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II. The Life of Salvian

As we have seen, Salvian wrote “as one having authority.” That he had earned the right to speak is fully proved by the chief 6 contemporary reference to his life and work. Gennadius wrote of him, in his biographical dictionary of illustrious men:

Salvian, presbyter of Marseilles, learned in human and divine letters, and, if I may apply the title to him, master of bishops, wrote many books in a clear and scholarly style. Of these I have read the following: four books addressed to Marcellus the presbyter, On the Value of Virginity, and four Against Avarice; five books On the Present Judgment, and one book For the Satisfaction of These [Sins], addressed to Salonius the bishop; one book in exposition of the last part of Ecclesiastes, addressed to Claudius, bishop of Vienne; one book of letters; one book composed in verse as a Hexameron after the Greek fashion, from the beginning of Genesis to the creation of man; many homilies written for bishops; and on the sacraments, books whose number I do not recall. He still lives today in a goodly old age.44   Gennadius, Catalogus virorum illustrium, c.68; written about A.D. 490-495.

Salvian’s other names we do not know, due chiefly to the fact that fifth century etiquette forbade the use of more than one name in friendly correspondence,55   See Symmachus Ep. II. 35. but the title “master of bishops” which Gennadius bestowed on him has more than atoned for the loss. The modest office of presbyter at Marseilles would seem sufficient to refute the early editors’ claim of a bishop’s mitre for him, even, without the negative evidence of the omission of his name from the episcopal lists.66   These unfounded claims have a curious echo in the statement of a recent writer that Salvian was “priest and probably bishop.” Holland, “The Crash of Empire,” Dublin Review, CLXXVII (1925), 2. But the title “master of bishops,” magister episcoporum, is his by manifold right, and is inseparably connected with his personality in the minds of all who have studied his work. He lived and worked for some time at the very nursery of bishops, Lérins, where he was chosen to teach the two sons of Eucherius, both of whom were to become bishops later. At Marseilles he continued his teaching, composing many homilies for bishops, as Gennadius said. Although in his books To the Church against Avarice he spoke of himself as “least of the servants of God,” he spoke with 7the voice of authority, and his words were chiefly addressed to the great lords of the church.

Many have called him by another title, which in its present meaning we cannot claim for him, but which he rightfully enjoyed in its fifth century use. Sanctus to him, as to all other Christians, before it seemed necessary to determine fixed categories for the communion of saints, meant a devout Christian. The word was applied to him by contemporaries, and recurs so often in his books that it is small wonder that many of his editors have informally canonized him, others have become involved in learned arguments to deprive him of sainthood,77   See, for example, the notes of Baluze, Salviani opera (1742), p. 356. and one university, at least, continues the good tradition in his honor.88   He regularly appears as “Saint Salvianus” in the catalogue entries in the Harvard College Library. Without doubt, as Baluze concludes, after disproving his claims to canonization, “there are many saints in heaven who are not so held by us in our catalogues.”

Of his personal life we know little, though he contributes so much to our knowledge of the general circumstances of his time. Gennadius described him in the last decade of the fifth century as still living bona senectute. It is not possible for us to fix the exact date of his birth, but the wide experience and ripe wisdom shown in his treatise On the Government of God indicate at least that he had reached maturity some time before it was written. As this book was evidently composed between A.D. 439 and 450, it is natural to assume that he was born late in the fourth century or early in the fifth.99   See Zschimmer, Salvianus (Halle, 1875), p. 6. What we know of the events of his life belongs entirely to the period before the publication of his chief work. The forty years or more that followed must be filled in by the writing of some of those lost works of which Gennadius spoke, and the many activities of a priest and “master of bishops” in one of the chief centers of the Gallic church. Several years before Salvian settled in 8Marseilles, a poet beggared by the Gothic raids sought refuge there, and found “many saints my dear friends.”1010   Paulinus of Pella, Eucharisticos, 11.520-521. Such a haven from the storms that beset the rest of Gaul was sure to provide ample activity for its priests.

The place of Salvian’s birth has been much disputed. Some early editors assumed that he was born in Africa—an assumption not unnatural in view of his graphic description of the sins and the ruin of that province.1111   See Book VII. 12-13 and note 44, infra. His knowledge of Africa and his concern for it may be amply accounted for by its recent tragic history and also by the prominence of the African church. The Christian writers whose work chiefly influenced his were all connected with the African church except those whom he knew at Lérins and Marseilles. He may well have travelled in Africa. The account of the capture of Trèves in his sixth book, however, makes it clear that his native district was near the Rhine frontier. The claims of both Trèves and Cologne have been supported by various authorities. Whether he lived in one of these cities, or on an estate in the countryside near by, his familiarity with the whole district is unmistakable.

Trèves was the place of all others in the western world where he could best have studied the fatal magnificence of the higher Roman officials in the face of the barbarian attacks. The praetorian prefect of the Gallic and Spanish provinces kept his official residence there in such state as Constantius the emperor had scarcely equalled when he fixed his capital in that city a century earlier. There Salvian must have watched with growing anxiety the increasing power of the Franks. The author of the twelfth century Gesta Treverorum tells us that they had conceived a special hostility for this most splendid of Gallic cities from the time of their first contact with it. This district also afforded excellent opportunities to observe the increasing ravages of Goths, Vandals and Burgundians. The great amphitheater of Trèves was the scene of many of those public spectacles against which Salvian inveighed so bitterly, and 9when the Vandal Crocus captured the city in A.D. 406, the people were saved only by taking refuge within its strong walls.1212   Gesta Treverorum, ed. Waitz, MGH, Scriptores, VIII, 157. Years later, Salvian wrote from Marseilles to the monks at Lérins, commending to their kindly offices a young kinsman, a refugee from the captured city of Cologne. He wrote to the brothers that the boy was “of a family not obscure, of which I might say something more, were he not related to me.”1313   Ep. 1. 5. These words confirm the conclusions as to Salvian’s family and position that we should naturally draw from his writings. His parents were clearly of the Gallo-Roman aristocracy: Salvian knew intimately the way of life of a man of position and substance, however much he disapproved of it. His examples indicate a considerable knowledge of life on the great estates, the masters’ problems with slaves and tenants, the results of patronage, the various forms of cultivation employed, and at the same time a very real appreciation of the natural beauties of the country. For slaves and poor men, and all who suffered oppression, he had great sympathy. This, however, did not blind him to the probability that they would be as bad as their oppressors if the tables were turned. We do not need Gennadius’ statement to prove that he had the full rhetorical education of his time. Despite the arguments of some scholars to the contrary, his works seem to indicate that he had continued to read widely in “human and divine letters.” Greek he apparently did not read, and the works of philosophers he quoted only at second hand. He was fond of examples drawn from medical practice, but these are all of a sort with which any intelligent man would be familiar.

His knowledge of law was far more detailed, and his writings furnish a valuable commentary on the Roman Codices, which in their turn serve as a check on his statements. Rittershausen concluded that he had had regular legal training; certainly he had a legal mind, and legal phraseology recurs constantly in his 10discussions. But it seems equally probable, especially if his father held an imperial position, that his juristic knowledge merely represents the attainment of a Roman citizen concerned both in the complex management of a considerable estate and in affairs of government administration. That he belonged to an imperial official family is suggested by his attitude toward lesser officials. For the downtrodden poor his sympathy is great, but for clerks, soldiers and tax collectors, and for the curials who formed the miserable remnant of the local aristocracies, he seems to have felt only scorn and distaste. His aristocratic prejudices were tempered by Christian charity in other cases, but not in his attitude toward these men1414   See Book III. 10..

It seems probable that he himself was brought up in the orthodox faith; at least he shows little of that bitterness toward pagans and heretics that recent converts are wont to feel. For those who called themselves Christians but continued heathen practices, however, his antipathy was very strong. His wife, Palladia, had been brought up in paganism, but her parents, Hypatius and Quieta, seem to have made no objection to the marriage. Later, however, they were alienated by the decision of Salvian and Palladia to follow a course which was being adopted by many other Christian couples. Unable either to endure Roman society as they found it, or to reform it from within, they determined to give their property to the church, and live no longer as man and wife, but as brother and sister in Christian fellowship. Paulinus of Nola, the one contemporary to whose example Salvian clearly alludes,1515   See Book VII. 3 and note 6. is the best known of those who sought that peace in Christian poverty which Roman wealth had failed to give. The anger of Ausonius at his friend’s course reflects a situation that must have been many times repeated. In this case, however, it culminated in one of the most poignant expressions of friendship that man has ever written.1616   Paulinus of Nola Carmen XI. 11. 49-68, in CSEL, XXX. 2.


After an estrangement from their parents that lasted nearly seven years, Salvian, Palladia and the little daughter Auspiciola tried once more to effect a reconciliation. Their letter,1717   Ep. IV. which has fortunately been preserved, seems far too mannered and artificial to be convincing, but this formality was a set convention in the letter-writing of the time. Their pleas are sincere and loving, though yielding not one jot as to the essential rightness of their course. The immediate occasion of the letter seems to have been the news of the parents’ conversion to Christianity, which would seem indeed to work in favor of their case. Palladia followed her husband’s arguments by memories of the days when they had called her “little starling, little mistress, little mother, birdling:” she pleaded tenderly, too, for little Auspiciola, who deserved her grandparents’ love.

Of the issue of their suit we know nothing. They had withdrawn from the vicinity of Trèves, probably shortly after that destruction of the city which Salvian saw with his own eyes, and so graphically described.1818   Book VI. 13. About A.D. 418 the praetorian prefect of Gaul seems to have changed his seat from Trèves to Aries; perhaps Salvian’s was one of the Roman families that withdrew soon after, either for official or private reasons.1919   See Haemmerle, Studia Salviana I (Landshut, 1893), 7. We do not know whether it was before or after this move that their ascetic resolution was taken; in any case, they went soon to the islands of the Lérins, which offered monasteries, separate but not remote from each other, for families in such case as theirs. Nothing is known thereafter of Palladia and Auspiciola; Salvian’s life apparently lay apart from theirs.

Lérins was that “earthly paradise”2020   Vita S. Hilarii Arelatensis, 5 (Migne, PL, L, col. 1226). which furnished a haven for many religious of the day, and was so powerful a stimulant to their faith that from it went forth a seemingly endless stream of 12saintly men. Honoratus and Hilary, Caesarius and Virgilius went from Lérins to the archbishopric of Aries; Maximus and Faustus to the see of Riez; Lupus to Troyes. Eucherius came to Lérins with his wife Galla and his two sons. He himself left to become bishop of Lyons; his sons, Salonius and Veranus, were put under the successive tutelage of Honoratus, Hilary, Salvian. and Vincent,2121   Eucherius, in a letter to his son Salonius prefaced to his Instructiones de quaestionibus difficilioribus veteris ac novi testamenti (CSEL, XXXI. 1, pp. 65-66), recalling his sons’ teaching, wrote: “When you had scarcely reached the age of ten, you entered the monastery and were not only given training among that sacred brotherhood, but were reared up under our father Honoratus, first father of the islands and afterwards also master of the churches. There the teachings of the most blessed Hilarius, then a novice of the island, but now a most reverend bishop, formed you in all branches of spiritual study; a work completed by saints Salvian and Vincent, preëminent alike in eloquence and knowledge.” and became bishops of Geneva and Vence. Three bishops went from Lérins to Avignon, and many others might be named.2222   Cooper-Marsdin, The History of the Islands of the Lérins (Cambridge, 1913), p. 49.

Honoratus was abbot at Lérins in Salvian’s time and was called by Eucherius “master of bishops, doctor of the churches,” being thus the prototype of Salvian. Shortly after A.D. 429, Hilarius of Aries preached at Marseilles a sermon on the life of Honoratus, in which he quoted from the writings of “a man of not unmerited distinction, and most blessed in Christ, Salvian the presbyter, one of Honoratus’ dear associates.”2323   Hilarius, Sermo de vita S. Honorati Arelatensis (Migne, PL, L, col. 1260) : the passage which he quotes is not found in Salvian’s extant works. Thus he gives us not only a glimpse of the esteem in which Salvian was already held, but a terminus ante quem for his ordination. Just when Salvian moved to Marseilles we do not know, nor why. Certainly it was through no antagonism at Lérins, for his first letter, already mentioned, expresses the utmost affection for the brothers there. The initial paragraph, on the bitter-sweetness of love, which at times compels one to ask of beloved friends a favor that without love would be irksome, 13bears witness to the depth of his feeling for the monks. Its concluding words testify to his; high esteem for them: “Surely, if there is any good character in this young man, his hope and salvation will not prove to be of great difficulty to you; even if he receives no actual teaching, it is enough for him to be with you.”

The years at Lérins must have exerted great influence on the development of Salvian’s thought and style. The close fellowship between the monks of the island is constantly demonstrated by likenesses of ideas and phrasing in the writings of the many great men who there received their early training. Parts of the homilies of Caesarius of Aries, of Valerius and Hilarius bear striking resemblances to passages in Salvian’s work. Vincent’s Commonitorium has been appropriately included in many editions of Salvian, thus continuing their ancient fellowship. The book On the Government of God, as well as a lost work, was dedicated to Salonius, whom Salvian addressed in his ninth letter as “master and most blessed pupil, father, and son, pupil by instruction, son by affection, and father by rank and honor.”

The life of Caesarius of Aries throws some light on the statement that Salvian composed many homilies for bishops. We read of Caesarius that:

He composed also appropriate sermons for feast days and other occasions, and sermons against the evils of drunkenness and lust, against discord and hatred, against anger and pride, against sacrilegious men and soothsayers, against pagan rites, against augurs, the worshippers of woods and of springs, and against the vices of divers men. He so prepared these homilies that if any visitors asked, far from refusing to loan them, he offered them for copying at the slightest suggestion of a request, and himself corrected them. He sent copies by priests to men far distant in the Frankish land, in Gaul, Italy and Spain and divers provinces, to be preached in their churches, that, casting aside frivolous and transitory interests, they might, as the apostle preached, become followers of good works.2424   Cyprianus Vita S. Caesarii I. 5. 42 (Migne, PL, LXVII, col. 1021).


Gennadius’ emphasis on the homilies of Salvian suggests that their composition may have been one of the major preoccupations of his life in Marseilles, and a chief ground for his title of “master of bishops.” That many of his sermons took the form of invectives against the vices of his day may be assumed from the extant books Against Avarice and On the Government of God. Both of these, indeed, have the air of having been compiled from actual sermons. The congregation is clearly visualized, which may account for the frequent use of the second person, and of a vivid colloquial tone.

That his attacks on the weaknesses of his contemporaries caused him serious difficulties is indicated by his constant reiteration that his words are sure to give offence to many, but even so they must be said. Larinus Amatius said in his eulogy of Salvian: “For if wrath engenders hatred among all men, and begets it especially among the wicked, who was ever more hated for the truth than Salvian, since no one ever set forth more truths than he?”2525   Salviani opera (Venice, 1696), p. 3.

From the time of his removal to Marseilles, all that we know of Salvian’s life is summed up in Gennadius’ account. The few extant letters are chiefly of value for the glimpses they afford of his regard for the deference due to those of higher rank in the church, and their evidence of his continuing association with his former friends and pupils at Lérins. An example is his letter to Eucherius, thanking him for a copy of his Instructions on the More Difficult Questions of the Old and New Testament,2626   Ep. 8; cf. note 21, supra. which the bishop had written for his sons, now themselves “masters of churches.” Lacking any further evidence for the closing years of Salvian’s life than the goodly old age with which Gennadius credited him, we can only hope that he gained fulfilment of the wish with which his letter to Eucherius ended: “May God in his mercy grant me throughout the days of my life, or at least when they are ended, that those who have been my pupils may daily pray for me.”

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