The work on which for us the real interest of Salvian's life and thought depends, is that which Gennadius cited as five books On the Present Judgment, but which the manuscripts offer us as eight books On the Government of God. In this treatise Salvian discusses the defeat of Litorius in A.D.439, but fails to mention the Vandal sack of Rome in 455, which must have profoundly impressed him. In view of the description he gives of the Vandal capture of Carthage, he would scarcely have omitted their raid on Rome. So we may reasonably suppose that the book was published between A.D.439 and 455. We may probably limit the period somewhat more by the assumption that the great battle between the Romans and the Huns would have been mentioned if the treatise had been finished after 451. The argument from silence is less dangerous in this instance, because of the general inclusiveness of Salvian's allusions to contemporary matters germane to his purpose, as these great events certainly would have been. Whatever the date of publication, the book is the mature product of some years of preaching.
It is evident that only the third and fifth books mark distinct developments in the argument. Some claim that elsewhere the division into books is purely arbitrary and does not betray any set intention on the part of the author. Since Gennadius speaks of five, and not eight books it has been assumed that a new division was made, perhaps as a matter of scribal convenience, after Gennadius wrote. Brakman, however, suggested with some plausibility that Gennadius may actually have written VIII, and a scribe mis-copied the letters as IIIII, which would be a natural error, if the V were imperfect. And the length of the individual books varies too much for a purely arbitrary division, whereas some case can be made out for the logic of the present arrangement.
For the modern reader the chief interest of Salvian's work lies in the description of the life of the times in his later books. The careful building up of the evidence of the sacred authorities for God's judgment of the world seems tedious and repetitious. We are inclined to rebel at the constant reference to authority in the first three books. It is not unnatural to prefer the Old Testament itself to Salvian's reworking of the same themes with abundance of quotation. The cento is no longer a favored literary form, and overabundant quotation, at least when openly acknowledged, is out of favor. Few of us are likely to be in the position of the men of the fifth century who found it difficult to choose among various poor renderings of the Old Testament, since Jerome's version was just beginning to make its way into Gaul, or to procure a complete copy even if the initial obstacle of choice were overcome. The reader who wishes his interest readily aroused, who would read the past in the light of his own experience, had best begin with the fourth book. A generation ago it would have been natural to remark that in Salvian's tract for his own times in these later books there is much that might be applied with little change to our own day. Such a statement would be no less true now, were it the present custom of historians to study past records as a source of moral examples for the current age.
But to avoid the risk of tedium by omitting the first three books is to lose much of the essence of the work, and of the fifth-century manner of thought. Salvian wrote not for us, but for his contemporaries. Historically, therefore, it is of value to note how he built up his demonstration of a fundamental principle -- God's constant government and immediate judgment of his people. Not only pagans, but men who called themselves Christians, were led by a faulty reading of their times to question this tenet of the Christian faith. The Christians must be made to realize that such doubts were directly contradictory to the testimony of the Bible on which their faith rested. Hence the full evidence of the Scriptures was brought into court before the witness of contemporary life was summoned. It is futile to say that Salvian was merely attempting to prove God's judgment by reiterating his statement that God constantly sees and judges his people, or, as some put it, that he cites the authority of the Scriptures in support of that authority. There is no indication that his opponents had questioned the authority of the Biblical narrative. They had, indeed, questioned a fundamental doctrine of Christianity, having what would appear to be good reason for such doubts in the distress into which they, though a Christian people, had fallen. The validity of their estimate of God's injustice to themselves was a secondary matter to Salvian. The first necessity was to remind them that their doubts as to God's complete and immediate justice in the governance of the world were constantly disproved by the scriptural authority. Since they had shown themselves either ignorant or forgetful of the evidence of the Bible on this subject, it must be recapitulated for them. The foundation thus laid, they would be in a fit frame of mind to consider how the apparent injustice of their present misfortunes might be squared with the unvarying justice of the God they worshipped. We are too apt to forget that his words were addressed not to pagans or heretics but to orthodox Christians, For these the first essential was fulness of understanding of their own faith: its application to their transitory circumstances was secondary. To many of its first readers the latter part of the work may have seemed an irrelevant anticlimax to the real argument, since it depended less closely on scriptural authority for its substance and Lactantius for its structure, and dealt with matters of ephemeral interest.
Like Augustine, Salvian was distressed by the |false opinion held by many| in his time, that the contrast between the poverty and captivity of the Christian Roman Empire and the prosperous domination of pagan Rome proved that God neither cared for the world he had created nor governed and judged it, except by a judgment too far in the future to afford any present satisfaction to the just or fear to the wicked. Such attacks on Christianity Augustine had answered by his contrast, a generation earlier, between the ephemeral city of this world and the eternal City of God. Another portion of his answer had been assigned to Orosius, who undertook in his History against the Pagans to prove that the evils into which the Christian Roman Empire had fallen were less than those of past and pagan generations. He even dared to remind his readers that the most glorious conquests of Rome had afforded far greater misery, disgrace and suffering to her defeated enemies than the Romans themselves now suffered, and to prophesy that those who now seemed barbarous destroyers of a mighty empire would some day be honored as heroes of the nations they were founding. Orosius' minimizing of Rome's dangers was possible, though somewhat fantastic, even after the Gothic sack of the city in A.D.410. When Salvian wrote such an attitude was no longer reasonable. Orosius had prophesied that new nations would take the place of Rome; Salvian, while he conceived the Empire as still the great cohesive force in the western world, saw the Teutonic nations settled within its former borders. Goths, Vandals, Burgundians and Franks had established their own kingdoms, and if any of them lost ground, it was not because of the superiority of the Romans, but of the other barbarians. Rome had long tried to suppress the peasants' revolt of the Bagaudae, but without lasting success, and this situation was rendered the more serious by the fact that the cause of the rebellion was oppressive taxation for which no workable remedy was found. Britain was cut off from Rome by Saxon raids and by her own dissensions. The Vandals were in possession of the former province of Africa, the granary of Rome and the great center of Christian teaching. Salvian's debt to Tertullian, Cyprian, Lactantius and Augustine was so great that he recalled with difficulty that many of his readers thought the home of these Fathers remote from them, and were little concerned in its ruin.
Salvian's own home in the Rhineland had been several times ravaged by the Franks. The success of Aetius in checking disintegration during the years of his leadership seemed due in no small part to his shrewdness in alliances and his discretion in granting favorable terms to the Goths and Vandals for security against an aggression with which he might not be able to cope directly. His success was more than once endangered by the lack of prudence and coöperation among his subordinates.
Rome herself opened her gates to fur-clad satellites, And was captive ere her capture.
Everywhere the growing disproportion between the expenses and the income of the Empire led to taxation that would have been heavy under the most favorable circumstances. With the opportunities for privilege and graft that the nobles in the imperial hierarchy could always find, against which the more lowly could only struggle impotently, this became unendurable. Salvian's picture of the times does not stand alone : it is gloomy in comparison with that of Sidonius Apollinaris in his letters, and yet Sidonius gives ample evidence to confirm much of Salvian's detail. It is more gloomy than that of Ausonius in his verses, but a man who had resigned all that he had to seek God's peace, could hardly be expected to find the continuance of the elegant pleasures of society in southern Gaul a cause for light-heartedness. It must be remembered also that matters had improved somewhat, though temporarily, in the generation between Salvian's book and the letters of Sidonius.
Salvian's sympathies for the poor and oppressed were very great, the greater because he had himself become poor, though oppression could not touch him personally in any respect for which he now cared. From his new point of view, the good men in the upper orders at Rome were too few to count. The best of those who still lived in the world were very far from following the teachings of Christ. That poor men and slaves might be quite as wicked as the rich, if a sudden access of fortune made it possible, did not alter the reality of the oppression they suffered. That lack of a sturdy middle class, the importance of which during the period of decline of the Roman power Rostovtzeff has so vividly emphasized, is abundantly illustrated in Salvian's curious picture of the society of his time.
He undertook, at a time when the task was as difficult as at any period of the world's history, to justify the ways of God to man, to prove his constant government of the world and his immediate judgment. This involved the proof not only that the orthodox Romans deserved their misfortunes, but that the pagan and heretic barbarians merited their successes. It required also a satisfactory answer to the question why God had treated the Romans better when they were pagans than he did now that they were Christians. The latter question is never actually taken up, though Salvian promised at the beginning of the seventh book to answer it at the end of his work, if God should permit. But the end is missing.
It is inappropriate to judge the proofs that Salvian gives of the just judgment of God in the light of rational argument or historical criticism. He himself carefully denned his audience; his words were addressed to Christian Romans, not to pagans, heretics or barbarians. |For if I am addressing Christians, I do not doubt that I shall prove my case. But if I speak to pagans, I should scorn the attempt, not for any shortage of proofs, but because I despair of any profit in my discourse. Surely it is fruitless and lost labor, when a perverted listener is not open to conviction.|
Christianity and rationalism were to him inconsistent and mutually exclusive terms: |I am a man, I do not understand the secrets of God.| If his arguments seem at times to form a vicious circle, it is because he inevitably assumed as his basis the very points he was attempting to demonstrate. The great fact of the world, recognized by pagan philosophers and Christian theologians alike, was that God constantly governed and judged it; Lactantius had worked out philosophical and theological proofs of this in his Divine Institutions. Salvian deliberately adopted the groundwork furnished by his predecessor and made his indebtedness evident after the classical manner by direct though unacknowledged quotations. He was undertaking to reassure the Christian, not to instruct and convert the heathen or heretic; to enable the Christian to adjust his views of himself and of God to the dispensation under which he lived, and to effect such personal reformation as would take away the necessity of future punishment.
The first two books formed the foundation for the whole, following Lactantius closely in form and drawing most of their non-Biblical citations from him. This preliminary portion of the work is largely homiletic in character, demonstrating the government and judgment of God by examples drawn from the earlier books of the Old Testament, and by |testimonies| from the Bible as a whole. In the third book Salvian definitely undertook to answer the question |why we Christians, who believe in God, are more wretched than all other men.| The answer in various forms occupied the rest of his work, which became more and more a study of contemporary society and events as he proceeded. For he saw the calamities and disasters of the world as God's judgments on the gross immorality of the Roman people. Not only were the triumphant barbarians less wicked than the Romans, but, being either pagans or heretics, they deserved indulgence for sins committed in ignorance, not in full knowledge of the Christian law. As Matter ably pointed out, Salvian's indictment of the Christians furnished plentiful material to the pagans for attacks on Christianity, but Salvian might have countered that it was not the accusation but the crime that made such attacks possible. His ideal was that of ascetic Christianity, of poverty in this life for the sake of eternal salvation, but he was not one of those who looked for a speedy ending of the world, and the coming of the last judgment. He saw a continuing world, which God's immediate and constant judgment no longer suffered to continue as it had when the Empire was intact, in which a new and potentially better regime was gradually being formed. Among the ancient Romans to whom |everything unknown seemed glorious| it was an old tradition that barbarians were freer of vice than civilized men. If Salvian at times seems to exaggerate this view, he had some support not only in the readiness with which men in conquered territory adapted themselves to a regime less oppressive than the old, but also in the actual flight of many Romans to barbarian protection from the demands of Roman fiscal agents. He was not alone in feeling that there were compensations in the partial breakdown of the old system. Paulinus of Pella had been one of the luxurious, self-centered Aquitanians of the type that Salvian accused; his lapses from virtue were considerable, though not such as to occasion censure among his peers. When his great estates were lost and he was living in comparative poverty and full repentance, he wrote his autobiography in verse as a thanksgiving for God's mercies to him. A like attitude is found in the poem of a husband to his wife, and also in a song on the divine providence, both formerly attributed to Prosper of Aquitaine. Salvian was trying to bring others to a similar frame of mind.
Augustine had employed the same argument in his Sermo de tempore barbarico, a brief homily very closely akin to Salvian's book, and with the same conclusion: the calamities of the world were due to the wrath of God, warning us that we should not neglect atonement for our sins. The theme is not infrequent elsewhere.
In his books Against Avarice Salvian dwelt constantly on the need of repentance and charity because of the imminent danger of death: in his treatise On the Government of God he was concerned instead with the amendment and reformation necessary for continued life. Of one thing he is sure, that the true Christian cannot be wretched, and therefore a fuller Christianity is the only real solution of the problem. His arguments are by no means free from inconsistencies of detail. On one occasion, for example, slaves are described as generally better than their masters, while on another we learn that the best masters usually have bad slaves. But there is no inconsistency in the fundamental thesis.
The violence of his feeling made him no respecter of persons; in spite of his avowed desire to consider the priests of God as above reproach, he is so bitter in his denunciations of wickedness within the church that Bellarmine said of him: |His exaggeration of the vices of Christians and especially of the clergy of his time would seem excessive, did his words not proceed from true zeal for the glory of God and the salvation of souls.| And Guillon found the indictment of the church in the ninth chapter of the third book so violent that he could scarcely bring himself to transcribe it, and finally effected a compromise between loyalty to his church and his scholarly conscience by copying the translation of Père Bonnet, and so gaining his pious sanction for the overbold words.
Salvian's irony is very marked, especially in the treatise Against Avarice. The abbé de la Rue, in one of his Lenten sermons, followed a quotation from Saivian by the words: |Voilà l'ironie de Salvien, mais discrète et charitable.| Salvian's friends, however, probably feared that it lacked discretion, and those against whom it was turned very likely felt it weak in charity; but it was seldom bitter. It is not inappropriate that the last sentence of the treatise On the Government of God that has come down to us displays an irony so pronounced that recent editors have destroyed it by inserting a negative.