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The Catholic Historical Review 87.3 (2001) 481-483

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Book Review

Paulinus of Nola:
Life, Letters, and Poems

Paulinus of Nola: Life, Letters, and Poems. By Dennis E. Trout. [The Transformation of the Classical Heritage, Vol. XXVII.] (Berkeley: University of California Press. 1999. Pp. xx, 326. $55.00.)

Paulinus of Nola (ca. 352/3-431) rejected his senatorial career in 394 to live the ascetic life in Campania, far from his Gallic homeland. From 395 in Nola he orchestrated the cult of a rather dim confessor Felix, documented in fourteen poetic celebrations of his feast. Paulinus' correspondents included Alypius, Augustine, Sulpicius Severus, and Victricius of Rouen.

There are authors for whom plausible biographies can be written (Augustine, Cicero, Ambrose, and Jerome), but Paulinus is not one of these. Religious verse and friendship epistles form a weak framework for the enterprise. A biography (or autobiography) and a sufficiency either of introspective intellectual or controversial writing, or a working correspondence would be preferable. Though three poems date from the time in Bordeaux and Aquitaine (383-389), and writings document the years 393-408, Paulinus was largely "offline" otherwise (408-431).

This is a hopeful book: much of "The Early Years" is speculation. Amidst Brownian cadences ("diurnal shifts of sunlight," "delicate mechanisms of influence and authority," "the weight of a family's past . . . rested heavily on its sons," "thick and densely cross-referenced palimpsest") appear countless "should haves" and "surelys" that signal the absence of connective tissue. "Otium Ruris to Contemptus Mundi" begins with background not directly related to Paulinus: ascetic Controversies at Rome and Priscillianism in Gaul. The connections drawn between the Bellerophontian misanthropy Paulinus was accused of by Ausonius and Priscillianist social isolation in coteries or cabals (pp. 72-75; 125) are improbable. But Trout notes a telling contrast between association with the [End Page 481] insider Ausonius and the outsider Martin (p. 63) and the fact that renunciation mattered more to Paulinus than baptism (pp. 66-67). "Renunciation and Ordination" shows Paulinus declaring the Muses names without power, but not reducing pagan literary allusion (p. 86). The discussion of the famous correspondence with Ausonius is unremarkable, but there is an interesting analysis (pp. 96-100) of Jerome's response both to Carm. 6 and to Paulinus' messenger Vigilantius.

"Paulinus at Nola" argues that Paulinus' lost panegyric on Theodosius was written to prepare the poet's move to Italy. But both it and the lost "Adversus paganos" (Aug. Ep. 31.8, [395/6] written by Paulinus should be considered in light of the first book of Prudentius' Contra Symnachum, which unites Theodosian panegyric with anti-pagan propaganda, and also, perhaps with C. 19. Much of the rest of the chapter entails subjunctives surrounding the unattested, viz., Paulinus' views on virginity (p. 127), "Salvation economics" shows Paulinus' preference for Dives and Lazarus to Mt. 19:16-24 (p. 133). But it could have defined more rigorously the distinction between divestment of riches and investment in alms or the Church. But through combining analysis of letters of advice to correspondents seeking to follow the ascetic life and descriptions of Paulinus' own building-program, Trout convincingly shows him having his cake and eating it. He emerges (no surprise) not as a hard-line monastic spiritual, but as someone with a valid Christian usus for senatorial wealth. "The Cult of St. Felix" analyzes what a saint could do for an aristocratic impresario. Trout discusses (pp. 168-169) the merger of Felix and Paulinus in the Natalicia, paying particular attention to those poems (C. 18 and 20) that sympathetically and sometimes humorously treat rustic piety and Ananias-like cautionary tales about promised sacrifices of hogs and heifers. (But what about C. 20.437-438 alluding to 1 Cor. 9:9 and Endelechius' De Mortibus boum?) The implication (pp. 186 and 191) that Ep. 49 uses Felix to broker a case at Rome is, however, far-fetched: the saint is never mentioned. "Paulinus and Latin Christian Culture" examines theological and literary relations with Augustine. Severus, Jerome, and Rufinus. The book ends with the papal schism of 418...


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