Paulus Orosius: An Optimist’s View of the “Disastrous” Fifth Century

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Paulus Orosius’ fifth-century CE The Seven Books Against the Pagans, is one of the most important histories to survive from the fifth-century. This book had been composed to compliment the seminal fifth-century Christian writer Saint Augustine’s (354-430 CE) City of God, which served chiefly as a rebuttal against pagan assertions that the Christianization of the Empire had led to the barbarian invasions and the Goth Alaric’s sack of Rome in 410 CE. Despite its popularity and influence during the medieval period, modern historians have mostly dismissed it as a “poor man’s” City of God. Indeed, its optomistic vison of the fifth century has been scoffed at by historians knowing what was to come. In today’s blog I look at some of the main themes and offer some evidence on why this more optomistic vison of Christian history seems to have appealed to many Christians perhaps not so ready to dismiss the secular world as Augustine’s City of God preached.

Paulus Orosius was born sometime in the late fourth century in what is now Portugal. Although we know very little about his background, his writing reveals that he received an extensive education that involved a mastery of both Classical and Christian learning. Orosius’ native Province had suffered increased instability from severe “barbarian” attacks and incursions in the early fifth century. The Roman Empire’s increasing inability to fend off these attacks into its territory caused some within the Empire to assert that the Christianization of the Romans had led to its decline. Perhaps as a result of these invasions, Orosius left Spain in 413 or 414 and he landed near Hippo in North Africa where he met the city’s famous bishop Augustine (354-430). After Orosius returned from Palestine in 416 he met once more with Augustine and was convinced by him to compose a supplement to the third book of Augustine’s work the City of God, in which, Augustine argued that the Roman Empire had suffered many disasters long before its adoption of Christianity in the fourth century.1

Augustine most likely chose Orosius because of his familiarity with both Christian and Classical sources of history. Against the Pagans reveals that the Christian authorities felt that the best way to diffuse the pagans’ argument was by using the pagans’ own revered Classical texts and historians against them. Orosius presented an optimistic picture of his contemporary era. This attitude need not surprise.  One should remember that by the time Orosius composed his history matters had taken a turn for the better. A contemporary of Orosius , Olympiodorus, reveals that after the initial shock of its sack, Rome had made a remarkable recovery—so too had the fortunes of the Western army improved under the guidance of the future emperor Constantius III (Olympiodorus frag 26.2). This political background helps us understand what some modern scholars see as Orosius’ naïve optimism found in the history.

Certainly throughout this work Orosius attempted to show that compared to earlier periods of Roman history, the fifth-century Romans lived in a relatively golden age. For Orosius this new era had begun with Augustus’ ascension and the birth of Christ. Orosius believed that Augustus served as Christ’s counterpart in the secular world and both were responsible for the creation of a more peaceful and harmonious world. Orosius viewed the era of the republic as an age of unprecedented corruption and internal strife. In contrast, Orosius presented the early Empire as a relatively peaceful era. He suggested that, when compared to the civil wars of the late republic, the early and later Empires’ troubles were mild. All of these examples served to remind his contemporaries that Rome had faced and overcome much bleaker periods in its history.7

Orosius emphasized that even before the Empire’s official acceptance of Christianity, God was looking out for Rome’s well-being and he attributed all of Rome’s triumphs to God’s will. An example of God’s influence may be seen in Orosius ascribing the Emperor Claudius’ conquest of Britain to God’s desire: “Let Rome realize that she had part of her good fortune formerly through His hidden providence.” 7 Even Titus’ destruction the Jewish temple in 70 CE occurred because he had been sent “by the judgment of God to avenge the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.”8 In this manner Orosius claimed that every Roman victory even before the Empire’s acceptance of Christianity was merely a manifestation of God’s divine plan.9 Since God is all seeing, He knew of Christianity’s ultimate triumph therefore, he laid the path for his final victory.

During Orosius’ “new golden age” only evil men’s persecution of Christians stood in the way of God’s final triumph, therefore Orosius made it a point to emphasize that the Empires’ defeats and decline had resulted directly from bad emperors attacking Christians within the Empire: “The Church of Christ has suffered ten persecutions from Nero to Maximianus. Nine vengeances, as I have called them, as they themselves do not deny, calamities, immediately followed.”10

Orosius had an equally simple explanation for the Empire’s setbacks after it had accepted Christianity. He blamed the defeats on those he described as pagans and heretical Christians:

Let the wretched and stubborn heathen take consolation in this alone, that in Christian times and under Christian ruler, such great disasters coming together at once overburdened the neck of a state already oppressed. . . .The one God handed down one faith and diffused one Church over the world. This Church He beholds; this Church he love; this Church he defends. 11

 

Orosius closed his history on an optimistic note, suggesting that the power of Christianity could tame the barbarians and bring about an era of peace and prosperity for the Roman world. The Empire’s setbacks, he believed, were merely God’s means of weeding out the wicked:

Those who were stubborn and did not believe in God’s Gospel, or were doubly stubborn if they had not even listened to it, and did not give way to God’s wrath, were justly caught and overwhelmed by God’s exceeding anger. And yet. Soon after this, also the barbarians, detesting their swords, turned to their ploughs and now cherish the Romans as comrades and friends.12

 

Orosius asserted that pagan Romans, and not the Christian barbarians, were the Roman Christians’ real enemies. He implied that the barbarian invasions served merely as God’s way of gaining additional followers:

If the barbarians had been admitted into the territory of the Romans for that reason alone [being converted to Christianity], because, in general, throughout the East and the West the churches of Christ were replete with Huns, Suebi, Vandals, and Burgundians, and with innumerable and different peoples of believers, the mercy of God would seem to be worthy of praise and to be extolled, since, even if with our own weakening, so many peoples would be receiving a knowledge of truth which, surely, they could never have discovered except with this opportunity.

 

Orosius concluded that the death of innocent Christians played a part in God’s larger plan to achieve a spiritual victory on earth. Through their suffering, the Christians achieved eternal life, while God gained a large new supply of new recruits.13 Orosius went so far as to suggest that Alaric’s sack of Rome in 410 represented a Christian victory over corrupt pagans. Rohrbacher suggests that since both peoples were Christian, Orosius envisioned an eventual union of the Romans and Goths into a single fighting force. In Orosius’ opinion, the world was no longer divided into Romans and barbarians, but one of Christians and pagans.This vision it not so strange as some would suggest. Indeed, as the work of Jonathan Arnold on Italy at the opening of the sixth century has persuasively shown, after the “fall” of the Western Empire, Italo-Romans and Goths led by Theoderic crafted a similar notion of a revitalised Roman state invigorated by manly Goths. 14

 

For those interested in reading more about this interesting author see Peter Van Nuf’felen’s Orosius and the Rhetoric of History 2012 study.

 

1 Roy J. Deferrari, introduction to The Seven Books of History Against the Pagans, by Paulus Orosius, trans. Roy J. Deferrari (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America, 1964),  15-19.

 

7 David Rohrbacher, The Historians of Late Antiquity (London: Routledge, 2002), 185-187.

 

8 Orosius, 296, 289.

 

9 Rohrbacher, 148.

 

10 Orosius, 324.

 

 

 

 

11 Orosius, 340.

 

12 Orosius, 358.

 

13 Orosius, 358.

 

14 Rohbacher, 224. Jonathan Arnold [ Theoderic, the Goths, and Restoration of the Roman Empire 

(Ph.D diss.,University of Michigan, 2008).

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Paulus Orosius: An Optimist’s View of the “Disastrous” Fifth Century

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