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Prosper of Aquitaine, sometimes called Prosper Tiro, is likely to have been born around 390, although little of his early life is known to us. His youth was spent in dangerous times, as the Vandal invasions of 406 may have caused him to leave his home for the safer Provence and even make him turn to religion. Somewhere after 430 he moved to Rome, where he experienced the Vandal sack of 455. Later tradition portrays him as a notary of Pope Leo the Great (440-461).
Prosper began to write his Epitoma Chronicon in the first decades of the fifth century. The first certain references we have of him date to 427, when he engaged in a religious controversy. This sets the tone for his chronicles, whose theme is divided between affairs of the church and those of competing generals. Prosper wrote a continuation of Jeromes chronicle, of which he wrote an epitome, starting his own continuation from the year 378, the battle of Adrianople. Prosper wrote three editions of his chronicle, published in 433, 445 and 455.
Although his entries on ecclesiastical matters are a minority, they can be considered the core of his work. His great personal crusade was the battling of heresies, which was one of the main reasons to write his chronicle; to set the record straight about the recent theological controversy. The controversy , better known as Pelagianism, raged over the nature of free will and grace, a religious dispute know to us by the two foremost spokesmen of both ends of the discussion; Augustine and Pelagius. Especially the latter is important to the students of British history, as is was the anti-Pelagian mission of Germanus to Britain in 429 that provides us with one of the very few glimpses of Britain in the fifth century. Prosper is one of two sources for that date for this visit (below).
While Pelagius preached free will and responsibility for the soul, Augustine insisted on divine grace and predestination. By 420, Pelagius had died and Augustine followed in 430, when the warlord Boniface besieged Hippo with the help of the Vandals. In Marseille, Prosper was forced to answer the protests that had arisen among the monastic community against the doctrines of Augustine. Because Augustines death left him without local ecclesiastical support, Prosper and his friend Hilary were forced to travel to Rome in 431, where they received a less-than-enthusiastic letter of support by Pope Celestine. Nevertheless, Celestine was Prospers hero, as he was responsible for the missions to Britain and Ireland (below), but also as the persecutor of Pelagians and Nestorians. It did not alter the criticism by the ecclesiastical community in Provence, which included the community of Lérins and the eminent John Cassian. Celestine died in 432, which may have prompted Prospers move to Rome. The Pelagian controversy died down after the death of Cassian in 435.
The other theme of Prospers chronicle is the disastrous in-fighting of the leading Roman generals, which he considered far more devastating than any barbarian invasion or settlement. Usurpers like Magnus Maximus, Constantine iii or others receive his uncompromising treatment: they were all bad and are mentioned only very shortly. Magnus Maximus is dealt with in only two entries:
c.1183 (AD 384)
c.1191 (AD 388)
Though misdated by a year, the first entry does not lay the blame of the killing by Maximus, though Prosper was in no doubt as to its legitimacy.
Prosper is also the single source for the date of the large barbarian invasion into Gaul that hailed the end of the Western Empire. This invasion of Vamdals and Alans led to the usurpation of three British emperors in succession.
c.1230 (AD 406)
Prospers main attention goes to the leading military men Constantius, Castinus, Boniface and Aetius. Prosper credited the revival of the empire to the actions of Constantius, Honorius general who defeated Constantine iii and rid Gaul of the remaining tyrants (411-415). After the death of Constantius (421), the rivalry renewed itself in a collision between Castinus (supported by Goths) and Boniface (supported by Vandals). Prosper held the former responsible for losing to the Vandals in Spain, which were then let loose in North Africa (430), where they were responsible for the death of Augustine.
Following the death of Honorius (423), Castinus was exiled after his support for the usurper, John, after which the rivalry moved on to Boniface and Aetius (supported by Huns). It is clear that Prosper did not hold the barbarians responsible for the many troubles that befell the state, but the ambitious generals that allied themselves with them and so had an interest in not destroying them.
In his later years, Prosper changed his views on the Augustinian doctrine a little, moderating his defence of predestiantion, but remaining firmly behind the view on divine grace. It may not be a surprise that his very last entry in 455, right after the horrible weeks of plunder in Rome by the Vandals, he closed with the purely technical question of the correct dating of Easter. We dont know when Prosper died; Victorius entered his name for the year 457 as a holy man, Marcellinus Comes inserted his career for the year 463, but neither actually described his death.
Though he mentioned Britain in only a very few cases, Prosper is enormously valuable as a contemporary source. In his support for Celestine, he mentiones two events that became very important, and constitute two anchor-points for British history. The first is the voyage of Germanus of Auxerre to Britain as envoy of Celestine::
c.1301 (AD 429)
Prosper, writing only four years after the visit in 433, stated thus that it was Palladius that initiated the visit of Germanus, or rather it was Pope Celestine. Constantius of Lyon, writing his Life of Germanus half a century later in 480, remembered otherwise:
De Vita Germani, 7
This is one of the occasion where we may have some doubts about Constantinus representation of events. All bishops? At a large synod, of which nothing is known from other sources? This is very unlikely, even more so when we read in what manner Germanus and Lupus are described. Apart from this propaganda-like description of the virtues of both men, both sources agree on the reason for the visit, the Pelagian influence on the church(es) of Britain. Though this is not explicitly stated by Constantine, it is stated by Prosper, who tells us that Pope Celestine freed the British provinces from the infection of heresy:
Contra Collatorum, 21
Clearly, the Pope exiled some Pelagians from Britain, the land in which Pelagius had been born. Since Celestine died in 432, and Prosper wrote in 433/4, this reference can only point to the first visit. Without this reference, Constantius would have left us guessing through his lack of detail. Prosper provides first-hand confirmation of Germanus voyage, though he accredits Celestine with the effort, instead of Germanus. This slight difference is repeated in his second important reference:
c.1307 (AD 431)
This all-too-brief entry describes the mission of Palladius to Ireland. Apparently there are already some Christians there, but without a bishop. Significantly, this goes against the very deeply embedded tradition that Patrick was the first missionary to the Irish. Palladius role, which cannot be denied on account of Prosper, has been belittled as a consequence.
Prospers second entry on Magnus Maximus (above) is indirectly connected with the dating of Vortigerns accession to 425. It has been copied by the Gallic Chronicle of 452 for the year 425, where this anonymous chronicler describes the demise of another usurper called Maximus. The entry in this text under Honorius XXX (AD 425) is a seemingly duplication of Magnus Maximus death: "Maximus tyrannus de regno deicitur " Actually, this is probably a reference to another Spanish usurper with the name of Maximus, though living in the early 5th century. Prosper does refer to such a usurper called Maximus, but that one was raised by Gerontius in rebellion against Constantine III and exiled in 412. There might even have been another one of that name, as it is known from Sozomen that Honorius executed at least one Maximus (Muhlberger: p.171 n.75). Since the fifth entry in the Gallic Chronicle of 452 before this one clearly mentions the end of Magnus Maximus, it is clear that this one is not about him. Yet it seems possible to some historians that this text, attributed once to Prosper, could have led to the confusion of Nennius (or an earlier source) in choosing the date for both the death of Maximus and the accession of Vortigern. (For more on this issue, see Forty Years of Fear).
Prosper of Aquitaine - Epitoma Chronicon is Copyright © 2002, Robert Vermaat. All rights reserved.
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