Vichy and the Visigoths

Sidonius in Occupied France

‘The fundamental interest of Sidonius’ writings is that they are historical documents’. The son-in-law of the emperor Avitus was indeed entangled over a period of half a century in what was perhaps the most awesome political, social, and ethnic upheaval in history: the barbarian stranglehold on the tottering Roman empire. Sidonius Apollinaris, born a Roman citizen at Lyon in 430 or 431, dying at Clermont around 486 as the subject of a Visigothic king, was present at the performance of the great drama that is probably most poignant for us French: the fall of Roman Gaul beneath the surge of the Germani.

André Loyen, Recherches historiques, 11 [1]

Sidonius lived in interesting times, as the Chinese proverb has it. But this personal misfortune is part of the reason for his literary fortune. Blessed with distinguished ancestry and an advantageous marriage, at various moments he appeared on the cusp of great worldly success. He was only about twenty-five in 456 when he found himself praising his imperial father-in-law before the senate, and being honoured for his accomplishment with a statue in the Forum of Trajan. But within the year his father-in-law had been deposed and, we presume, killed (Sidonius tells us nothing about it). Twelve years later in 468 a panegyric of another emperor led to his appointment as prefect of Rome. But this was not the launch-pad to still higher offices, and within a couple of years, in what probably seemed a backward step in worldly terms, he had been ordained bishop of a minor city in central Gaul. (Sidonius, again, tells us nothing of the circumstances of his ordination). Most striking of all, he lived through the end of Roman rule in Gaul and the west. His defence of Clermont as its bishop against King Euric’s annual raids led to his temporary removal and imprisonment, and more than that, he gained the clear insight that the political arrangements he and his friends had grown up with were gone for ever.

André Loyen (1901-1974) lived in interesting times too, but his life was, to my knowledge, less interesting than that of Sidonius, the author on whom he founded his reputation as a Latinist and historian. He held a series of appointments as an academic researcher and administrator ending with a chair at Paris X Nanterre, and had a couple of dozen publications centred on the works of Sidonius, capped by the three-volume Budé edition (1960, 1970). The words quoted above, from the introduction of his first short monograph on Sidonius (Recherches historiques sur les Panégyriques de Sidoine Apollinaire, Paris, 1942), are of course emblematic of a general reason for interest in Sidonius – the mighty events of which he was an eyewitness — but they also bear particular testimony to the place and moment of publication: occupied France (Loyen was based at Rennes), a few months before the Germans overran the Zone libre in November 1942. The cover bears the words ‘Série de Guerre’, and the paper quality is not particularly high. The foreword explains that present difficult circumstances (‘les difficultés de l’heure’, 9) meant that the text, translation and commentary that he had prepared would not be included.

The introduction tells the story of fifth-century Gaul as a tale of gradual barbarian conquest. At the original establishment of the Visigothic kingdom in Aquitaine in 418, the Visigoths did not appear to be enemies of the Romans (p. 11): these skin clad barbarians called themselves defenders of the Romans, and, Loyen suggests, many contemporaries held towards them the same sympathetic curiosity as for the Spahis or Senegalese tirailleurs (these were ‘native’ regiments in the French army, the latter fighting for the Free French against the Germans at the time Loyen was writing). The fantasy that their new neighbours were their allies lasted decades, but at last Euric discarded the fiction and broke the treaty. Despite the heroism of Sidonius and his brother-in-law Ecdicius, Clermont was ceded to the Gothic invaders by a regular treaty signed by the emperor Nepos: ‘on that day, Sidonius must have felt his confidence collapse, the perhaps slightly naïve confidence he clung to all his life because of a belief that a centuries-old state of affairs would last for ever’ (p. 12) [2].

Loyen’s discussion moves on to other barbarian groups, to the internal situation of the empire, and the state of culture (pp. 13-16); he looks at the reactions of the governing class in the course of the fifth century. Some of them seemed to accommodate to the new regime of the Visigoths, which at least offered some shelter from the horrors of war; several served Gothic kings faithfully as ministers or advisers; some, like the traitors Arvandus and Seronatus, even plotted to destroy imperial authority beyond the Alps. Loyen then moves on to a more detailed account of Sidonius’ life within this context, closing by repeating what he has already told in part: his hero’s glorious and determined attempt to defend Clermont. It was Sidonius that organised the resistance against the Aryan Visigoths, and sought both political and divine support. He inveighed against the traitors, and his courageous attitude brought reprisals from the victors (p. 18-19). The language of ‘résistance’, ‘trahison’, and ‘représailles’ must have struck readers as markedly close to contemporary discourse – a (not very) coded replacement for the free speech that was unavailable, not unlike what many readers have seen in Sidonius himself.

This emphasis of the introduction is all the more striking when it is considered that the events to which it gives most repeated and starkest emphasis, the surrender of Clermont, and the subsequent end of Roman power in Gaul, are subsequent to the events discussed in the rest of the book: Sidonius’ panegyrics were given between 456 and 468, and the chronology at the end of the book (p. 99) does not go beyond 468. It seems a reasonable conjecture that the introduction belongs to the time of writing in a way that the rest of Loyen’s text does not (he explains in the preface that his text is a small sample of a larger thesis approved in January 1937). But from this point on, Loyen always seems to have viewed Sidonius to some extent through the prism of France’s experience in the second world war: as Ian Wood has pointed out, in 1963 he published an article with the suggestive title ‘Résistants et collaborateurs en Gaule à l’époque des Grandes Invasions’. [3]

To see relations between Gaul and Germany, or the Roman Empire and the barbarians, as in some sense prefiguring modern geopolitics was nothing new, and this blog will consider other examples. Since the Franco-Prussian war such implicit comparisons had been common – even more, perhaps, since the flowering of scholarship on the Germanen under the influence of National Socialism. And this evocation of Sidonius as peculiarly relevant to the situation of modern France is interestingly matched in fiction. In an innovative chapter on Sidonius’ reception in twentieth-century literature to be published in the forthcoming Prolegomena, Filomena Giannotti draws attention to the Auvergnat author Jean Anglade’s novel Sidoine Apollinaire (1963), whose chapter headings make the parallel explicit: 14. Le résistant. 15. An 475: Munich! 16. Le déporté 17. Devant le führer [i.e. King Euric].

Part of Sidonius’ appeal to readers is as a symbol of the doomed attempt to preserve civilisation against barbarism and chaos – which sometimes leads moderns to share his stereotyped portrayal of barbarians. Loyen was inclined, like most twentieth-century scholars, to an old-fashioned view of the barbarian invasions of the fifth century and of the barbarians themselves. But in the few pages of his wartime introduction to a highly technical scholarly study of the panegyrics, Loyen does not just exploit this approach but goes beyond it, to deploy Sidonius for his own personal act of passive resistance.

Gavin Kelly (Edinburgh)

[1] ‘“L’intérêt fondamental des écrits de Sidoine, c’est d’être des documents d’histoire.” Le gendre de l’empereur Avitus fut en effet, durant un demi-siècle, mêlé au bouleversement politique, social, ethnique, le plus formidable peut-être de l’Histoire: la mainmise des barbares sur l’Empire romain décrépit. Sidoine Apollinaire, né citoyen romain à Lyon en 430 ou 431, mort vers 486 sujet d’un roi wisigoth, à Clermont, assista à l’acte du grand drame le plus poignant sans doute pour nous Français: la chute de la Gaule romaine sous la poussée des Germains.’ The opening quotation is from Labriolle, Histoire de la littérature latine chrétienne (1924), p. 639.

[2] ‘Ce jour-là, Sidoine dut sentir crouler sa confiance, cette confiance peut-être un peu naïve à laquelle toute sa vie il s’était malgré tout accroché car il croyait à la pérennité d’un état de choses qui durait depuis des siècles’.

[3] I. Wood, The Modern Origins of the Early Middle Ages (Oxford 2013), 293. Loyen’s article is in Bulletin de l’Association Guillaume Budé 22 (1963), 437-450.

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