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Latin Literature in Early Christianity

Latin Literature in Early Christianity

The Latin language was not at first the literary and official organ of the Christian Church in the West. The Gospel was announced by preachers whose language was Greek, and these continued to use Greek, if not in their discourses, at least in their most important acts. Irenaeus, at Lyons, preached in Latin, or perhaps in the Celtic vernacular, but he refuted heresies in Greek. The Letter of the Church of Lyons concerning its martyrs is written in Greek; so at Rome, a century earlier, is that of Clement to the Corinthians. In both cases the language of those to whom the letters were addressed may have been designedly chosen; nevertheless, a document that may be called a domestic product of the Roman Church, the "Shepherd" of Hermas, was written in Greek. At Rome in the middle of the second century, Justin, a Palestinian philosopher, opened his school, and suffered martyrdom; Tatian wrote his "Apologia" in Greek at Rome in the third century; Hippolytus compiled his numerous works in Greek. And Greek is not only the language of books, but also of the Roman Christian inscriptions, the greater number of which, down to the third century were written in Greek. The most ancient Latin document emanating from the Roman Church is the correspondence of its clergy with Carthage during the vacancy of the Apostolic See following on the death of Pope Fabian (20 January, 250). One of the letters is the work of Novatian, the first Christian writer to use the Latin language at Rome. But even at this epoch, Greek is still the official language: the original epitaphs of the popes are still composed in Greek. We have those of Anterus, of Fabian, of Lucius, of Gaius, and the series brings us down to 296. That of Cornelius, which is in Latin, seems to be later than the third century. In Africa Latin was always the literary language of Christianity, although Punic was still used for preaching in the time of St. Augustine, and some even preached in the Berber language. These latter, however, had no literature; cultivated persons, as well as the cosmopolitan population of the seaports used Greek. The oldest Christian document of Africa, the Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs, was translated into Greek, as were some of the works of Tertullian, perhaps by the author himself, and certainly with the object of securing for them a wider diffusion. The Acts of Sts. Perpetua and Felicitas, originally written in Latin, were translated into Greek. In Spain all the known documents are written in Latin, but they appear very late. The Acts of St. Fructuosus, a martyr under Valerian, are attributed by some critics to the third century. The first Latin Christian document to which a quite certain date can be assigned is a collection of the canons of the Council of Elvira, about 300.

Side by side with literary works, the Church produced writings necessary to her life. In this category must be placed the most ancient Christian documents written in Latin, the translations of the Bible made either in Africa or in Italy. Beginning with the second century, Latin translations of technical works written in Greek became numerous treatises on medicine, botany, mathematics, etc. These translations served a practical purpose, and were made by professionals; consequently they had no literary merit and aimed at an almost servile exactitude resulting in the retention of many peculiarities of the original. Hellenisms, a very questionable feature in the literary works of preceding centuries, were frequent in these translations. The early Latin versions of the Bible had the characteristics common to all texts of this group; Hellenisms abounded in them and even Semitisms filtered in through the Greek. In the fourth century, when St. Jerome made his new Latin version of the Scriptures, the partisans of the older versions to justify their opposition praised loudly the harsh fidelity of these inelegant translations (Augustine, "De doct. christ.", II, xv, in P. L., XXXIV 46). These versions no doubt exercised great influence upon the imagination and the style of Christian writers, but it was an influence rather of invention and inspiration than of expression. The incorrectness and barbarism of the Fathers have been much exaggerated: profounder knowledge of the Latin language and its history has shown that they used the language of their time, and that in this respect there is no difference worth mentioning between them and their pagan contemporaries. No doubt some of them were men of defective education, writers of incorrect prose and popular verse, but there have been such in every age; the author of the "Bellum Hispaniae", the historian Justinus, Vitruvius, are profane authors who cared little for purity or elegance of style. Tertullian, the Christian author most frequently accused of barbarism, for his time, is by no means incorrect. He possesses strong creative power, and his freedom is mostly in the matter of vocabulary; he either invents new words or uses old ones in very novel ways. His style is bold; his imagination and his passion light it up with figures at times incoherent and in bad taste; but his syntax contains, it may be said almost no innovations. He multiplies constructions as yet rare and adds new constructions, but he always respects the genius of the language. His work contains no Semitisms, and the Hellenisms which his critics have pointed out in it are neither frequent nor without warrant in the usage of his day. This, of course, does not apply to his express or implicit citations from the Bible. At the other extreme, chronologically, of Latin Christian literary development, a pope like Gelasius gives evidence of considerable classical culture; his language is novel chiefly in its choice of words, but many of these neoterisms were in his time no longer new and had their origin in the technical usage of the Church and the Roman law.

In the historical development of Christian Latin literature three periods may be distinguished:

  • that of the Apologists, lasting until the fourth century,
  • that of the Fathers of the Church (the fourth century); and
  • the Gallo-Roman period.

The first period is characterized by its dominant tone of apology, or defence of the Christian religion. In fact, most of the earliest Christian writers wrote apologies, e.g. Minucius Felix, Tertullian, Arnobius, Lactantius. In face of paganism and the Roman State they plead the cause of Christianity, and they do it each according to his character, and each with his own line of arguments.

  • Minucius Felix represents, in a way, the transition from the traditional philosopher of the cultured classes to the popular preaching of Christianity and in this approaches closely to some of the Greek apologists converts from philosophy to Christianity, e.g. Justin, seeking at the same time to harmonize their inherited mental culture with their faith. Even the dialogue form they use is meant to retain the reader in that philosophic world with which Plato and Cicero had familiarized him.
  • Tertullian, perhaps identical with the jurisconsult mentioned in the "Digest" of Justinian lifts out boldest arguments of a legal order and examines the juridical bases of the persecution.
  • Arnobius, rhetorician and philosopher, is first and foremost a product of the school; he exhibits the resources of amplification and displays the erudition of a scholiast.
  • Lactantius is a philosopher, only more profoundly penetrated by Christianity than were the earlier apologists. He is also very particular about the maintenance of social order, good government, and the State. His writings are well adapted to a society that has recently been shaken by a long period of anarchy and is in process of reconstruction.

In this way the early Christian Latin literature presents all the varieties of apology. There are here mentioned only those apologies which formally present themselves as such, to them should be added some of St. Cyprian's works -- the treatise on idols, and "Ad Donatum", the letter to Demetrianus, works which attack special weaknesses of polytheism, the vices of pagan society, or discuss the calamities of Rome.

These writers do not confine their activity to controversy with the pagans. The extent and variety of the works of Tertullian and St. Cyprian are well known. At Rome, Novatian touches, in his treatises, on questions which more particularly interest the faithful, their religious life or their beliefs. Victorinus of Pettau, in the mountains of Styria, introduced biblical exegesis into Latin literature, and began that series of commentaries on the Apocalypse which so influenced the imagination, and echoed so powerfully among the artists and writers, of the Middle Ages. The same visions were embodied in the verses of Commodianus, the first Christian poet, but in a second work he took his place among the apologists and combatted paganism. In their other works St. Cyprian and Tertullian kept always in view the apologetic interest; indeed, this is the most noteworthy trait of the early Christian Latin literature. We may call attention here to another characteristic: many Latin writers of this time, Minucius Felix, Tertullian, Cyprian, Arnobius, perhaps Commodianus, were Africans, for which peculiarity two causes may be assigned. On the one hand, Gaul and Italy had long employed the Greek Language, while Spain was backward, and Christianity developed there but feebly at this period. On the other hand, Africa had become a centre of profane literature; Apuleius, the greatest profane writer of the age, was an African; Carthage possessed a celebrated school which is called in one inscription by the same name, studium, which was afterwards applied to the medieval universities. There is no doubt the second was the more potent cause.

The second period of Christian literature covers broadly speaking, the fourth century -- i.e. from the Edict of Milan (313) to the death of St. Jerome (420). It was then that the great writers of the Church flourished, those known permanently as "the Fathers", both West and East. Though the term patristic belongs to the whole period here under consideration, as contrasted with the term scholastic applied to the Middle Ages, it may nevertheless be restricted to the period we are now describing. Literary productiveness was no longer the almost exclusive privilege of one country; it was spread throughout all the Roman West. Notwithstanding this diffusion, all the Latin writers are closely related; there are no national schools, the writers and their works are all caught up in the general current of church history. There is truly a Christian West, all parts of which possess nearly the same importance, and are closely united in spite of differences of climate and temperament. And this West is beginning to stand off from the Greek East, which tends to follow its own particular path. The causes of Western cohesion were various but it was principally rooted in community of interests and the similarity of questions arising immediately after the peace of the Church. At the beginning of the fourth century Christological problems agitated the Church. The West came to the aid of the orthodox communities of the East, but knew little of Arianism until the Teutonic invasions. When the conflict concerning the use of the basilicas at Milan arose, the Arians do not appear as the people of Milan: they are Goths (Ambrose Ep. xii. 12, in P. L., XVI., 997). In the fourth century the great personages of the West are champions of the faith of Nicaea: Hilary of Poitiers, Lucifer of Cagliari, Phoebadius of Agen, Ambrose, Augustine. Nevertheless the West has errors of its own:

  • Novatianism, a legacy from the preceding age;
  • Donatism in Africa;
  • Manichaeism, which came from the East, but developed chiefly in Africa and Gaul;
  • Priscillianism. akin to Manichaeism, and the firstfruits of Spanish mysticism.

Manichaeism has a complex character, and, in truth, appears to be a distinct religion. All other errors of the West have a bearing on discipline or morals, on practical life and do not arise from intellectual speculation. Even in the Manichaean controversy moral questions occupy a large place. Moreover, the characteristic and most important heresy of the Latin countries bears upon a problem of Christian psychology and life the reconciliation of human liberty with the action of Divine grace. This problem, raised by Pelagius, was solved by Augustine. Another characteristic of this period is the universality of the gifts and the activity displayed by its greatest writers: Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine are in turn moralists, historians, and orators; Ambrose and Augustine are poets; Augustine is the universal genius, not only of his own time but of the Latin Church -- one of the greatest men of antiquity, to whom Harnack, without exaggeration, has found none comparable in ancient history except Plato. In him Christianity reached one of the highest peaks of human thought.

This second period may be again subdivided into three generations.

  • First, the reign of Constantine after the peace of the Church (313-37), when Juvencus composed the Gospel History (Historia Evangelica) in verse; from the preceding period he had inherited the influence of Hosius of Cordova.
  • Second, the time between the death of Constantine and the accession of Theodosius (337-79). In this generation apologetic assumes an aggressive tone with Firmicus Maternus and appeals to the secular arm against paganism; Christianity, by many held responsible for the gathering misfortunes of the empire, is defended by Augustine in "The City of God"; Ambrose and Prudentius protest against the retention of paganism in official ceremonies; great bishops like Hilary of Poitiers, Zeno of Verona, Optatus of Mileve, Lucifer of Cagliari, Eusebius of Vercelli, take part in the controversies of the day; Marius Victorinus combines the erudition of a philologian with the subtlety of a theologian.
  • The third generation was that of St. Jerome, under Theodosius and his son (380-420), a generation rich in intellect -- Ambrose, Prudentius, Sulpicius Severus, Rufinus, Jerome, Paulinus of Nola, Augustine, the secondary poets Proba, Damasus, Cyprian; the Spanish theologians Pacianus and Gregory of Elvira; Philastrius of Brescia and Phoebadius of Agen. The long-lived Augustine overlapped this period, at the same time by the sheer force of genius he is both the last great thinker of antiquity in the West and the great thinker of the Middle Ages.

Early Christian literature in the West may be regarded as ending with the accession of Theodoric (408). Thenceforth until the Carlovingian renascence there arises in the various barbarian kingdoms a literature which has for its chief object- the education of the new-comers and the transmission of some of the ancient culture into their new civilization. This brings us to the last of our three periods? which may conveniently be called the Gallo-Roman, and comprises about two generations, from 420 to 493. It is dominated by one school, that of Lérins, but already the splintering of the old social and political unity is at hand in the new barbarian nationalities rooted on provincial soil. In Augustine's old age, and after his death, a few disciples and partisans of his teachings remain: Orosius, a Spaniard; Prosper of Aquitaine, a Gallo-Roman; Marius Mercator, an African. Later Victor Vitensis tells the story of the Vandal persecution, in him Roman Africa, overrun by barbarians furnishes almost the only writer of the second half of the century. To the list of African authors must be added the names of two bishops of Mauretania mentioned by Gennadius--Victor and Voconius. In Gaul a pleiad of writers and theologians develops at Lérins or within the radius of that monastery's influence -- Cassian, Honoratus, Eucherius of Lyons, Vincent of Lérins, Hilary of Arles, Valerian of Cemelium, Salvianus, Faustus of Riez, Gennadius. Here we might mention Arnobius the Younger, and the author of the "Praedestinatus". No literary movement in the West, before Charlemagne, was so important or so prolonged. Gaul was then truly the scene of manifold intellectual activity; in addition to the writers of Lérins. that country reckons one polygrapher, Sidonius Apollinaris, one philosopher, Claudian Mamertus, several poets, Claudius Marius Victor, Prosper, Orientius. Paulinus of Pella, Paulinus of Périgueux, perhaps also Caelius Sedulius. Against this array Italy can offer only two preachers, St. Peter Chrysologus and Maximus of Turin, and one great pope, Leo I, still greater by his deeds than by his writings, whose name recalls a new influence of the Church of Rome on the intellectual movement of the time, but a juridical rather than a literary influence. Early in the fifth century Innocent I appears to have been occupied with a first compilation of the canon law. He and his successors intervene in ecclesiastical affairs with letters, some of which have the size and scope of veritable treatises. Spain is still poorer than Italy, even counting Orosius (already mentioned among the disciples of Augustine) and the chronicler Hydatius. The island peoples, which in the preceding period had produced the heresiarch Pelagius, deserve mention at this date also for the works attributed to St. Patrick.

A first general characteristic of Christian literature, common to both East and West, is the space it devotes to bibliographical questions, and the importance they assume. This fact is explained by the very origins of Christianity: it is a religion not of one book but of a collection of books, the date, source, authenticity, and canonicity of which are matters which it is important to determine. In Eusebius's "History of the Church" it is obvious with what care he pursues the inquiry as to the books of Scripture cited and recognized by his Christian predecessors. In this way there grows up a habit of classifying documents and references, and of describing in prefaces the nature of the several books. The Bible is not the only object of these minute studies; every important and complex work attracts the attention of editors. Let it suffice to recall the formation of the collection of St. Cyprian's letters and treatises, a more or less official catalogue of which, the "Cheltenham Catalogue ", was drawn up in 359, after a lengthy elaboration, the successive stages of which are still traceable in several manuscripts. Questions of authenticity play a large part in the dissensions of St. Jerome and Rufinus. Apocryphal writings, fabricated in the interest of heresy, engendered controversies between the Church and the heretical sects. Another illustration of the same literary interest is to be found in the inquiry, instituted at the end of the fourth century as to the Canons of Sardica, called Canons of Nicaea. The "Retractationes" of St. Augustine is a work unique in the history of ancient bibliography, not to speak of its psychological interest, a peculiar quality of all Christian literature in the West.

In part, therefore, Christian Latin literature naturally assumes a character of immediate utility. Catalogues are drawn up, lists of bishops, lists of martyrs (Depositiones episcoporum et martyrum), catalogues of cemeteries, later on church inventories, "Provinciales", or lists of dioceses according to countries. Besides these archive documents, in which we recognise an imitation of Roman bureaucratic customs, certain literary genres bear the same stamp. The accounts of pilgrimages have as much of the guide-book as of the narrative in them. History had already been reduced to a number of stereotyped scenes by the profane masters, and had been incorporated, at Alexandria, in that elementary literature which condensed all knowledge into a minimum of dry formula. The "Chronicle" of St. Jerome, really only a continuation of that of Eusebius, is in turn continued by a series of special writers, and even a Sulpicius Severus betrays the influence of the new form of chronicle. While in these departments of literature the West but imitates the East, it follows at the same time its own practical tendencies. Indeed, the Latin writers make no pretence to originality, they take their materials from their Eastern brethren. Five of them, Hilary, Jerome Ruffinus, Cassian and Marius Mercator, have been described as hellenizing Westerns. St. Ambrose is generally considered an authentic representative of the Latin mind, and this is true of the bent of his genius and of his exercise of authority as the head of a Church; but no one, perhaps, translated more frequently from the Greek writers, or did it with more spirit or more care. It is an acknowledged fact that his exegesis is taken from St. Basil's "Hexaemeron" and from a series of treatises on Genesis by Philo. The same holds good in respect to his dogmatic or mystical treatises: the "De mysteriis", written in his last years, before 397, is largely taken from Cyril of Jerusalem and a treatise of Didymus of Alexandria published a little before 381, while the "De Spiritu Sancto", written before Easter, 381, is a compilation from Athanasius, Basil, Didymus, and Epiphanius, from a recension of the "Catechesis" of Cyril made after 360, and from some theological discourses which had been delivered by Gregory of Nazianzus less than a twelvemonth previously (380). St. Augustine is less erudite; his learning, if not his philosophy, is more Latin than Greek. But it is the strength of his genius which makes him the most original of the Latin Fathers.

One influence, however, no Christian writer in the West escaped, that of the literary school and the literary tradition From the beginning similarities of style with Fronto and Apuleius appear numerous and distinctly perceptible in Minucius Felix, Tertullian and Zeno of Verona; owing, perhaps, to the fact that all writers, sacred and profane, adopted then the same fashions, particularly imitation of the old Latin writers. To its traditional character also, early Christian Latin literature owes two characteristics more peculiarly its own: it is oratorical, and it is moral. From remote antiquity there had existed a moral literature, more exactly a preaching, which brought certain truths within the reach of the masses, and by the character of its audience was compelled to employ certain modes of expression. On this common ground the Cynic and the Stoic philosophies had met since the third century before Christ. From the still extant remains of Teles and Bion of Borysthenes we can form some idea of this style of preaching. From this source the satire of Horace borrows some of its themes. This Cynico-Stoic morality finds expression also in the Greek of Musonius, Epictetus, and some of Plutarch's treatises, likewise in the Latin of Seneca's letters and opuscula. Its decidedly oratorical character it owes to the fact that with the beginning of the Christian era rhetoric became the sole form of literary culture and of teaching. This tradition was perpetuated by the Fathers. It furnished them the forms most needed for their work of instruction: the letter, developed into a brief treati se or reasoned exposition of opinion in the correspondence of Seneca with Lucilius; the treatise in the shape of a discourse or as Seneca again calls it a dialogus; lastly, the sermon itself, in all its varieties of conference, funeral oration, and homily. Indeed, homily (homilia) is a technical term of the Cynic and Stoic moralists. And the aforesaid literary tradition not only dominates the method of exposition, but also furnished some of the themes developed, commonplaces of popular morality modified and adapted, but still recognizable. Without repudiating this indebtedness of Christian literature to pagan literary form, one cannot help seeing in it a double character, oratorical and moral, the peculiar stamp of Roman genius. This explains the constant tone of exhortation which makes most works of ecclesiastical writers so monotonous and tiresome. Exegesis borrows from Greek and Jewish literature the system of allegory, but it lends to these parables a moralizing and edifying turn. Hagiography finds its models in biographies like those of Plutarch, but always accentuates their panegyrical and moral tone. Some compensation is to be found in the autobiographical writings, the personal letters, memoirs, and confessions. In the "Confessions" of St. Augustine we have a work the value of which is unique in the literature of all time.

Although its oratorical methods are chosen with an eye to the character of its public, there is nothing popular in the form of Christian Latin literature, nothing even corresponding to the freedom of the primitive translations of the Bible. In prose, the work of Lucifer of Cagliari stands almost alone, and reveals the aforesaid rhetorical influence almost as much as it does the writer's incorrectness. The Christian poets might have wandered somewhat more freely from the beaten path; nevertheless, they were content to imitate classical poetry in an age when prosody owing to the changes in pronunciation, had ceased to be a living thing. Juvencus was more typical than Prudentius. The verses of the Christian poets are as artificial as those of good scholars in our own time. Commodianus, out of sheer ignorance, supplies the defects of prosody with the tonic accent. Indeed, a new type of rhythm, based on accent, was about to develop from the new pronunciation; St. Augustine gives an example of it in his "psalmus abecedarius." It may therefore be said that from the point of view of literary history the work of the Latin Christian writers is little more than a survival and a prolongation of the early profane literature of Rome. It counts among its celebrities some gifted writers and one of the noblest geniuses that humanity has produced, St. Augustine.


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