The bishops of Rome, in the fourth century, did not show the Church at her best. Sylvester (314–35) earned the credit for converting Constantine; and pious belief represented him as receiving from the Emperor in the “Donation of Constantine” nearly all of western Europe; but he did not behave as if he owned half the white man’s world. Julius I (337–52) strongly affirmed the supreme authority of the Roman see, but Liberius (352–66) submitted, through weakness or age, to the Arian dictates of Constantius. Upon his death Damasus and Ursinus contested the papacy; rival mobs supported them in the most vigorous tradition of Roman democracy; in one day and in one church 137 persons were killed in the dispute.7 Praetextatus, then pagan prefect of Rome, banished Uisinus, and Damasus ruled for eighteen years with pleasure and skill. He was an archaeologist, and adorned the tombs of the Roman martyrs with beautiful inscriptions; he was also, said the irreverent, an auriscalpius matronarum, a scratcher of ladies’ ears—i.e., an expert in wheedling gifts for the Church from the rich matrons of Rome.8
Leo I, surnamed the Great, held the throne of Peter through a generation of crisis (440–61), and by courage and statesmanship raised the Apostolic See to new heights of power and dignity. When Hilary of Poitiers refused to accept his decision in a dispute with another Gallic bishop, Leo sent him peremptory orders; and the Emperor Valentinian III seconded these with an epoch-making edict imperially confirming the authority of the Roman bishop over all Christian churches. The bishops of the West generally acknowledged, those of the East resisted, this supremacy. The patriarchs of Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria claimed equal authority with the Roman see; and the furious controversies of the Eastern Church proceeded with scant obeisance to the bishop of Rome. Difficulties of communication and travel combined with diversity of language to alienate the Western from the Eastern Church. In the West, however, the popes exercised a growing leadership even in secular affairs. They were subject in non-religious matters to the Roman state and prefect, and until the seventh century they sought the confirmation of their election from the emperor. But the distance of the Eastern and the weakness of the Western rulers left the popes pre-eminent in Rome; and when, in the face of invasion, both Senate and emperor fled, and civil government collapsed, while the popes stood unawed at their posts, their prestige rapidly rose. The conversion of the Western barbarians immensely extended the authority and influence of the Roman see.
As rich and aristocratic families abandoned paganism for Christianity, the Roman Church participated more and more in the wealth that came to the Western capital; and Ammianus was surprised to find that the bishop of Rome lived like a prince in the Lateran Palace, and moved through the city with the pomp of an emperor.9 Splendid churches now (400) adorned the city. A brilliant society took form, in which elegant prelates mingled happily with ornate women, and helped them to make their wills.
While the Christian populace joined the surviving pagans at the theater, the races, and the games, a minority of Christians strove to live a life in harmony with the Gospels. Athanasius had brought to Rome two Egyptian monks; he had written a life of Anthony, and Rufinus had published for the West a history of monasticism in the East. Pious minds were influenced by the reported holiness of Anthony, Schnoudi, and Pachomius; monasteries were established in Rome by Sixtus III (432–440) and Leo I; and several families, while still living in their homes, accepted the monastic rule of chastity and poverty. Roman ladies of wealth, like Marcella, Paula, and three generations of the Melanias, gave most of their funds to charity, founded hospitals and convents, made pilgrimages to the monks of the East, and maintained so ascetic a regimen that some of them died of self-denial. Pagan circles in Rome complained that this kind of Christianity was hostile to family life, the institution of marriage, and the vigor of the state; and polemics fell heavily upon the head of the leading advocate of asceticism—one of the greatest scholars and most brilliant writers ever produced by the Christian Church.
2. St. Jerome
He was born about 340 at Strido, near Aquileia, probably of Dalmatian stock, and was promisingly named Eusebius Hieronymus Sophronius—“the reverend, holy-named sage.” He received a good education at Trier and Rome, learned the Latin classics well, and loved them, he thought, to the point of sin. Nevertheless, he was a positive and passionate Christian; he joined with Rufinus and other friends to found an ascetic brotherhood in Aquileia, and preached such counsels of perfection that his bishop reproved him for undue impatience with the natural frailties of man. He replied by calling the bishop ignorant, brutal, wicked, well matched with the worldly flock that he led, the unskillful pilot of a crazy bark.10 Leaving Aquileia to its sins, Jerome and some fellow devotees went to the Near East and entered a monastery in the Chalcis desert near Antioch (374). The unhealthy climate was too much for them; two died, and Jerome himself was for a time on the verge of death. Undeterred, he left the monastery to live as an anchorite in a desert hermitage, with occasional relapses into Virgil and Cicero. He had brought his library with him, and could not quite turn away from verse and prose whose beauty lured him like some girlish loveliness. His account of the matter reveals the medieval mood. He dreamt that he had died, and was
dragged before the Judge’s judgment seat. I was asked to state my condition, and replied that I was a Christian. But He Who presided said, “Thou liest; thou art a Ciceronian, not a Christian. For where thy treasure is, there will thy heart be also.” Straightway I became dumb, and [then I felt] the strokes of the whip—for He had ordered me to be scourged…. At last the bystanders fell at the knees of Him Who presided, and prayed Him to pardon my youth and give me opportunity to repent of my error, on the understanding that the extreme of torture should be inflicted upon me if ever I read again the books of Gentile authors. … This experience was no sweet or idle dream. … I profess that my shoulders were black and blue, and that I felt the bruises long after I awoke. … Henceforth I read the books of God with greater zeal than I had ever given before to the books of men.11
In 379 he returned to Antioch, and was ordained a priest. In 382 we find him in Rome as secretary to Pope Damasus, and commissioned by him to make an improved Latin translation of the New Testament. He continued to wear the brown robe and the tunic of an anchorite, and lived an ascetic life amid a luxurious papal court. The pious Marcella and Paula received him into their aristocratic homes as their spiritual adviser, and his pagan critics thought he enjoyed the company of women more than became so passionate a praiser of celibacy and virginity. He replied by satirizing the Roman society of the age in ageless terms:
Those women who paint their cheeks with rouge and their eyes with belladonna, whose faces are covered with powder … whom no number of years can convince that they are old; who heap their heads with borrowed tresses … and behave like trembling schoolgirls before their grandsons. … Gentile widows flaunt silk dresses, deck themselves in gleaming jewelry, and reek of musk. … Other women put on men’s clothing, cut their hair short … blush to be women, and prefer to look like eunuchs.… Some unmarried women prevent conception by the help of potions, murdering human beings before they are conceived; others, when they find themselves with child as the result of sin, secure abortion with drugs…. Yet there are women who say, “To the pure all things are pure…. Why should I refrain from the food which God made for my enjoyment?”12
He scolds a Roman lady in terms that suggest an appreciative eye:
Your vest is slit on purpose. … Your breasts are confined in strips of linen, your chest is imprisoned in a tight girdle … your shawl sometimes drops so as to leave your white shoulders bare; and then it hastily hides what it intentionally revealed.13
Jerome adds to the moralist’s bias the exaggerations of the literary artist molding a period, and of a lawyer inflating a brief. His satires recall those of Juvenal, or of our own time; it is pleasant to know that women have always been as charming as they are today. Like Juvenal, Jerome denounces impartially, fearlessly, and ecumenically. He is shocked to find concubinage even among Christians, and more shocked to find it covered by the pretense of practicing chastity the hard way. “From what source has this plague of ‘dearly beloved sisters’ found its way into the church? Whence come these unwedded wives? These novel concubines, these one-man harlots? They live in the same house with their male friends; they occupy the same room, often the same bed; yet they call us suspicious if we think that anything is wrong.”14 He attacks the Roman clergy whose support might have raised him to the papacy. He ridicules the curled and scented ecclesiastics who frequent fashionable society, and the legacy-hunting priest who rises before dawn to visit women before they have gotten out of bed.15 He condemns the marriage of priests and their sexual digressions, and argues powerfully for clerical celibacy; only monks, he thinks, are true Christians, free from property, lust, and pride. With an eloquence that would have enlisted Casanova, Jerome calls upon men to give up all and follow Christ, asks the Christian matrons to dedicate their first-born to the Lord as offerings due under the Law,16 and advises his lady friends, if they cannot enter a convent, at least to live as virgins in their homes. He comes close to rating marriage as sin. “I praise marriage, but because it produces me virgins”;17 he proposes to “cut down by the ax of virginity the wood of marriage,”18 and exalts John the celibate apostle over Peter, who had a wife.19His most interesting letter (384) is to a girl, Eustochium, on the pleasures of virginity. He is not against marriage, but those who avoid it escape from Sodom, and painful pregnancies, and bawling infants, and household cares, and the tortures of jealousy. He admits that the path of purity is also hard, and that eternal vigilance is the price of virginity.
Virginity can be lost even by a thought.… Let your companions be those who are pale of face and thin with fasting.… Let your fasts be of daily occurrence. Wash your bed and water your couch nightly with tears. … Let the seclusion of your own chamber ever guard you; ever let the Bridegroom sport with you within.… When sleep falls upon you He will come behind the wall, and will put His hand through the door and will touch your belly (ventrem). And you will awake and rise up and cry, “I am sick with love.” And you will hear Him answer: “A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed.”20
The publication of this letter, Jerome tells us, “was greeted with showers of stones”; perhaps some readers sensed a morbid prurience in these strange counsels in a man apparently not yet free from the heat of desire. When, a few months later (384), the young ascetic Blesilla died, many blamed the austerities that had been taught her by Jerome; some pagans proposed to throw him into the Tiber with all the monks of Rome. Unrepentant, he addressed to the hysterically mournful mother a letter of consolation and reproof. In the same year Pope Damasus passed away, and his successor did not renew Jerome’s appointment as papal secretary. In 385 he left Rome forever, taking with him Blesilla’s mother Paula, and Eustochium her sister. At Bethlehem he built a monastery of which he became head, a convent over which first Paula and then Eustochium presided, a church for the common worship of the monks and nuns, and a hospice for pilgrims to the Holy Land.
He made his own cell in a cave, gathered his books and papers there, gave himself up to study, composition, and administration, and lived there the remaining thirty-four years of his life. He quarreled at pen’s point with Chrysostom, Ambrose, Pelagius, and Augustine. He wrote with dogmatic force half a hundred works on questions of casuistry and Biblical interpretation, and his writings were eagerly read even by his enemies. He opened a school in Bethlehem, where he humbly and freely taught children a variety of subjects, including Latin and Greek; now a confirmed saint, he felt that he could read again the classic authors whom he had forsworn in his youth. He resumed the study of Hebrew, which he had begun in his first sojourn in the East; and in eighteen years of patient scholarship he achieved that magnificent and sonorous translation of the Bible into Latin which is known to us as the Vulgate, and remains as the greatest and most influential literary accomplishment of the fourth century. There were errors in the translation as in any work so vast, and some “barbarisms” of common speech which offended the purists; but its Latin formed the language of theology and letters throughout the Middle Ages, poured Hebraic emotion and imagery into Latin molds, and gave to literature a thousand noble phrases of compact eloquence and force.* The Latin world became acquainted with the Bible as never before.
Jerome was a saint only in the sense that he lived an ascetic life devoted to the Church; he was hardly a saint in character or speech. It is sad to find in so great a man so many violent outbursts of hatred, misrepresentation, and controversial ferocity. He calls John, Patriarch of Jerusalem, a Judas, a Satan, for whom hell can never provide adequate punishment;21 he describes the majestic Ambrose as “a deformed crow”;22 and to make trouble for his old friend Rufinus he pursues the dead Origen with such heresy-hunting fury as to force the condemnation of Origen by Pope Anastasius (400). We might rather have pardoned some sins of the flesh than these acerbities of the soul.
His critics punished him without delay. When he taught the Greek and Latin classics they denounced him as a pagan; when he studied Hebrew with a Jew they accused him of being a convert to Judaism; when he dedicated his works to women they described his motives as financial or worse.23 His old age was not happy. Barbarians came down into the Near East and overran Syria and Palestine (395); “how many monasteries they captured, how many rivers were reddened with blood!” “The Roman world,” he concluded sadly, “is falling.”24 While he lived, his beloved Paula, Marcella, and Eustochium died. Almost voiceless and fleshless with austerities, and bent with age, he toiled day after day on work after work; he was writing a commentary on Jeremiah when death came. He was a great, rather than a good, man; a satirist as piercing as Juvenal, a letter writer as eloquent as Seneca, an heroic laborer in scholarship and theology.
3. Christian Soldiers
Jerome and Augustine were only the greatest pair in a remarkable age. Among her “Fathers” the early medieval Church distinguished eight as “Doctors of the Church”: in the East Athanasius, Basil, Gregory Nazianzen, John Chrysostom, and John of Damascus; in the West Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, and Gregory the Great.
The career of Ambrose (340?–398) illustrates the power of Christianity to draw into its service first-rate men who, a generation earlier, would have served the state. Born at Trier, son of the prefect of Gaul, he was by every precedent destined to a political career, and we are not surprised to hear of him next as provincial governor of northern Italy. Residing at Milan, he was in close touch with the emperor of the West, who found in him the old Roman qualities of solid judgment, executive ability, and quiet courage. Learning that rival factions were gathering at the cathedral to choose a bishop, he hurried to the scene, and by his presence and his words quelled an incipient disturbance. When the factions could not agree on a candidate, someone suggested Ambrose; his name brought the people to an enthusiastic unanimity; and the governor, protesting and still unbaptized, was hurriedly christened, ordained to the diaconate, then to the priesthood, then to the episcopacy, all in one week (374).25
He filled his new office with the dignity and mastery of a statesman. He abandoned the trappings of political position, and lived in exemplary simplicity. He gave his money and property to the poor, and sold the consecrated plate of his church to ransom captives of war.26 He was a theologian who powerfully defended the Nicene Creed, an orator whose sermons helped to convert Augustine, a poet who composed some of the Church’s earliest and noblest hymns, a judge whose learning and integrity shamed the corruption of secular courts, a diplomat entrusted with difficult missions by both Church and state, a good disciplinarian who upheld but overshadowed the pope, an ecclesiastic who brought the great Theodosius to penance, and dominated the policies of Valentinian III. The young Emperor had an Arian mother, Justina, who tried to secure a church in Milan for an Arian priest. The congregation of Ambrose remained night and day in the beleaguered church in a holy “sit-down strike” against the Empress’ orders to surrender the building. “Then it was,” says Augustine, “that the custom arose of singing hymns and songs, after the use of the Eastern provinces, to save the people from being utterly worn out by their long and sorrowful vigils.”27 Ambrose fought a famous battle against the Empress, and won a signal victory for intolerance.
At Nola in southern Italy Paulinus (353–431) exemplified a gentler type of Christian saint. Born in an old rich family of Bordeaux, and married to a lady of like high lineage, he studied under the poet Ausonius, entered politics, and rapidly advanced. Suddenly “conversion” came to him in the full sense of a turning away from the world: he sold his property, and gave all to the poor except enough to keep himself in the barest necessities; and his wife Therasia agreed to live with him as his chaste “sister in Christ.” The monastic life not yet having established itself in the West, they made their modest home at Nola a private monastery and lived there for thirty-five years, abstaining from meat and wine, fasting many days in every month, and happy to be released from the complexities of wealth. The pagan friends of his youth, above all his old teacher Ausonius, protested against what seemed to them a withdrawal from the obligations of civic life; he answered by inviting them to come and share his bliss. In a century of hatred and violence he kept to the end a spirit of toleration. Pagans and Jews joined Christians at his funeral.
Paulinus wrote charming verse, but only incidentally. The poet who best expressed the Christian view in this age was the Spaniard Aurelius Prudentius Clemens (c. 348–410). While Claudian and Ausonius cluttered their compositions with dead gods, Prudentius sang in the ancient meters the new and living themes: stories of the martyrs (Peri stephanon, or Book of Crowns), hymns for every hour of the day, and an answer in verse to Symmachus’ plea for the statue of Victory. It was in this last poem that he made a memorable appeal to Honorius to suppress gladiatorial combats. He did not hate the pagans; he had kind words for Symmachus, and even for Julian; and he begged his fellow Christians not to destroy pagan works of art. He shared Claudian’s admiration for Rome, and rejoiced that one might pass through most of the white man’s world and be under the same laws, everywhere secure; “wherever we are we live as fellow citizens.”28 In this Christian poet we catch a last echo of the achievement and mastery of Rome.
It was not Rome’s least glory that Gaul had now so high a civilization. Corresponding to Ausonius and Sidonius in literature were the great bishops of fourth-century Gaul: Hilary of Poitiers, Remi of Reims, Euphronius of Autun, Martin of Tours. Hilary (d.c.367) was one of the most active defenders of the Nicene Creed, and wrote a treatise in twelve “books” struggling to explain the Trinity. Yet in his modest see at Poitiers we see him living the good life of a devoted churchman—rising early, receiving all callers, hearing complaints, adjusting disputes, saying Mass, preaching, teaching, dictating books and letters, listening to pious readings at his meals, and every day performing some manual labor like cultivating the fields, or weaving garments for the poor.29 This was the ecclesiastic at his best.
St. Martin left more of a name; 3675 churches and 425 villages in France bear it today. He was born in Pannonia about 316; at twelve he wished to become a monk, but at fifteen his father compelled him to join the army. He was an unusual soldier—giving his pay to the poor, helping the distressed, practicing humility and patience as if he would make a monastery out of the army camp. After five years in military service Martin realized his ambition, and went to live as a monk in a cell, first in Italy, then at Poitiers near the Hilary he loved. In 371 the people of Tours clamored to have him as their bishop, despite his shabby garments and rough hair. He agreed, but insisted on still living like a monk. Two miles from the city, at Marmoutier, he built a monastery, gathered together eighty monks, and lived with them a life of unpretentious austerity. His idea of a bishop was of a man who not only celebrated Mass, preached, administered the sacraments, and raised funds, but also fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick, and helped the unfortunate. Gaul loved him so that all its parts told stories of his miracles, even of his having raised three men from the dead.30 France made him one of her patron saints.
The monastery that Martin had founded at Poitiers (362) was the first of many that now sprang up in Gaul. Because the monastic idea had come to Rome through Athanasius’ Life of Anthony, and Jerome’s powerful call to the anchoritic life, the West first took up the most arduous and lonely forms of monasticism, and tried to practice in less genial climates the rigors of monks living under the Egyptian sun. The monk Wulfilaich lived for years, with bare legs and feet, on a column at Trier; in winter the nails fell from his toes, and icicles hung from his beard. St. Senoch, near Tours, enclosed himself so narrowly within four walls that the lower half of his body could not move; in this situation he lived many years, an object of veneration to the populace.31 St. John Cassian brought the ideas of Pachomius to balance the ecstasy of Anthony; inspired by some sermons of Chrysostom, he established a monastery and convent at Marseille (415), and wrote for it the first Western regimen for the monastic life; before he died (435) some 5000 monks in Provence were living by his rule. Soon after 400 St. Honoratus and St. Caprasius built a monastery on the island of Lérins, facing Cannes. These institutions trained men to co-operative labor, study, and scholarship rather than to solitary devotion; they became schools of theology, and vitally influenced the thought of the West. When the rule of St. Benedict came to Gaul in the next century, it built upon the tradition of Cassian one of the most beneficent religious orders in history.