Salvian of Marseille was born at the beginning of the fifth century at Trier or Cologne, probably in a family that counted among the minor notables of these cities. After witnessing the third invasion of Trier and its area, around 418-420 CE, by some barbarian groups, he decided to move to the south of Gaul, which was still under the authority of the praetorian prefect of Gaul based at Arles, with his wife Palladia. Both of them practiced chastity and followed an ascetic life. He stayed for a while at the island of Lérins, and was then ordained as a priest in Marseille. Salvian was still alive in 470 CE.
Salvian composed his treatise On the Providential Rule of God between 439 CE and the beginning of the 440s, having gone into exile in the south-east of Gaul around ten years prior. On the Providential Rule of God is a parenetic work whose leitmotiv is that the barbarian invasions that affected Gaul from the very beginning of the fifth century CE were nothing but a divine punishment for the sins and the iniquity of the Roman people. Contrary to Augustine’s City of God, which was published twenty years before, pagan Romans were not the real target of Salvian’s criticism. Salvian chose to attack violently a section of the Christian clergy, but also laymen who pretended to be good orthodox Christians but who were in fact corrupt, and behaved tyrannically towards people of humbler condition. From the beginning of book III to the middle of book IV (IV.53), Salvian underscores the universality and the gravity of the sins committed by the majority of Christians to argue that a divine punishment, which manifested itself through the barbarian invasions, was unavoidable. Next, from IV.54 to the end of the treatise, Salvian proceeds to an extended comparison between the Romans and the barbarians. Thus, Salvian highlights three main areas of corruption in the Roman Empire: social injustice and taxation, spectacles, and moral debasement. Regarding social injustice and taxation, Salvian’s argumentation is primarily based on the idea that most of the honestiores shamelessly oppress the multitude of the humiliores through taxation or exploitation of any kind (the honestiores included officers of the praetorian or provincial administration sent in the provinces, and all the various members of the civic élite who were also more or less wealthy landowners). This unfair treatment of humble people by the most powerful is presented as a reason why the Romans were punished by God: contrary to the barbarians they knew the sacred Scriptures, but they deliberately chose not to respect their teachings. This reasoning enables Salvian to reach the conclusion that the Romans are far worse – and more barbarian – than the barbarians themselves.
The text presented here is an excerpt from the fifth book of the treatise, a book which deals with this comparison between Romans and barbarians and enumerates the numerous troubles caused by the dysfunctional fiscal system and social injustice. After having insisted upon the fact that members of civic institutions of various ranks used taxation for their own profit, at the expense of the poor persons (V.17-19), with the passive complicity of many clerics (V.19), Salvian narrates what he considers to be the direct consequences of this injustice. The first one, which is exposed in the text presented here, is that many Roman citizens went out of the areas in which the Roman taxation system still functioned and were thus obliged not to be Roman anymore (V.21-23). We will analyse the arguments used by Salvian to criticize the unfair nature of Rome’s policy in the provinces in his days and the interesting way he reflects upon the degradation of the status of Roman citizens.
In the text presented here, Salvian deals with the numerous Roman citizens who preferred to run away to barbarian territories. Salvian identifies the main causes of their migrations as follows. First, the increase of the fiscal burden on Gallic provincials (here denounced as “public persecution,” V.21). This increase may have been noticeable after Carthage was taken by the Vandals in 435 CE, an event that must have provoked a redeployment of the fiscal burden on the areas that still recognized the authority of the Western imperial power (in the 430s these areas were the south-west of Numidia, a part of Mauretania Sitifensis, Gaul – with the exception of Armorica and of the northern regions –, Tarraconensis, and Italy). The second cause, identified various times by Salvian, is the numerous injustices committed by the Romans (iniustitiam saevitatem, V.21; Romanae iniquitatis, V.23; Romanae iniquitatis crudelitate, V.23). We can guess that Salvian must have targeted here the Romans within various levels of the administrative system that he denounces in the whole treatise (see Salvian of Marseille, On the Providential Rule of God V.24-25). Moreover, concerning the victims of these extortions or injustices, Salvian insists upon the fact that they were Roman citizens of good birth, who had enjoyed a good education (V.21), and who were thus from the nobiles milieux (V.23). Salvian probably focuses attention on these nobiles firstly because his own family was from the small nobility of Trier or Cologne, and secondly because he may have wanted to “strike a stronger chord with his (presumably well-born and educated) audience” (on this second point, see Lambert, “Salvian and the Bacaudae,” p. 269). As rightly remarked by Peter Brown, the fact that Salvian defends in this text the fact that it was better for the Romans to live in barbarian territories than to continue to be oppressed in territories controlled by Rome contradicts Salvian’s own choices, as in the 420s he chose to flee the barbarian raids that affected north-eastern Gaul for the Provençal area, that is in the area of the Gallic prefecture that maintained the closest connections with the imperial court (Brown, “Salvian of Marseilles,” p. 3-4). This apparent contradiction has to be understood in light of the fact that in thirty years the various barbarian peoples became unavoidable figures in the everyday life of many Gallic provincials, but also in light of the necessities of the demonstration followed by Salvian in the treatise On the Providential Rule of God. Even if Salvian tries to show in this work that the barbarians were far more virtuous than the Romans, a few years before the writing of the treatise the priest had tried to intercede for a relative who lived in an area in which barbarians were influential. Actually, in one of the letters he sent to the monks of Lérins in 439-440 CE to recommend a young relative, Salvian alludes to the difficulties that the mother of the young man whom he recommended, who was still in Cologne, was confronted with. Salvian thus writes that this woman, who had been part of the influent nobility of the city, was now so impoverished that she could not leave Cologne and that the only thing she could do was to “rent his hands to the wives of the barbarians” present in the city (Salvian, Letters I.5-6). The situation of Salvian’s relative was particularly difficult, as she could not leave Cologne to come to Provence, but Salvian implies that her situation was even worse because she was compelled to become the servant of some barbarian ladies who may have been part of the barbarian aristocratic groups present in the area. Her condition is thus different from that of the Romans described by Salvian in this text, who could enjoy their free-status in a barbarian territory. This difference of point of view can be explained by the needs of the rhetorical demonstration in the treatise On the Providential Rule of God. Actually, as rightly recalled by Peter Brown, Salvian addressed this work to an audience that lived in the Provençal area wherein both imperial authority and that of the Gallic prefect were still recognized. When in this text Salvian enumerates the various options chosen by the nobiles who wanted to get rid of Rome’s iniquities, that is to go into barbarian territories (these could be in areas assigned to federated barbarians or in areas situated outside the Empire) or to join rebels called Bacaudae or Bagaudae which meant that the regions controlled by the rebels got away from Roman prefectoral authorities, he clearly highlights the fact that the Provençal area was becoming a Roman enclave in a Gaul largely dominated by barbarians, and warns the inhabitants of this enclave “that the Roman order of which they were so proud hung on a thread” (Brown, “Salvian of Marseilles,” p. 3).
The main idea developed by Salvian in this text is that Rome’s rule in the Gallic provinces became so oppressive and unjust that it led to the subversion of the whole social order (see Lambert, “Salvian and the Bacaudae,” p. 270). The first subversion concerns moral qualities. Actually, Salvian reuses the common argument that the Romans behave so unjustly and cruelly that they were far more barbarian than the barbarians themselves: “They seek among the barbarians the Roman humanness (Romana humanitatem), since they cannot endure the barbarous inhumanity (barbaram inhumanitatem) they find among the Romans” (V.21). Such an idea is actually not new, it can be noticed in the panegyric that Mamertinus wrote for Julian in 362 CE, in which Mamertinus already attacks “the cruelty of the plunderer” (crudelitas praedonis), that is of the provincial governors, who caused so much trouble to the provincials that the latter preferred to be ruled by barbarians rather than by them (Latin Panegyrics XI, 4; see Brown, Through the Eye, p. 447). This kind of reasoning is also well-attested during the fifth century; for instance, Orosius highlights that some Romans preferred to live poor but free with the barbarians than to be perpetually anxious about taxation if they lived with the Romans (Orosius, Seven Books of History Against the Pagans VII.41.7). Salvian thus exploits here this common argument to prove that because of the evolution of social values and that of Rome’s rule in the provinces, the Roman power failed to rule with humanitas, a notion that in the mind of Salvian allies both “the benevolent style of rule” that was traditionally characteristic of the optimus princeps from the early imperial period onwards with more Christian connotations, especially the special concern of the Christian emperor for poor and weak peoples (see Brown, Poverty and Leadership, p. 1).
The second major aspect of the subversion of Roman social order that Salvian develops at length in the text presented here is that the Romans had been deprived of the main elements of their identity. The first direct manifestation is that they have lost their libertas, so life in the Roman provinces is equated by Salvian with living as “captives in seeming liberty” (V.22). The oppression of the Roman fiscus and of the Roman judges was so impressive that the free Romans living in the Roman Empire were reduced to a state of slavery. The only way they could get back their freedom was to get out of Roman provinces by joining barbarian territories or joining rebellious movements (Lambert, “Salvian and the Bacaudae,” p. 270-271). This thus leads logically to the second aspect of the subversion of the identity of the Romans, namely the fact that Roman citizenship ceased to be an honourable and desired status. This idea is developed in the passage: “Hence the name of Roman citizen, once not only much valued but bought at a high price, is now voluntarily repudiated and avoided; it is considered not only valueless, but even almost abhorrent.” The allusion to the fact that Roman citizenship could be “bought at a high price” is probably a reference to Acts 22.28 when the tribune calling out to Paul says that he bought his Roman citizenship “with a large sum of money.” David Lambert has rightly noticed that when Salvian depicts Roman citizenship as something which in the past had been much valued or bought at a high price, he expressed an “idealized vision of the Roman past, in which all the citizens were free, and Romans did not prey on each other” (Lambert, “Salvian and the Bacaudae,” p. 272). This idea thus fits in with Salvian’s whole conception of Roman history, which he perceived as a continuum that started from a just and virtuous past – that of the heroes of the Republican period – and that declined so much throughout time that it became the unjust and immoral state it was in his day (on Salvian’s conception of Roman history and his admiration for the exempla of the Romans of old, see Inglebert, Les Romains chrétiens, p. 660-663, 668-669).
Salvian thus defends the idea that the deflation of Roman citizenship had been so important from the Republican period onwards, that in his day many provincials were not at all afraid of losing their status as Roman citizens, either by migrating to barbarian territories, such as in the areas where the Visigoths were settled (mentioned in V.22), or by taking part in a Bacaudae revolt. David Lambert has interestingly noticed that instead of highlighting practical consequences of the losses caused by their migrations, Salvian chose to underscore the fact that they have lost the “name of Roman citizens” (nomen civium Romanorum, V.22) or the “honour of the Roman name” (honorem Romani nominis, V.24) (Lambert, “Salvian and the Bacaudae,” p. 271). Thus, it is quite rare to find in the middle of the fifth century CE, more than two centuries after the Constitutio Antoniniana, authors who stress the importance of the status of Roman citizen so much. In spite of the necessities of Salvian’s rhetorical demonstration, this text proves that the moral implications associated with being a Roman citizen remained meaningful during the fifth century, especially at a time when many barbarians, that is non-Romans, lived in the Roman Empire and had even been allowed by the Roman authorities to settle in entire regions (on this aspect, see Inglebert, “Citoyenneté romaine,” p. 251-252). This idea becomes all the more relevant for Salvian, and he must have had in mind the example of his relative who stayed at Cologne and who became the servant of some barbarian ladies. For men or women like Salvian or his relatives who came from the small or medium notability of the cities, who continued to live in the Empire, and who had suffered a social and economical downgrading during the first half of the fifth century, to assert the importance of Roman citizen status was thus a vital – even if despairing – process.
This text of Salvian is thus very representative of the main leitmotivs defended by him in his whole work, but also of his use of elements of the Roman past to comfort his point of view. We have actually seen that Salvian focuses his criticism here on the exactions and injustices caused by the Roman administrative system that led to a total subversion of the Roman social and moral order. These abuses had been so important that the Romans became more immoral than the barbarians themselves, and the right of Roman freedom disappeared totally. Many Romans thus did not find any other solution than to emigrate to barbarian or rebellious areas, even if this implied the loss of their Roman citizenship. The two phenomena Salvian describes must have been real ones, and the fact that Salvian insists so much upon the past importance and honour of being a Roman citizen must reflect the fears of many Romans of the time who were confronted with the arrival of many non-Roman populations inside the Empire, and with the emergence of an influent élite inside these new populations. To assert the importance and the prestige of Roman citizenship must be understood as a reaction to this situation in which the Romans had to find ways to distinguish themselves before this new influential barbarian élite, even if Salvian’s pessimistic point of view implies that this was too late, as the majority of the Romans decided to abandon their Roman citizenship and find solutions outside the Roman legal order.
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