the Romans, and the Goths cherishing certain religious beliefs and certain ideas of a strong and pure morality which guarded the sanctity of the home. The Teutons, when they descended upon the dying Empire, still preserved that precious Aryan inheritance intact. The Greeks had long since lost it or bartered it away for other gifts, the products of their delicious climate, their sensibility to artistic impressions, an analytical intellect and a capacity for boundless doubt. In later ages Rome, influenced by her Hellenic sister, had lost it too, and the corruption of her great cities showed in all its hideousness the degradation which might be achieved by a civilization without morality and without God.

One of her own poets had said, 'Abeunt studia in mores,'21 or as we might express it, 'Literature colours morality.' It is almost a truism to say that the maxi might be thus developed, 'Morals colour politics.' The character and actions of the individual must affect the character and actions of the community; the more or less of righteousness and purity in the citizen influences for good or evil the duration of the State. By fraud, by injustice, by power abused, by an utter want of sympathy  p522 between the classes of society, by a generally suffused 'recklessness of unclean living,' even more than by the blows of the barbarians, fell the commonwealth of Rome.

The Author's Notes:

1 He is erroneously called Bishop in the title-page of some editions. There appears to be no doubt that he died a simple Presbyter.

2 Gennadius.

3 'Sola nos morum nostrorum Vitia vicerunt' (end of book 7).

4 'Eadem, inquis, legunt illi, quae leguntur a nobis. Quomodo eadem, quae ab auctoribus quondam malis et male sunt interpolata et male tradita? ac per hoc jam non eadem, quia non possunt penitus Dici ipsa, quae sunt in aliqua parte vitiata. . . . Nos ergo tantum scripturas sacras plenas, inviolatas, integras habemus, qui eas vel in fonte suo bibimus vel certe de purissimo fonte haustas per ministerium purae translationis haurimus' (V.2).

5 'Gens Saxonum fera est, Francorum infidelis, Gepidarum inhumana, Chunorum impudica: omnium denique gentium barbararum vita vitiositas' (IV.14). This may be rather a concession for argument's sake to an opponent than Salvian's own deliberate judgment on the facts.

6 IV.15.

7 VII.15.

8 e.g. 'esse inter Gothos non licet scortatorem Gothum: soli inter eos Praejudicio nationis et nominis permittuntur impuri esse Romani' (VII.6).

9 This passage is taken from Book V, chaps. 7 and 8, freely rendered and combined with chap. 5.

10 V.8, 9.

11 IV.3.

12 'Quid aliud quorundam, quos taceo, praefectura quam praeda?' IV.4.

13 III.10.

14 Apparently the words of the Baptismal Service, 'Abrenuntio diabolo, pompis, spectaculis et operibus ejus,' were understood as containing a special reference to the shows of the amphitheatre (VI.6).

15 VI.15.

16 'Veni Carthaginem et circumstrepebat me undique sartago flagitiosorum amorum,' Confessions, III.1.

17 VII.16, 17.

18 VIII.4.

19 VII.20‑22.

20 'Romani, sed non antiqui, jam scilicet corrupti, jam dissoluti, jam sibi ac suis dispares et Graecis quam Romanis similiores,' VII.20.

21 Ovid, Heroides, Ep. XV.83.

Page updated: 4 Mar 12