wives strengthened husbands amid destroyed civilization of Roman Gaul

Early in the fifth century, Roman Gaul became a land of devastation and misery. Germanic Vandals invaded Gaul in 407 and besieged Toulouse. The city held, but in 413, Visigoths, after sacking Roman, took Toulouse and made it their capital. Burgundians and Alans subsequently entered Gaul and fought in shifting alliances. With Roman civilization disintegrating, a Roman Christian husband in early fifth-century Gaul turned to his beloved wife for spiritual strength. Men need women’s help in overcoming their tendency toward despair and self-blame.

Marble statue of Gallic husband committing suicide while holding his dying wife

Like many men, frail and dependent as they are, the husband in early fifth-century Gaul appealed in despair to his wife. He sought her spiritual strength in life dedicated to God:

Come, I now beseech you,
intimate companion of my deeds,
let us dedicate to the Lord God
this fearful and brief life.
You see, in swift rotation,
days rapidly pass.
Members of the fragile world
diminish, perish, collapse.
All that we held flows away —
nothing transitory is possessed again.
Vanities with empty appearances
draw greedy souls.
Where now is the semblance of deeds?
Where are powerful persons’ riches,
by which pleasure has been
occupying captured souls?

{ Age, iam precor, mearum
comes inremota rerum,
trepidam breuemque uitam
domino deo dicemus.
celeri uides rotatu
rapidos dies meare
fragilisque membra mundi
minui perire labi.
fluit omne quod tenemus
neque fluxa habent recursum,
cupidasque uana mentes
specie trahunt inani.
ubi nunc imago rerum est?
ubi sunt opes potentum,
quibus occupare captas
animas fuit uoluptas? }[1]

The destruction of Roman civilization prompted this husband to become disillusioned with hollow appearances. Those hollow appearance include results of many men’s arduous labor: the semblance of worthy deeds, and wealth and its associated pleasures. What diminishes, perishes, and collapses in this fragile world includes the very members of persons’ bodies. The husband perhaps had a sense of his penis’s diminishing sexual potency. He, however cherished his wife as “intimate companion of my deeds {comes inremota rerum}.” Men’s deeds in love are not limited to conveying the seminal blessing. As well as loving each other intimately through many, various deeds, wife and husband as Christians love God and neighbor through specific deeds. Those deeds incarnate Christ through the ages.

The husband now recognized the transitory nature of worldly things. He noted that the man who tilled the land with a thousand plows now has only a single team of oxen. The man who once rode through cities in a luxurious carriage now walks on foot in desolate farmland. The man who had ten large ships working the seas now has only a skiff that he alone sails. The husband lamented:

The condition of farms isn’t the same, nor that of any city.
All in the end are rushing to be overthrown.
With sword, famine, pestilence, chains, cold, heat —
in a thousand ways combined, death seizes wretched human beings.
War rages everywhere, frenzy rouses all, with countless weapons
kings assail kings.
Impious strife rages in a disordered world,
peace has departed from earth, and you perceive what is the final time.

{ non idem status est agris, non urbibus ullis
omniaque in finem praecipitata ruunt.
ferro peste fame uinclis algore calore,
mille modis miseros mors rapit una homines.
undique bella fremunt, omnes furor excitat, armis
incumbunt reges regibus innumeris.
impia confuso saeuit discordia mundo,
pax abiit terris; ultima quaeque uides. }[2]

Many throughout history have thought that the end of the world is near. The world didn’t end in fifth-century Gaul.

Despite the collapse of Roman civilization, other men in fifth-century Gaul continued in men’s accustomed vices. The young cleric Salmon observed there:

Not sword, not cruel famine, not even diseases
has affected us. What we were, now we still are. Always
remaining under the same vices, we make no limit to our faults.
He who once ate lunch into the night, now also in drinking
extends daylight with lamps making night like day.
Pedius was an adulterer. He continues the same as an adulterer.
Lampadius rages on. Pollio was envious. He’s still envious.
Does Albus, who was once captivated by all honors,
labor with less ambition amid the ruin of the world?
Nothing is sacred for us except advantage, and that is honorable
which has been useful. For vice we impart the word “virtue,”
and the miser takes for himself the epithet “frugal.”

{ Nil gladius, nil dira fames, nil denique morbi
egerunt: fuimus qui, nunc semper sumus isdem
sub vitiis nullo culparum fine manentes.
Qui prius in noctem prandebat, nunc quoque potans
continuat soles nullo discrimine lychnis.
Moechus erat Pedius: moechatur, durat in isdem
†Lampadius† furiis; livebat Pollio: livet;
Albus, cunctorum quondam captator honorum,
orbis in excidio minus ambitione laborat?
Nil sanctum nobis nisi quaestus et illud honestum est,
utile quod fuerit, vitiisque vocabula recti
indimus et parci cognomen sumit avarus. }[3]

Men always have been vain, deceitful, conceited, and deluded. Moreover, men always have been willing to declare men’s failings.

Men are prone to excusing women by blaming men. When the wise old monk Thesbon told Salmon that women are even more wicked than men, Salmon declared:

A damp night, Thesbon, would envelop the day in darkness
before I could survey the habits of that crowd.
When by God’s law, women live under men’s law,
women scarcely ever sin, for shame, without our fault.

{ Ante diem, Thesbon, tenebris nox umida condet,
quam possim mores huius percurrere turbae,
quae, cum lege Dei vivant sub lege virorum,
pro pudor haud umquam sine nostro crimine peccant. }

In this man’s understanding, wives’ desires for extensive wardrobes are their husbands’ fault:

If they now would strive to present themselves in varied outfits
and show off one and another before men’s faces,
isn’t the error ours? On a chaste body, what effect has
powder and rouge and poisons of a hundred colors?
The mind’s honor and proper behavior are the bonds of holy
marriage. If surface beauty pleases, with passing years
love will cease. Only probity doesn’t know being old.

{ Iam si mutatis studeant occurrere formis
atque viris alios aliosque opponere vultus,
nonne error noster? quid agunt in corpore casto
cerussa et minium centumque venena colorum?
Mentis honor morumque decus sunt vincula sancti
coniugii; si forma placet, venientibus annis
cedet amor: sola est senium quae nescit honestas. }

According to this fifth-century Christian man, Christian men should be blamed for Christian women behaving like elite pagan men:

Now, when they sanctify all matters with perpetual discussion,
when they feast, when they manage much, when they talk much,
isn’t the fault ours? Forsaking Paul and Solomon,
either a Phoenician Dido sings Virgil, or a Corinna sings Ovid.
Shouldn’t our inner chambers differ from vain theaters?
Horace’s lyrics and Marullus’s mimes receive applause.
We, yes, we are the cause of this. We shamefully
give fuel to these flames. One says, let the immoral wife
be blamed for plucking money from the “honest” husband,
yet like a mirror, wives with their tenacious nature reflect what’s received,
and in their behavior they follow their husbands’ examples.
Why is an unfortunate woman condemned to usual blame
when a sinful wife pleases a stupid husband?

{ Iam quod perpetuis discursibus omnia lustrant,
quod pascunt, quod multa gerunt, quod multa locuntur,
non vitium nostrum est? Paulo et Solomone relicto
aut Maro cantatur Phoenissa aut Naso Corinna.
Nonne cavis distent penetralia nostra theatris?
Accipiunt plausus lyra Flacci et scaena Marulli.
Nos horum, nos causa sumus, nos turpiter istis
nutrimenta damus flammis – culpetur honesti
inproba nupta viri nummo decerpere nummum! –
nam sicut speculo referunt accepta tenaci
ingenio similes morisque exempla secuntur.
Cur solita infelix damnatur femina culpa,
cum placeat stolido coniunx vitiosa marito? }[4]

For whatever wrongs have been done, men and patriarchy are to blame. Blame men especially for misogyny, and for criticizing women’s behavior. But not all men are like that, “and the church nourishes many pious persons {multosque pios ecclesia nutrit},” as Thesbon’s abbot noted. Salmon himself declared, “to Christian victory both sexes adduce crowns {ad victrices det sexus uterque coronas}.” The implications of the words “both sexes {sexus uterque}” deserve emphasis. Not only women are virtuous. Somehow some men manage to live virtuously like women.

Men manly enough to beseech their wives for help might be able to live virtuously. The Roman Christian husband in early fifth-century Gaul implored his wife:

Now you, faithful companion, wrap yourself about me for this battle,
you whom God has provided as help for a weak man.
With care restrain me in pride, comfort me in sorrow,
and let us both be examples of pious life.
Be guardian of your guardian, mutually giving back.
Raise my slipping, rise with the assistance of my lifting,
so we be not only one flesh, but likewise also our minds
be one, and one spirit nourish us both.

{ tu modo, fida comes, mecum isti accingere pugnae,
quam Deus infirmo praebuit auxilium.
sollicita elatum cohibe, solare dolentem;
exemplum vitae simus uterque piae.
custos esto tui custodis, mutua redde;
erige labentem, surge levantis ope,
ut caro non eadem tantum, sed mens quoque nobis
una sit atque duos spiritus unus alat. }[5]

Many men are weak and need help. Women who forsake women’s privilege and enter into deadly battles can help men enormously, just as Viking Princess Svanhvita did. Most importantly, men, with their tendency toward self-blame, naturally suffer from lack of self-esteem. Women by insisting on their own faults can help to prevent men from blaming themselves in despair.

Apart from strong, independent women, men and women benefited from each others’ help in early fifth-century Gaul. In today’s much different circumstances, women and men might still be able to help each other.

* * * * *

Read more:


[1] Prosper of Aquitaine (attributed), Verses to his spouse {Versus ad coniugem}, alternately titled, Song to his wife {Carmen ad uxorem} or Poem of a husband to his wife {Poema coniugis ad uxorem}, vv. 1-16 (of 122), Latin text from Hartel (1894) Appendix, Carmen 1, pp. 344-8 (with cupidas uagasque restored to cupidasque uana, following Santelia (2009)), my English translation, benefiting from that Kuhnmuench (1929) p. 294. On the “where are {ubi sunt}” motif in literary history, Bright (1893) and note 2 in my post on Guillaume de Palerne’s medieval dream.

The current best edition of Versus ad coniugem is Santelia (2009). That edition differs in only three substantive readings from the edition of Hartel (1894). For those differences, Chiappiniello (2010), note 2.

Typically appended to Prosper’s widely disseminated Book of Epigrams {Liber epigrammatum}, Versus ad coniugem survives in many manuscript, including Bibliothèque nationale de France, Latin 11326 (Sup. Lat. 699), written in the late sixth or early seventh century. Liber epigrammatum has survived in at least 180 manuscripts, and a large share of these have appended to them Versus ad coniugem. Schrunk Ericksen (2019) p. 98. Cf. Chiappiniello (2010). Additional surviving manuscripts are Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Reginensis Lat. 206, folios 57r-58v (written in the eleventh century); Reginensis Lat. 230, folios 114r-116r (written in the first quarter of the eleventh century), and the Monastery of Monte Cassino, Codex Casinensis 226.

The attribution of Versus ad coniugem to Prosper of Aquitaine has been a matter of scholarly debate. Some scholars have attributed Versus ad coniugem to Paulinus of Nola, but that attribution has been ruled out. Hwang (2009) p. 26. The poem, nonetheless seems to be related to Paulinus of Nola’s epithalamium (Carmen 25). Chiappiniello (2007). Versus ad coniugem is unusual among Prosper’s surviving work. “Such a deeply personal poem is completely uncharacteristic of Prosper.” Hwang (2009) p. 27. Nonetheless, the manuscript context strongly favors Prosper’s authorship. Santelia (2009) firmly attributes it to Prosper.

Versus ad coniugem was regarded as important enough to be included in significant florilegia. Excerpts from Versus ad coniugem were included in the early fourteenth century Compendium of Notable Morals {Compendium moralium notabilium} by Jeremiah of Montagnone {Geremia da Montagnone}, also known as Jeremiah of Padua {Hieremias Paduanus}, a judge of Padua. On those excerpts, Palermo (2018). Vincent de Beauvais included excerpts from Versus ad coniugem in his Historical Mirror {Speculum historiale} and his Doctrinal Mirror {Speculum doctrinale}. On those excerpts, Villarroel Fernández (2016).

Other contemporary writings concern the collapse of Roman civilization in fifth-century Gaul. Admonishments {Commonitorium}, which Orientius wrote about 430 GC, About the providence of God {De prouidentia Dei}, and Epigram of Paul {Epigramma Paulini} all apparently are Christian responses to the collapse of Roman civilization in fifth-century Gaul. For some comparative analysis, Cutino (2012) and Fielding (2014). Sidonius Apollinaris, both a Roman official and a Christian bishop in fifth-century Gaul, provides an elite witness to the situation. Jerome in his Letter 123 (written in 409 to Ageruchia, a widow in Gaul), section 16, describes the misery in Gaul. Jerome’s Letter 127 (written in 412 to Principia), sections 12-13, describes the effects of Goths, under the command of Alaric, sacking Rome in 410. Rutilius, On returning home {De reditu suo}, considers the collapse of Roman civilization in Gaul with the perspective of an adherent of more traditional Greco-Roman religion.

[2] Versus ad coniugem vv. 23-30, sourced as previously. In literary history, the corruption of interpersonal love has been regarded as both a cause and a sign of the end of the world.

[3] Epigram of Paul {Epigramma Paulini} vv. 30-41 (of 110), Latin text from Chiappiniello (2023), my English translation, benefiting from that of id. and Kuhnmuench (1929) p. 286. The Latin edition of Chiappiniello (2023) is a “lightly revised version” of Schenkl (1888). It has only a few significant differences from id. See Chiappiniello (2023), “List of Departures From Schenkl’s Edition (CSEL 16.1).”

Epigramma Paulini has survived in one manuscript, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, lat. 7558 (Parisinus Latinus 7558), written in the first half of the ninth century and available online. In this manuscript the poem is entitled Epigram of Saint Paul {Sancti Paulini Epigramma}. The title is conventionally shortened to Epigramma Paulini. The attribution to Saint Paul is spurious. Scholars subsequently attributed Epigramma Paulini to Paulinus of Nola or Paulinus of Beziers, but those attributions are now regarded as unlikely. Fielding (2014) p. 570, note 2.

Epigramma Paulini consists of Latin hexameters. It draws upon on Virgil’s first Eclogue and probably also monastic literary dialogues. Chiappiniello (2023), Chapter 5. The satirical passages of Epigramma Paulini have the vigor of Jerome’s satire, but the ironic undercurrent of men’s sexed protest contrasts sharply with Jerome’s direct approach. Chiappiniello interpreted those passages through the modern misandristic ideology of misogyny. The “traditional misogynistic view” referenced in Chiappiniello (2007), p. 173, is a modern social construction.

The subsequent five quotes above are similarly sourced from Epigramma Paulini. They are Epigramma Paulini, vv. 55-8 (A damp night, Thesbon…), 67-73 (If they now would strive to present themselves in varied outfits…), 74-86 (Now, when they sanctify all matters with perpetual discussion…), 97 (and the church nourishes many pious persons), 100 (to Christian victory both sexes adduce crowns).

[4] In the Latin text for Epigramma Paulini, v. 74, I follow Schenkl’s manuscript correction of nam to iam, against Chiappiniello, who in his commentary references different scholarly judgments concerning this change. I think the context is temporal, with an ironic reference to expected behavioral reform following the calamity of the barbarian invasions. Moreover, the iam in Epigramma Paulini, v. 67, seems to me to work in the same way and provide a parallel.

[5] Versus ad coniugem, vv. 115-122, sourced as previously.

[image] Marble statue of Gallic husband committing suicide while holding his dying wife. Commonly called “The Ludovisi Gaul” or “The Galatian Suicide.” Second-century sculpture attributed to Epigonus of Pergamon, apparently copying a bronze Hellenistic sculpture. Originally commissioned and owned by Attalus I of Pergamon in present-day Turkey. Transferred to Italy without justifying documentation and now preserved as Inv. 8608 in the Boncompagni Ludovisi Collection of the Palazzo Altemps, Museo Nazionale Romano (Rome, Italy). Low-resolution, modified image used in accordance with fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law. Here’s an image on Wikimedia Commons.


Bright, James W. 1893. “The ‘Ubi Sunt’ Formula.” Modern Language Notes. 8 (3): 187-188.

Chiappiniello, Roberto, 2007. “The Carmen ad uxorem and the Genre of the Epithalamium.” Ch. 5 (pp. 115-38) in Otten, Willemien, and Karla Pollmann, eds. Poetry and Exegesis in Premodern Latin Christianity: the encounter between classical and Christian strategies of interpretation. Leiden: Brill.

Chiappiniello, Roberto. 2010. “Review: Stefania Santelia, Prospero d’Aquitania: Ad coniugem suam. In appendice: Liber epigrammatum. Studi latini 68.” Bryn Mawr Classical Review. 2010.12.71.

Chiappiniello, Roberto. 2023. The Epigramma Paulini: Critical Edition with an Introduction, Translation, and Commentary. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Cutino, Michele. 2012. “Réflexion éthique et historique des poètes chrétiens en Gaule au ve s. face aux invasions barbares.” Pp. 151-164 in Nathalie Catellani-Dufrêne and Perrin Michel, eds. La lyre et la pourpre: Poésie latine et politique de l’Antiquité Tardive à la Renaissance. Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes.

Fielding, Ian. 2014. “Physical Ruin and Spiritual Perfection in Fifth-Century Gaul: Orientius and His Contemporaries on the ‘Landscape of the Soul.’Journal of Early Christian Studies. 22(4): 569–85.

Hartel, Guilelmus de, ed. 1894. Sancti Pontii Meropii Paulini Nolani, Carmina. Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum (CSEL) 30. Vindobonae: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften. Alternate presentation. Alternate presentation.

Hwang, Alexander Y. 2009. Intrepid Lover of Perfect Grace: The Life and Thought of Prosper of Aquitaine. Washington, D.C: Catholic University of America Press.

Kuhnmuench, Otto J. 1929. Early Christian Latin Poets from the Fourth to the Sixth Century with an Introduction, Translation, Commentary, and Notes. Chicago: Loyola University Press.

Palermo, Sara. 2018. “Próspero de Aquitania en el Compendium Moralium Notabilium de Jeremı́as de Montagnone.” Estudios Clásicos. 154: 67-92.

Santelia, Stefania, ed. and trans. (Italian). 2009. Prosper of Aquitaine. Ad coniugem suam. In appendice: Liber epigrammatum. Studi latini 68. Napoli: Loffredo editore. Review by Roberto Chiappiniello (2010).

Schenkl, Karl, ed. 1888. “S. Paulini Epigramma.” Pp. 499-510 in Poetae Christiani Minores, Pars I (Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum, Volume 16, Part 1). Vienna, Leipzig, Prague: Tempsky, Freytag. Alternate presentation; another alternate presentation.

Schrunk Ericksen, Janet. 2019. “A Textbook Stance on Marriage: The Versus ad coniugem in Anglo-Saxon England.” Ch. 5 (pp. 97-112) in Kozikowski, Christine E., and Helene Scheck, eds. New Readings on Women and Early Medieval English Literature and Culture: Cross-Disciplinary Studies in Honour of Helen Damico. Leeds: Arc Humanities Press. Introduction.

Villarroel Fernández, Irene. 2016. “De Opusculis Prosperi Excerpta Huic Operi Inserere Volui. Próspero de Aquitania en el Speculum Maius de Vicente de Beauvais.” Revue d’Histoire des Textes. 11: 215–53.

Walsh, P. G, ed. and trans. 1975. The Poems of St. Paulinus of Nola . New York: Newman Press.

2 thoughts on “wives strengthened husbands amid destroyed civilization of Roman Gaul”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Current month ye@r day *