« Severus Sanctus Severus Sulpicius, an historian Severus, bp. of Mileum »

Severus Sulpicius, an historian

Severus (18) Sulpicius, ecclesiastical historian in Gaul, belonging to a noble family of Aquitaine, born after a.d. 353. He became an advocate and married a woman of consular rank and wealth, who did not long survive the marriage. While yet in the flower of his age, c. 392, caressed and praised by all and eminent in his profession (Paulinus, Ep. v., Migne, Patr. Lat. lxi. 169–170), he braved his father's anger and the flouts of worldly acquaintances (ib. i. col. 154), and retired from the world. Thenceforth with a few disciples and servants he led a life of ascetic seclusion and literary activity. Where he abode is not quite certain, but probably at Primuliacum, a village between Toulouse and Carcassonne, where he built two churches (ib. Ep. xxxii.). It was probably an estate of his wife or mother-in-law, his father apparently having disinherited him (cf. Ep. ad Bassulam). According to Gennadius he was a priest, but this has been questioned, and his tone towards the bishops and clergy, against whom he constantly inveighs as vain, luxurious, self-seeking, factious foes of Christianity and envious persecutors of his hero St. Martin, lends countenance to the doubt (Hist. Sacr. ii. 32; Vita S Martini, 27; Dial. 1, 2, 9, 21, 24, 26). Later authors have believed him a monk, some of Marmoûtiers, Martin's foundation at Tours, others of Marseilles, whither he may have been driven by the Vandal invasion. This seems probable from c. i. of Dial. 1 (cf. also ii. 8). Gennadius asserts that in his old age he was deceived into Pelagianism, but recognizing the fault of loquacity, remained mute till his death, in order by penitential silence to correct the sin he had committed by much speaking. Others, from a passage in St. Jerome (in Ezech. c. xxxvi., Migne, Patr. Lat. xx. 85), have accused him of Millenarianism. At the Roman council held by pope Gelasius in 494 the Dialogi, under the name of Opuscula Postumiani et Galli, were certainly placed among the libri apocryphi (Mansi, viii. 151). The charge rested on Dial. ii. 14, where a strange theory as to the imminent appearance among 895men of Nero and Antichrist is put into the mouth of St. Martin. The chapter has been expunged in many Italian MSS. (Halm. Sulpic. Sev. Praefatio). Various years between 406 and 429 have been suggested for his death. The principal authorities for his Life are the short biography of Gennadius (de Scriptt. Eccles. xix., Migne, Patr. Lat. lviii. 1071), the letters of his friend Paulinus of Nola, with whom between 394 and 403 he constantly interchanged gifts and letters, though only one letter of Sulpicius, and that probably a forgery, survives (Epp. i. v. xi. xvii. xxii.–xxiv. xxvii.–xxxii., Migne, Patr. Lat. lxi. 153–330; Ceillier, vii. 55 sqq ), allusions in his own writings, esp. the Vita S. Martini, the Epistolae, and the Dialogi; and a panegyric by Paulinus of Périgueux (de Vita S. Martini lib. v. Patr. Lat. lxi. 1052 ). A modern and exhaustive notice is by Jacob Bernays, Die Chronik des Sulp. Sev. (Berlin, 1861).

His works consist of the Historia Sacra or Chronica, a Life of St. Martin of Tours, 3 letters, and 3 dialogues. An Eng. trans. is in Schaff and Wace's Lib. of Post-Nicene Fathers. The Historia, written c. 403, was an attempt to give a concise history of the world with dates from the creation to his own times, the consulship of Stilicho in 400. His sources are the LXX, the ancient Latin version of the Scriptures, the Chronicles of Eusebius, and the Historici Ethnici, as he calls the non-Christian authors (Herbert, Notice, p. 7). Bk. i. and part of ii. are occupied with universal history down to the birth of Christ. Then, omitting the period covered by the Gospels and Acts, he adds some details to Josephus's narrative of the siege of Jerusalem, recounts persecutions of the Christians under 9 emperors, and describes the Invention of the Cross by St. Helena, as he had heard it from Paulinus. His account of the Arian controversy (ii. 35–45) is inaccurate and of little value; but of more importance is that of the Priscillianist heresy, which had arisen in his time and with the details of which he was familiar.

The Vita S. Martini, the earliest of his writings, is very important as containing, with the Dialogues and 3 letters, practically everything that is authentic about that popular saint of Western Christendom. He tells us that, having long heard of the sanctity and miracles of Martin, he went to Tours to see him, asked him all the questions he could, and got information from eyewitnesses and those who knew (c. 25). This visit, probably c. 394, was followed by many others. The book was pub. during Martin's lifetime.

In the Dialogi, written c. 405, the interlocutors are his friend Postumianus, just back from a three years' stay in the East, Gallus, a disciple of St. Martin, now dead, and Sulpicius himself. Twenty-two chapters of Dial. i. contain interesting pictures of the controversy at Alexandria between archbp. Theophilus and the monks concerning Origen, St. Jerome at his church in Bethlehem, and the monks and hermits of the Thebaid. Postumianus asks about St. Martin, and bears witness to the enormous popularity of the Life in almost every country. Paulinus had introduced it at Rome, where the whole city had fought for it. All Carthage was reading it, the Alexandrians knew its contents almost better than the author, and it had penetrated into Egypt, Nitria, and the Thebaid. All were clamouring for those further wonders which Sulpicius had omitted (c. 23, cf. Vita, prol.) and with which the remainder of the Dialogues is almost entirely occupied.

The Epistles are also about St. Martin, the first giving the story of his death and burial. Seven more letters have been published under Sulpicius's name; several have been generally suspected (Ceillier, 119–120), but all are pronounced spurious by Halm (Pref. xl.–xiii.).

The best ed. of the collected works is that of C. Halm (Sulpicii Severi Libri qui supersunt, Vindob, 1866). His works have been several times translated into French, e.g. by M. Herbert (Paris, 1847).

Apart from the unique History of St. Martin (which, however, is the worst of his writings from a literary point of view), Sulpicius's chief title to fame rests on his beauty and purity of style, in respect of which he is pre-eminent, if not unique, among ecclesiastical authors, and well merits his appellation of the "Christian Sallust." He seems to have taken this historian as his model, but his writings shew familiarity with Vergil, Livy, Tacitus, and most classical authors. Perhaps his work is somewhat lacking in vigour, and not entirely free from the affectations and bad taste of his time. The credulity and superstition of the narrative had, as regards Martin's Miracles, evidently excited scepticism even among the Christians in Sulpicius's own time (see Dial. iii. 6). [MARTIN (1)]. For an estimate of Sulpicius's works see Ceill. viii. 121–122.


« Severus Sanctus Severus Sulpicius, an historian Severus, bp. of Mileum »


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