In the mid to late fifth-century, as Roman power in the West waned, Sidonius Apollinaris wrote nine books of epistles. Scholarship has largely focused on the historical utility of these epistles. They offer insights into the Gallo-Roman aristocracy of his period, the interaction between Romans and barbarians, and the organisation of the Church (Harries). Sidonius explicitly ruled out writing history owing perhaps to the political difficulties any such work would necessarily entail.
This paper argues that Sidonius’ letters deserve consideration as literary works, and that the ‘time’ of the letters is best approached in narratological rather than strictly chronological terms. Three of his epistles demonstrate the potential efficacy of selecting a pivotal moment as the present of the epistle (what Müller termed the Erzählzeit ). Ep. 1.5 describes Sidonius’ arrival in Rome; Ep. 1.7 provides an account of the trial of the Gallo-Roman aristocrat Arvandus for treason; Ep. 1.10 details Sidonius’ efforts as the prefect of Rome.
These epistles share a similar temporal narratology; their Erzählzeiten are precisely defined and occur at key moments; the epistles look backwards to a nostalgic past and forwards to a murky future (as Erzählzeiten are wont to do: Altman 120-22). Such precise present moments sharpen the excitement for the reader: the consummation of the barbarian potentate Ricimer’s marriage with the Emperor Anthemius’ daughter and the alliance between Ricimer and Anthemius hang in the balance; the Gallo-Roman aristocrat Arvandus has been sentenced to death for treason, but is yet to be executed; Rome is starving, but grain is about to arrive.
Scholarship has taken Sidonius’ Erzählzeiten as opportunities for dating the epistles, even though his chronology is highly (and surely deliberately) obscured. Such an interpretation credits these moments as recording precisely (but often not accurately) the exact moment of the epistle’s composition. Recently Mathisen (223) has clearly outlined the difficulties such a task entails: noting that “the business of dating Sidonius’ letters … [can become] a complex game [of using] … methods that often rely on reconstructions of the historical contexts in which the letter were written, or on intricate interrelations … with the dating of one letter dependent upon the hypothesized dates of other letters.”
A few letters which Mathisen (222) terms ‘Historically-Dated Letters’ avoid this game entirely; all three of the letters analysed here fall into this readily datable category: Sidonius journey’ to Rome in Ep. 1.5 preceded his delivery of the panegyric to Anthemius on Jan 1 468; the trial of Arvandus occurred during that year when Sidonius was prefect of Rome (Köhler 183; 229; 282). Nevertheless scholarship should question whether these epistles are best understood through the lens of these dates; Sidonius does not order them chronologically and each of these epistles can only be dated by circumstances detailed for their relevance to the story Sidonius is telling. In each epistle Sidonius brings these pivotal moments into focus; shifting from past tense to the present, using temporal adverbs, or otherwise indicating that time has elapsed since earlier parts of the epistle were written (as in Ep. 1.5).
This paper argues that Sidonius chose these pivotal moments as the setting for the present as a literary strategy designed to enhance the efficacy of the epistolary past and future. These moments make the epistles more exciting, create anticipation and suspense, and dwell on specific moments framed by a clearly defined past and fenced in by a murky future.
Sidonius’ epistles offer more than a pseudo-historical account of a few decades in Late Antiquity; they aspire to be read and enjoyed. The Erzählzeiten of these epistles should inform our understanding of Sidonius’ skill as an epistolary author, rather than the ‘actual moment’ when the epistle was written. His narratology reflects the requirements and expectations his literary circle of fellow Gallo-Roman aristocrats and clergy ― that the narratives contained within should excite.
Emperors, Aristocrats, and Bishops in Late Antiquity