The Roman Identity during the Antique Years

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Sidonius Apollinaris lived between the years 431 and 489 A.D. He was born in Lyon which is in present-day France [1]. The period that he lived is particularly of great interest to modern day historians for several reasons. First, the period marked the beginning of the decline of the then Roman Empire. The fall of the Roman Empire was not as a result of a sudden dramatic event. Rather, it was triggered by a lot of events that preceded the eventual fall of the empire. During his lifetime, the Romans and the Teutons fought alongside each other and also the Huns got defeated on the plains of Catalaunian [2]. More often than not, Sidonius crossed the path of the final emperors as he was Avitus’ son-in-law.

            Additionally, Sidonius served as a high-ranking officer under the rule of Anthemius. He also observed the state of Rome in its final years as an imperial state. For this reason, he contacted many historical figures of the period in which he lived. For instance, he had access to the Majorian. He also dined with Theodoric II who was a Visigoth. Sidonius was the first prisoner as well as the first subject of Euric [3]. He constantly exchanged letters with other officials such as Lupus, Faustus, and the Church officials in Gaul. Ideally, Sidonius observed the transformation of the Roman civilization from old to medieval society. The paper will assess how his letter demonstrated certain aspects of Rome and the Roman identity during the Antique years.

            The first letter was centered around war and the use of faith as a source of hope for the Romans. The author addressed the letter to the Bishop. The primary subject of the letter was the use of faith to address the various rebellions that were arising in the Roman empire.

            Around 473 A.D, the Romans faced attack by the Visigoths [4]. More specifically, Clermont was being invaded for the third time by the Visigoths. According to the first letter, Sidonius saw Clermont as the only remain Roman stronghold in Gaul. For this reason, it was crucial that it is protected if the decline of the Roman empire was to be avoided. However, the resistance of the Romans against invasion by the Visigoths seemed desperate and futile.

            Sidonius acknowledges this difficulty in protecting Clermont from the invasion and writes a letter to Mamertus. Mamertus was an influential bishop who could use his influence to eliminate the panic that had gripped the residents of Clermont. The first strategy was the introduction of Rogationes. Essentially, the Rogationes was a religious practice that entailed fasting and prayer. In the letter, Sidonius gave a vivid description of the practice. Sidonius also commends the bishop for the positive results of the Rogations in reducing the level of panics that was triggered by the apparent attacks and invasion by the Visigoths [5]. With more spirituality among the Romans, there was still a lot of hope that they will trounce the Visigoths.

The first letter enables one to understand the Romans as well as what entailed the Roman identity during the antique years. First, the Romans are presented as quite a religious nation. They practiced Christianity which entailed a lot of religious rites and practices that were neither tied to the foundations of the faith nor the dictates of the scriptures. Instead, some of the religious practices of the Romans were the creation of the Church officials to increase the level of faith and spirituality. Ideally, the higher the level of faith, the higher the hope that they would survive wars and invasions.

In order to understand and appreciate the Roman identity in the antique years, it is plausible that the origin and character of the Rogations be vividly discussed. The Rogations were the main subject of Sidonius first letter to the bishop [6]. By and large, they are crucial elements in the Gallican liturgy. They comprised of a prayer and fasting period of three days that preceded the Ascension Day.

The practice gradually spread across the Roman empire such that in 511 A. D, the council of Orleans prescribed them as official religious practice [7]. All churches were now expected to observe the practice. During the time when Rogations was practiced, slaves and other servants would be exempted from labor. The purpose of this was to allow the gathering together of all members of the various communities. According to Sidonius, the exemptions were picked from the traditional fertility rites that expected slaves and maidservants to refrain from work. The involvement of Sidonius with the Rogations plays a significant role in giving one an insight on his historical importance as a leader of the church. For instance, his goal was the strengthen the authority of the Church. In as much as the Rogation emanated from Pagan practices, the prospect that would strengthen episcopal authority was enough incentive for Sidonius to advocate for its inclusion as an official Christian event [8].

            Other than the identity of the Romans with regards to Christianity, Sidonius also highlights the theme of election and the convergence of religion and politics in the Roman empire. In the fifth letter, Sidonius brings to attention the election and subsequent consecration of the bishops. During that period, the process of appointing new bishops in Bourges was a polarizing issue. The new bishops were selected through an election which could at times lead to public discord. In the Bourges election, for example, the bishop election was hotly debated and even required the attention and intervention of Sidonius [9]. Most instances of public disorder were as a result of religion. More specifically, the division was heightened around the periods that the bishops were to be appointed.

Ideally, the history of election and the subsequent bishops’ consecration is shrouded with a perpetual struggle between the congregations and the bishops. On the one hand, the bishops wanted to have absolute authority on the Church. On the other hand, some segments of the congregation wanted to have a say on the running of the Church. For this reason, there was no line drawn between religion and politics in the antique years since whoever controlled the Church was also influential in the region’s politics.

The process of selecting a bishop was as follows. First, the local clergy would choose a candidate to represent their region. The qualification of the bishop would be such that they are accepted by the congregation as well as the local bishops. As a matter of fact, the acceptance was the only compromise that was reached by the parties involved in choosing a candidate to vie for the position of a new bishop [10]. The process involved the following parties. First, there was the local clergy. Second, there was local leadership. Ideally, the local leaders were privileged members of the society which included senators and landowners. Lastly, there were metropolitan bishops. The bishops served in church province and thus could be regarded as local bishops [11]. One of the conditions of bishop ordination was that every one of those bishops must be chosen by the people. The implication of this condition was that any ordination of bishops to people that did not want them was considered null and void. The other condition of the process of bishop election and subsequent consecration was thus the selection had to be unanimous. An agreement had to be reached between the congregation, the local clergy, and the town council. All their wishes and reservations had to be taken into consideration was selecting a new bishop.

            Though inexperienced, Sidonius understood the needs of the public. For instance, he acknowledged the strength of the public and the need for a strong bishop that could quell public dissent [12]. In essence, the political structure of the Romans portrayed a small extent of democratic rule. In the antique years, most societies around the globe were either monarchies or dictatorial regimes. However, in Rome, there was a marked contrast such that the people had a lot of influence in the leaders that are selected such as the bishops[13].          

In his handling of the procedure and process of selecting the new bishop, Sidonius was careful not to act in contravention of the public’s expectations. According to Sidonius, an excellent bishop is the one that is able to quell and counter a strong public dissent that was so evident during those antique years when the Visigoths invaded them. To accomplish this fete, a decisive procedure is important. The letters demonstrate the unstable society that the then Romans were grappling with. Different issues were taking place. For instance, the invasion by the Visigoths meant that there was a power shift in the Roman Empire. The Visigoths chose different leaders or retained those that already existed based on their perceived respective loyalty [14]. For this reason, the Romans had to adjust to existing and new authorities. Such readjustment brought about panic and anxiety amongst the public which could have been the major cause of increased public dissent

For Sidonius to pledge alliance to the Visigoth’s rule, it was an act of self-preservation. The many readjustments that were taking place in the Roman empire required tacit strategies for self-preservation to not only the individuals but also the Roman culture and ways of life. Before the invasion, Sidonius was an administrator [15]. The positions he held in the Roman empire would make them regarded as an aristocrat. However, the invasion forced him into exile, and he later returned after pledging allegiance to Visigoth rule and resolved to become a bishop. As a bishop, he hoped that he would lead the Romans in preserving their culture from impurification by the Arian and Barbarian cultures that were now being practiced within their boundaries [16]. As a bishop, Sidonius advocated for a conservative approach to cultural and religious practices. With such a stance, the culture that he deemed superior would be preserved and protected against infiltration by Barbarian and Arian cultures.

The other letter talks about the downfall of Clermont. Clermont was regarded as an epitaph of the Western Empire. Sidonius was highly regarded for championing for Clermont and preservation of the Roman culture. In the end, however, Clermont tumbled down due to the invasions by the Visigoths. In the 7th letter, there were several key themes covered. First, there was the issue of freedom vs. slavery. Ideally, this theme covered the entire letter. Second, there was the theme of servitude. Having slaves and maidservants was a common practice amongst the Romans. With the invasion Clermont, there was a high chance that many people would lose their freedom and become subjects of a foreign power. There was also the theme of solidarity versus treason. In essence, the society was divided between those who remained loyal to Roman leadership and those who pledged allegiance to the Visigoths. Remaining loyal to the Roman empire illustrated one’s act of solidarity. On the flipside, it was treasonous that could either lead one into prison or exile. The third theme was causing versus egotism. The theme relates to the second one in that it focusses on the sacrifices or lack thereof of people as a result of the power shifts that followed the downfall of Clermont [17]. On the one hand, there were people who made great sacrifices for the common cause. For instance, the preservation of the Roman culture and self-preservation of Romans against the backdrop of the invasion. On the other hand, there are those who acted out of their selfish interests.

The ninth letter is titled “Modestly presenting a masterpiece.” By and large, the letter is addressed to the Metropolitan of Tours [18]. The letter contains his choice of who becomes the next bishop along with the reasons why he arrived at that choice. With regards to the dictates of diplomacy and good manners, the letter was written modestly and addressed to Perpetuus. Perpetuus was one of the three colleagues that Sidonius had involved in the election. His purpose was to audit the process and procedures that were used to choose a new bishop.

            The most outstanding theme of the ninth letter was justification. The letter expounded the reasons why Sidonius employed specific procedures and processes in the bishop elections that were undertaken in Bourges. Due to the aforementioned disagreements that involved all the parties required to choose a candidate, Sidonius intervention was plausible. He proposed that those preliminary selections of candidates be eliminated to allow him to choose the most suitable candidate. In this letter to Perpetuus, Sidonius argued that the choice he made was the most suitable of the available options. The tactic of having the final say on who becomes the bishop was the most plausible.

Lastly, the letter nine Address in Bourges was a unique manuscript that covered Sidonius speech to the people of Sidonius. The address took place when a new bishop was being selected. The letter shows the oratorical prowess of Sidonius [19]. Though he had probably addressed such audiences in many occasions before, the letter is the only trace of a textbook case of his public speeches [20]. Sidonius used the speech as a way of making an indelible mark as a distinguished public speaker. Good public speaking entailed manipulating the audience through persuasive techniques to follow him as their leader. In this case, the objective was to persuade the public that the method he used for bishop selection was the most suitable given the prevailing circumstances. One of the characteristics of the speech was that it perfectly employed stylistic devices. The elaborate nature of the speech implied that its target audience could hardly be ordinary people. Rather, the speech was aimed at the clergy members that were present. At the beginning of the speech, Sidonius begs to be excused for the lack of historical similarities of the decisions he had made.

Overall, Sidonius Apollinaris letters are the best literary tools that can be used to study and understand the Roman empire antique years. Sidonius lived during a period when the Roman empire was on a gradual decline. He witnessed the empire’s transformation from autonomy to the conquests of the Visigoths. Through an analysis of the letters of Sidonius, one gets an insight into the Roman identity as well as what entailed being a complete Roman. By and large, some of the issues that define the Roman identity included religion, the wars, peace, and struggle to adjust one power shift after another.


Apollinaris, Sidonius. Poems. Letters 1–2, Ed. and Trans. by WB Anderson, 2 Vols, Loeb Classical Library, 296. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1936.

———. Poems: Letters I-II. Harvard University Press, 1936.

———. The Letters of Sidonius, 1915.

Colton, Robert E. Some Literary Influences on Sidonius Apollinaris. Vol. 47. AM Hakkert, 2000.

Grierson, Josephine Annabelle. “Breathing Life into Ancient History,” 2018.

Mratschek, Sigrid. “The Letter Collection of Sidonius Apollinaris.” Late Antique Letter Collections: A Critical Introduction and Reference Guide, 2016, 309–336.

Shanzer, Danuta. “12. Bishops, Letters, Fast, Food, and Feast in Later Roman Gaul.” Society and Culture in Late Antique Gaul: Revisiting the Sources, 2017, 217.

———. C. Sollius Apollinaris Sidonius. The Letters Are Initiated and Translated and Finally Explained by Helga Koehler. WALTER DE GRUYTER GMBH GENTHINER STRASSE 13, D-10785 BERLIN, GERMANY, 2016.

Sivan, H. S. “Sidonius Apollinaris, Theodoric II, and Gothic-Roman Politics from Avitus to Anthemius.” Hermes, 1989, 85–94.

Sogno, Cristiana, Bradley K. Storin, and Edward J. Watts. Late Antique Letter Collections: A Critical Introduction and Reference Guide. Univ of California Press, 2016.


Danuta Shanzer, “12. Bishops, Letters, Fast, Food, and Feast in Later Roman Gaul,” Society and Culture in Late Antique Gaul: Revisiting the Sources, 2017, 217.




Josephine Annabelle Grierson, “Breathing Life into Ancient History,” 2018.


Danuta Shanzer, C. Sollius Apollinaris Sidonius. The Letters Are Initiated and Translated and Finally Explained by Helga Koehler (WALTER DE GRUYTER GMBH GENTHINER STRASSE 13, D-10785 BERLIN, GERMANY, 2016).


Cristiana Sogno, Bradley K. Storin, and Edward J. Watts, Late Antique Letter Collections: A Critical Introduction and Reference Guide (Univ of California Press, 2016).


Sidonius Apollinaris, Poems: Letters I-II (Harvard University Press, 1936).


Grierson, “Breathing Life into Ancient History.”


Sigrid Mratschek, “The Letter Collection of Sidonius Apollinaris,” Late Antique Letter Collections: A Critical Introduction and Reference Guide, 2016, 309–336.




Sidonius Apollinaris, Poems. Letters 1–2, Ed. and Trans. by WB Anderson, 2 Vols, Loeb Classical Library, 296 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1936).


Grierson, “Breathing Life into Ancient History.”


Shanzer, C. Sollius Apollinaris Sidonius. The Letters Are Initiated and Translated and Finally Explained by Helga Koehler.


H. S. Sivan, “Sidonius Apollinaris, Theodoric II, and Gothic-Roman Politics from Avitus to Anthemius,” Hermes, 1989, 85–94.


Grierson, “Breathing Life into Ancient History.”


Robert E. Colton, Some Literary Influences on Sidonius Apollinaris, vol. 47 (AM Hakkert, 2000).


Shanzer, “12. Bishops, Letters, Fast, Food, and Feast in Later Roman Gaul.”


Sidonius Apollinaris, The Letters of Sidonius, 1915.


Mratschek, “The Letter Collection of Sidonius Apollinaris.”


Apollinaris, The Letters of Sidonius.


Sivan, “Sidonius Apollinaris, Theodoric II, and Gothic-Roman Politics from Avitus to Anthemius.”

November 24, 2023



Roman Empire

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