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Paulus Orosius - Historium adversum paganos book vii
(AD 417)
Robert Vermaat

"..but as for the quality of my books, you who bade me write them shall see; if you publish them, they shall be approved by you; if you destroy them, they shall be condemned by you."

Paulus Orosius was a native of Spain and wwas born probably in the town of Bracara, now in Portugal, between 380 and 390. His first name, Paulus, has been known only since the eighth century. The dates of his birth and death are not being precisely known, but he lived around the turn of the fifth century, being both a historian and a priest. He was ordained, and fled from Spain to Africa in 413 or 414, probably because of the Vandal invasion of 414. In Hippo (in modern Tunisia), he worked closely together with bishop Augustine, whom he befriended, to question him as to certain points of doctrine, concerning the soul and its origin, attacked by the Priscillianists.

Detail from Gordan MS 51It was Augustine that sent Orosius to St. Jerome in Bethlehem, Palestine, after 414 in order to become better acquainted with these questions concerning the soul and its origin. Here he argued against Pelagius, whose heretical doctrines of anti-predestination had infuriated Augustine and which were to become popular in Britain as well. Orosius aided St. Jerome and others in their struggle against this heresy, trying to have the teaching condemned, but without success. In 415 Bishop John of Jerusalem, summoned a council at Jerusalem. Here Orosius sharply attacked the teachings of Pelagius, who defended himself by stating that he believed it impossible for man to become perfect and avoid sin without God's assistance. Orosius was drawn into conflict with Bishop John, who accused him of having maintained that it is not possible for man to avoid sin, even with God's grace. In answer to this charge, Orosius wrote his Liber apologeticus contra Pelagium de Arbitrii libertate, in which he gives a detailed account of the Council of 415 at Jerusalem.

In the spring of 416 Orosius left Palestine, to return to Augustine in Africa, and thence home after a short stay with Augustine at Hippo. However, on reaching Minorca, Orosius heard of the wars and devastations of the Vandals in Spain, and he returned to Africa.

Here he began his Histories. Orosius, was the author of the Historiarum adversus paganos libri septem (Seven Books of History Against the Pagans), the first world history by a Christian, which was influenced by his friend Augustine. Orosius was writing his history shortly after Rome was sacked by Alaric in 410. The work, completed in 418, shows signs of some haste. He attempted, like Augustine later did in his Civitas Dei, to counter the view that Rome had fallen because of the adoption of the Christian faith by the Emperor and the people. Using material taken from Livy, Caesar, Tacitus, Justin, and Eutropius (all of them pagans), besides Suetonius, Florus, Justin, the Holy Scripture and the chronicle of Eusebius revised by St. Jerome. Orosius shows that this anti-Christian opinion was groundless, by giving examples of disasters that happened long before the rejection of paganism. In pursuance of the apologetic aim, all the calamities suffered by the various peoples are described.

Orosius’ work is important both theologically (it served as a prelude to Augustine's City of God) as well as an independent historical source. Although the work contains many errors, it is very useful for the period between 378 and 417. It was used extensively by both Gildas (De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae – ca.520-40) and Bede (Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum - ca. 735 AD). In the late 9th century (ca. 890-891) Alfred the Great had both Orosius and Bede translated into Old English. It was used largely during the Middle Ages as a compendium, and nearly 200 manuscripts of the Old English version of Orosius are still in existence today. Orosius' other works (ca. 414) include the Reminder to Augustine Concerning the Error of the Priscillianists and the Origenists, and the Apology Against the Pelagians.

Britain

Orosius writes about Britain only sparingly, apart from the campaigns of Caesar and Claudius. He has this note on Magnus Maximus:

Historium adversum paganos, book VII, 34
Maximus, an energetic man, indeed, and honourable and worthy of the throne had he not arrived at it by usurpation contrary to his oath of allegiance, was made emperor almost against his will..

His dealing with the fifth century in Britain are foremost in connection of the usurpation by Constantine III, of which he provides many details.

Historium adversum paganos, book VII, 40
While these [Alans, Suebi, Vandals] were running wild over the Gauls, in Britain Gratian, a citizen of the island, was made a usurper and was killed. In his place Constantine, a man of the lowest military rank, on account of the hope alone which came from his name and without any merit for courage, was elected. He, as soon as he entered upon his office, crossed over into Gaul.

Unfortunately Orosius never refers to Britain again after Constantine III leaves for Gaul in 407. Though his history ends in 417 within a few chapters after this one (43), he never mentions whether Britain was lost to the empire.

Bibliography

  • Paulus Orosius: The Seven Books of History against the Pagans, ed. and trans. Roy J. Deferrari, The fathers of the Church vol. 50, (Catholic University of America Press, Washington DC, 1964).
  • Snyder, Christopher A. (1998): An Age of Tyrants, Britain and Britons AD 400-600, (Stroud).*
  • Paulus Orosius (fl. AD 414-417) - Late Roman and Dark Age Historians of Britain, in: Athena Review  Vol.I, no.2, at: http://www.athenapub.com/darkhist.htm.  

Paulus Orosius - Historium adversum paganos book vii is Copyright 2002, Robert Vermaat. All rights reserved.


VortigernStudies is copyright Robert Vermaat 1999-2007. All rights reserved