Tag Archives: sidonius apollinaris

The small consolations of ancient “consolatio”

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A friend recently passed away from as-yet unknown (to me) medical causes. He was 37, going on 38. Lots of thoughts and responses have been going through my mind and heart, of course. At the same time, professionally, I am starting to work on a book chapter about ancient letters and the science of historical study, so various thoughts about ancient letters have been emerging.

These two facets of my reality meet in the ancient letter of consolation, unsurprisingly simply called consolatio in Latin. These letters and the philosophical themes they bring up dance on the periphery of my existence. I feel that they are a good reminder of two things:

  1. Ancient people are different from us.
  2. There’s very little anyone can say to console you in the midst of the loss of a loved one.

Typically, the author of one of these expresses his own grief at the death in question. Then, if the dead person was known to the writer, he expresses his admiration for a life well-lived. At some point, there is some consolation in the fact that we all die, and a reminder that the person in question has been removed from the toils of this mortal life — whether of illness or that person’s particular misfortune or political circumstances.

I cannot, for the moment, find the specific letter from Cicero, but in one of his Ad Familiares (given by D R Shackleton Bailey in English as “To his friends”), Cicero consoles someone on the loss of a son by saying that at least the poor boy didn’t have to live through the evident troubles awaiting the Roman Republic.

Seems cold comfort to me.

Pliny writes a letter (1.12) lamenting the death of a friend who had committed suicide at age 67, asking for some consolation better than the fact that Corellius had lived a good life, was old, and had been ill with gout in his feet since age 32.

In the 400s, Sidonius Apollinaris writes consolatio to the effect that one should not weep for someone whose great and good name lives on after him (Ep. 4.11.6). He also strikes a Christian tone that good deeds buy heavenly reward. This is the new addition, found in Gregory the Great (Ep. 1.11) and Ruricius of Limoges (Ep. 2.3).

One of the new tones besides the hope of heaven is finding comfort in Christ, expressed by Gregory in Ep. 1.11 and Ruricius in 2.3 and 2.39. Ruricius also points out that bodily death is not a true cause of grief but, rather, spiritual death (2.46).

When I first had news of my friend’s death, my position was far more Plinian than anything. What does it matter that he does not have to live through whatever fresh hell COVID-19, racial unrest, and a tanking economy have to offer? What does it matter that he lived a good life and will be fondly remembered by his family, friends, and colleagues? He is gone, never to return.

As time passes, though, and especially as I see some of the strength of his sister’s posts on Facebook, there is comfort in Sidonius, Gregory, and Ruricius, that Andrew lived a good life, that he had fled to Christ for his trust in the resurrection.

Knowing that Andrew will be with us at the resurrection day, St Ambrose’s funeral speech on his brother Satyrus now comes to me, infusing the themes of consolatio with abundant Christian theology and the great solace that comes of knowing what awaits him. Change a few details, and this can apply as well:

He had no need of being raised again for time, for whom the raising again for eternity is waiting. For why should he fall back into this wretched and miserable state of corruption, and return to this mournful life, for whose rescue from such imminent evils and threatening dangers we ought rather to rejoice? For if no one mourns for Enoch, who was translated when the world was at peace and wars were not raging, but the people rather congratulated him, as Scripture says concerning him: “He was taken away, lest that wickedness should alter his understanding,” with how much greater justice must this now be said, when to the dangers of the world is added the uncertainty of life. He was taken away that he might not fall into the hands of the barbarians; he was taken away that he might not see the ruin of the whole earth, the end of the world, the burial of his relatives, the death of fellow-citizens; lest, lastly, which is more bitter than any death, he should see the pollution of the holy virgins and widows. (On the Death of Satyrus, ch. 30)

‘Julius Caesar was not Emperor.’ – Or was he?

'Green Caesar', ca. AD 1-50, in Altes Museum, Berlin (my photo)

‘Green Caesar’, ca. AD 1-50, in Altes Museum, Berlin (my photo)

In Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, 1.18, the late sixth-century (AD, obvs) Bishop of Tours writes:

After these Julius Caesar was the first Emperor to gain jurisdiction over the whole Empire. (Trans. Lewis Thorpe for Penguin)

Thorpe’s footnote to this sentence is:

Julius Caesar was not Emperor. (p. 80, n. 63)

This little fact is one that we students and scholars of Roman history like to tote out and display to our friends and family, demonstrating our superior knowledge of the Roman world through it. What we mean is that Julius Caesar was not the first person to establish an official position within the structures of the Roman state that gave him some degree of lifelong autocratic power and ushering in an age of monarchical rule. Not that he didn’t try — hence the Ides of March.

The establishment of the Principate, and therefore the ‘Empire’ by Octavian ‘Augustus’ is one of the big watershed moments in Roman history. It is the dividing point between what we call ‘Republic’ and ‘Empire’. It’s a big deal, and worth talking about and considering a big deal — whether you count it from 31 BC at the Battle of Actium when Octavian gains sole power over the Roman Empire or from 27 when he is officially invested with the title of Augustus which emperors would use down to Konstantinos Palaiologos XI in 1453.

So, while I would say that we are in a particular sense correct in seeing Augustus as the first of something new, it need not follow that Gregory is wrong in seeing Augustus’ great-uncle Julius as the first as well.

What Gregory actually says is that Julius Caesar was the first imperator who obtained the monarchia of the entire imperium. I suppose, when we consider the various dictators and others who attempted the gain sole power of the Roman imperium in the Late Republic, it could be argued that Julius Caesar was not the first of one thing but the last of another.

But that may just be splitting hairs so much that we go nowhere.

So.

Imperator is the term given by the Romans to a general who holds an official capacity of command in a given area or situation. Power of command in Latin is imperium. From these words come emperor and empire. Of the different imperatores, Julius Caesar, after the defeat of Pompey in civil war, established himself as the holder of sole rule (mon-archia — this word is Greek) in the lands where the Roman state held power of command (the imperium, the empire). Given that his assassination did not stop the consolidation of power in the hands of a couple of individuals — Mark Antony and Octavian — who were considered his heirs and then one individual — Octavian/Augustus — it could be argued that Julius Caesar, with his dramatic military and political activities, was the man who established the scenario in which one man could/would emerge as princeps (leading man — the term used of early emperors), as sole imperator. Had he not been assassinated, he may have lived long enough to become dictator for life and establish a constitutional way of being princeps as Octavian/Augustus did.

But he died before such could transpire, so we tend to consider Augustus the first Roman Emperor.

Now, these historical and constitutional arguments for Julius Caesar as first emperor are all well and good, if I remember everything correctly (which I may not). But there’s another reason by Gregory of Tours may have been correct in his assessment:

Everyone else seems to have thought so as well.

This November, I was at a conference about the fifth-century (AD) poet, letter-writer, and Bishop of Clermont-Ferrand, Sidonius Apollinaris. In the poem analysed by Aaron Pelttari’s paper, Sidonius refers to Ovid as having been exiled by the second emperor (I forget the exact wording and which poem this was — apologies!). Timothy Barnes reminded the room in question time that back in the ancient world, everyone considered Julius Caesar the first emperor, not his great-nephew Augustus.

I believe Tim Barnes, even if I cannot marshal the evidence here. But it is an interesting fact that the idea of Julius as the first emperor is not some mediaeval misreading of the evidence or a fabrication of Astérix. The ways we examine and delineate history, the demarcations we make with our own ‘scientific’ way of examining the past, are not necessarily those of the men and women who lived through it and handed on the record of the past to later generations.

While I think there are hard and fast truths in history, humility should keep us from thinking that our way of seeing the past is the only one and that we have all said truths bundled up in our hands.