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Journal of Early Christian Studies 8.3 (2000) 466-467
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Paulinus of Nola: Life, Letters, and Poems
Dennis E. Trout. Paulinus of Nola: Life, Letters, and Poems. The Transformation of the Classical Heritage, 27. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. Pp. xx + 326. $55.00.
The craft of historical biography teems with perils. Obstacles of literary con-struction, uneven sources, veiled polemics, hagiographical excesses, and cultural distance can easily doom attempts to understand even the most compliant subject. But with a quarry as elusive as Paulinus of Nola, it takes an intrepid soul indeed to pursue the quest. Dennis Trout's much-anticipated study of Paulinus displays not only fortitude, but an astonishing combination of exacting scholarship, self-awareness, and, in the best sense, historical imagination.
Meropius Pontius Paulinus (352/3-431) was a complicated man in a complicated world. His lifespan almost exactly matched Augustine's; his circle of correspondents--Ausonius, Sulpicius Severus, Jerome, Rufinus, Augustine--includes the great lights of his age. He was an aristocrat, poet, senator, suffect consul, and provincial governor whose act of secular renunciation made him monk, priest, and at length bishop, as well as special benefactor of the basilica of St. Felix at Nola. This heady admixture of wealth, privilege, power, poesy, and ascesis mirrors tensions and ambiguities that loomed broadly over the late Roman world.
But although the Christian luminaries of his time (and many later historians) have served him up as an exemplar--indeed, largely because they did--Paulinus remains a figure easily camouflaged against the background of biblical types and Christian ideals used, even by himself, to inscribe his life. Precisely here Trout makes the crucial methodological choice to avoid a facile reduction, and to allow an untidy "many-sided self" to emerge, one whose life was lived "in varying degrees of collision as well as collusion with whatever may be deemed the spirit(s) of this transitional age in the history of the Roman world."
Paulinus's literary output was by no means meager, but his stylized poetic works and self-conscious epistolary product leave us significant biographical gaps, especially concerning the pre-Nolan years in Bordeaux, Italy, and Spain. Here Trout breaks important ground. He compellingly and sensitively assembles, from thin sources, a plausible social context for the early ascent of this Bordelais littérateur into influential Italian circles. Trout sketches intriguing conduits of patronage and influence that led Paulinus to a suffect consulship and a Cam-panian governorship, posts from which he would have felt intensely the mutual accommodations demanded between traditional Roman aristocratic life and Christian precepts, even as he made important contacts (e.g., with Ambrose).
Trout traces Paulinus's subtle reshaping, in Bordeaux and Spain, of traditional aristocratic otiumruris into a stepping-stone toward the monastic propositum. He convincingly locates the suspicions that lurked in the mind of Paulinus's genteel Christian mentor Ausonius within public perceptions of Priscillianism. We are reminded that ascetic manifestations and aspirations elicited responses that could be, at best, ambiguous.
Paulinus's post-renunciation life as monk, priest, and "impresario" of the cult [End Page 466] of St. Felix, stark rhetoric of renunciation and contemptusmundi notwithstanding, was hardly divorced from the saeculum; Trout plausibly notes that even his move to Nola was not without connection to political and military events. More telling on this score is Trout's careful exposition of Paulinus's "salvation economics," i.e., his subtle parsing of the delicate balance between renunciation and charity. Through charity and church-building, Paulinus preserved a "proprietary sensibility" even as he distanced himself from ownership.
Trout's account of the cult of St. Felix brings the religious and devotional world of Nola, and Paulinus's role therein, richly to life, and his penultimate chapter locates Paulinus within broader circles of reciprocal literary influence, arguing along the way against portrayals of Paulinus as theologically uninterested. The final chapter considers the rather sparse evidence for his last years. Helpful appendices lay out the statusquaestionis for the Paulinian corpus and chronology, as well as a translation of the...