Discover Fifth-century Religion and Literature

Preamble (you can scroll down to Content if you like)

Because I inevitably blog about Late Antiquity here (3rd century-ish to 6th or 7th century-ish history), I’ve been intermittently writing posts about Discovering Late Antiquity. So far, I’ve explained why you should discover this period, encouraged you to discover Roman history more generally, then talked about discovering the third century, as well as discovering fourth-century religion and literature and fourth-century politics.

What ought to have come next was something about fourth-century art and architecture, which has kind of happened, since what followed were musings and photographs of Late Antique things I saw in Rome, in these posts: Late Antique Rome? Where? followed by Late Antique Rome: Mausoleo di Santa Costanza then Roman Basilicas: Hunting Late Antiquity and The Baths of Diocletian: More from Late Antique Rome. I also wrote a review of a book on imperial/Late Antique Roman art, although it’s not in this post category.

Logical progression would urge me to contextualise the Roman posts with one about fourth-century art and architecture or to finish them off with my planned post about non-monumental things from Late Antique Rome. Instead, I would like to introduce to you the fifth century (if you’ve survived this preamble).

St Jerome, d. 420

Content of this piece

Given that I’ve just submitted a PhD dissertation about the manuscripts that contain letters of Pope Leo the Great (pope 440-461), it will come as no great shock that this is ‘my’ century of Roman history. It is also, therefore, where I am most aware of my shortcomings — shortcomings I hope to address over the years to come through an analysis of the surviving sources, of which we have many.

Why should you care about the fifth century? Well, in the first place, this is the century when Rome ‘fell’ (however, see Victor of Tunnuna on that). That’s kind of a big deal. It is also the century of the first enduring schisms within the Christian church, lasting to this day. It’s the century when King Arthur — if there was one — would probably have fought battles in Britain. It is the century of Augustine’s greatest writings and Jerome’s final writings. It is the century of St Patrick’s mission to Ireland. It is a very big century of change, in short. Such centuries are always worth knowing. In this post, I’ll just look at religion and literature.

Religion and Literature

The landscape of fifth-century religion, unlike that of the fourth, is entirely Christian. Very soon within the century, we have no more pagans. Their descendants have all converted to Christianity. They have not, however, given up on Classical culture. Evidence for this is found in the Christian literature of the century.


Sidonius Apollinaris. I like Sidonius; some people find him distasteful, a bit too ‘decadent’. However, his is the jewelled style of the age, and it is no fault if he writes like a fifth-century man. If you read his poetry, you will find the endurance not only of classical poetic forms but of classical, ‘pagan’ imagery in the works of the consul-turned-bishop. If you are acquainted with Latin letters in the tradition of Cicero or of Pliny, Sidonius will seem perfectly Roman to you.

The letters of his friend Ruricius of Limoges strike you in the same way. At the end of the century are the similarly classicising poems and letters of Ennodius.

Augustine of Hippo. I suppose one would expect Augustine with religion, not literature. Nonetheless, he belongs in both. In 397 he wrote the first three books of his On Christian Teaching, in 426 the fourth. This text introduces some major concepts of rhetoric as well as of theory of language. His City of God is one of the great Latin classics. His polished corpus of sermons is a body of rhetorical exegesis well worth a read.

St Jerome was also active at the start of the century — as with him Augustine, many fifth-century churchmen demonstrate a rootedness in classical education. It would be tedious to list them all.

Rutilius Namatianus, unlike these others, was a pagan aristocrat who wrote a great poem De Reditu Suo about his journey home to Gaul from Rome in 416. If you want to see a pagan’s response to the growing Christian culture around him, including its ascetic elements, read Rutilius.


Heresy. Whether you agree with the official church’s definition of who was or was not a heretic in the fifth century, there were certainly disputes about doctrine. Early in the century was Pelagianism, condemned 418-419; this was a western controversy that continued to simmer over the century, although the teaching defined as ‘Pelagian’ was rejected by those on either side.

In the East we see the rise of ‘Nestorianism‘, a belief I am not certain anyone actually held, although Nestorius sometimes sounds like he does. Nestorius, Bp of Constantinople, was ultimately condemned as a heretic in the Council of Ephesus, 431. Those who refused to condemn him founded the ‘Church of the East’ that extended from ancient Persia to modern China. Nestorius chief opponent was Cyril of Alexandria, one of the greatest theological minds of the age. In the late 440s, an extreme Cyrillian named Eutyches was condemned for heresy at a local synod in Constantinople. This led to the Second Council of Ephesus which reinstated him; Pope Leo the Great called a ‘latrocinium’, a lair of robbers. Leo lobbied for its reversal, which came in 451 after a change in the imperial regime in Constantinople.

The reversal of Second Ephesus happened at the Council of Chalcedon. Here, Cyril and Leo were proclaimed the foundations of orthodoxy, and Leo’s teaching that Christ exists in two natures (human and divine) was accepted as the official teaching of the imperial church. Conservative Cyrillians rejected Chalcedon; they are later called Monophysites, today often Miaphysites, and now include the Coptic Orthodox Church, Syrian Orthodox Church, Ethiopian Tawahedo Church, and Armenian Apostolic Church (these are the ‘Oriental Orthodox’ Churches). The followers of Chalcedon have as their descendants Roman Catholicism, most Protestants, and the Eastern Orthodox Churches.

Asceticism. The young ascetic/monastic movement that gained popularity with the Egyptian monks in the previous century continued to expand. This is the century of Sts Shenoute of the White Monastery, Euthymius, Simeon the Stylite, Daniel the Stylite, Savvas, Jacob of Serugh, and others in the East. In the West, we have John Cassian, the Jura Fathers, monks of Lérins such as Vincent of Lérins, as well as the final years of Paulinus of Nola and Sulpicius Severus.

Through the different crises of the fifth century, the ascetics and bishops provided their own versions of leadership and support to the Christian community. This is the age when we see the papacy gain greater authority and honour beyond Italy, as well as articulating a theology of papal primacy in the writings of Leo the Great. We also see more and more aristocrats becoming bishops, although first aristocratic pope was Felix III (pope 483-492). Alongside that, though, there are still ascetic bishops, such as Salvian of Marseille and Hilary of Arles. Thus, the trends of western Middle Ages are starting to become visible over the course of this century.

In the East, we see Constantinople rise to greater and greater prominence in ecclesiastical politics, much to the chagrin of Alexandria and Antioch. We also see ascetics acting with what people call parrhesia before emperors — an openness and frankness that the average citizen would not have the freedom to use. Trends are thus emerging here that will later be called Byzantine or Orthodox.

The fifth century — it’s well worth exploring. I hope you have the time to try.

2 thoughts on “Discover Fifth-century Religion and Literature

  1. Pingback: Discover fifth-century politics I: The West to Honorius’ death (423) | The Wordhoard

  2. Pingback: Discover Late Antiquity: Fifth-century Politics in the Eastern Empire | The Wordhoard

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