A Fifth Century Tract for the Times
"Be ashamed, ye Roman people everywhere, be ashamed of the lives you lead! . . . It is neither the strength of their bodies that makes the barbarians conquer, nor the weakness of our nature that makes us subject to defeat. Let no one think or persuade himself otherwise -- it is our vicious lives alone that have conquered us." [1]

These are the words which Salvian would have made echo throughout the Roman world, had his human frailty permitted, the words which have earned him the title of the "Jeremiah of his times." The problem of the decline of the Roman power was not relegated to the historians at that time, but was the chief concern of all thinking men, and many solutions were proposed. Successive invasions and settlements of barbarian tribes had ended Rome's claim to rule the world, while at the same time the fiscal difficulties of the central administration had increased taxation beyond endurance. The world seemed to be dying of old age, and the Empire with it. The natural tendency to glorify the past was intensified by the poignant wretchedness of the present, and grave doubts arose in the minds even of faithful Christians. "The very people who, as pagans, conquered and ruled the world, are being conquered and enslaved now that they have become Christians. Is not this clear evidence of God's neglect of human affairs?" [2] The question did not of itself imply disbelief in God, but its implicit doubt of God's constant government and judgment of mankind endangered the foundations of the Christian faith. Salvian's answer was clear and uncompromising. "These words are harsh and austere," he wrote elsewhere, "but what are we to do? We may not change the nature of things, and the truth cannot be pronounced otherwise than as the very essence of truth demands. Men think my words harsh. I know that well enough. But what are we to do? Except by hardship we do not make our way into the Kingdom." [3]

The treatise On the Government of God, which is Salvian's best known work, is essentially an exposition of this thesis: that the decline of the Roman power actually demonstrated God's government and judgment of human actions, since the sins of the Romans were such as had always, since the fall of Adam, been visited with instant punishment. Consequently the first two books of Salvian's discussion are chiefly devoted to demonstrations of God's judgment by examples drawn from the authority of the Old Testament. The third book builds on this foundation a clear exposition of the Christian obligation of an upright life in God's service. On this basis Salvian then proceeded to contrast the disgraceful actions of the Christian Romans of his time with their duty toward God, and with the virtues of the victorious barbarians. Yet the latter, being either heretics or pagans, were under less obligation to a godly life than the orthodox Romans. To the author himself, and to his fellow clergy, the first three books may well have seemed the essential portion of the argument: to us the great interest of the work lies in the picture of the times given in the last five. For here we have detailed accounts of the effects of the burden of taxation on the poor, whom it ruined; on the rich, who managed to shift their burden to weaker shoulders; and on the curials, who were forced into tyranny by their responsibility to the agents of the central government for the sums due. In this case as in others, reference to the imperial decrees collected in the Codices proves the essential truth of Salvian's account. Sidonius Apollinaris has given us in his letters charming descriptions of the life of the wealthy nobles of southern Gaul: Salvian showed the other side of the picture when he described the means by which some of these same nobles had acquired their neighbors' land, and when he inveighed against the corruption of domestic life in their villas. He has shown clearly the development of serfdom under pressure of taxation and patronage, and the other alternatives from which the poor might choose -- flight to barbarian territory, or armed revolt against the Roman system. And he has described in graphic terms, in part as an eyewitness, the horrors that attended the capture and sack of wealthy Roman cities, even at the hands of barbarians whom he believed to be far less brutal and depraved than many Romans. He has pictured the triumphant progress of the Vandals, reckoned as the weakest of Rome's enemies, through the richest provinces of the West.

He showed, to be sure, only one side of life. The miseries of the time prompted the doubts that he undertook to resolve; with these alone he was directly concerned. He rarely admitted that there were exceptions to the prevailing corruption of his fellow Romans. It was hardly consistent with his thesis that he should do so, for his book was essentially a polemic. It is important, however, to note in this connection that his statements are very rarely in conflict with other contemporary evidence. Passages in the letters of Sidonius, in the sermons and letters of his friends at Lérins, and of other leaders of the church, as well as in the writings of pagans and in the laws of the empire, regularly corroborate his account of the times. And he, in turn, occasionally confirms their accounts of the beauty that still remained in life, by his glimpses of Provence, with its pleasant country life and rich harvests -- "the one corner where the Roman power still lives."


[1] Salvian De gubernatione Dei VII. 23.

[2] Ibid., VII. 1.

[3] Ad ecclesiam IV. 8.

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