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59.4.McGill

This paper re-examines the mention of the heretics Arius and Sabellius in the Paschale Carmen of Sedulius (I.322-323) in light of fourth- and fifth-century exegetical sources, Augustine in particular. I argue that the names of the two heretics serve as a Christological tag that encourages the reader to interpret the biblical epic though a Christological lens. I explore the implications of these findings as they relate to the exegetical sources available to Sedulius and also to the dating of the epic.

The mention of Arius and Sabellius is significant because it is the only explicit reference in the epic to figures outside the Bible. Nonetheless, it has been discounted as a source of historical information. Springer dismisses Sabellianism as a “dead issue” in the fifth century, and although he notes that Gothic tribes subscribed to Arian beliefs in this period, he prefers to see Nestorianism as the real opponent that Sedulius means to address (37-41). Green follows Springer’s lead in seeing anti-Nestorian polemic behind the epic, and he passes off the mention of Arius and Sabellius as a common motif consisting of a “roll-call of heretics” (243).

Yet, if we look more closely at contemporaneous sources that mention Arius and Sabellius exclusively, as Sedulius does, it becomes clear that the two heretics have particular associations with Christological issues concerning the relationship between the Father and the Son within the Godhead and also the relationship between Christ’s humanity and divinity. Augustine provides the clearest comparandum in a sermon for Easter delivered in 416 or 417 (229G). There he compares Arius and Sabellius to Scylla and Charybdis, with the orthodox believer as a sailor who must navigate a safe path between the two (3[4]-5[6]). Moreover, overlapping biblical references and parallel sentence structure suggest that Sedulius was drawing upon Augustine’s sermon as his source. Against this backdrop, Sedulius’ inclusion of Arius and Sabellius signals a Christological purpose for the epic: relating Christ’s life in a way that navigates the strait between Scylla and Charybdis.

This relationship between Paschale Carmen I.322-323 and Sermon 229G 3(4)-5(6) allows us to expand our understanding of the exegetical material available to Sedulius beyond the texts identified by Moretti Pieri. What is more, understanding Augustine’s Christological ideas as the framework for Sedulius’ epic frees us from Springer’s and Green’s need to date the epic after the Christological confrontation with Nestorianism, which did not make a significant impact the Latin West until the second half of the fifth century. Instead, we would do better to understand the Paschale Carmen as a response to earlier Christological concerns, similar to those Augustine faced in the 410s and 420s.

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