“It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that the Roman Empire in the West collapsed without a sound in the fifth century, but that nobody understood that the catastrophe had occurred before Byzantine chroniclers woke up belatedly to the fact in the sixth century.” Thus, Jill Harries sets out to prove that the Roman Empire was not a tree in the forest with no one to hear its fall, but that the aristocratic Sidonius Apollinaris heard it. Conversely, Sidonius’ own ambitions, attitudes, and sense of compromise “illustrate the wider political failure [End Page 663] of Rome in Gaul” (v). From the beginning we see her characteristic method of synthesis and analysis, as she proceeds both topically and chronologically to map the history of Sidonius’ Gallic world against his life and his concerns.
Like “the death of Socrates,” however, “the fall of Rome” means different things. Harries defines the Roman Empire “purely in terms of a status system based on the ‘gradus dignitatum’ available to the aristocracy and [on] expertise in classical literature” (17). This definition is based on “the single most significant remark made by any contemporary western author on the end of Roman rule: ‘with the removal of the ranks of office, the only means by which the best men can be distinguished from their inferiors, hereafter the only mark of nobility will be knowledge of letters’” (16–17, translating Sid., Ep. 8.2.2). The view here is distinctly from Gaul, and mainly from Clermont: “Rome” is only an idea. Harries avoids the pitfall of writing a history of fifth-century Gaul as a whole, while also avoiding anachronism by adopting Sidonius’ viewpoint. This “fall” is, of course, a process, momentous but not instantaneous. We get a glimpse of a theoretical moment only, for the same process—with or without local awareness—repeated itself all over Gaul and the Western empire.
The other terms in the title need clarification, too. The period A.D. 407–485 includes Sidonius’ lifetime (431[432?]-ca. 485) and ends, roughly, at his death, but it begins a generation earlier, the day after tens of thousands of non-Roman peoples crossed the Rhine into the empire on 31 December 406. There is an air of inevitability at first: the Rhine crossing, the political fragmentation of Gaul and Spain, dissensions between Romans and various Gothic leaders, the sack of Rome in 410, and the imposition of the Gothic emperor Attalus, “all had combined to undermine the credibility of Roman rule, and of Roman law, in the West” (66). The eleven chapters proceed chronologically, each weaving in the author’s main themes: the expanding effects of the Gothic arrival, the Gallic experience of Rome’s fall, and Sidonius’ perception of it.
Even Sidonius requires definition, since he eludes us in his writings and is, often, an intellectual poseur, wrapped in the literary classicism of his age and social class: “his art mirrored life, but it could also distort it” (11). When he describes his beloved villa Avitacum, for example, we cannot tell what is real or unreal, so much does he echo the younger Pliny’s language. Then, in the 470s, Sidonius stopped classicizing and adopted a simpler, more preacherly style; yet, in the 480s, he changed back as a consolation for the fall of Rome. For these reasons, and because the often hard-to-read Sidonius has not yet found his literary expositor, Harries’ Introduction guides the historian to “what may be termed the political aspects of his technique” (3).
The book’s argument is divided into two sections. Part I, “Lyon and Rome,” begins with the family history of the Apollinares and the Aviti, and ends with Sidonius in the urban prefecture at Rome, a scantily attested period, about which Harries writes provocatively. Herein are five chapters discussing (a) Sidonius [End Page 664] at Lyon and Arles, A.D. 430–455, (b) Avitus and the Goths, (c) Majorian, (d) Sidonius as Christian layman, A.D. 461–467, and (e) the Goths at Narbonne and Toulouse. Incidental information abounds...