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On the Alleged Immoralities of Avitus
The charges made by Gibbon (cap. XXXVI note 25), and repeated by his copyists, against the moral character of this Emperor, rest on no solid basis of evidence.
1. In the contemporary chroniclers there is no hint of anything of the kind.
2. Victor Tunnunensis, who, though not a contemporary (he died 569), seems to have had access to full and trustworthy sources of information, calls Avitus 'a man of entire simplicity' ('vir totius simplicitatis'). It is true that the MSS. waver here between Anitius and Avitus, but the latter is evidently intended. Again, he says that Ricimer, 'sparing the inoffensiveness of Avitus' ('cujus innocentiae parcens') allowed him to live after he had dethroned him. No doubt these expressions are meant to be somewhat contemptuous of the intellect of Avitus, but they would hardly be used of a man who was guilty of the wanton profligacy which Gibbon ascribes to him.
3. The very fact of his ordination as bishop, at that period of the Church, and under such a strict disciplinarian as Pope Leo I, is almost a guarantee for the correctness of his private life.
What then are the opposing testimonies?
4. Gregory of Tours (II.11) says — 'Avitus, one of the Senators, and, as is very manifest, a citizen of Auvergne, when he had schemed for the Imperial dignity of Rome, wishing to act luxuriously (luxuriosè agere volens) was cast forth by the Senate, and ordained Bishop at the city of Placentia. But finding that the Senate, still indignant, wished to deprive him of life he sought the Basilica of St. Julian, &c.'
Gregory (who died about 595) is in no sense a contemporary, and is not a first-rate authority for what happened in Italy at p394 this period, Gaul, under the Frankish kings in the sixth century, being the ground upon which he is really strong. In this particular instance it is almost certain that he has over-stated the share of the Roman Senate and under-estimated that of Ricimer in the deposition of Avitus. It is true that Gregory, as being himself a native of Auvergne, might have some special information as to the life of his countryman. But let his authority be taken for what it is worth; it establishes, at the worst, a charge of 'luxury' against Avitus.
5. An anonymous epitomiser of Gregory, said by some to be Fredegarius (who lived in the middle of the seventh century), but of whose name and date we really know nothing, tells a disagreeable story about the capture of Trier by the Franks, which was occasioned by the dishonour inflicted by the Emperor Avitus on the lovely wife of the Senator Lucius, a crime about which the Emperor was foolish enough to jest in the hearing of the outraged husband, who, in revenge, delivered up the city to the Franks (Dom Bouquet, 'Recueil des Historiens des Gaules,' II.395). But it is quite clear that this story, whatever its truth may be, relates to events which occurred more than forty years before Avitus' accession to the Empire, and that the insertion of his name is a mere slip on the part of the epitomiser. Paragraph VIa describes the usurpation of the Imperial title by Jovinus (about 411). Paragraph VII contains the above-mentioned story about the cause of the fall of Trier, and that event, as we know from Gregory (II.9), also occurred in or about the year 411. Paragraph VIII mentions a campaign of Castinus against the Franks (417). Paragraph IX gives the accession of Chlodeo, assigned to 428, and the reign of his son Meroveus. Then at last in Paragraph X we have a short notice (in the words of Gregory of Tours) of the real Avitus, his luxurious life, ordination as a bishop, and death.
It is plain therefore that Paragraph VII does not relate to Avitus the Emperor, and that his name has been substituted for that of some other Roman Emperor residing at Trier, probably Jovinus, by a clerical error of the epitomiser. Gibbon's attempt to transfer the story to Rome by the remark that 'it seems more applicable to Rome than to Trier' is quite inadmissible. The story is an account of the circumstances which led to the fall of Trier, or it is nothing.
p395 Muratori's criticism (Annali d'Italia, III.174) is here sounder than that of Gibbon or even of Tillemont.
Upon a review of the whole evidence it is contended that, except for a vague and feebly-supported charge of 'luxury,' the moral character of Avitus is without a stain.
[It is satisfactory to find so careful a writer as Holder-Egger entirely concurring in the view here taken: 'Avitus as Emperor can never have been in Trier, as Fredegarius represents him to have been. If a germ of historic truth, as is probable [?], lurks in this story, some confusion of persons, due to a similarity of names, must have caused it to assume its present shape. We must not follow Gibbon in considering this tale as historic fact.' Neues Archiv, II.274, n. 1.]
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