Martin of Tours (AD 316 or 317-397) is best known for an act of charity. As a young soldier stationed at the civitas Ambianensium (now Amiens, France), in the middle of a bitterly cold winter, he cut his own cloak in half with his sword and gave half to a freezing beggar, much to the amused scorn of his fellow soldiers. This selfless act defines him in the popular memory, and it is the incident most frequently represented in artistic depictions of Martin. But the larger arc of his life is a remarkable story that reveals much of interest about a fascinating period of tumultuous religious and political change in the Roman Empire. During his lifetime the Empire was Christianized, and Martin himself was a key figure in the conversion of what is now France. He founded one of the first monastic communities in the West, at Marmoutier, near Tours. And despite, or perhaps because of, his desire to live a secluded and ascetic life, he became the most influential and respected bishop of his day. He was the first Christian to be made a saint on the basis of his deeds in life, rather than the manner of his death. His church at Tours became a major Christian center, his shrine an important goal for pilgrims.
That Martin became a widely venerated saint all over Europe was due in no small part to the literary efforts of Sulpicius Severus (ca. AD 363- ca. 425). Sulpicius was from Aquitania in Western Gaul. His polished Latin style shows his traditional classical education, as do the allusions to Livy and Sallust in the preface to the Life of St. Martin. While still a young man and already a prominent orator, Sulpicius converted to Christianity, gave away most of his considerable fortune (inherited and acquired through marriage), and devoted himself to retiring life of piety--this according to the admiring letters of his friend and fellow Christian writer Paulinus of Nola (see the collection of testimonia about Sulpicius Severus in contemporary and later medieval authors, collected in the Patrologia Latina, all in Latin with source citations). Sulpicius had heard of the piety, ascetic lifestyle, and miracles of Martin, and set out to meet the man himself and write his life. As he describes in section 25, Sulpicius did in fact meet Martin briefly, near the end of his life. Most of the anecdotes and miracle stories told in the Life derive from monks in Martin's circle. The work is aimed in the first instance at the addressee, the ascetic Christian Desiderius; in the second, at Christian converts in Gaul and elsewhere in the Latin West. It is a call to emulate Martin’s holy and austere lifestyle, and also an indictment of bishops more focused on worldly political ambitions, luxury, and wealth than was Martin.
The Life of Martin was finished by 397, the year Martin died. Between 403 and 406 Sulpicius wrote two further works that have survived: the Chronicles (Chronica) is a short history of the world, beginning with Biblical creation, but focusing on more recent times, the fourth century church and its heresies. It only mentions Martin in passing, but includes strongly worded attacks on the political scheming of the contemporary clergy. Sulpicius claims that the powerful bishops interpreted any inclination towards ascetic practices such as fasting and isolation as evidence of adherence to the Priscillianist heresy. The other work, the Dialogues (Dialogi), is a more leisurely discussion in two books, looking back in form to the philosophical dialogues of Cicero. The author recounts a meeting with his friend Gallus, a former student of Martin’s, and their encounter with Postumianus, recently back from a three-year trip to Palestine and Egypt. It includes many stories of the piety of and wonders performed by the Egyptian monks, more asides against the Gallic church, and aims to show that the ascetic community founded by Martin was superior even to the famous ones in the Egyptian desert.
Among saints’ lives, Sulpicius’ Life of St. Martin is remarkable for its elegant Latinity and for its engagement with classical models. In his overall attitude to history-writing Sulpicius has much in common with Livy and Sallust, especially his exemplary intent, rhetorical approach, and pessimistic attitude to the present. But Sulpicius self-consciously set out to revolutionize this classical heritage, to reject its worldly orientation, and put its literary and persuasive tools to new, Christian purposes. Its carefully planned structure recalls the biographies of Roman emperors by Suetonius: the account begins in a chronological fashion, until the peak of the career, at which point matters are treated by topic, followed at the end with an overall assessment of his character.
After a preface which, with conventional modesty, disclaims all literary skill and asks Desiderius not to publish the work, the introduction (section 1) discusses the purpose of writing biography and history. The chronological narrative of Martin’s life begins at section 2 (it is recommended that intermediate-level Latin students begin here, then come back to the prefatory material; the Latin is much more straightforward from here on), and extends through section 11. Sulpicius treats Martin’s birth in Pannonia, his early military service (section 2), the story of the cloak (3), a standoff between the saint and the pagan emperor Julian while Martin was still a soldier (4), Martin’s relationship with his mentor, Hilary of Poitiers, and his growing reputation as a holy man (5-8), his election as bishop of Tours and foundation of the monastic community at Marmoutiers (9-11). At this point Sulpicius breaks from the chronological scheme and begins to speak of the miracles Martin worked as bishop: his activities in converting the pagans of the countryside to Christianity, and his efforts at destroying their shrines (12-15), the miraculous cures he performed (16-19), his refusal to kowtow to the emperor Magnus Maximus (20), his frequent communications with angels, and confrontations with the devil, and humans inspired by the devil (21-24). Sulpicius then describes his own meetings with Martin (25), and praises the character of the man himself, emphasizing his humility, kindness, patience in the face of personal attacks, and ascetic discipline.
It will be clear from Sulpicius’ account that Martin was an enormously controversial figure in his own lifetime. One of the most interesting aspects of the Life is the way it reveals the struggles between individuals and classes of people in fourth century Roman Empire with very different visions of what Christianity should be and how Christians should act in the world. Sulpicius’ Life, too, was a controversial work in its own time, and came under attack from educated Christians for the uncritical way it retailed miracle stories. As emerges in the Chronica, Sulpicius knew two kinds of truth, Biblical, which is absolute, and classical, where man uses his reason to establish the truth. Seen through the eyes of faith, the miracle stories get across an important truth, namely the transformative charismatic power of Martin and his brand of Christianity. To see how Sulpicius and his audience would have understood the miracle stories, we have to consider not just Sulpicius' persuasive aims but also how people of the fourth century conceived of the natural and supernatural world. The realms of man and God were not seen as separate, and the existence of various kinds of intermediaries, from martyrs to demons and angels, was taken for granted by both pagans and Christians. Another reason to read the Life of St. Martin is for the insight it gives into the diverse and changing intellectual worlds of this period. In one sense Sulpicius occupies a cardinal position at the end of the classical tradition of biography and history, and at the beginning of the medieval. He also shows in a vivid fashion some of the fault lines and tensions within religious and political thinking of his own period.
Sulpicius’ Latin is largely classical, but not puristically so. The vocabulary includes a number of Christian items, naturally, and also some later Latinisms, such as plures for multi, or cur = “because.” There are many so-called “shifted” pluperfects: perfect infinitives with fuisse instead of esse (fuisse vestitum 3.4) pluperfect subjunctives with fuisset instead of esset (fuisset exactus 17.3) and pluperfect indicatives with fuerant instead of erant (delata fuerant 19.1). Such items are flagged in the notes, but overall Sulpicius’ Latin should present no serious problems to those familiar with classical prose.