Salvian was born probably at Cologne, some time between 400 and 405. He was educated at the school of Treves and seems to have been brought up as a Christian. His writings appear to show that he had made a special study of the law; and this is the more likely as he appears to have been of noble birth. He was certainly a Christian when he married Palladia, the daughter of heathen parents, Hypatius and Quieta, whose displeasure he incurred by persuading his wife to retire with him to a distant monastery, which is almost certainly that founded by St. Honoratus at Lerins.
It was presumably at Lerins that Salvian made the acquaintance of Honoratus, Hilary of Arles, and Eucherius of lyons. To Eucherius's two sons, Salonius and Veranus, he acted as tutor. As he succeeded Honoratus and Hilary in this office, this date cannot well be later than the year 426 or 427, when the former was called to Arles, whither he seems to have summoned Hilary before his death in 429
If French scholars are right in assigning Hilary's Vita Honorati to 430, Salvian, who is there called a priest, , had probably already left Lyons for Marseilles, where he is known to have spent the last years of his life. It was probably from Marseilles that he wrote his first letter - presumably to Lerinsbegging the community there to receive his kinsman, the son of a widow of Cologne, who had been reduced to poverty by the barbarian invasions. It seems a fair inference that Salvian had divested himself of all his property in favour of that society and sent his relative to Lerins for assistance .
Of Salvian's writings there are still extant two treatises, entitled respectively De gubernatione Dei and Ad ecclesiam, and a series of nine letters. The De gubernatione, Salvian's greatest work, was published after the capture of Litorius at Toulouse (439), and after the Vandal conquest of Carthage in the same year, but before Attila's invasion (450), as Salvian speaks of the Huns, not as enemies of the empire, but as serving in the Roman armies. The words "proximum bellum" seem to denote a year very soon after 439. In this work, which furnishes a valuable if prejudiced description of life in 5th-century Gaul, Salvian deals with the same problem that had moved the eloquence of Augustine and Orosius. Why were these miseries falling on the empire? Could it be, as the pagans said, because the age had forsaken its old gods? Or, as the semi-pagan creed of some Christians taught, that God did not constantly overrule the world he had created? With this the former Salvian will not argue. To the latter he replies by asserting that, "just as the navigating steersman never looses the helm, so does God never remove his care from the world." Hence the title of the treatise. In books i and ii Salvian sets himself to prove God's constant guidance, first by the facts of Scripture history, and secondly by the enumeration of special texts declaring this truth. Having thus "laid the foundations" of his work, he declares in book iii that the misery of the Roman world is all due to the neglect of God's commandments and the terrible sins of every class of society. It is not merely that the slaves are thieves and runaways, wine-bibbers and gluttons - the rich are worse. It is their harshness and greed that drive the poor to join the Bagaudae and fly for shelter to the barbarian invaders.
Works by Salvian
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