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Orosius and the Rhetoric of History$

Peter Van Nuffelen

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780199655274

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199655274.001.0001

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Unexpected Pearls: Prefaces and the Rhetoric of Deference

Unexpected Pearls: Prefaces and the Rhetoric of Deference

(p.25) 1 Unexpected Pearls: Prefaces and the Rhetoric of Deference
Orosius and the Rhetoric of History

Peter Van Nuffelen

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The prefaces to the Historiae and to another, minor work of Orosius, namely, the ‘consultation to Augustine about the errors of the Priscillianists and Origenists’, strategically deploy biblical and Vergilian citations, as well as allusions to Augustine's literary production (in particular the Confessions and the City of God). Whilst suggesting his submission to Augustine, Orosius also claims Augustine's authority for the works he is publishing. As such, the prefaces construe a rhetoric persona for Orosius, which need not be identical to the historical one. This literary self‐presentation, in conjunction with the well‐chosen Vergilian allusions, shows that some views of Orosius as a superficially educated clergyman are incorrect. In fact, Orosius was esteemed by his contemporaries for his clear rhetorical ability.

Keywords:   prefaces, Vergil, Augustine, Augustine, self‐presentation, rhetorical education

Subtlety and literary skill are qualities rarely ascribed to Orosius, whose intelligence and culture have generally been derided in scholarship for the past half a century. This judgment contrasts with the views of his late antique readers who emphasized his eloquence and rhetorical talent.1 Indeed, an ability to write fluent, admittedly sometimes convoluted, rhetorical prose is obvious from every page of the Historiae. If that quality has not gone unnoticed among modern scholars, it is often assumed that Orosius manages to keep up a semblance of style without actually rising to the level of authors who had fully interiorized their literary education: his style is at best a collection of topoi and perfunctory references to the Latin canon.2 On such an understanding, the Historiae are a limpid text: stripped of its embellishments, the narrative easily hands over its historical and autobiographical information. This book argues against such a reductive view of Orosius' rhetorical qualities and the apparent simplicity of his history. As a start, this chapter suggests, on the contrary, that Orosius combines Vergilian allusions and deft self‐presentation in the prefaces to the Commonitorium and the Historiae so as to harness Augustine's authority for his own credit. Both resources can be detected in the works of many ancient and late antique writers:3 (p.26) Orosius was thus doing what reasonably could be expected of any aspiring author. As a consequence, the autobiographical comments interspersed in both works have first and foremost a rhetorical function, which we need to fully understand before we attempt to write Orosius' biography.4

I.Sinner and saint

Orosius washed up on the shores of North Africa, probably in 414. The reasons for his arrival from Spain remain unknown. In the recommendation letter to Jerome that Orosius took with him to Bethlehem (415), Augustine attributed Orosius' choice of destination to his own reputation,5 but a more violent cause has been construed from passages in the Histories which seem to indicate that their author once narrowly escaped a barbarian raid.6 Neither explanation can be decisive. Whilst Augustine's reputation surely played a role, he immediately disowns it: he suggests he teaches his pupils only what he can and, since he is lacking in knowledge in certain fields, he has to send Orosius to his learned colleague Jerome. The relevant passages from the Historiae, as we shall see in chapter 5, are primarily aimed at arousing the sympathy of the reader and at displaying the sort of emotions the rest of the work wishes to provoke. Moreover, they do not link the escape from barbarians with the choice of Africa as a destination. Significantly, Orosius' first preserved work, the ‘consultation or reminder to Augustine about the errors of the Priscillianists and Origenists’ (Consultatio sive commonitorium Orosii ad Augustinum de errore priscillianistarum et origenistarum),7 written probably in 414 shortly after his arrival, fails to give a precise reason for his coming, and its preface consciously plays on the bafflement that the (p.27) sudden and unannounced debarkation of a young Spanish presbyter must have generated in Hippo.

The Commonitorium reminds Augustine of a demand Orosius had made orally before, namely, to provide him with arguments against heretics in Spain. Orosius places high hopes on the bishop of Hippo: only he will be able to root out the tree of heresy and plant new, healthy seeds. Augustine is depicted as a tool of God: ‘Through you, saintly father, through you, I say, our Lord God will mend with the word the ways of those he has castigated with the sword.’8 Divine providence, therefore, has sent Orosius to Augustine (ad te per deum missus sum). The unfathomable ways of God are then made explicit in the following confession:

I do not know why I came. Without wish, without necessity, without permission I left my homeland, driven by some unknown force, and I then arrived on the shores of this land. At this point I finally have seen reason again in the fact that I was sent to you. You will not judge me impudent if you accept my confession. Make me return to my beloved homeland as a good merchant having found the pearl, and not as a fugitive slave after a reversal of fortune.

agnosco cur venerim. sine voluntate, sine necessitate, sine consensu de patria egressus sum occulta quadam vi actus, donec in istius terrae litus allatus sum. Hic demum in eum resipui intellectum, quod ad te venire mandabar. Impudentem non iudices, si accipis confitentem. Fac me ad dilectam dominam meam idoneum negotiatorem inventa margarita, non fugitivum servum eversa substantia reverti.9

The passage suggests that Orosius’ departure from Spain was not uncontroversial. By saying sine voluntate Orosius lays himself open to the charge of akedia, the accusation of spiritual lethargy; sine necessitate suggests that he absconded without there being a pressing cause, whereas sine consensu points to the fact that presbyters were not supposed to travel without permission. Orosius had clearly taken leave without asking. Only Augustine can redeem him. If he provides him with the advice asked for, the presbyter will be able to regain Spain as the good merchant in the parable in the Gospel of Matthew (13, 45–6): the Kingdom of Heavens resembles a merchant of pearls who sells all his possessions when he finds one pearl of immense (p.28) value. But if Augustine refuses to grant advice, Orosius will go back like a fugitive slave who is forced back to his master by poverty and hunger. His departure from Spain was thus at least a breach of decorum and without proper justification. The reference to the parable suggests that Orosius left all he had (possessions? career prospects?) behind in order to travel to Africa. This does not lend much credence to the hypothesis that barbarian invaders chased Orosius.

Yet, it is dangerous to draw too many historical conclusions from what is, after all, a rhetorical self‐presentation in the context of a preface. Orosius harnesses the clearly uncommon fact that he had arrived in Hippo on his own initiative to his personal advantage. He consciously styles himself as a sinner, not just in the anaphora sine voluntate, sine necessitate, sine consensu, but also in the reference to his own confession (si accipis confitentem). The last lines of the preface take this self‐depiction as a sinner even further: through a shift from the singular to the plural, Orosius identifies himself with the sinful, because heretical, Spaniards (nos confitemur offensam, tu pervides plagam: ‘we confess the offense, you see clearly the wound’). Conversely, Augustine is elevated above the mortal fray. Not only is he an instrument of divine providence, but Orosius assimilates the pearl, which in Matthew stands for the Kingdom of Heavens, with Augustine's teaching. The word of Augustine, Orosius suggests, is the word of God. The confessional tone of Orosius and the relationship of sinner and saint that he construes between himself and Augustine are reminiscent of how Augustine positions himself towards God in his Confessions.10 The emphasis on a lack of self‐knowledge and ignorance of one's own motifs also picks up one of the key themes of Augustine's most famous work, as well as the way in which providence ultimately guides one through sin towards a good purpose.11 None of these themes would be outlandish in any Christian work, but their close occurrence in a dedication to Augustine is intriguing. It is therefore tempting to interpret Orosius’ double use of confitentem/confitemur as a conscious reference to the Confessiones. Such covert (p.29) references to a work of an addressee are not uncommon12 and Orosius did know Augustine's most famous work when he wrote his Historiae.13

In the Commonitorium, Orosius has, however, another trick up his sleeve to draw the attention of Augustine. His description of his wanderings through the Mediterranean is not as innocent as it looks: de patria egressus sum occulta quadam vi actus, donec in istius terrae litus allatus sum contains an allusion to the preface of the Aeneid (1–4: Arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris/Italiam, fato profugus, Laviniaque venit/litora, multum ille et terris iactatus et alto/vi superum saevae memorem Iunonis ob iram). The chance to associate one's travels through the Mediterranean with the fate of Aeneas was too great to resist for a cultured individual, who had learnt Vergil by heart, as Augustine himself illustrates in the Confessions, where his farewell to his mother Monica in Ostia is modelled on that of Aeneas to Dido.14 The allusion is more than a flourish. It creates a sense of homecoming: just as Italy was to be Aeneas’ new home, Hippo and Augustine will be for Orosius. Like the rhetoric of sinfulness, the statement invites Augustine to create a new home for Orosius. It also underscores the providential nature of his arrival in Hippo: just as Aeneas was guided by fate without knowing it, Orosius is directed by providence. How far one can press such subtle allusions is hard to tell: the assumption of the persona of Aeneas might, for example, support the idea that violence and upheaval caused Orosius to leave his hometown, although that seems to contradict the rest of the preface. Equally, Vergilian allusions during a disembarkation in Africa can hardly not conjure up the image of Dido.15 Orosius might thus be alluding to the fact that he will have to leave at some point, whilst at the same time hoping for a relationship of friendship between himself and (p.30) the bishop. The preface of the Commonitorium, with its demand for advice to be brought back to Spain, indeed implies that Orosius’ presence in Africa will be temporary (cf. mereverti), which would support this interpretation. These last suggestions are obviously speculative, but they draw attention to the methodological point that intertextual allusions are by their very nature unlimited, in that they can generate meanings that go beyond what the author may have intended. What we as scholars wish to ascribe to Orosius’ intentions can only be determined by showing that certain messages generated by the allusion engage with the other themes the text deals with.16

In this case, the Vergilian allusion, however suggestive, adds depth and meaning to Orosius’ description of his wanderings. Moreover, it is complemented by the reference to the merchant of the Gospel of Matthew, which skilfully continues the theme of travelling, but also adds a new element: Orosius hopes to take something valuable back home and avoid the fate of a fugitive slave. Such twin references to Vergil and the Bible recur, as we shall see immediately, in the preface of the Historiae, and together they symbolize the two pillars of learning of the Christian Latin elite of late Antiquity.17 Orosius’ deployment of both may have appealed to Augustine, who was steeped in Vergil but also keen to correct and contrast him with the Gospel.18 The preface of the Commonitorium is thus very precisely targeted: Orosius displays implicitly but clearly a shared culture with the addressee, but also admiration for his work. This literary skill, combined with the self‐effacement of a sinner who faces a saint, betrays a desire to be drawn into the orbit of Augustine, fountain of learning and wisdom. The bishop of Hippo seems to have liked it and paid Orosius in kind. His reply compliments Orosius by picking up several of the expressions and metaphors of the preface to the Commonitorium,19 and, as we have already seen, he praises the learning and eloquence of his new pupil in the letter to Jerome.20

(p.31) II.The lord's dog

The preface to the Historiae may look like an incongruous whole: it starts with setting out Augustine's praeceptum to Orosius (1–2), then elaborates a comparison of a dog and his master (3–7), often taken to symbolize the relationship between God and the Church, and finally returns to the praeceptum (8–16).21 When read, however, in the light of Orosius’ self‐presentation and his use of Vergilian allusions as detected in the Commonitorium, the middle section fits perfectly in the preface, which aims at capitalizing on Augustine's fame as a theologian and author.

The preface falls into two parts, clearly delineated by Orosius. The first half, opening with praeceptis tuis parui (‘I have obeyed your orders’), elaborates the relationship between the author and the dedicatee, Augustine (1.pr.1–8). Picking up twice the opening words of the preface (1.pr.9: praeceperas mihi; 1.pr.10: praeceperas ergo), the second part sets out the nature of the commandment, and reveals that additional encouragement for the work was given by a certain Julian of Carthage, who is further unknown (1.pr.12).22 Given his position in the preface, Julian is completely subordinated to Augustine and he will play no further role in the Historiae. He is also absent from the postface, in which Augustine, on the contrary, gets pride of place (7.43.19–20).

A first approach to the proemium is to set it against the background of contemporary literary habits. It partakes in two general tendencies of later Latin prefaces, as analysed by T. Janson.23 First, there is little in the preface that is specific for historical works: no praise for the usefulness of history, no justification through reference to the greatness of the deeds told, no claim of impartiality.24 This should create no doubts as to the genre of the Historiae: apart from the title, the definition of their subject in 1.pr.10 as warfare, disease, and natural disasters is exactly that of earlier and later historians,25 and one can (p.32) detect an avatar of the idea of the greatness of the subject in his contention that the events of the past were more cruel than those of the present. Even the admission that Orosius himself was first not convinced of the superiority of the present (1.pr.13) can be read as a claim for objectivity: Orosius presents himself as an originally sceptical historian who was convinced by his own research. Nevertheless, all in all, the preface well illustrates the tendency towards homogenization of the prefaces for different genres that Janson has detected. The second tendency is the reduced popularity of non‐dedicatory prefaces: most late‐antique works present themselves as having been written at the behest of an individual. The commandment of the dedicatee usually raises doubts in the mind of the author regarding the feasibility of the task and his own competence, but then the author adjusts his will to that of the dedicatee: he freely and sometimes eagerly fulfils the task set to him, in the expectation that the work will bring him intellectual, spiritual, or material rewards.26 Unsurprisingly, much of the vocabulary and themes expressing these sentiments is shared by Orosius and contemporary authors, such as labor,27 libentia,28 and voluntas,29 but also expressions of submission30 and modesty.31 Such a similarity in general outlook may point to a reliance on the same examples. A possible model is the preface of the Rhetorica ad Herennium, a late Republican work ascribed to Cicero, which enjoyed particular popularity in late fourth‐century rhetorical education.32 That preface is of the dedicatory type, (p.33) and has the adjustment of wills, as well as the typical vocabulary.33 Its rebuttal of the inane arrogance of Greek rhetorical writers and their complex theories may have been the inspiration for Orosius’ attack on the vain perversity of the pagans.34

The hallmark of a good preface, however, is that it cannot be reduced to a concatenation of commonplaces derived from a rhetorical education.35 That of Orosius also merits closer attention, especially regarding the way he subtly creates a position of authority for himself out of the rhetoric of deference. Indeed, by their very nature, dedicatory prefaces establish an unequal relationship between the dedicatee and the author. Even if the dedicatee is not of a higher social status, the mere fact that he orders the work to be written gives him a position of power. As a consequence the author usually indulges in a rhetoric of subservience.36 For Orosius, Augustine was obviously his social and intellectual superior, and the historian immediately emphasizes his obedience and humility: ‘I have obeyed your orders, saintly father Augustine, and I hope I did it with as much good result as good will.’ The hope of a good result is, however, subordinated to a more important matter, namely, obedience to Augustine's will:

But I am, both positively and negatively, not really stirred by the question whether I have acted rightly or wrongly, for you have taken the effort to examine if I could do what you ordered me to. On my part I am content with the testimony of obedience alone, if at least I have embellished it with will and effort.37

(p.34) This is mirrored in the postface, where Orosius again stresses his obedience and asks Augustine, as his teacher, to judge the work.38 The shift from uncertainty about the result to obedience to Augustine is in fact only apparent. Under the cover of humility and obedience, the first lines of Orosius’ preface immediately signal to the reader that this work is not only written at the behest of Augustine, but also carries his approval: the insight of Augustine into Orosius’ capacities guarantees the identity of the task set and the result executed. Obedience to Augustine thus ensures that the work lives up to his expectations. This suggests an uncommon closeness between both men, which is elaborated in the next five paragraphs, through a comparison of their relationship with that of a master and his dog.

The more ambitious of late Latin authors chose a striking image to run through their prefaces. Rufinus of Aquileia, a contemporary of Orosius, for example, had to write numerous prooemia for his translations from the Greek and often selected a specific theme for each of them.39 The brief preface to Festus’ breviarium in turn draws on the vocabulary of counting.40 The convoluted Latin of the Itinerarium Alexandri aspires to more than it actually achieves, but the preface is strikingly replete with language of divination, possibly enhanced by a reference to the Delphic oracle from Statius’ Thebaid in its very first line.41 The comparison with a master and his dog can be seen as the Orosian equivalent of such literary games, and he packs a lot in it. The simile takes up most of the first half of the preface (1.pr.3–8). Already in Antiquity the dog was man's best friend: even in the houses of the great and worthy, Orosius notes, ‘the care for dogs is not the least important’ (cf. Vergil, Georgica 3.404). Of all animals, only dogs (p.35) voluntarily and eagerly do what they are trained for, and they are the only ones spontaneously held back by obedience until an order is given. ‘For they have their own instincts, which elevate them as much above brutish animals as they approach them of rational beings, namely the capacity to distinguish, love, and serve.’ Dogs distinguish their masters from strangers and are bound by a bond of love to the former. Their zeal against strangers is not an expression of hate for these but of love for their masters.42 The comparison concludes with a reference to Matthew 15.27, where the woman from Canaan refers to the dogs eating the crumbs off the table, and to the prophet Tobias who had a dog,43 showing that hounds have their usefulness in spreading the word of God.

Paragraphs 3–7 of the preface, where the comparison with a dog is made, open and close with an appeal to authority: at the end there is the explicit reference to the Gospel and to the Book of Tobias, and at the start the quotation of Vergil, Georgics 3.404 has often been noted, but there is more to it than usually thought.44 The comparison has the same formal structure as the section of the Commonitorium which we analysed above, beginning with Vergil and closing with the Bible. Moreover, the reference to Vergil is not as innocent as it looks. Georgics 3.404–9 reads:

Nor let the care of dogs be last in your thoughts, but feed swift Spartan whelps and fierce Molossians alike on fattening whey. Never, with them on guard, need you fear for your stalls a midnight thief, or onslaught of wolves, or restless Spaniards in your rear.

(p.36) nec tibi cura canum fuerit postrema sed una/velocis spartae catulos acremque Molossum/pasce sero pingui, numquam custodibus illis/nocturnum stabulis furem incursusque luporum/aut impacatos a tergo horrebis Hiberos.45

When read in conjunction with these Vergilian lines, the comparison starts to generate various interlacing meanings. First, Orosius’ canine debasement is transformed into a strategy for literary authority. His capacity to appeal to literary models is an obvious display of literary skill and ambition. But even the comparison of himself to a dog is not just to the benefit of Augustine. At first sight, this may seem to be the case: Augustine is the master and Orosius the dog. Yet Orosius’ rhetoric of deference also raises him through subservience. The dog was famously a symbol of intelligence and fidelity,46 qualities specifically underlined by Orosius in the triad ‘discerning, loving, and serving’ (1.pr.4: discernere amare seruire). Comparing himself to Augustine's dog, Orosius therefore conflates his own ingenium and his submission to Augustine. Moreover, as the quotation from the Georgics makes clear, the dog is one of the most important animals in the familia. Orosius may be just the dog, but he stands close to the superior rational beings and way above the brutish animals:47 there is an obvious distance between Augustine and Orosius, but there are still many lesser beings down the social ladder. The closeness thus suggested allows Orosius to claim that the present work is more Augustine's than his own. He did the work, but intellectually it belongs to his master.48 As we shall see in chapter 8, Orosius is close to Augustine in many respects, but it would be mistaken to take this near identification of Augustine as the true author of the Historiae as a mere acknowledgment of intellectual debt on the part of Orosius. Rather, Orosius can be seen as trying to cash in on the status of Augustine. The latter is the intellectual father, but because Orosius was deemed worthy of the task, he cannot be a mean intellect either. Just as the dedication of the first books of Augustine's City of God to Marcellinus may have been a ‘publishing coup’, cashing in on the martyr‐like reputation of this recently executed and consequently rehabilitated official,49 Orosius, whose reputation was minimal and (p.37) whose association with Augustine had, all in all, been brief at the time of writing (at best 414–18, with the journey to Jerome in 415), tried to surf on the reputation of Augustine.50

So far, I have offered a surface reading of the comparison, based on what is explicitly said. But one can go further: a reader imbued with Vergil would know the context of the line quoted and he would grasp that the Vergilian hounds warding off wolves and thieves in the rest of the verses are an allusion to the apologetic nature of the work. Just as the Spartan and Molossian dogs defend the estate of the familia, Orosius and his Histories shall defend the Christian flock from the arguments of pagans. The apologetic purpose of the work is only made explicit six paragraphs later (1.pr.9), but a well‐educated reader, having grasped the allusion, would be prepared for what is coming. It is thus likely that Orosius intended his readers to understand the deeper meaning of the allusion to Vergil.

Finally, the end of the Vergilian phrase designates the brigands that are warded off by the dog metonymically as ‘Spaniards’. One can detect here an allusion to Orosius’ demand in the Commonitorium to provide him with arguments against Spanish Priscillianists: Orosius the dog will continue Augustine's own battle against heresies in Spain. Yet one cannot fail to notice another and more ludic implication: Orosius himself was a Spaniard. Will he provide protection against himself? Will he stop pestering Augustine? It is not easy to make sense of this possible self‐reference. One possibility is that, as Orosius left North Africa soon after the completion of his Historiae, it could be a covert and ironic allusion to the status of the work as a farewell present to Augustine: this work will see the Spaniards off, and in particular this Spaniard. Again, the admittedly speculative nature of this last reading should not detract from the fact that, just as in the Commonitorium, Orosius is capable of handling a Vergilian allusion to good effect and as a source of additional meaning.

The comparison is wound up with a paragraph that returns to the themes and vocabulary of the first two paragraphs:

(p.38) Being thus linked to universal love through your particular love, I voluntarily obey your wish. For, as my subjection owes its result to the command of your fatherhood and as the work is entirely yours, I return my work, which coming from you returns to you, with only this of mine in addition, that I did it willingly.51

These words are an obvious illustration of the theme of the adjustment of the will of the author on that of the dedicatee, which was already broached in the first two paragraphs of the preface. The nigh oxymoronic expression of the last paragraph makes this abundantly clear: ‘I willingly obeyed your wish’ (voluntati tuae volens parui). Yet we have moved on in one important respect, which was prepared for by the comparison with a dog: the insistence on mutual love creates a particularly close link between Augustine and Orosius, to the point that the former becomes the intellectual creator of the work. One could even say that Augustine is almost substituted for Orosius as the true author of the Historiae (1.pr.8: totumque tuum sit). In the second paragraph of the preface it was said that Augustine had set Orosius a task that was within his capacities; now the work is ‘entirely’ attributed to Augustine: it emanated from him and, through the dedication, it returns to its rightful owner and author. The striking use of repetitive vocabulary (amori/amore, voluntati/volens, ex te/ad te, factum/feci) suggests that the distinction between the author's work and the desires of the dedicatee have been completely overcome. Yet even though he can verbally efface the distinction between author and dedicatee, the very nature of the preface and the work make it impossible to forget that distinction and Orosius significantly ends the paragraph with an expression of his own authorship (reddidi, quod libens feci). Crucially, therefore, Orosius’ rhetoric of deference and his apparent self‐effacement in the face of Augustine do not make him disappear as an author: on the contrary, both are deployed as rhetorical tools to enhance the status of his own work as being of truly Augustinian standing.

The second part of the preface, which details Augustine's precept to Orosius and sets out the general argument, continues to raise the Historiae through rapprochement with Augustine. Most obviously, it inserts the present work in the grand apologetic enterprise of the De (p.39) civitate Dei. Orosius explicitly notes that Augustine, who is now working on book 11, would not have the time to write the ‘little book’ that represents the Historiae (1.pr.12: levi opusculo). Yet the first sentence of the second part already alludes to the title and theme of the City of God, when defining his adversaries as ‘those who are alien to the city of God and are called “pagans” for coming from the crossroads and villages of rural places or “gentiles” because of their earthly knowledge’.52 This sub‐clause is built on the contrast between a ‘city of God’ and earthly knowledge, just as Augustine developed the contrast between the civitas dei and the civitas terrena. Orosius then finally explains what Augustine had commanded him to do:

You ordered that I collect, on the basis of all the records of histories and annals that are to be found at present, which were the grave deeds of war, the destruction of illness, the woes of famine, the terrible effects of earthquakes, the uncommonly grave floods, the fearful eruptions of fire, the cruelty of strikes of lightning and hailstorms, the miseries of murder and vice that were committed in past centuries and briefly set it all out in a well‐ordered narrative.

praeceperas ergo, ut ex omnibus qui haberi ad praesens possunt historiarum atque annalium fastis, quaecumque aut bellis grauia aut corrupta morbis aut fame tristia aut terrarum motibus terribilia aut inundationibus aquarum insolita aut eruptionibus ignium metuenda aut ictibus fulminum plagisque grandinum saeua uel etiam parricidiis flagitiisque misera per transacta retro saecula repperissem, ordinato breuiter uoluminis textu explicarem.53

As I have remarked earlier in this chapter, Orosius rhetorically elaborates, but still adheres to, a standard definition of the subject of history. In contrast to the traditional emphasis on the greatness of the past, Orosius is decidedly interested in the woes of the past: all topics are designated by a plural neuter adjective of emotion or pain (gravia, corrupta, tristia, terribilia, insolita, metuenda, saeva, misera). This announces a recurrent emphasis in the Historiae, where the sequence of time is seen as filled with misery.54 This stress on the (p.40) suffering again inserts Orosius into the apologetic enterprise of the City of God, where Augustine had already developed the same argument and emphasis on mala of the past, against the pagan critique that Christianity had caused the Roman Empire to slide downhill.55 Just as the subservient near‐identification with Augustine in the first part of the preface did not debase Orosius’ status as an author, the assimilation of the Historiae with Augustine's project does not make the former superfluous: Orosius immediately admits that he himself first believed the pagan argument for the superiority of the past to be true, and that only his research convinced him of the contrary (1.pr.13). Not only does this allow Orosius to draw the pagan reader into his narrative by presenting himself as having shared their views, it also establishes the necessity of his own work: the history he is presenting to the reader is not just an expansion of what one could already read in Augustine and it proposes to challenge the intuitive perception of the present found among his audience.

The deft play of deference on which the preface to the Historiae is built, should not lead to scepticism about the reality of its statements. Assuming that rhetoric and reality cannot co‐exist, some scholars have suggested that Orosius invented a praeceptum of Augustine or strongly modified it.56 The presence of literary play does not preclude in any way the reality of such a commandment. Moreover, it is a priori unlikely that Orosius would dare, or be able, to publish a work in North Africa that would overstep the boundaries of what was acceptable by imputing to Augustine a fictitious commandment. More importantly, Orosius’ rhetoric of deference and closeness stands out by its skilful appropriation of Augustine's intellectual authority. We cannot know if the Historiae would have had the same success had they been written in Spain without an Augustinian connection, but one strongly suspects the answer to be negative. Orosius’ rhetoric of closeness has long influenced the interpretation of the Spanish presbyter as basically a subcontractor of Augustine. I hope the previous pages have shown that this rhetoric also serves another purpose, (p.41) namely to set Orosius apart and single out the uniqueness and importance of his work. Uncovering Orosius’ hitherto neglected rhetorical qualities and exploring its consequences for the interpretation of the Historiae is what this book has set out to do.

III.Pearls to be expected

Orosius is often thought incapable of intertextuality,57 let alone of the rhetorical elaboration of the literary relationship between himself and his dedicatee Augustine. Yet the Vergilian allusions discussed in both prefaces are more than mere ornaments: as proper intertextual references, they generate new meanings and add further depth to the embedding text. Orosius’ skill in the construction of the two prefaces suggests a degree of literary confidence that one would not expect from a clergyman with limited education, as some have depicted him. Ancient references to Orosius’ training and culture confirm this. Augustine qualifies Orosius as eloquio paratus in his letter to Jerome, and later judgments follow suit.58 This should be taken to mean that he had the power of eloquentia, i.e. that he had received a good rhetorical training—something Augustine, the former teacher of rhetoric, surely would have been able to appreciate.

On my reading, the allusions in the prefaces of Orosius play a double, interrelated role: they add additional layers of meaning to the surface text and they are part of a subtle rhetoric for authorial authority. I hence wish to emphasize their importance in fashioning the relationship between author and text and between text and audience. In discussions more in line with the orthodoxy of literary theory, authorial intent and audience hardly play a role and the focus is on the interaction between texts.59 Besides such an approach, however, there is room for one that understands texts in their social (p.42) context, as actors in a social network, an approach that has demonstrated its usefulness especially for the Second Sophistic.60 As I have indicated above, I do not wish to claim that Orosius consciously pondered over every possible implication of every single allusion; rather, the allusions are part of a wider strategy for authorial authority and for the strengthening of his message. Such an approach is inspired, on the one hand, by the fact that the Historiae are a work that clearly wishes to engage its audience (not to say convert it) and repeatedly and explicitly addresses it, and on the other, by the current state of Orosius scholarship, which bases its interpretation of the work often on assumptions about the nature of his readership.61 To conclude this chapter, I wish to discuss briefly the implications of the foregoing discussion for the latter aspect; the former will figure large in the following chapters.

The possibility that intertextual allusions can generate additional meaning is predicated on the fact that the reader knows the source text. Neither of the allusions to Vergil in the prefaces of the Historiae and the Commonitorium is made explicit, but the reader is obviously supposed to notice them. This is hardly surprising: Vergil was the shared cultural baggage of the educated elite of his age62 and would remain the bedrock of education for a long time in the Christian West. Orosius thus writes for an audience that shared in this education. Most telling of this presupposition of learning among his readers are several praeteritiones: knowledge of Homer is presupposed, as well as the myth of Tantalus; the Catilinarian conspiracy is dealt with in a brief reference to the works of Cicero and Sallust ‘which we all have read’.63 That this is more than a polite nod to classical culture is shown by the preface to book 6 (6.1.1), where Orosius’ opposition between corpus and mens recalls the classical contrast of Sallust's Jugurtha (1–2) between anima and corpus. Tellingly, in the light of my suggestion that the Aeneid is a key intertext for the Historiae, its twelve books are said to have been ‘burned’ into the reader's mind.64 Contrary to some suggestions that the Historiae were addressed to the (p.43) uneducated masses,65 one must accept that it was, like any work of literature in Antiquity, directed at an educated upper‐class audience. Interestingly, although Orosius also refers to poets other than Vergil,66 most of the authors he either relies on or mentions belong to the canon that was read in school: Sallust, Caesar, Cicero,67 Livy, and Tacitus, supplemented by the epitomae of Justin and Florus, and the breviarium of Eutropius. It has been argued by P. Schmidt that the last three authors were primarily read and produced for use in rhetorical schools.68 Chapter 4 argues that Orosius also drew on works specifically produced for orators, such as the exempla collection of Valerius Maximus. The present chapter has demonstrated that this is more than mere school learning: Orosius is capable of putting his literary knowledge to good use and presupposes that his audience is capable of picking up his allusions. The shared rhetorical education of the late antique elite, incorporated in their ‘cultural habits and mindset’,69 thus forms the crucial background to the Historiae.

Disdainful judgments of Orosius’ education are therefore unproductive: not only must they be dismissive of education in late Antiquity in general, but they fail to notice the historically most interesting, yet often neglected, grey zone of normality between genius and mediocrity.70 More importantly, they neglect the contemporary rhetorical and literary culture as the key to understanding form and function of the Historiae.71 Orosius is not a clergyman writing for other clerics, but a man with a rhetorical training targeting (p.44) others with the same background. If one looks at Orosius from this perspective, the small intertextual pearls fished above are hardly unexpected: they are the traces of a proper rhetorical education which is put to good use. They may not be the giant pearls of paradise Matthew's merchant abandoned his stocks for, but they are not to be despised either.


(1) Augustine, Epistula 166: promptus eloquio; Prosper Tiro, Chronicon a. 396: vir eloquens; Gennadius, De viris illustribus 39: vir eloquens. For modern stylistic analyses, see Svennung 1922; Mulder 1926: 174; Wotke 1939; Hingst 1972: 173–95, 236–54; Bartalucci 1976.

(2) See P.6, note 15, of the introduction.

(3) Felgentreu 1999; Trout 1999; Lühken 2002; Rees 2004; Kelly 2008; Mastrangelo 2008; Swain 2010.

(4) See Kelly 2008, 104–58 for a similar argument about Ammianus.

(5) Augustine, Epistula 166: fama excitus, quod a me posset de his quae scire vellet quidquid vellet audire. Cf. Lacroix 1965: 34; Fabbrini 1979: 52–3; Martínez Cavero, Beltrán Corbalán, and González Fernández 1999: 68–70.

(6) Orosius 3.20.6 and 5.2.1–2. Cf. Corsini 1968: 10–12; Arnaud‐Lindet 1990–1: ix–xii. Both positions are reconciled by Mörner 1844: 20; Lippold 1976: i.xx; Torres Rodríguez 1985: 33; Martínez Cavero 2002: 32–4.

(7) On Orosius and Priscillianism, see Sanchez 2009: 51–2.

(8) Orosius, Commonitorium 1: per te dominus deus noster, per te, inquam, beate pater, quos castigavit in gladio, emendet in verbo.

(9) Orosius, Commonitorium 1.

(10) See also Augustine, Sermo 67.2, where confession is defined as confessing one's sins and praising God. This is the double movement detectable in the preface of Orosius, with Augustine taking the place of God. See also Sermo 131.2, describing how one is drawn to God by love. Shared love is a central theme in the preface to the Historiae (pr. 8).

(11) Augustine, Confessiones 5.(8)14, 9.(10)23. See Crosson 2003; Clark 2005.

(12) The carmen by Licentius, following his letter to Augustine (Augustine, Epistula 26), contains references to Augustine's Cassiacium dialogues: see Shanzer 1991: 127–33.

(13) Orosius 7.30.3 derives from Augustine, Confessions 8.(5.)10 (cf. Courcelle 1963: 204). The Confessions were a work that made an impact: Paulinus of Nola draws on it in his Eucharisticos (cf. Courcelle 1963: 206–22; Coskun 2006: 294–305).

(14) Augustine, Confessiones 5.(8)14, with Bennett 1988: 65. See also the correspondence with the pagan Maximus (Augustine, Epistulae 16–17) and with Volusianus (Augustine, Epistulae 135–7), as analysed by Tornau 2006: 40–3, 57–69.

(15) Cf. Augustine, Confessiones 1.(13)22.

(16) For methodological reflections on intertextuality in ancient literature, see Fowler 2000: 127–8; Kelly 2008: 161–222. The latter provides a useful overview of views among scholars of Latin literature.

(17) See the essays in Rees 2004.

(18) On Augustine's attitude to Vergil, see MacCormack 1998; Clark 2004.

(19) See the references in the apparatus of Augustine, Ad Orosium (Corpus Christianorum. Series Latina 49, 165–7).

(20) Augustine, Epistula 166: vigil ingenio, promptus eloquio, flagrans studio.

(21) For useful analyses of the preface, see Arnaud‐Lindet 1990–91: i.3; Fear 2010a: 31.

(22) Mandouze, Marrou, and Palanque 1982: 616 speculate he might have been a monk.

(23) Janson 1964: 115–16.

(24) For these topoi, see Marincola 1997: 34–43, 158–73.

(25) Thucydides 1.23; Tacitus, Historiae 1.2–3; Herodian 1.4; Sidonius Apollinaris, Epistula 4.22.3; Agathias, Historiae pr.10, 1.1.2.

(26) See, e.g. Itinerarium Alexandri 1.2: vicem sciam in me etiam redundaturam.

(27) Orosius 1.pr.1: tu enim iam isto iudicio laborasti; Itinerarium Alexandri 1.1: libens sane et laboris cum amore succubui; Vegetius 1.pr.4: labor diligens ad fidelis; Panegyrici latini 5.1.1: labore ac diligentia; Sulpicius Severus, Chronica 1.1.1: quorum ego voluntatem secutus non peperci labori meo; cf. Orosius 1.pr.13: dedi operam.

(28) Orosius 1.pr.1: utinam efficaciter quam libenter, 1.pr.8: quod libens feci; Itinerarium Alexandri 1.1: libens sane et laboris cum amore succubui; Festus 1: parebo libens praecepto.

(29) Orosius 1.pr.2: voluntate conatuque decoravi; Itinerarium Alexandri 1.1: meum velle; Sulpicius Severus, Chronica 1.1.1: quorum ego voluntatem secutus non peperci labori meo; Eutropius, pr.: ex voluntate mansuetudinis.

(30) Orosius 1.pr.8: subiectio mea praecepto paternitatis tuae; Itinerarium Alexandri 1.1: libens sane et laboris cum amore succubui.

(31) Orosius 1.pr.12: levi opusculo; Vegetius 1.pr.4: in hoc opusculo, 1.pr.6: in hoc parvo libello.

(32) Jerome, Apologia adversus libros Rufini PL 23.409, Commentarii in Abdiam PL 25.1098; Rufinus, De compositione et de metris oratorum p. 577.29.

(33) Rhetorica ad Herrenium 1.1: quod datur otii libentius in philosophia consumere consuevimus…tua nos voluntas commovit…ne aut tua causa noluisse aut fugisse nos laborem putasses.

(34) Rhetorica ad Herrenium 1.1: inanis adrogantiae causa; Orosius 1.pr.8: vaniloquem pravitatem.

(35) See the comments of Felgentreu 1999: 193 on Janson's rather reductive approach.

(36) Such a rhetoric is very manifest in works dedicated to the emperor, without him having asked for them: see, e.g. the preface of Vegetius and that of the De rebus bellicis.

(37) Orosius 1.pr.1–2. Praeceptis tuis parui, beatissime pater Augustine; atque utinam tam efficaciter quam libenter. quamquam ego in utramuis partem parum de explicito mouear, rectene an secus egerim: tu enim iam isto iudicio laborasti, utrumne hoc, quod praeciperes, possem; ego autem solius oboedientiae, si tamen eam uoluntate conatuque decoraui, testimonio contentus sum.

(38) Orosius 7.43.20: ita iam ego certo et solo, quem concupiscere debui, oboedientiae meae fructu fruor; de qualitate autem opusculorum tu uideris qui praecepisti, tibi adiudicanda si edas, per te iudicata si deleas.

(39) e.g. Rufinus, Historia ecclesiastica pr. (medicine), Explanatio Origenis super epistulam Pauli ad Romanos, pr. (boats and sailing).

(40) Festus 1: ac morem secutus calculonum…quos breviter dictis brevius conputetur…numerare videaris.

(41) Itinerarium Alexandri 1.1: dextrum…et omine tibi et magisterio futurorum…regentium prospera, 1.3: obsecutam rationi fortunam…tu res martias auspicere…fortunae, 1.8: fatalem hanc belli lineam tangere, 1.10: fortuna. The first line of the preface (dextrum admodum sciens et omine tibi et magisterio futurorum) might contain an echo of Statius, Thebais 7.663–4 (…vociferans: prohibite manus, haec omine dextro/moenia Cirrhaea monstravit Apollo iuvenca). The preface is analysed by Tabacco 1990 and Callu 1992, but neither scholar notices the allusion.

(42) Orosius 1.pr.3–5: nam et in magna magni patrisfamilias domo cum sint multa diuersi generis animalia adiumento rei familiaris commoda, non est tamen canum cura postrema; quibus solis natura insitum est, uoluntarie ad id quod praeparantur urgueri et per ingenitam quandam oboedientiae formulam sola disciplinati timoris exspectatione suspendi, donec ad peragendi licentiam nutu signoue mittantur. habent enim proprios appetitus, quantum brutis excellentiores tantum rationabilibus propinquantes, hoc est discernere amare seruire. nam discernentes inter dominos atque extraneos non eos quos insectantur oderunt sed iis quos amant zelant, et amantes dominum ac domum non quasi ex natura apti corporis uigilant sed ex conscientia solliciti amoris inuigilant.

(43) Orosius 1.pr.6–7: unde etiam mystico sacramento in Euangeliis, quod edant micas catelli sub mensa dominorum, et Chananaea non erubuit dicere et Dominus non fastidiuit audire. beatus etiam Tobias, ducem angelum sequens, canem comitem habere non spreuit; Matthew 15.27: At illa dixit: etiam Domine, nam et catelli edunt de micis quae cadunt de mensa dominorum suorum; Tobias 6.1: Profectus est autem Tobias, et canis secutus est eum.

(44) I am expanding on Lippold 1976: i.365 and Arnaud‐Lindet 1990–91: i.191.

(45) Tr. H. Rushton Fairclough (LCL).

(46) Hünemörder 1998.

(47) See Augustine, Sermo 77.10 and 113A.11.

(48) Orosius 1.pr.8, 1.pr.12.

(49) McLynn 1999.

(50) The preface has often been interpreted from a psychological perspective: Corsini 1968: 41–51 notes naive pride, followed by Marrou 1970: 67 (‘un sentiment d'orgueilleusse et naive satisfaction’); Martelli 1982: 234 (‘ipocrita umilità’); Merrills 2005: 40 finds anxiety in the preface. As shown by E. Oliensis 1998: 127–53 for Horace, in the presence of superiors, authors try to make the most of a rhetoric of deference.

(51) Orosius 1.pr.8: igitur generali amori tuo speciali amore conexus voluntati tuae volens parui. Nam cum subiectio mea praecepto paternitatis tuae factum debeat totumque tuum sit, quod ex te ad te redit, opus meum, hoc solo meo cumulatius reddidi, quod libens feci.

(52) Orosius 1.pr.9: qui alieni a ciuitate Dei ex locorum agrestium conpitis et pagis pagani uocantur siue gentiles quia terrena sapiunt.

(53) Orosius 1.pr.10.

(54) See, e.g. Orosius 2.3.9: recolant sane mecum maiorum suorum tempora, bellis inquietissima, sceleribus exsecrabilia, dissensionibus foeda, miseriis continuatissima; 5.24.21: serie temporum et malis sequacibus cohaeserunt.

(55) Augustine, De civitate dei 4.2: Promiseramus ergo quaedam nos esse dicturos aduersus eos, qui Romanae rei publicae clades in religionem nostram referunt, et commemoraturos quaecumque et quantacumque occurrere potuissent uel satis esse uiderentur mala, quae illa ciuitas pertulit uel ad eius imperium prouinciae pertinentes, antequam eorum sacrificia prohibita fuissent.

(56) Corsini 1968: 47; Paschoud 1980: 116; Martelli 1982: 234; Arnaud‐Lindet 1990–1: i.xx; Martínez Cavero 2002: 144; Cesa 2003: 29.

(57) P. Courcelle (1976 and 1984) was prepared to find Vergilian allusions in the oeuvre of such luminaries as Augustine and Claudian, but has little to say about Orosius. Work specifically on Orosius and Vergil tends to see the allusions to Vergil either as ornaments or as apologetic attacks on the pagan canon: Coffin 1936; Bartalucci 1976: 252; Rábade Navarro 1991; Martínez Camero 1994.

(58) Gennadius, De viris illustribus 39; Sidonius Apollinaris, Epistula 4.3; Venantius Fortunatus, Carmen 1.59.

(59) See, e.g. Kelly 2008: 182 on Ammianus.

(60) For work on these lines, see, e.g. Schmitz 1997 and Van Hoof 2010a.

(61) See the introduction.

(62) Hagendahl 1983: 75–7; Clark 2004: 84–5; Eigler 2003; Rees 2004; Cameron 2011: 567–626.

(63) Orosius 1.12.4–10, 1.17.2, 5.15.2, 6.6.6. On classical authors cited in Orosius, see Rábade Navarro 1991.

(64) Orosius 1.18.1: ludi litterarii disciplinae nostrae quoque memoriae inustum est.

(65) Lacroix 1965: 45; Lippold 1976: i.xxxiii; Martelli 1982: 238.

(66) Orosius 7.3.7: Lucan 1.337; Orosius 1.11.2: Claudian, In Eutropium 2.159–62; Orosius 1.20.1–4: Claudian, In Eutropium 2.163–6 (cf. Hingst 1972: 117, 170); Orosius 7.35.21: Claudian, Panegyricus de tertio consulatu Honorii augusti 96–8, quoted from Augustine, De civitate Dei 5.26. According to Hingst 1972: 162 Orosius 1.20.1–4 alludes to Ovid, Tristia 3.11.39–54. Orosius only seems to know Vergil's Georgics and the Aeneid, a fact that is common in this period (see Lühken 2002: 276 on Prudentius).

(67) Note the interesting argument of Hingst 1972: 236–54 that there is a strong stylistic influence from Cicero.

(68) Schmidt 1988. Florus was clearly read in later Antiquity, as Prudentius seems to be aware of his work: Florus 1.21 and Prudentius, Contra Symmachum 2.738–49 with Partoens 2000; Ammianus used Florus too: Kelly 2008: 178, 267.

(69) Cribiore 2001: 238.

(70) A sober assessment of the actual knowledge of earlier Latin literature in the fourth century can be found in Cameron 2011: 399–420. On rhetorical education in the fourth century, see Cribiore 2001: passim.

(71) See already Eigler 2003: 222–4.