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Sulpicius Severus's Life of Saint Martin: the Saint and his biographer as agents of cultural transformation.

MARTIN OF TOURS (c. 336-97) was a Roman soldier living in Gaul when Rome was abandoning paganism and embracing Christianity. Roman civic institutions were disappearing with the collapse of military security and political order in the West. Yet the intellectual legacy of Rome was continuing in the Church. By this time, many Christians had received a classical Roman education and were beginning to make their distinct contribution to the Western literary tradition. Justin Martyr (c. 100-60) was an early prominent Christian who had received a classical education. As a converted man of letters Justin directed his literary skill at the critics of the Christian faith in his Apologies and his Dialogue with the Jew Trypho. Athenagorus (c. 177), an Athenean, wrote an eloquent defense of Christianity addressed to the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius. (1) The Catechetical School at Alexandria yielded a corpus of learned Christian philosophical and theological writings through Clement and his pupil Origen. Cyprian of Carthage (d. A.D. 258) wrote many letters addressing various pastoral and theological questions facing the persecuted Church of his day, letters known and long revered for their content and style. (2) Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 263-339) made his great literary contribution in his Ecclesiastical History, recounting the history of the Church from the time of the Apostles to the reign of Constantine the Great. All of these classically trained thinkers were responding to what historian of rhetoric James J. Murphy identified as "the problem of defining the intellectual base for a culture which would permit the Church to perform its duty of leading men to salvation." (3) This duty of leading souls to salvation required the use of the intellectual goods of Greco-Roman culture, goods that first had to be removed from their original pagan contexts before they could be placed in the service of the Church. This translatio from a pagan to a Christian context could not help but alter the signification of the various terms, concepts, and ideas, which constituted a genuine transformation of culture. (4)

To this great tradition Sulpicius Severus (363-c. 420) added his Life of Saint Martin. Like the other great thinkers of the early Church, Sulpicius received a typical Roman education consisting of rhetorical and literary studies, which included Virgil, Terence, Sallust, Cicero, Horace, and Plautus. (5) In this area he would have had much in common with his pagan contemporaries. Clare Stancliffe writes that Sulpicius's formal education "was virtually unaffected by the rise of Christianity. The teaching of Christian beliefs and morals was the affair of the family, and of the Church; it in no way replaced the standard classical education." (6) This commonality with the pagan Roman tradition was the source of considerable tension in the minds of many Christian thinkers, creating an ambivalence experienced by individuals of such stature as Ambrose and Jerome. Ambrose claimed to prefer the simple style of the Scriptures to the polished language of orators, yet he modeled his De officiis ministrorum, a manual for training priests, on Cicero's De officiis. (7) The well-known experience of Jerome more forcefully exemplifies this ambivalence, when Christ chides him with the words: "Thou art not a Christian, but a Ciceronian." (8) Nevertheless, later in life Jerome would recommend Cicero as an oratorical model to his students. (9) Sulpicius, however, did not seem to share this ambivalence. Like Jerome, he was an ascetic; and yet, as Jacques Fontaine writes: "The ascetic of Primuliacum did not experience the anxieties of the 'dream of Jerome'; he intended to live 'as a Ciceronian and a Christian.'" (10) In this he was closer to the position of Augustine, who quite deliberately blended Ciceronian rhetoric with Christian teaching in his De doctrina christiana.

Like his fellow Christian thinkers, Sulpicius took his classical pagan education and transplanted it into a Christian context. Originally, he had planned to enter the legal profession, but after the early death of his wife he undertook a monastic-style life of seclusion at his estate in Primuliacum. He met Bishop Martin around the year 393. He was so taken by Martin's piety and charisma that he immediately took to writing an account of his life. (11) He completed his Life of Saint Martin while Martin was still living, supplementing it with his Dialogues and Letters after Martin had died. Part of the enduring importance of his Life of Saint Martin is due to the fact that it provided the paradigm for the multitude of saints' lives that were to follow in the history of the Church. In addition, Sulpicius's Life of Saint Martin reflects the cultural situation of the Church in late antiquity, and evidences the counter-cultural role of the Church vis a vis the paganism of late Roman culture.

This study is an exposition of the Life of Saint Martin in this light. Specifically, I will show that Sulpicius presents Martin as an agent of cultural transformation, one who challenges the Roman virtue of military valor with a corresponding divine valor rooted in Christian humility. I will explore this in three areas of conflict characteristic of late antiquity: (1) the literary conflict between Christianity and paganism; (2) the religious conflict between Christianity and paganism; and finally, (3) the conflict between Christianity and imperial authority. In addition, I will show that Sulpicius uses elements of Roman rhetoric to present Martin in this way, a strategy of his that underscores still further the cultural conflict in which he finds himself and in which he situates his subject.

Christianity vs. Paganism: The Literary Conflict

The culture war between Christianity and paganism was still raging when Sulpicius undertook to write his biography of St. Martin. In Sulpicius's hands, Martin in fact becomes a formidable combatant in this culture war. In the preface, as if to set the tone for the conflict between pagan and Christian culture, Sulpicius contrasts pagan vanity and Christian humility. He describes the typical worldly motivation of pagans for writing about the lives of famous men. The authors seek a kind of immortality, their goal being "enduring remembrance for their own name by penning the lives of men of eminence." In writing their narratives, pagan poets gathered in "at least a little of the fruit for which they hoped." (12) The hope was that through the notoriety of famous men they might in some way overcome the disintegration of time and history and transcend the human condition. Their efforts were ultimately futile, however, for their labors yielded nothing lasting. Their writings "win a glory that must perish with this world." Sulpicius then contrasts this vain literary enterprise with that of the hagiographer, one who records the lives of holy men and women and seeks "enduring life rather then enduring remembrance." (13)

Having established the literary contrast between pagan and Christian authors, Sulpicius begins to expound the more fundamental contrast between pagan and Christian valor. The vanity that motivates pagan authors to seek quasi-immortality is seen in the men about whom they write, which in turn motivates their readers to engage the same vanity, enticing them to pursue either intellectual sophistry or military prowess. The latter in particular finds expression in the word virtus, and it is this which will become the focus of Sulpicius's narrative. He writes:
 This common error (error humanus), when perpetuated in literature,
 has had sufficient influence to send many questing after empty
 philosophy (inanis philosophiae) or that silly valor
 (stultae virtutis). For this reason I think it worth my while to
 write the life of a very holy man (vitam sanctissimi viri), to
 serve hereafter as an example to others and to rouse in the reader
 a desire for true wisdom (veram sapientiam), for the heavenly
 warfare (caelestem militiam) and for a valor inspired by God
 (divinam virtutem). (14)

Sulpicius roots this inclination to vanity in human nature itself, calling it a common, or more precisely human, error (error humanus), something characteristic of the fallen human condition. This tendency manifests itself in intellectual and military vanity. Of particular importance to Sulpicius is stultae virtutis, "silly valor," to which he contrasts a "valor inspired by God," or more precisely "divine valor" (divinam virtutem). To underscore this contrast he appeals to the Roman concept of virtue (virtus), which shares a common root with the Latin word for man (vir). For the Romans, to act virtuously was to act in a strong or "manly" way. Pagan culture saw such "manliness" in the examples of philosophers and soldiers. (15) The saints offer an alternative embodiment of virtue, revealing Christianity as virtue's true and lasting foundation. The "very holy man" (sanctissimi viri) of God takes up and transforms pagan humanistic qualities on the spiritual level, embodying and exemplifying divine valor or manliness. Such an exemplar was a direct challenge to the pagan values of Roman culture. Sulpicius sees this direct challenge personified in Martin.

Christianity vs. Paganism: The Religious Conflict

One of the most basic ways in which Martin personifies the challenge to pagan culture is in his confrontation with pagan religion. Here we see Martin exhibiting the distinctly Christian virtue of valor rooted in humility. After his consecration as bishop of Tours, Martin undertook a strenuous campaign against paganism. Once, while on a journey he encountered a group of pagans carrying a corpse in a funeral procession. Martin mistakenly supposed "that unhallowed sacrificial rites were being performed, for it was the custom of the Gallic rustics, in their lamentable infatuation, to carry round their fields the images of demons covered with white veils." Martin made the sign of the cross and commanded them to halt. The pagans found themselves unable to move. Upon learning that the procession was actually a funeral entourage, Martin allowed them to pass. (16) "Thus," writes Sulpicius, "when he wished, he made them halt and when he chose he let them go." (17) In this way Sulpicius stresses the authority of Christ over against paganism, an authority that resides in the person of Martin.

Later, Martin became even bolder, going so far as to destroy the symbols of paganism. Here we see his Christian valor exhibited in a striking way. On one occasion, after successfully demolishing a pagan temple, Martin proceeded to cut down a sacred tree nearby. A pagan priest and his followers confronted Martin and tried to stop him: "These same people had been quiet enough, at Our Lord's command, while the temple was being thrown down but they were not prepared to see the tree felled." Martin explained to them "that there was nothing sacred about a tree trunk and that they had much better be followers of the God he himself served. As for the tree, it ought to be cut down because it was dedicated to a demon." (18) The pagans challenged Martin to stand in the way of the falling tree, saying, "If your Lord, as you call Him, is with you, you will not be harmed." (19) Martin accepted their challenge. The tree was cut, and Martin was made to stand in the path of the falling pine tree. Sulpicius vividly portrays the scene:
 [Martin], however, waited undaunted (intrepidus), relying on the
 Lord. The tottering pine had already given a crack, it was actually
 falling (iam cadenti), it was just coming down on him (iam super se
 ruenti), when he lifted his hand and met it with the sign of
 salvation (signum salutis). At that--you would have thought it had
 been whipped like a top--the tree plunged in another direction,
 almost crushing some rustics who had ensconced themselves in
 a safe place. (20)

In this passage Sulpicius draws the audience into the scene through the use of vivid description, a common rhetorical figure of thought. (21) He presents Martin as standing intrepidus, "undaunted" or "unmovable" in the face of the pagan threat. In addition, Sulpicius stresses the immediacy of the action through the double use of the word iam (lit. "now, presently"). He accents this through homoeoptoton, the use of two or more words with like terminations in the same sentence: cadenti, "falling," and ruenti, "coming down" (lit. "collapsing"). In the nick of time, Martin met this impending disaster with the "sign of salvation" (signum salutis), which "whipped" the tree "like a top," sending it crashing down and almost killing the pagans. Sulpicius's description of the witnesses' response is even more engaging:
 Then indeed a shout went up to heaven (in caelum clamore sublato)
 as the pagans gasped at the miracle (gentiles stupere miraculo),
 the monks wept for joy (monachi flere prae gaudio), and all with
 one accord acclaimed the name of Christ; and you may be sure that
 on that day salvation came to the region. Indeed, there was hardly
 anyone in that vast multitude of pagans who did not ask for the
 imposition of hands, abandoning his heathenish errors and making
 profession of faith in the Lord Jesus. (22)

Sulpicius highlights the reaction of the crowd in general as well as that of the pagans and monks through a threefold parallelism combined with homoeoptoton. We hear a shout going up to heaven (in caelum clamore sublato), a gasping of the pagans at the sight of such a miracle (gentiles stupere miraculo), and the monks weeping for joy (monachi flere prae gaudio). The victory of Christ through Martin is solidified with the mass conversion of the pagans, who seek deliverance from demonic influence through the rite of exorcism, performed by Martin through the imposition of hands. (23)

In another incident, Martin destroyed a pagan temple through his monastic charism. Here we see an emphasis upon humility as the critical ingredient in Christian valor. Sulpicius tells us that the temple "had been made very rich by its superstitious cult." (24) In his initial attempt Martin was driven back by the pagans, even suffering physical injury. He was unable to neutralize the pagans and destroy the temple merely by the sign of the cross. He then availed himself of the spiritual weapons of a monastic soldier of Christ:
 He withdrew, therefore, to a place in the neighborhood where for
 three days in sackcloth and ashes, continuously fasting and
 praying, he beseeched Our Lord that the temple that human hands had
 failed to demolish might be destroyed by divine power (quia templum
 illud evertere humana manus non potuisset, virtus illud divina
 dirveret). Then suddenly two angels stood before him, looking like
 heavenly warriors, with spears and shields. They said that the Lord
 had sent them to rout the rustic host and give Martin protection ...
 He was to go back, therefore, and carry out faithfully the work he
 had undertaken. So he returned to the village and, while crowds of
 pagans watched in silence, the heathen sanctuary was razed to its
 foundations and all its altars and images reduced to powder. (25)

Up to this point, Martin had used what might be considered an ordinary weapon to combat paganism: the sign of the cross. Now, however, he had to use the extraordinary power of asceticism in waging spiritual warfare. He had to pray and fast, divest himself of his episcopal robe and don sackcloth and ashes, the garb of a penitent. Here Sulpicius emphasizes the contrast between "human hands" and "divine power" through parallelism supported by homoeoptoton. He places two parallel phrases in relation to the temple: "that human hands had failed to demolish" and "might be destroyed by divine power." The verbs ending each phrase have like terminations: non potuisset and diveret. In this way Sulpicius powerfully underscores the contrast between the impotency of human effort and the efficacy of divine power exercised through the humility of Martin. After Martin had so humbled himself, two angels came to him bearing arms as a sign of divine support amidst the conflict. The angels "rout[ed] the rustic host," as seen in the fact that the pagans were rendered docile and ineffective as Martin destroyed the temple. As in the earlier destruction of the pagan temple, here also the pagans embraced the faith, "proclaiming with shouts before all that Martin's God should be worshipped and the idols ignored, which could neither save themselves nor anyone else." (26)

Sulpicius heightens the drama in two final incidents of pagan temple destruction. In both cases, an angry rustic tried to stab Martin. In the first, Martin "offered his neck to the stroke." (27) Just as he was ready to stab Martin, the pagan fell flat on his back. Overcome with fear, he asked Martin's forgiveness. (28) In the second, another enemy attempted to stab Martin, "but in the very act of striking," Sulpicius tells us, "the weapon was struck from his hand and disappeared." (29) Sulpicius concludes this section of his narrative by stressing the purely spiritual weapons wielded by Martin in the war with paganism:
 More often, however, when the rustics were protesting against the
 destruction of their shrines, he so subdued (mitigabat) their pagan
 hearts (gentiles animos) by his holy preaching that the light of
 the truth penetrated to them and they themselves threw down their
 own temples. (30)

In his conclusion of this section of the narrative Sulpicius underscores the proclamation of the gospel on the part of Bishop Martin. Martin subdued the hearts of the pagans (a more exact translation of mitigabat would be "pacify"), obtaining a spiritual victory over their hearts or souls (animos) so that they destroyed their own temples after abandoning them. Martin used three weapons to combat paganism: the sign of the cross, the humility of asceticism, and apostolic preaching. The first is the weapon common to the ordinary Christian; the second is that particular to the monk; the wielding of the third weapon is the prerogative of the bishop. By showing Martin as utilizing all three weapons, Sulpicius presents him as a universal exemplar of Christian valor.

Christianity vs. Imperial Authority

One of the areas in Martin's life where the contrast between pagan and Christian valor is the most pronounced is in Martin's dealings with imperial authority. Three areas in particular stand out in this category: Martin's service in the army while still a catechumen, Martin's service under the hostile pagan emperor Julian, and Bishop Martin's dealings with the nominally Christian emperor Maximus. Martin was born into the military class, his father being what we would recognize today as a career officer in the imperial army. (31) His name in Latin, Martinus, means "little Mars," in reference to the Roman god of war. (32) Both of his parents were pagans, but Sulpicius tells us that this did not stop Martin from committing himself to the true faith at an early age. Thus, he personified the emergence of a vibrant Christianity from within the matrix of pagan Roman civilization. "From almost the earliest years of his hallowed child-hood," Sulpicius writes, "this remarkable boy aspired to the service of God." (33) He was drawn into military service at a young age, serving "in the soldiery that uses earthly weapons" under Emperor Constantius II and later Julian. (34) When he was ten, Martin went to the local church and became a catechumen. (35) Even at this age Martin aspired to the ascetic life characteristic of the Desert Fathers. Sulpicius writes: "He was soon in the most wonderful way wholly taken up with the work of God and at the age of twelve longed for the desert. His tender age prevented him from fulfilling his desire, but his mind, ever fixed on hermitages (monasteria) and the church (ecclesiam), continued to dream, even in those boyhood years, of the life to which he was afterward consecrated." (36)

While still a Roman soldier, nominally committed to the pagan ideal of military distinction, Martin desired the Christian valor of monastic discipline. In this passage Sulpicius artfully combines the two principle modes of Christian life: the religious (monasteria) and the secular or diocesan (ecclesiam), both of which would make a certain claim upon Martin in his later life, representing different dimensions of the life "to which he was afterward consecrated."

At the age of fifteen, in obedience to an imperial edict, Martin was forced to take a formal oath of military service. While Martin was loath to enter the Roman army, his father, who resented his ascetical practices, handed him over to the authorities. Martin took the oath "as a prisoner in chains." Yet it is here that we catch our first glimpse of Martin personifying the humility of Christ in his manner of living. He was given a servant to attend to him, but in "topsy-turvy fashion, it was the master who performed the services, often to the extent of taking off the servant's boots and cleaning them." (37) Sulpicius not only alludes to the passage in the Gospel of Mark in which Jesus emphasizes the primacy of service, but also gives us an image of Martin not unlike that of Christ washing the disciples' feet. (38) This likeness is reinforced by the line that follows: "They took their meals together and it was generally the master who waited." (39)

Sulpicius tells us that Martin was a catechumen for three years during his military service. (40) Yet even before he received baptism, Martin exemplified the life of Christian virtue within the ranks of the Roman army, challenging Roman military valor with the striking alternative of Christian humility. Sulpicius writes: "Great was his kindness toward his fellow soldiers, and wonderful his charity, while his patience and humility were more than human. As for abstemiousness, it is superfluous to praise it in him. He practiced it to such an extent that even at that time he was regarded as a monk rather than a soldier." (41)

On account of his "more than human" virtue, Martin had the reputation of a Christian even before he received the character of a Christian through baptism. Moreover, his virtues were so extraordinary that he had the moral status of a monk, contrasted with his apparent status as a soldier. Sulpicius summates, "Though not yet reborn in Christ, he acted as one already robed in the good works of baptism--caring for the suffering, succoring the unfortunate, feeding the needy, clothing the naked, keeping nothing for himself out of his army pay beyond his daily food." (42) Sulpicius's presentation of Martin in this way would undoubtedly have provided encouragement to soldiers in like circumstances who desired to live the Christian life but had to postpone their baptism on account of the hostility of their leaders and fellow soldiers.

We see the height of Martin's prebaptismal humility in an incident that became the basis for the later iconography of Martin. In addition we find here a striking contrast between pagan and Christian valor in the person of Martin the Roman soldier. One day during a particularly harsh winter, Martin came upon a beggar outside the city gate at Amiens. (43) Taking pity on the man, Martin divided his cape with him. Sulpicius relates:
 Then the God-filled man understood, from the fact that no one else
 had had pity, that this beggar had been reserved for him. But what
 was he to do? He had nothing with him but the cape he had on, for
 he had already used up what else he had in similar good works. So
 he took the sword he was wearing and cut the cape in two and gave
 one half to the beggar, putting on the rest himself. (44)

Here we see Martin the soldier behaving as a monk. He is the Christian soldier wielding an earthly sword to strike a blow for charity. Martin then entered the city wearing the tattered half of his cloak, evoking laughter from some of the onlookers, "for he looked grotesque in the mutilated garment (truncates habitu)." (45) His heroic charity on behalf of the beggar affects Martin in such a way that his appearance elicits contempt from others. Martin is able to bear this contempt on account of his prebaptismal Christian humility. Significantly, Sulpicius uses the word habitus to designate Martin's cape, giving a prelude to the monastic habit he would later assume. That night while sleeping, Sulpicius tells us, "Martin saw Christ wearing the half of his cape (vestitum) with which he had clothed the beggar." (46) Sulpicius continues:
 He was told to look carefully at Our Lord and take note that it was
 the garment he had given away. Then he heard Jesus say aloud to the
 throng of angels that surrounded Him: "Martin is still only a
 catechumen but he has clothed Me with his garment." But Our Lord
 Himself had once said: "As you did it to one of the least of my
 brethren, you did it to me" (Mt 25:40), and He was only acting on
 His own words when He declared that He had been clothed in the
 person of the beggar and reinforced his testimony to so good a deed
 by graciously showing Himself in the very garment (habitu) that the
 beggar had received. (47)

Again, Sulpicius uses the word habitus, this time to indicate the garment worn by Christ in the person of the beggar. Also significant in this passage are the words of Christ that underscore Martin's pre-baptismal status. Martin is only a catechumen, yet he has performed one of the most basic corporal works of mercy: clothing the naked. Such a statement on the lips of Christ would certainly have pricked the conscience of Christians of Sulpicius's day. After this, unable to delay any longer, Martin "flew to be baptized," but remained a soldier for nearly two more years at the entreaty of his tribune. (48)

During this time Martin continued to present a personal challenge to pagan valor. This challenge became quite heated during the reign of Julian the Apostate. Barbarians had been making incursions into Gaul, and the emperor was rallying his forces in the region to fight them. Julian was distributing a donativum, a large sum of money given to the soldiers, customarily done by the emperor upon his accession or other special occasions. (49) When it came to be Martin's turn to go up and receive the gift, he politely refused. (50) Sulpicius describes the scene:
 There [Julian] began to distribute a bonus to the soldiers. They
 were called up one by one in the usual way until Martin's turn
 came. But he thought it would be a suitable time for applying for
 his discharge, for he did not think that it would be honest for him
 to take the bonus if he was not going to fight. So he said to the
 Caesar: "I have been your soldier (militavi tibi) up to now. Let me
 now be God's (militem Deo). Let someone who is going to fight have
 your bonus. I am Christ's soldier (Christi ego miles sum); I am not
 allowed to fight." (51)

Here we see the beginning of Martin's outward transformation from a secular to a spiritual warrior. He has already manifested Christian valor in his exemplary charity. Since he has now outwardly put on Christ through baptism, he wishes now to put off the garments of earthly warfare entirely, for he is "Christ's soldier" (miles Christi), something that would become a standard topic in later Christian hagiography. He wished to fight only for the kingdom of heaven. Emperor Julian, however, was either unable to comprehend the concept of the miles Christi or was hostile to the idea, given the fact that he had personally repudiated Christianity. He refused to acknowledge the sincerity of Martin's faith and accused him of cowardice. Martin however stood firm in his commitment to the ideal of Christian valor, proving his courage in a most unusual way. Sulpicius writes: "But Martin was undaunted (intrepidus); in fact he stood all the firmer when they tried to frighten him. 'If it is put down to cowardice,' he said, 'and not to faith, I will stand unarmed in front of the battle line tomorrow and I will go unscathed through the enemy's columns in the name of the Lord Jesus, protected by the sign of the Cross instead of by shield and helmet.'" (52)

Again Sulpicius uses the word intrepidus to describe Martin. Martin stood unmoved by the threats of his superiors. Julian then gave the order for Martin to prove his words in battle. The next day, however, the barbarians sent emissaries and sued for peace, "surrendering themselves and all they had." (53) Sulpicius considers this a vindication of the type of warfare in which Martin was now engaged as a soldier of Christ: "The good Lord could have kept His soldier (militem suum) safe even among the swords and javelins of the enemy but, to spare those hallowed eyes the sight of other men's deaths, He made a battle unnecessary. For Christ could not rightly have granted any other victory for the benefit of His own soldier (pro milite suo) than one in which the enemy were beaten bloodlessly and no man had to die." (54)

Here Martin proved the superiority of Christian valor over that of paganism. Sulpicius highlights this in two ways. First, he contrasts the protection afforded by the sign of the Cross with that offered by "shield and helmet." He also makes frequent use of the word soldier (miles) in connection to Christ, emphasizing the fact that Martin is "His [Christ's] soldier" (miles suus). Like a good soldier, Martin stood undaunted in the face of a hostile emperor. This same courage, rooted in Christian faith, prompted Martin's offer to prove his faith in the face of enemy combatants. Martin's faith and his status as a soldier of Christ were then vindicated by the nature of the peace achieved, a peace without bloodshed. This bloodless victory further highlights the contrast between pagan and Christian valor. The former proves itself in violence; the latter, in peace.

Sulpicius further develops the contrast between pagan and Christian valor when he recounts Martin's dealings with Emperor Maximus. Maximus was not a pagan but a Christian who commanded the Roman troops in Britain before invading Gaul. (55) He subsequently sought to wrest Italy from his rival Valentinian, a move that ended in his own death. (56) He personified the conclusive political triumph of Christianity after the death of Julian. Yet even now there was a need to assert Christian humility against pagan military values. Rome had been converted, yet the pagan militaristic ideal continued to predominate among the secular rulers, who professed Christianity yet valued worldly domination. Even a Christian emperor exercised an undeniably pagan valor. In this context Martin, now Bishop of Tours, challenged the power of the emperor with his distinctly Christian valor rooted in humility. Most of the bishops of Martin's day were mesmerized by the military prowess of the emperor and the worldly power he personified. Sulpicius recounts a gathering of bishops to meet the emperor: "The foul fawning of all of them upon the sovereign was much remarked, and the dignity of the priesthood with unworthy weakness lowered itself to win imperial patronage." (57) Sulpicius continues: "Martin alone retained apostolic authority (apostolica auctoritas). For even when he had to petition the Emperor on somebody's behalf, he commanded rather than requested (imperavit potius quam rogavit) and, though frequently invited to his banquets, he kept away, saying that he could not sit at table with a man who had robbed one emperor of his throne and another of his life." (58)

In his passage Sulpicius stresses in the person of Martin the superiority of the office of bishop over that of emperor, the preeminence of a spiritual ruler over a temporal ruler. Martin's superiority is rooted in apostolic succession and the weight of authority it carries (apostolica auctoritas). This apostolic authority is such that Bishop Martin gives orders to the emperor as to a subject, something Sulpicius underscores with the rhymed phrase imperavit potius quam rogavit. Through homoeoptoton, he underscores the contrast between commanding (imperavit) and requesting (rogavit). Sulpicius' choice of the word imperavit is significant as well. It is a form of impero, meaning "to impose or command," which in fact forms the root of imperium, which can mean a thing ordered, a command given, but also can refer to the power to command. From this root the word imperium came to signify political authority. Thus, while Sulpicius is not suggesting that Martin wields political power, he is highlighting the preeminence of the apostolic authority residing in Martin through the bold use of a word that ordinarily expresses the exercise of secular authority. The audacity of this would not have been lost on Sulpicius's readers, living at a time when imperial authority was still the supreme authority. The pagan Roman value of imperial supremacy continued to pollute and corrupt the Christian holder of the imperial office; Martin's nondeference to the emperor can be seen as an attempt on his part to purge the office of its pagan ethos and infuse it with Christian humility. This fits well with Sulpicius's goal of presenting Martin as a personal challenge to Roman military valor.

Martin did finally attend a banquet at the behest of the emperor. He attended the banquet with one of his priests, and occupied a stool next to the emperor. (59) During the meal, a servant brought a goblet of wine to Maximus. The emperor, apparently out of respect for his guest, ordered it to be given first to Martin, and "waited expectantly to receive it from the bishop's own hands." (60) The emperor's expectations were confounded however. Sulpicius writes:
 But Martin, after drinking himself, passed the goblet to his
 priest, holding that no one had a better right to drink immediately
 after himself and that it would not be honest for him to give
 precedence over the priest either to the emperor or to those who
 ranked next to him. The emperor and all who were present were so
 struck by this action that the very gesture by which they had been
 humiliated became for them a source of pleasure. (61)

Martin uses the meal as an opportunity to display the preeminence both of his apostolic authority as bishop and of the priesthood. Sulpicius included these two incidents in his Life of Saint Martin due to "the general depravity and corruption of our times," on account of which it was "a sufficiently remarkable occurrence when the firmness of the churchman does not give way to the fawning of the courtier." (62) Again, Sulpicius emphasizes the valor or firmness of Martin in opposition to the often overwhelming Roman ethos of worldly valor that manifests itself in the imperial office.

Sulpicius concludes his Life of Saint Martin with some things worth noting. He relates an incident that underscores Martin's foundational virtue of humility. Sulpicius was given the opportunity to visit Martin sometime before the saint died. He describes their visit in such a way as to provide a fitting climax to his narrative:
 You would never credit the humility and kindness with which he
 received me on that occasion. He congratulated himself and praised
 the Lord because I had thought so highly of him that I had
 undertaken a long journey especially to see him. And poor me!--I
 hardly dare say it--when he condescended to let me sit at his
 sacred board, it was he who fetched the water for me to wash my
 hands and, in the evening, it was he who washed my feet. I was so
 overborne by his authority that I would have felt it impious to do
 anything but acquiesce. (63)

On this occasion, Sulpicius tells us, Martin urged him to embrace asceticism and evangelical poverty: "But all his talk while I was there was of the necessity of renouncing the allurements of the world and the burdens of secular life in order to follow the Lord Jesus freely and unimpeded." (64) Sulpicius appropriately ends his narrative by recapitulating the idea with which he began. He again alludes to pagan literature, this time stressing its inability to do justice to the memory of such a holy man:
 Although it was possible to depict his outward actions in words
 (after a fashion), no language at all--none, I can say with
 truth--could ever depict his interior life, his everyday behavior
 and his mind ever fixed on heaven. I say again, not even Homer, if,
 as the saying goes, he returned from Hades, could do justice to his
 perseverance and self-discipline in abstinence and fasting; to his
 capacity for night vigils and prayer; to the nights, and days also,
 spent by him without any time taken from the work of God for
 indulgence either in recreation or in business--it was all so much
 greater in Martin than words can express. (65)

Here we see Sulpicius reiterating the conflict between pagan and Christian literature, between pagan biographies of famous men of worldly valor and Christian hagiography. Of particular importance here is his statement about the inability of language to adequately convey the reality of Martin's sanctity. Here we see what Thomas J. Heffernan has identified as the age-old dispute between res and verbum characteristic of rhetoric, a tension between the subject matter and the language used to convey it. (66) This tension was intensified when rhetoric entered a Christian context, for the subject matter was now the transcendent truth of divine revelation. The lives of saints, in their attempt to narrate the reality of holiness through the agency of human language, participate in this heightened res-verbum tension that characterizes Christian rhetoric. (67) Sulpicius wants his audience to read the life of his saint within the context of a larger literary and rhetorical consideration. In addition to being challenged to imitate the virtues of Martin, the reader is reminded that the true, inner core of personal sanctity is an inexpressible mystery, inaccessible to the conventions of language.


In this study of the Life of Saint Martin I have exposited the challenge Sulpicius presents to pagan Roman culture under the rubrics of Christian versus pagan literary ideals, Christian valor versus imperial authority, and Christian valor versus paganism. At the center of each of these areas is the Christian countercultural ideal of valor rooted in humility, which we see personified in Martin. He confronts pagan religion, felling their places of worship not with earthly weapons but with the sign of the cross. At times, as if to underscore the critical role of humility, Martin must avail himself of the self-effacing practices of a monk in order to triumph in his cultural-spiritual war. As bishop, Martin joins battle directly with the forces of false religion, felling pagan temples and sacred trees. Ultimately, however, Martin "subdues" the hearts of the pagans "by his holy preaching." It is Martin exercising his fundamental responsibility as a teaching bishop who ultimately triumphs over paganism. When challenged by Julian the Apostate to prove his valor, he stands "undaunted" (intrepidus) as a soldier of Christ (miles Christi) without shield and helmet, protected by this same sign. Moreover, Martin must courageously vindicate the integrity of the Church and the priesthood in the face of a nominally Christian but morally pagan emperor. Again, his weapon of choice is humility.

Moreover, in his introduction and in his conclusion Sulpicius challenges pagan literary values with a corresponding Christian alternative, a challenge that centers on the ideal of valor. While pagan authors wrote the lives of valorous men in order to achieve some mode of immortality for themselves and their subjects, a hagiographer such as Sulpicius Severus writes a saint's life in order to inspire his readers to practice heroic Christian virtue. In addition, we see in Sulpicius's prose the Christian appropriation of Roman rhetoric, employing it to exposit persuasively this transformed Christian virtus of Martin. Thus, the Life of St. Martin emerges as an exemplar of the new Christian humanism now taking shape in the intellectual culture of the Church Fathers. Literature, poetry, and rhetoric would now serve the supernatural end of directing souls to the afterlife, yet they would retain their polish and sophistication while doing so. In this way, they elevate the human person in the fullest possible way. In its literary purpose as well as in the portrayal of its subject, Sulpicius's Life of Saint Martin reflects the cultural conflict between paganism and Christianity, and points to the ultimate triumph of Christian culture.


(1.) John Chapman, "Fathers of the Church," The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 6 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909).

(2.) Chapman comments, "St. Cyprian was the first great Latin writer among the Christians, for Tertullian fell into heresy, and his style was harsh and unintelligible. Until the days of Jerome and Augustine, Cyprian's writings had no rivals in the West. Their praise is sung by Prudentius, who joins with Pacian, Jerome, Augustine, and many others in attesting their extraordinary popularity." Ibid.

(3.) James J. Murphy, Rhetoric in the Middle Ages (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), 48-49.

(4.) For a fuller treatment of the concept of translatio in regard to the Christianization of the classical literary heritage, see Ernst R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. William R. Trask (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1953), 27 ff.

(5.) Clare Stancliffe, St. Martin and His Hagiographer: History and Miracle in Sulpicius Severus (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983), 56.

(6.) Ibid., 57-58.

(7.) Murphy, Rhetoric, 52.

(8.) Jerome, Epistle XXII qtd. in ibid., 53.

(9.) Ibid., 54.

(10.) Introduction to Vie de Saint Martin, Sources Chretiennes 133 (Paris: Les Editions du Cerf, 1967), 110. Translation of the French is author's own.

(11.) F. R. Hoare, introduction to The Life of Saint Martin of Tours, in Soldiers of Christ: Saints and Saints' Lives from Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, Thomas F. X. Noble and Thomas Head (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995), 1-2.

(12.) Sulpicius Severus, Life of Saint Martin, I.1. The Latin text is found in Vie de Saint Martin, Tome I: Introduction, Texte et Traduction, ed. Jacques Fontaine, Sources Chretiennes 133 (Paris, Les Editions du Cerf, 1967).

(13.) Ibid., I.4.

(14.) Ibid., I.5-6.

(15.) See above for Sulpicius's mention of Socrates and Hector. In addition, one could consider Achilles and Odysseus exemplars of the Greek heroic ideal whereby an individual defines himself through solitary acts of bravery and military prowess which, in turn, solidify his memory for posterity. For the Roman ideal one might consider the example of Aeneas, who like the Greek heroes distinguishes himself in combat, yet his military prowess is motivated not by a desire for notoriety, but by the Roman virtue of pietas, devotion to country and family. Yet even the unselfish pietas of Aeneas acquires a lasting notoriety from the pen of Virgil, the Roman poet, who begins his epic The Aeneid with the following lines: "I sing of warfare and a man at war. From the sea-coast of Troy in early days He came to Italy by destiny" (Book 1, lines 1-3).

(16.) Life of St. Martin, XII.2.

(17.) Ibid., XII.5.

(18.) Ibid., VIII.2.

(19.) Ibid., VIII.3.

(20.) Ibid., VIII.8.

(21.) Most of the rhetorical figures and devices identified in this study are described in the anonymously authored Rhetorica ad Herennium, a prescriptive rhetorical treatise wrongly attributed to Cicero yet very much part of the Ciceronian tradition of rhetoric and composition. A good standard edition is Rhetorica ad Herennium, trans. Harry Caplan (Loeb Classical Library, 1977).

(22.) Life of St. Martin, VIII.9.

(23.) Ibid., XIII, note 25.

(24.) Ibid., XIV.3.

(25.) Ibid., XIV.4-6.

(26.) Ibid., XIV.7.

(27.) Ibid., XV.1.

(28.) Ibid., XV.2.

(29.) Ibid., XV.3.

(30.) Ibid., XV.4.

(31.) Ibid., II.2.

(32.) Regine Pernoud, Martin of Tours: Soldier, Saint, Bishop, trans. Michael J. Miller (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), 19.

(33.) Life of St. Martin, II.4.

(34.) Ibid., II.2.

(35.) Ibid., II.3.

(36.) Ibid., II.4.

(37.) Ibid., II.5.

(38.) "Anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be the slave of all. For the Son of Man himself did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mk 10:43-45).

(39.) Life of St. Martin, II.5.

(40.) Ibid., II.6.

(41.) Ibid., II.7.

(42.) Ibid., II.8.

(43.) Ibid., II.1.

(44.) Ibid., III.1-2.

(45.) Ibid.

(46.) Ibid., III.3.

(47.) Ibid., III.3-4.

(48.) Ibid., III.5.

(49.) "Donativum," in Charlton T. Lewis, Latin Dictionary Founded on Andrew's Edition of Freund's Latin Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

(50.) Life of St. Martin, IV, 1-2.

(51.) Ibid.

(52.) Ibid., IV.5.

(53.) Ibid., IV.6.

(54.) Ibid., IV.7-9.

(55.) Ibid., XX.8, n. 31.

(56.) Ibid., XX.8-9.

(57.) Ibid., XX.1.

(58.) Ibid., XX.1-2.

(59.) Ibid., XX.4.

(60.) Ibid., XX.5.

(61.) Ibid., XX.6-7.

(62.) Ibid., XX.1.

(63.) Ibid., XV. 2-3.

(64.) Ibid., XV.4.

(65.) Ibid., XVI.2-3.

(66.) Sacred Biography: Saints and Their Biographers in the Middle Ages (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 4.

(67.) For a fuller treatment of this rhetorical tension as it operates in hagiography, see John P. Bequette, The Eloquence of Sanctity: Rhetoric in Thomas of Celano's Vita Prima Sancti Francisci (Quincy, IL: Franciscan Press, 2004). See also Erich Auerbach, Literary Language and Its Public in Late Latin Antiquity and in the Middle Ages, trans. Ralph Mannheim (New York: Pantheon Books, 1965).
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Author:Bequette, John P.
Publication:Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture
Date:Mar 22, 2010
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