Christianity and «Romanitas» in Late Antique Visigoth Kingdoms

Joshua Anthony

Classics and Theology, University of Notre Dame, 2020

Ennodius’ biography of Saint Epiphanius illustrates very well some of the cultural elements accompanying the political transformation of Western Europe from Roman provinces to Germanic kingdoms, most notably the manner in which the legacy of a distinctly Christian Rome (or Roman Christianity) is carried on by recently non-Roman, and until recently non-Christian, Germanic kings.  The post-Rome Germanic groups saw Rome in much the same way that an earlier Rome saw the newly-conquered Greece: not a defeated foe to be gloated over, but a superior culture to be emulated and preserved.  However, the relationship between the Germanic tribes and the Romans differed from the relationship between the Romans and the Greeks in that the Germanic tribes were not imitators of what was Roman simply because it was Roman, but because they thought it good according to the standards given by Christianity (albeit a heavily Romanized Christianity).  The Romans honored the Greeks through their own judgment, but the Germanic kings seem to have honored the Romans through a Christianity that, for good or ill, conflated the Roman state and the city of God.

            Ennodius makes the surprising claim that as Epiphanius entered Toulouse where the Visigothic King Euric was holding court, “the news of his sanctity, having preceded him, had come to the ears of the Gauls… whom it filled with amazement” (Maas 351).  One may be reminded of the opening lines of Beowulf: “Lo! the Spear-Danes’ glory through splendid achievements / The folk-kings’ former fame we have heard of, / How princes displayed then their prowess-in-battle”  (Hall 1-3).  The Germanic valorization of glory and fame is clear in both Ennodius’ account and Beowulf, but the pagan heroes of Beowulf are made famous because of their “prowess-in-battle,” whereas Bishop Epiphanius is made famous for his sanctity.  King Euric’s kingdom is thus clearly Germanic in that it values far-spreading fame as in Beowulf, but clearly Christian in that it glorifies sanctity.  Christianity like a gilding exalts the native valorization of glory, raising it from a praise of violence to a praise of holiness. 

            But Ennodius paints a portrait of a Germanic kingdom that is not solely Christian, for it also holds Roman cultural ideals in great admiration.  Of Euric’s Roman chief advisor Leo, Ennodius writes: “[his] eloquence had more than once carried off the prize in declamation” (Maas 351).  The fact that Leo, a courtesan of a barbarian king, should be noteworthy because of his skill not as a warrior but as a rhetorician is clear evidence of strong Roman cultural influence.  Euric so valued rhetorical skill in the manner of the Romans that he counted it sufficient qualification to sit at his right hand: for Leo was “moderator and arbiter of the king’s council” (Maas 351).

            But Euric does not just value Roman rhetorical skill as a detached appraiser: he submits himself to it, and declares the supremacy of rhetoric over pure force of arms through his own actions as king.  When Bishop Epiphanius has delivered his entreaty for friendship with the Emperor, Euric declares: “‘The cuirass scarcely ever leaves my breast, the shield of bronze, my hand, the protecting sword, my side; yet I have found a man who with words can subdue me in all my armor… I shall, therefore, venerable father, do what you ask’” (Maas 352).  Thus Euric departs from a philosophy that prizes military might above all in favor of submitting to Epiphanius’ competence in distinctly Roman cultural arts.

            The central thrust of Epiphanius’ speech to Euric is perhaps one of the central threads of self-conception in the Germanic kingdoms of the fifth century: “‘Remember that you, too, are subject to a Sovereign whose pleasure you must consider’” (Maas 351).  As Roman Christianity conflated the role of the emperor with the role of God (for in Roman Christianity God is known through bishops, and Emperor Constantine claimed to be a bishop), so the reader may not be far amiss to impute a double meaning in Epiphanius’ speech: he beseeches Euric to honor the emperor because he honors God.

If the Germanic kingdoms “engulfed” the western provinces of the empire, then they became what they consumed, and, having swallowed up the political entities subject to Rome, they became themselves cultural entities subject to the idea of Rome.  This was effected primarily through the Roman Church, the force of greatest continuity between Antiquity and the Middle Ages, which is especially striking upon consideration that the barbarian kingdoms, otherwise the greatest force of discontinuity in the same period, become the preservers of the Roman legacy that they themselves were at least partially responsible for destroying.

Works Cited

Hall, J. Lesslie. (2005). Beowulf: An Anglo-Saxon Epic Poem. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg.

Maas, Michael. Readings in Late Antiquity: a Sourcebook. Routledge, 2010.

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