Salvian's style justifies the praise of Gennadius. While it is not altogether free from the faults of the rhetorical taste of his time, it is never obscure and rarely overburdened. In his preface he stressed the importance of subject matter as compared with style, and declared that his work was meant to be salutary rather than eloquent. This emphasis on content rather than form did not produce crudeness but served in general as a controlling element against the excesses of the rhetorician. He is fond of antithesis, of figures of speech and series of balanced phrases; he has a marked predilection for alliteration, assonance and rhyme, fostered by his love of plays on words. His great fault is a wearisome repetition, a failing, however, that arises not so much from carelessness in style as from anxiety to hammer a point home. He runs out of words for his reiteration of a theme, and uses the same one till they are worn threadbare, yet this is a relief from the artificially varied phrases which the letter writers of his time would substitute. Indeed, his own letters are far more artificial than his other works. He was conscious of his wordiness, which may have been partly due to his preaching, and he speaks more than once of his fear that the prolixity of his style may arouse distaste in his readers. It is at least, as Gregoire remarked, sufficient to terrify the most intrepid of translators, yet Joseph Scaliger could rightly exclaim of Salvian's work: |Le beau livre que c'est, et une belle simplicity!|
Salvian's vocabulary was the source of much discussion among the earlier editors. Having in their introduction lauded him as a second Demosthenes or Cicero, and explored the history of rhetoric for phrases in his honor, they found themselves compelled, when they turned from the general to the particular, to account for his use of words which Cicero had never employed. Eventually they explained the considerable number of late Latin words by the influence of his subject and of his many Biblical quotations. Most of the late Latin and ecclesiastical words in his vocabulary are found also in Tertullian, Lactantius, Hilarius, Cyprian and Sidonius Apollinaris; others reflect the language of the jurists. In common with the other writers of his day, he shows a noticeable but not excessive fluidity of word formation, a fondness for negative adjectives and for diminutives, the latter usually to give a sense of humility or of sympathy and pity. A few of them are rather sesquipedalian formations, as the excusatiuncula and deprecatiuncula of the second chapter of the third book Against Avarice.
A recent thorough study of his use of moods and tenses resulted in the conclusion that, in spite of frequent departures from the pure classical norm, Salvian cannot be accused of negligence or lack of skill; that he followed fixed rules, though not always those of the best classical Latinity.
A very large proportion of his material is drawn from the Bible or from his own and contemporary experience. Aside from his direct and purposed use of Lactantius in the first two books and from natural reminiscences of both Lactantius and Tertullian when writing of a subject which they had considered from the same point of view as his (e.g., on the games), he seems deliberately to avoid obvious citations and quotations other than those from the Bible. Yet there is ample evidence that his memory was well stocked with pagan and earlier patristic literature. His reticence in quotation from secular authors is distinctly at variance with the habit of his times, and corresponds to his general strictures on the rhetorical ideal of literary composition. He cites Vergil and Cicero as the authors of quotations only when the latter are drawn from Lactantius, although elsewhere there are clear reminiscences of both. His acquaintance with the works of Seneca is indicated by several passages in which the resemblance between the thought and ideas of the two authors is unusually striking. Rittershausen cites parallels from Minucius Felix almost as often as from Seneca, but for most of these equally close parallels may be found in Lactantius, so that no other source need be considered. The obvious extent of Salvian's education makes it an unnecessary strain on one's credulity to believe with some commentators that all the similarities to known passages in the works of pagan authors are due to chance, and none to his personal knowledge of the books concerned.
The result of his method of allusion is very satisfactory; classical reminiscences are readily apparent to the reader with a well stocked mind, but do not intrude themselves on the less informed, to distract his attention from the argument. Nor was there any risk of seeming to set pagan writers on a level with biblical authority. The frequent biblical quotations are drawn most commonly from the old Itala versions, but Salvian also used the translation of Jerome occasionally; indeed, with his friend Eucherius he was among the first of the Christian writers in Gaul to employ the new text. His citations are rather loose, and where the same passage is quoted more than once, there are sometimes variations in the wording. The translation of his numerous biblical quotations presents some difficulty. It is, of course, natural and almost inevitable to use the familiar and beautiful text of the King James Version, and in general I have done this, even in some cases where Salvian's wording might suggest a slightly different rendering. In several passages, however, either marked differences between Salvian's text of the Bible and that on which the King James Version is based, or his rather free adaptations of the text to its setting in his argument, have required corresponding changes in the English rendering.