Sulpicius Severus is best known as the medieval Latin author who wrote one of the earliest examples of a saint’s biography. His work, Vita Sancti Martini, served as the “primary role in creating the legend of St. Martin”, setting the stage for the literary genre known as hagiography, which collectively refers to the genre depicting lives of saints (Conte 695). Although Sulpicius’ writing was groundbreaking and unique because of its subject matter, the Vita Sancti Martini text hosted striking similarities in the vocabulary, grammar, and style. The work was written by the novus homo, Roman politician and late Republic historian, Gaius Sallustius Crispus, also known as Sallust.
Sulpicius chose Sallust as an inspiration for his hagiographic work because the religious writing of Sulpicius echoes the political monographs of Sallust, including his own interpretations of Sallust’s premises which create a thematic focus in Sulpicius’ text radically different from Sallust’s works. I plan to show Sallust’s strong influence on Sulpicius, while also showing how the Roman author utilized historical writing as a vehicle to connect the concepts of mortality, fame, and the vices of human nature through both of his surviving texts. These ideals permeate Sulpicius’ text as well, but instead are used to promote his ideals that Christianity is the one, true religion. In this way, Sulpicius utilizes Sallust’s historical writing style to promote immortality via his beliefs and faith in Christianity—not the immortality of himself.
Looking at the lives of Sulpicius and Sallust, there are parallel—or what might be called “conversion moments”—the two share. Sulpicius met St. Martin in 396 AD at Tours, France when Martin was a bishop. Sulpicius was so inspired by Martin and his work in the church that three years later in 399 AD, Sulpicius gave up all his own possessions and built a monastery at Primulacium in southern Gaul (modern day France) to follow the same holy life he had observed Martin leading (Conte 695). During this time, Sulpicius wrote Vita Sancti Martini, The Life of St. Martin, presenting Martin “as an ideal of asceticism and devotion to God” (Conte 695). Critics have commented that Sulpicius’ work “owes much to Tacitus, Sallust and [...] Suetonius” (Robertson 136), but the most remarkable and interesting connection of these three is between Sulpicius and Sallust. The connections between these two authors is notable because both Sulpicius and Sallust developed unique styles of writing that are seemingly unrelated to each other. However, after reading both texts it becomes apparent that they resemble each other in numerous ways and depict an intimate connection between the authors and their texts.
Sallust, born approximately 446 years before Sulpicius, wrote two notable works: De Catilinae Coniuratione (The Conspiracy of Catiline), and Bellum Iugurthae (The War of Jugurtha). These texts focus on an analysis and critique of the corrupt, political scene in Rome during the late Republic. Unlike Sulpicius, Sallust led a far from holy life, holding Roman political offices of quaestor and praetor until he was selected by Julius Caesar to be the provincial governor of Africa Nova in 46 BC (Conte 234). Sallust proved to be a corrupt administrator and was accused of embezzlement while holding the position of provincial governor, which resulted in his withdrawal from politics upon Caesar’s request. With his political career behind him, Sallust began writing history and produced the De Catilinae Coniuratione and Bellum Iugurthae between 44 BCE and 40 BCE (Conte 234). In these texts, “Sallust denounces greed for wealth and power as evils that are poisoning Roman political life”, which is ironic considering Sallust’s own corrupt fall from power in politics (Conte 235).
Like Sallust, Sulpicius also identified evils and vices in his text. While Sulpicius called out the evils of heathenism by denouncing individuals who were not Christian, Sallust condemned evils in the political scene. Sulpicius experienced a life-changing encounter with the inspiring bishop, Martin, who prompted his historical writing; conversely, Sallust turned to prose because of a failed attempt to work his way up the political ladder in Rome. Their life experiences of these two authors clearly led them to historical writing that was greatly influenced by their chosen topics, or—as in Sulpicius’ case—by the authors from whom text-modeling was taken.
Not only does Sulpicius model Sallust’s style of historical writing, but he also embodies his beliefs and views on Christianity through the historical figure of St. Martin. This is not unlike what Sallust did with writing on Catiline and the Battle of Jugurtha, where he could project onto his readers his opinions concerning the incompetent, corrupt, and arrogant nobility, as well as the dysfunctional and immoral Roman political system. Likewise, Sulpicius could embody the very essence of his text through Martin – to explain to readers that any religion other than Christianity was living in errore (error) as a heathen. Sulpicius represents this in several ways through his syntax and word choice. Throughout all twenty-seven chapters of Vita Sancti Martini, Sulpicius used the word errore eight times. Five of those eight times, Sulpicius used this word in association with the error of heathenism. Additionally, Sulpicius applied the Latin word gentilis (heathen) fifteen times in his text to describe anyone who was not a Christian. In every one of these circumstances when gentilis was used, Martin was present and consequently absolved the individual or groups of individuals from the errors of heathenism and converted them to Christianity. This word choice emphasizes Sulpicius’ continual aim to present his readers with his strong belief that the Christian religion is the ultimate salvation and way to live a pious life.
Sallust and Sulpicius both stress the importance of writing history. However, they differ in their views on how the act of writing contributes to the fame of figures or events, such as St. Martin, Catiline, and Jugurtha as well the fame of the author himself. In the opening of the first section of the Vita Sancti Martini, Sulpicius borrows a phrase directly from Sallust’s text 51.15: Plērīque mortālēs (very many mortals) to clearly reference Sallust and his belief that mortālēs (mortals) desire to achieve immortality through either performing heroic deeds or writing about the outstanding deeds of others.
The plērīque underscores the fact that many mortals desired to write history to achieve immortality if their name lived on in their written work. However, Sulpicius is not agreeing with Sallust when he uses this phrase. Instead, he is criticizing those plērīque mortālēs who value historical writing merely for the benefit it has on their own fame:
quī quidem error hūmānus litterīs trāditus in tantum valuit, ut multōs plānē aemulōs vel inānis philosophiae vel stultae illius virtūtis invēnerit (indeed, which human error having been handed over to letters grew so strong that it found many of empty of philosophy or its foolish strength). (Vita Sancti Martini 1.5)
Sulpicius refers to this motive for historical writing as error hūmānus with the litterīs representing texts like Sallust’s that—to Sulpicius—only serve to benefit the author’s fame and notability instead of promoting ideals and values discussed in the text. A passage from Sallust’s De Catilinae Coniuratione 3.1 reflects Sulpicius’ exact criticism:
Pulchrum est bene facere rei publicae, etiam bene dicere haud absurdum est; vel pace vel bello clarum fieri licet. Et qui fecere et qui facta aliorum scripsere, multi laudantur (It is glorious to serve one’s country by deeds; even to serve her by words is a thing not to be despised; one may become famous in peace as well as in war. Not only those who have acted, but those also who have recorded the acts of others oftentimes receive our approbation). (Catiline 3.1)
Sallust believes one of the purposes of historical writing is to benefit the author’s individual fame through documenting legendary people and events.
In the Vita Sancti Martini, Sulpicius adapted Sallust’s writing style to conform to his own motive for writing about history. He references Sallust’s De Catilinae Coniuratione:
Plērīque mortālēs studiō et glōriae saeculārī ināniter dēditi [...] perennem [...] memoriam nōminis suī quaesiērunt, sī vītās clārōrum virōrum stilō illustrāssent (Very many mortals vainly having devoted themselves to study and secular glories [...] sought the eternal memory of their own name, if they had given luster the lives of famous men with a stylus). (Vita Sancti Martini 1.1)
Here, Sulpicius directly inserted vocabulary: clārōrum from Sallust’s clarum. However, this same word has two different connotations between the two texts (Vita Sancti Martini, 1.1; De Catilinae Coniuratione, 3.1). Sallust is referring to the individual author’s fame, while Sulpicius is scorning those mortālēs that desire only to write history for the sake of their own fame. Sulpicius’ judgment of these mortālēs is particularly apparent with his use of ināniter (vainly) to describe these mortālēs, implying that their only purpose for writing about the clārōrum virōrum is for their own fame.
Additionally, Sulpicius’ Plērīque mortālēs studiō et glōriae saeculārī ināniter dēditi can be viewed as a reference to Sallust’s Pulchrum est bene facere rei publicae, etiam bene dicere haud absurdum est since both phrases signify that the act of writing history is desirable and valued, but for different reasons (Vita Sancti Martini 1.1; Catilinae Coniuratione 3.1). Sulpicius further adapted Sallust’s textual style by evoking religious connotations throughout this section in using words such as saeculārī and dēditi. In contrast, Sallust’s writing elicits a military tone with words like rei publicae, pace, and bello. This tonal difference between the two texts is a direct reflection on the difference in subject matter between the religious writing of Sulpicius and the political monographs of Sallust.
When prefacing his description of Catiline’s deeds, Sallust mentions his obligation to the reader to only relate the most outstanding and interesting sections of Catiline’s life story:
ut quaeque memoria digna videbantur, perscribere (selecting such portions [of Catiline’s story] as seemed to me worthy of record) [;] nam id facinus in primis ego memorabile existumo sceleris atque periculi novitate, (for I regard that event [from Catiline’s life] as worthy of special notice because of the extraordinary nature of the crime and of the danger arising from it). (De Catilinae Coniuratione 4.2; 4.4-5)
Sallust uses this clever style of writing to insert his own humility into the text through an acknowledgment of how superior Catiline is in the countless number of outstanding deeds he has performed—too many deeds even for Sallust, a mere historian, to recount. However, this added humility can also serve an additional role. Sallust may have been aiming to appeal to mortālēs by using language that overexpressed his own humility to display himself to readers in a favorable way to increase his readership and his own fame.
Sulpicius further models his text to Sallust’s style in the way Sulpicius precedes his description of Martin’s actions:
quamvīs nēquāquam ad omnia illius potuerim pervenīre, (although much I will have by no means been able to include all of his deeds) [;] plūra omīsimus, quia sufficere crēdidimus, sī tantum excellentia notārentur, (having omitted many things because we believed it to suffice, if only the outstanding deeds were pointed out). (Vita Sancti Martini 1.7; 1.8)
A grammatical similarity between the two texts comes from the use of the first person in both passages, potuerim, crēdidimus, and ego (Vita Sancti Martini 1.7-8 [cited with first two words]; De Catilinae Coniuratione 4.4). This deliberate change in grammar from third to first person could be the authors taking responsibility for the excerpts they choose to write about and their choice of inserting a more personal and intimate tone to the beginning of these texts for readers. The change from third to first person helps engage the reader not only with the text, but with the author also. The reader can then relate intimately with the author. Additionally, this could signify, in the case of Sallust, his continual self-promoting efforts to increase his own fame among his readers. On the contrary, in the case of Sulpicius, this grammatical device may serve to enable him to take responsibility for his criticisms of Sallust and his individual convictions surrounding the true purpose of historical writing.
Sallust describes his own character as weak for power and ambition: tamen inter tanta vitia imbecilla aetas ambitione corrupta tenebatur (nevertheless amid so many vices my youthful weakness was led astray and held captive by ambition) (De Catilinae Coniuratione 3.4-5). Not unlike Catiline’s own character, “he [Catiline] is presented in the ancient sources as a monster and prodigy, [...] robber, corrupter of youth, [and] traitor” (Kaplan 1). Sallust goes on to admit: nihilo minus honoris cupido eādem qua ceteros fama atque invidia vexabat (yet the desire for preferment made me the victim of the same ill-repute and jealousy as they) (De Catilinae Coniuratione 3.4-5). Perhaps Sallust is explaining how influenced he was as a youth in following Catiline’s conspiracy, which resulted in his own fall from political power and eventual transition to historical writing.
Sulpicius begins the Vita Sancti Martini with a similar description of his own character, borrowing this expression of modesty from Sallust: quia, ut sum nātūrā īnfirmissimus, iūdicia hūmāna vītābam (because, since I am the weakest by nature, I was avoiding human judgments) (Preface 1.1). Where Sallust manifests his weakness by his desire for power and ambition, Sulpicius is weak because he does not want readers to disapprove or judge him for his writing. Sallust is easily swayed by the corrupt ideals of Catiline and politics because he wants to be accepted in Roman politics. In contrast, Sulpicius is swayed to write his text so that his readers will receive his work as a moral influence in their lives. It can be argued that Sulpicius utilizes this expression of modesty to develop parallels between his own character with that of St. Martin’s. On numerous occasions throughout the Vita Sancti Martini, St. Martin displays modesty and humility, which are usually followed by divine acts from God in reward for St. Martin’s acknowledgment of his humility and complete faith in the Lord.
Sallust also comments on human nature and mortality in his Bellum Iugurthae. He posits that dux atque imperator vitae mortalium animus est (the leader and ruler of man’s life is the mind) (Bellum Iugurthae, 1.3). If a man has probitatem, industriam, aliasque artis bonas (honesty, diligence, and other good qualities) he will control his own destiny and eventually achieve abunde pollens potensque et clarus (power and potency in abundance, as well as fame) (Bellum Iugurthae, 1.3). There is a clear emphasis on fame, mortality, and the qualities one must possess to achieve it. This is not unlike what readers encountered in clārōrum in Vita Sancti Martini 1.1 and clarum from De Catilinae Coniuratione, 3.1 as discussed above, which further emphasizes Sallust’s belief that historical writing and an author’s notability and fame go hand in hand.
Mortalium links to both Sallust’s De Catilinae Coniuratione 51.15 and Vita Sancti Martini 1.1, Plērīque mortālēs (Bellum Iugurthae 1.3). Sallust goes on to claim that men who neglect to rise to their potential and utilize their talents for the betterment of themselves will result in: naturae infirmitas accusatur; suam quisque culpam auctores ad negotia transferunt (the weakness of human nature is accused, and the guilty blame their circumstances) (Bellum Iugurthae 1.4). Perhaps, this is what happened when Sulpicius admitted to readers why he did not to publish his book on St. Martin, quia, ut sum nātūrā īnfirmissimus, iūdicia hūmāna vītābam (because, since I am the weakest by nature, I was avoiding human judgments) (Vita Sancti Martini Preface 1). Sulpicius had a lapse in strength and succumbed to his fears of being rejected by his readers, owing to this weakness in his human nature. Like Sallust in De Catilinae Coniuratione 3.4-5: tamen inter tanta vitia imbecilla aetas ambitione corrupta tenebatur (nevertheless amid so many vices my youthful weakness was led astray and held captive by ambition).
Additionally, there is a relationship between Vita Sancti Martini 1.7, and De Catilinae Coniuratione 4.3-4. This connection does not appear to have a different connotation between the two works; it merely serves to add depth and passion to the texts. In Sulpicius’ opening sentence of St. Martin’s biography, Sulpicius states: Igitur sānctī Martīnī vītam scrībere exordiar (Therefore I will begin to write the life of holy Martin). Sulpicius utilizes the first person, future indicative, descriptive verb exordiar to describe how Sulpicius will create St. Martin’s story. This is reflective of Sallust’s De Catilinae Coniuratione 4.3-4 text: Igitur de Catilinae coniuratione quam verissume potero paucis absolvam (Therefore I shall write briefly and as truthfully as possible of the conspiracy of Catiline). Per the Lewis & Short Latin Dictionary, exordiar translates as “to prepare a web, to begin to weave”, while absolvam means: “to set free, release, discharge”. These verbs elicit a physical action of weaving or releasing these biographies to readers, which generates a more artistic, forceful, and creative tone to these texts. Taken together, using the first person with these incredibly descriptive verbs produces a personal connection between these texts and the authors, describing their writing in a more visceral way than just putting pen to paper.
But why did Sulpicius choose Sallust as one of the primary models of his hagiographic text? Sulpicius did indeed study and value Sallust’s texts due to the strong textual and thematic evidence connecting the three works together, but it still begs the question. Sulpicius and Sallust were directly inspired by Martin and Catiline, respectively. Perhaps Sulpicius was inspired by Sallust’s ability to preach “party politics under a cloak of grave and philosophic impartiality” (Rose, 218). Sulpicius was a committed Christian and was very much in favor of Martin’s actions in the name of Christianity, resulting in the creation of the Vita Sancti Martini which has a strong undertone pushing readers to favor and value Christianity above all other religions. Sulpicius may have been intrigued by Sallust’s style of covering his judgments of the corrupt Roman political scene with a blanket of supposedly unbiased historical writing. Therefore, Sulpicius adapts and transforms Sallust’s pagan, Roman ideals about the use of history for a higher purpose of praising and promoting Christianity. Not only this, but Sulpicius also directly disagrees with Sallust’s use of historical writing to increase his own fame and criticizes him for this on several occasions in the Vita Sancti Martini as discussed above. Thus, in referencing Sallust, Sulpicius can both develop and criticize aspects of Sallust’s work to further support his message that the belief and faith in St. Martin and ultimately Christianity should be immortal and everlasting.
Sulpicius utilizes Sallust’s unique style of historical writing to achieve a greater purpose for his text than merely his own fame and immortality. Both authors introduce and develop the theme of immortality by preserving one’s life through the written word. Sulpicius is referring to far more than solely himself when he describes the immortality and fame associated with historical writing. Sulpicius is declaring that his ideals will achieve immortality through the embodiment of St. Martin as relayed in his hagiographic text. Sulpicius underscores the importance he sees in Christianity through the Vita Sancti Martini by modifying and adapting the style and thematic material developed previously by Sallust. Although separated by almost 500 years, these Latin authors are forever joined by their common pursuit of fame—whether individual or collective beliefs—through the stylistic features they employ in their respective historical texts.
Conte, Gian Biagio. Latin Literature: A History. Trans. Joseph B. Solodow. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1994. Print.
Kaplan, Arthur. Catiline: The Man and His Role in the Roman Revolution. New York, NY: Exposition Press, 1968. Print.
Robertson, Duncan. The Medieval Saints’ Lives: Spiritual Renewal and Old French Literature. Lexington, KY: French Forum Publishers, 1995. Print.
Rolfe, J. C. Sallust. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2013. Print.
Rose, H. J. A Handbook of Latin Literature. Wauconda, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 1996. Print.
Severus, Sulpicius. The Life of Saint Martin of Tours. Dickinson College Commentaries. Web. 9 Mar 2016. <http://dcc.dickinson.edu/sulpicius-severus/introduction>.