Theoderic II and Euric were kings of the Visigoths in Toulouse in the second half of the 5thcentury. From the letters of Sidonius Appolinaris we possess precious biographical glimpses of these Goths and their counterpoise, Vectius
Sidonius Appollinaris (ca. AD 430-485) was the scion of a politically significant Gallo-Roman aristocratic lineage. As such, he received a traditional Roman education in the 440s. Some time around AD 450, he married Papianilla, the daughter of another wealthy aristocratic family. At the same time, he entered Roman politics as an envoy to the Visigothic court in Toulouse.
At the same time, upheavals in Rome led to a series of murders of Roman Emperors, and in 455, in Gaul, Avitus, the father-in-law of Sidonius was proclaimed emperor, whereupon he marched to Rome accompanied by a Visigothic army. During these events, Sidonius went to Rome to support Avitus (writing a panegyric). Unfortunately, Avitus was dispossessed and probably killed by the grey eminence, the Sueve, Ricimer (AD 405-472), who de facto ruled Rome as emperor in the next decades. Later, in AD 459, we find Sidonius back in Gaul, where he delivered yet another panegyric to the Roman emperor, Majorian; and again in Rome in AD 468, when a third Roman emperor (the father-in-law of Ricimer) won his official praise.
At this point, Sidonius ran into some serious trouble. As Roman prefect, he was obliged to preside over a case against one of his friends in Rome, who was condemned to death. Somehow, Sidonius managed to extricate himself from these events, but at his return to Gaul, he had to seek refuge inside Clermont, at a time when the countryside was ravaged by the Visigothic attempts to expand the kingdom into all of Southern France between the Rhone and the Atlantic. According to Sidonius’ writings, the new Visigothic king, Euric – Theoderic II’s brother and murderer – was spreading terror. At this point, we find Sidonius was called to be bishop at Clermont. However, in AD 475 Sidonius was arrested and imprisoned in the Pyrenees, and his landed estates near Clermont expropriated. He probably never regained his properties or villas, but was at some point released to return to his bishopric in Clermont, where he died.
We know of Sidonius, because he left a widely acclaimed edition of a collection of his letters, all carefully selected to present his political and aesthetical views on the life and times of his contemporaries and himself. To his hand we owe some of the most evocative portraits from the 5thcentury of people, places, and politics. Of these, his descriptions of the two Visigothic kings, Theoderic II and Euric, have been endlessly mined for their information of these barbarians. The question, of course, being, how “barbaric” were they? And in what way?
To be precise, the answer to these questions eludes us. Sidonius was a learned man of letters, well-versed in the Roman manner of letting words twist the reality to his liking and his political intents, The Cicero of Late Antiquity, we might call him as he unpacks the ethos and values of the senatorial class, to which he belonged. Also, his letters ooze of allusions to a vast classical library of myths and literature, of which he delights in demonstrating his grasp. It has been claimed that to read Sidonius, one has to be just as steeped in the classics, as he was. One has to read his oeuvre in its historical intercontextuality. However, he also used his letters to outline and compare the ideal types of the principal actors, who peopled his world. His point of perspective was not just diachronic but also synchronic.
Thus, it does make sense to “see” his barbarian overlords through his pen. Taken together, we possess three letters in which Sidonius characterises the two kings. Further, a panegyric to Avitus complements the picture of these two kings. How, then, should we read these biographical vignettes? To get a sense of their singular character, we may also compare them to another such portrait, that of a Vectius.
The letter from c. AD 456 to Agricola containing a biography of Theoderic was obviously considered central to Sidonius’ editorial compilation of letters. In his edition of his letters (from AD 468), it figures as number two in book one (Epist. I,2). The depiction of the Gothic king in this letter corresponds beautifully to the other description in the panegyric to Avitus, which must have been composed around the same time. In both these literary vignettes, Theoderic is painted – albeit with different colours – as the “pillar and salvation of the Romans” (Carm. XXIII). Nevertheless, the biography does not quite fall into the traditional mould, such as were known from the writings of Suetonius. For one, the description of the physical traits of Theoderic is unusual. But also, the focus on his “private” life rather than his public work as king. The object for Sidonius is to present the king as a Roman aristocrat preoccupied with pursuing a life of leisure, if not philosophy. It reads:
“You have often begged a description of Theodoric the Gothic king, whose gentle breeding fame commends to every nation; you want him in his quantity and quality, in his person, and the manner of his existence. I gladly accede, as far as the limits of my page allow, and highly approve so fine and ingenuous a curiosity.
Well, he is a man worth knowing, even by those who cannot enjoy his close acquaintance, so happily have Providence and Nature joined to endow him with the perfect gifts of fortune; his way of life is such that not even the envy, which lies in wait for kings can rob him of his proper praise.
And first as to his person: He is well set up, in height above the average man, but below the giant. His head is round, with curled hair retreating somewhat from brow to crown. His nervous neck is free from disfiguring knots. The eyebrows are bushy and arched; when the lids droop, the lashes reach almost half-way down the cheeks. The upper ears are buried under overlying locks, after the fashion of his race. The nose is finely aquiline; the lips are thin and not enlarged by undue distension of the mouth. Every day the hair springing from his nostrils is cut back; that on the face springs thick from the hollow of the temples, but the razor has not yet come upon his cheek, and his barber is assiduous in eradicating the rich growth on the lower part of the face.2  Chin, throat, and neck are full, but not fat, and all of fair complexion; seen close, their colour is fresh as that of youth; they often flush, but from modesty, and not from anger. His shoulders are smooth, the upper- and forearms strong and hard; hands broad, breast prominent; waist receding. The spine dividing the broad expanse of back does not project, and you can see the springing of the ribs; the sides swell with salient muscle, the well-girted flanks are full of vigour. His thighs are like hard horn; the knee-joints firm and masculine; the knees themselves the comeliest and least wrinkled in the world. A full ankle supports the leg, and the foot is small to bear such mighty limbs.
Now for the routine of his public life: Before daybreak he goes with a very small suite to attend the service of his priests. He prays with assiduity, but, if I may speak in confidence, one may suspect more of habit than conviction in this piety. Administrative duties of the kingdom take up the rest of the morning. Armed nobles stand about the royal seat; the mass of guards in their garb of skins are admitted that they may be within call, but kept at the threshold for quiet’s sake; only a murmur of them comes in from their post at the doors, between the curtain and the outer barrier. And now the foreign envoys are introduced. The king hears them out, and says little; if a thing needs more discussion he puts it off, but accelerates matters ripe for dispatch. The second hour arrives; he rises from the throne to inspect his treasure-chamber or stable.
If the chase is the order of the day, he joins it, but never carries his bow at his side, considering this derogatory to royal state. When a bird or beast is marked for him, or happens to cross his path, he puts his hand behind his back and takes the bow from a page with the string all hanging loose; for as he deems it a boy’s trick to bear it in a quiver, so he holds it effeminate to receive the weapon ready strung. When it is given him, he sometimes holds it in both hands and bends the extremities towards each other; at others he sets it, knot-end downward, against his lifted heel, and runs his finger up the slack and wavering string. After that, he takes his arrows, adjusts, and lets fly. He will ask you beforehand what you would like him to transfix; you choose, and he hits. If there is a miss through either’s error, your vision will mostly be at fault, and not the archer’s skill.
On ordinary days, his table resembles that of a private person. The board does not groan beneath a mass of dull and unpolished silver set on by panting servitors; the weight lies rather in the conversation than in the plate; there is either sensible talk or none. The hangings and draperies used on these occasions are sometimes of purple silk, sometimes only of linen; art, not costliness, commends the fare, as spotlessness rather than bulk the silver. Toasts are few, and you will oftener see a thirsty guest impatient, than a full one refusing cup or bowl. In short, you will find elegance of Greece, good cheer of Gaul, Italian nimbleness, the state of public banquets with the attentive service of a private table, and everywhere the discipline of a king’s house. What need for me to describe the pomp of his feast days? No man is so unknown as not to know of them.
But to my theme again: The siesta after dinner is always slight, and sometimes intermitted. When inclined for the board-game, he is quick to gather up the dice, examines them with care, shakes the box with expert hand, throws rapidly, humorously apostrophizes them, and patiently waits the issue. Silent at a good throw, he makes merry over a bad, annoyed by neither fortune, and always the philosopher. He is too proud to ask or to refuse a revenge; he disdains to avail himself of one if offered; and if it is opposed will quietly go on playing. You effect recovery of your men without obstruction on his side; he recovers his without collusion upon yours. You see the strategist when he moves the pieces; his one thought is victory. Yet at play he puts off a little of his kingly rigour, inciting all to good fellowship and the freedom of the game: I think he is afraid of being feared. Vexation in the man whom he beats delights him; he will never believe that his opponents have not let him win unless their annoyance proves him really victor. You would be surprised how often the pleasure born of these little happenings may favour the march of great affairs. Petitions that some wrecked influence had left derelict come unexpectedly to port; I myself am gladly beaten by him when I have a favour to ask, since the loss of my game may mean the gaining of my cause.
About the ninth hour, the burden of government begins again. Back come the importunates, back the ushers to remove them; on all sides buzz the voices of petitioners, a sound which lasts till evening, and does not diminish till interrupted by the royal repast; even then they only disperse to attend their various patrons among the courtiers, and are astir till bedtime. Sometimes, though this is rare, supper is enlivened by sallies of mimes, but no guest is ever exposed to the wound of a biting tongue. Withal there is no noise of hydraulic organ or choir with its conductor intoning a set piece; you will hear no players of lyre or flute, no master of the music, no girls with cithara or tabor; the king cares for no strains but those which no less charm the mind with virtue than the ear with melody. When he rises to withdraw, the treasury watch begins its vigil; armed sentries stand on guard during the first hours of slumber.
But I am wandering from my subject. I never promised a whole chapter on the kingdom, but a few words about the king. I must stay my pen; you asked for nothing more than one or two facts about the person and the tastes of Theodoric; and my own aim was to write a letter, not a history. Farewell.”
(To his brother-in-law, Agricola, ca. AD 454)
In AD 466, Euric murdered his brother Theoderic II, and took over the Visigothic kingdom. His rule unfolded at a time, when the Western Empire was nearly bankrupted from fighting the Vandals. Into this power-vacuum, Euric thrust his Visigothic army, pushing the borders towards Rhone. As part of these aggressive actions, Euric took Clermont and imprisoned Sidonius in a fortress near the present border between Spain and France. During these years, Sidonius alternatively characterised Euric as a harsh and violent king, alternatively as a mighty ruler. The latter description was written as poetry to try and get himself released from his imprisonment to return to Clermont. We read:
“Neither a saint like you can fitly here discuss, nor a sinner like myself indict, the action of Euric, the Gothic king in breaking and bearing down an ancient treaty to defend, or rather extend by armed force the frontiers of his kingdom. It is the rule here below, for Dives to be clothed in purple and fine linen, and for Lazarus to bear the lash of sores and poverty. So long as we walk in this allegoric land of Egypt, it is the rule that Pharaoh shall go with a diadem on his head, and the Israelite with the carrier’s basket. It is the rule that while we are burned in the furnace of this symbolic Babylon we must sigh and groan like Jeremiah for the spiritual Jerusalem, while Assur thunders in his royal pomp and treads the Holy of Holies beneath his feet.
Yet when I compare the transient joys of this world with those which are to come, I find it easier to endure calamities which no mortal may escape. For, firstly, when I consider my own demerits, all possible troubles seem lighter than those which I deserve; and then know well that the best of cures for the inward man is for the outward man to be threshed by the flails of suffering. I must confess that formidable as the mighty Goth [Euric] may be, I dread him less as the assailant of our walls [of the cities] than as the subverter of our Christian laws.
They say that the mere mention of the name of Catholic so embitters his countenance and heart that one might take him for the chief priest of his Arian sect rather than for the monarch of his nation. Omnipotent in arms, keen-witted, and in the full vigour of life, he yet makes this single mistake: he attributes his success in his designs and enterprises to the orthodoxy of his belief, whereas the real cause lies in mere earthly fortune.
For these reasons I would have you consider the secret malady of the Catholic Church that you may hasten to apply an open remedy. Bordeaux, Périgueux, Rodez, Limoges, Javols, Eauze, Bazas, Comminges, Auch, and many another city are all like bodies which have lost their heads through the death of their respective bishops. No successors have been appointed to fill their places, and maintain the ministry in the lower orders of the Church; the boundaries of spiritual desolation are extended far and wide. Every day the ruin spreads by the death of more fathers in God; so pitiful is her state, that the very heresiarchs of former times, to say nothing of contemporary heretics, might well have looked with pity on peoples orphaned of their pontiffs and oppressed by desperation at this catastrophe of their faith. Diocese and parish lie waste without ministers. You may see the rotten roofs of churches fallen in, the doors unhinged and blocked by growing brambles. More grievous still, you may see the cattle not only lying in the half-ruined porticoes, but grazing beside altars green with weeds. And this desolation is not found in country parishes alone; even the congregations of urban churches begin to fall away. What comfort remains to the faithful, when not only the teaching of the clergy perishes, but their very memory is lost out of mind? When a priest departs this life, not merely the holder of the sacred office dies, but the office itself dies with him, unless with his failing breath he gives his blessing to a successor.1 What hope remains when the term of a man’s life implies the end of religion in his parish? If you examine more closely the ills of the body spiritual, you will soon perceive that for every bishop snatched from our midst, the faith of a population is imperilled. I need not mention your colleagues Crocus and Simplicius, removed alike from their thrones and suffering a common exile, if different punishments. For one of them laments that he cannot see whither he is to return; the other that he sees only too clearly where he is to return no more. You for your part have about you the most holy bishops Faustus, Leontius, and Graecus, environed by the city, your order and their fraternal love. To you these miserable treaties are submitted, the pacts and agreements of two kingdoms pass through your hands. Do your best, as far as the royal condescension suffers you, to obtain for our bishops the right of ordination in those parts of Gaul now included within the Gothic boundaries, that if we cannot keep them by treaty for the Roman State, we may at least hold them by religion for the Roman Church. Deign to bear me in remembrance, my Lord Bishop.
(To the lord Bishop Basilius AD 472-3 (Book VII, letter VI)
And yet, writing to his friend Lampridius AD 478 Sidonius tries to lessen his critique of the king by writing a poem – thereby describing his prison in Bordeaux, peopled by all sorts of long-haired barbarians.
“Twice has the moon risen upon me prisoned her; and but once have I been received into the presence. For scant leisure has the King even for himself, since all the subjugated earth awaits his nod. We see in his courts the blue-eyed Saxon, lord of the seas, but a timid landsman here. The razor’s keen blade, content no more to hold its usual course round the head’s extremity, with clean strokes shearing to the skin, drives the margin of the hair back from his brow, till the head looks smaller and the visage longer. We see thee, aged Sygambrian warrior, the back of thy head shaven in sign of thy defeat; but now thou guidest the new-grown locks to the old neck again. Here strolls the Herulian with his glaucous cheeks, inhabitant of Ocean’s furthest shore, and of one complexion with its weedy deeps. Here the Burgundian bends his seven feet of stature on suppliant knee, imploring peace. Here the Ostrogoth finds a powerful patron, and crushing the Hun beyond his border, triumphs at home only through his homage to this mighty patron. And here, O Roman, thou also seekest thy protection; if the Great Bear menaces commotion, and the Scythian hordes advance, the strong arm of Euric is invoked, that Garonne, drawing power from the Mars who loves his banks, may bring defence to the dwindled stream of Tiber. Here the Parthian Arsacid himself asks grace to hold, a tributary, his high hall of Susa. He perceives in the regions of the Bosphorus dread, war arise with all its enginery, nor hopes that Persia, dismayed at the mere sound of conflict, shall avail to guard alone Euphrates’ bank. He who boasts himself kin with stars and near allied to Phoebus, even he becomes a simple mortal, and descends to lowly supplication. At such a court my days go by in vain…”
(Book VIII, letter IX)
Vectius ca. AD 472
In the eyes of Sidonius and his friends, these final years of the Western Roman Empire were obviously hard times. While Sidonius was able to graciously “lie” about life at the court of Theuderic, Sidonius gave up on that strategy when he was imprisoned at the court of Euric. Perhaps his distaste is best summed up in his letter to Evodius, in which he – before the calamities hit him – on request attached a poem, which was intended to adorn a two-handled cup of silver, which Evodius (Book IV, letter VIII) deigned to present to Euric’s Queen, Ragnahilda. Sidonius concludes this letter with the following salute: “If you love me well enough to make use of such idle stuff, conceal my authorship and properly rely for success on your own part of the offering. For in such a mart or such a school as this barbaric court, your silver page will get all the notice, and not my poor inscription. Farewell.”
I recently visited the illustrious Vectius, and was able to study his way of life at close quarters as leisurely as if I had nothing else to do. I found it well worth knowing, and therefore not unworthy of description.
In the first place, and this may rightly be regarded as the highest praise of all, the whole household emulates the master’s flawless purity of life. His servants are efficient, those in the country obliging, those at his town house friendly, obedient and contented with their lord. His table is open to the stranger no less than to his own clients; there reigns a large hospitality, and an even larger moderation.
It is of less moment that the man of whom we speak is without rival in training a horse, judging a dog, or in bearing hawk afield; that his dress is always exquisite and his girdle to match, that all his accoutrements are splendid. The majesty of his gait accords with his gravity of mind, and as the first secures him consideration abroad, so the last maintains his dignity at home. He is an indulgence, which does not spoil, a punishment without brutality, a tempered severity, stern but never dreadful. With all this he is a regular reader of the Scriptures; even at meal times he enjoys this nutriment of the soul. He studies the Psalms, and yet more frequently chants them, setting a new precedent by living after this fashion in martial dress, the complete monk in all but the monastic habit. Though he abstains from eating game, he indulges in the chase; to have the sport without the spoil accords with the secret delicacy of his religious feeling.
The comfort of his widower’s life is his little daughter, sole pledge of his lost wife’s love; he brings her up with the tenderness of a grandfather, a mother’s sedulous care, a father’s kindness. In addressing his servants he does not give way to violence, and he is not above taking their advice upon occasion; in investigating an offence, he is never inquisitorial, he rules those under him by reason and not mere authority: you might take him for the steward in his own house.
All this virtue and moderation seemed to me to deserve recording for the benefit of others; the outlines of it at least should be common knowledge. It would be well for our age if every member of our sacred profession were stirred to emulation by the story irrespective of a garb, which in these days often deceives the world. For be it said without offence to my own order, if only the good men among us manifest their individual qualities, I shall prefer the layman of priestly instincts to the priest. Farewell.
Detail from: The Missorium of Theodosius. Ca AD 421. Probably a gift from Galla Placidia. The engraving shows Theodosius II flanked by flanked by Honorius to the right and Valentinian III to the left. Notice the “barbarian” soldiers guarding the emperors. Source: Wikipedia/Ángel M. Felicísimo
The Ghost of Cicero’s Letters: Epistolography and Historiography in Senatorial Letter-Writing. By Cristiana Sogno. In: Journal of Late Antiquity, Johns Hopkins University Press (2014) Vol 7, No 2, pp. 201-222