Vita S. Epiphanii

May 19, 2007

 This is kind of an odd post. I’m working on a research paper about a late Roman bishop, Epiphanius of Pavia, and while Magnus Felix Ennodius’ biography of Epiphanius isn’t much like the other books I talk about here, there is a sort of fundamental similarity in that it’s considered to be pretty mediocre and the only people who read it nowadays are classicists mining it for historical detail.

So. Back in the 460s, maybe, when the Roman emperor was still a Roman emperor — if barely — and Pavia was called Ticinum, there was this guy named Epiphanius. He was really holy and stuff, so they made him bishop of Ticinum even though he was only in his twenties. He was a great guy, a civic leader as well as a religious one, and he was really polite and knew how to use rhetoric convincingly, so he got sent on a lot of diplomatic mission-y things. He cleared up a dispute between the emperor and the most powerful guy in the Western Empire, and he ransomed hostages, and got rulers to grant his city freedom from taxes occasionally.

It was a pretty turbulent period, but even though the emperors were being replaced on a pretty regular basis, Epiphanius got along with all of them. Around 493, Theoderic the Ostrogoth killed Odovacer, the first barbarian king of Italy, and replaced him. Theoderic and Epiphanius had a pretty good working relationship, which may have contributed to Ticinum’s becoming a fairly important city in Theoderic’s Italy.

After Epiphanius had been a bishop for, oh, maybe a little less than thirty years, this guy called Magnus Felix Ennodius entered the church as a sort of a secretary or something. He sort of became Epiphanius’ protégé and accompanied him on at least one of his diplomatic missions. Epiphanius died after thirty years as bishop, and Ennodius wrote the Vita S. Epiphanii while a deacon in Milan, working for bishop Laurentius.

Reading the Vita S. Epiphanii, it’s easy to think of Epiphanius and Ennodius as being entirely unlike each other. History seems to support that, with Ennodius remembered mostly as a sort of a hack who was less than sincere about his religion, and Epiphanius  as Ennodius portrayed him —  a kindly holy man well versed in diplomacy.

Part of that is probably due to the hagiographical format. The point of a hagiography is emphatically not to offer a balanced or even truthful portrayal of it’s subject. Instead, a hagiographer tries to show off how fabulous their subject is, as well as anticipating and trying to answer possible future dissenting opinions on their subject’s fabulousness. That was a pretty convoluted sentence. I hope it’s intelligible.

Anyway, I think Ennodius really did think Epiphanius was kind of fabulous. And that makes sense. Epiphanius was his patron when he first entered the church, and took Ennodius on trips to meet barbarian rulers and stuff, and Ennodius’ first big break came when he was asked to write an oration on the occasion of Epiphanius’ thirtieth anniversary as bishop. And the diplomatic skills that Epiphanius evidently had were exactly the sort of thing to impress Ennodius, who was nuts about paideia and rhetoric and aristocratic Romans being polite to each other, and stuff.

So, the Vita S. Epiphanii places Epiphanius on a pedestal, of course, and Ennodius, as the narrator of Epiphanius’ life story, pretty explicitly places himself at a much lower level. But he too became bishop of Pavia, and he too was sent on diplomatic missions, although his weren’t as successful as Epiphanius’. And Epiphanius, like Ennodius, started out in the church as a lector, and I’ve even seen Ennodius referred to as a saint, too, although I can’t find a good reference for it.

I’m inclined to think that Epiphanius was a more impressive figure, and that Ennodius was kind of a hack, although a well-bred, enthusiastically literate one. But I’m not sure if I really have any good reason to think that. Or to think otherwise, for that matter. I’m not really sure where I stand, here. I am pretty sure I can situate Epiphanius among the other political and religious figures of his time, and talk about spiritual and secular authority, and the transition from Roman emperors to barbarian kings, and how King Theoderic was probably a pretty cool guy, but I feel like this issue of Ennodius and Epiphanius is pretty central, and I’m not quite sure what to do with it.



  1. Hello there,

    I accidently stumbled upon this page while I was looking on information concerning Ennodius. I’m a Belgian student who’s currently finishing a Master in Ancient History. My specialisation is Late Antiquity and lately I’ve become very intrigued by the phenomemon of Warlords in the Western Roman Empire ( such as “the most powerful guy” you’ve referred to ;-)

    I’m thinking of doing research on Odoacer and I’d like to hear your opinion on what Ennodius has to say about him. If you wish we can continue a conversation by email.

    All the best,

  2. I know very little about Odoacer, so I don’t know how helpful I can be. My opinion on what Ennodius has to say about him, in a nutshell, is this:

    Ennodius was pretty young when Odoacer died. He didn’t have much personal experience of Odoacer’s rule, so his view of his was probably primarily shaped by political expediency. Odoacer had been Theoderic’s enemy, and Ennodius was a supporter of Theoderic, so he didn’t like Odoacer either. However, I think he found Odoacer a useful precedent. Portraying Odoacer in a relatively positive light helped Ennodius emphasize the legitimacy of Theoderic’s position as a barbarian ruling over the former heart of the Roman Empire.

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