Read Sidonius, Book 8 letter 6, before sailing with the Barbarians

17 November, 2014

This week On the Reading Rest I have a letter by Sidonius Apollinaris, but I don’t read it without consulting relevant chapters in:

coverWaarden, Johannes A. & Kelly, Gavin. 2013. New Approaches to Sidonius Apollinaris. [Late Antique History and Religion 7] Peeters. Leuven – Paris – Walpola, Ma. Acronym: NatSa

Reading a letter by Sidonius Apollinaris is not just a matter of getting the words and their immediate meaning right. His nine books of letters must also be seen as a work in themselves, a series of instalments, nine books of letters, related to Sidonius, his life, conscious and unconscious decisions, plans and opinions in his ‘long decade’, encompassing the 470s. His letters, however, are not terribly annalistic. Consequently, arrangement, editing, his choice of addressees, composition, facts, mood and opinion, to name but a few factors, must be actively understood in order to grasp the contexts of the letters and a wealth of relations. The possible variables are neither reviewable nor well-defined and reading Sidonius in depth is in other words reassuringly impossible but nevertheless worthwhile.

Book 8 letter 6, probably written from Clermont-Ferrand to his friend Namatius the Visigoth King Euric’s admiral stationed in Saintonges, is a case in point. (Go to page 145)

Sidonius Apollinaris personifies Late Antiquity. He writes classical Latin (Rodie Risselada, NatSa:273f & 300), but he also promotes himself in a non-classical but definitely Late-Antique style full of pretentious mannerism that doesn’t chime in well with the ever-present alleged modesty and professed inferiority of the author. This kind of lip service is so common and so linked to topos that is no more than the equivalent of more or less harmless politeness. It need not bother us reading the letter as long as we remember that life in Late Antiquity was horrible to most. Mannerism, moreover, hasn’t completely left us.

SidoniusWhen it comes to the overall structure of the nine books of letters, Roy Gibson (NatSa:195ff.) has argue that Sidonius composed his nine books according to an overarching structure reminiscent of the way Pliny the younger organized his (1). This means that anxiety would be a theme we must not be surprised to meet in a letter in book 7 or 8. Contrary to Pliny, Sidonius, who was well aware of the bleak aspects of life, makes a point of not losing hope. Fond of staging the drama of his own life in a historical setting (cf. Sigrid Mratschek, NatSa:254), he is nevertheless confident that ultimately the very kind of intellectualism that he himself represents will lead the way out of our present problems. Composing a series of ‘Books of Letters’ doesn’t prevent Sidonius from writing personal letters reflecting the world he lives in, and in this setting the last two books, 8 & 9, are appendices to the first seven inasmuch as he ends book 7 and 8 telling his addressee that enough is enough. Needless to say on request he procures book 8 & 9 (and so did Pliny). Sidonius, true to his composition is acutely aware of all possible dangers, but obeys ‘the command and set[s] his ‘sails to the old winds’. He asks himself why he, who has ‘navigated oceans’, ‘shouldn’t cross this quiet water’ (Book 8, letter 1). The book is the answer, anxiety present, and Sidonius is not discouraged.

With Ralph Mathisen we can expect that Book 8 was circulated in some form or other c. 480 CE, that is a couple of years after Books 1-7 (NatSa:Tab. 3 p 231).

The structure of Letter 6 is not straightforward. But reading the very last paragraph we understand that the letter is an answer to a request by Namatius asking Sidonius to send him some books that his friend would like to read because he is in camp organising his campaign and could do with a little leisure. Sending these books would have been a logical way to end the letter, had it not been for the paragraphs 13 to 17. In paragraph 13, after the first sentence, there is a break because a courier arrives. Talking to him Sidonius is told that Namatius has already weighed anchor pursuing the Saxons. If the last paragraph had not already been written we would expect the last paragraph to have rounded up the letter. Something like this: I send the books with the courier and they will await your happy return – please write to me as soon as you can! In fact what we have is a post scriptum pasted into the original last paragraph once meant to state the following:

[13] But, joking apart, do let me know how things go with you and your household. THE POST SCRIPTUM: [18 ]In accordance with your request, I send you the Libri Logistorici of Varro and the Chronology of Eusebius. If these models reach you safely, and you find a little leisure from the watches and the duties of the camp, you will be able, your arms once furbished, to apply another kind of polish to an eloquence which must be getting rusty. Farewell.

Prior to this last paragraph there are two sections. To begin with a rather long one (paragraphs 1 to 9) dedicated to one of Sidonii role models Flavius Nicetius. This man is a towering intellectual and orator successfully involved in governing. Since Flavius Nicetius likes Sidonius too, we are not surprised. Moreover, paragraph 1 begins with a reference to Caesar and that is relevant in view of the books by Varro – himself an intellectual at the centre of power and an antagonist accepted by Caesar.

Understandably, inasmuch as self-promotion must be balanced, the second part (paragraphs 10 to 12) begins: ‘But no more of me and my friend’ and Sidonius then goes on to jokingly to tease Namatius while flattering him. They are palls, God bless them, and now when the conversation has been made public we cannot help eavesdropping because Sidonius has chosen to publish himself in a way that reminds us of someone talking loudly into his phone on the train.

When the letter was finished the courier from Saintonges entered – what a coincidence! He is not Namatius’ courier, but having talked to the man Sidonius has to write the post scriptum (paragraphs 13 to 17). Needless to say he may have invented the anonymous courier. Later when Sidonius edits the letter he puts the post scriptum where it has the most dramatic effect. The post scriptum serves Sidonius to show his concern for a Saxon-hunting friend, and although he need not tell Namatius of the dangers, he does so anyway because danger, concern and anxiety it is one of his themes in Book 8. This mean that we know why the Saxons entered the letter – they are an indisputable example of the ruthless chillingly capable and dedicated barbarians – the IS/Isis of the 470s. Sidonius writes about the Saxons exactly to describe what Namatius and the well-informed already agree upon when it comes to Saxons. Everything is factual – horrible and true.

[13] … [The inserted Post Scriptum:] Just as I was on the point of ending a letter which had rambled on long enough, lo and behold! a courier from Saintonges. I whiled away some time talking with him about you; and he was very positive that you had weighed anchor, and in fulfilment of those half military, half naval duties of yours were coasting the western shores on the look-out for small curved pirate ships of the Saxons in whose every oarsman you think to detect an arch-pirate. Captains and crews alike, to a man they teach or learn the art of brigandage; therefore let me urgently caution you to be ever on the alert.

[14] For the Saxon is the most ferocious of all foes. He comes on you without warning; when you expect his attack he makes away. Resistance only moves him to contempt; a rash opponent is soon down. If he pursues he overtakes; if he flies himself, he is never caught. Shipwrecks to him are no terror, but only so much training. His is no mere acquaintance with the perils of the sea; he knows them as he knows himself. A storm puts his enemies off their guard, preventing his preparations from being seen; the chance of taking the foe by surprise makes him gladly face every hazard of rough waters and broken rocks.

[15] Moreover, when the Saxons are setting sail from the continent, and are about to drag their firm-holding anchors from an enemy’s shore, it is their usage, thus homeward bound, to abandon every tenth captive to the slow agony of a watery end, casting lots with perfect equity among the doomed crowd in execution of this iniquitous sentence of death. This custom is all the more deplorable in that it is prompted by honest superstition. These men are bound by vows which have to be paid in victims, they conceive it a religious act to perpetrate this horrible slaughter, and to take anguish from the prisoner in place of ransom; this polluting sacrilege is in their eyes an absolving sacrifice.

[16] I am in full of anxiety and apprehension about these dangers etc. etc. (Dalton 1915: Sidonius to Namatius: Book viii, letter vi, section 13-17).

The quotation describes fleets of small sailing ships full of oarsmen. The ships are many, quite fast and easy to manoeuvre, the sailors are capable.

Concerning the translation one may wonder about the word pandos translated as ‘curved’ in the expression Saxorum pandos myoparones—‘the Saxons’ small curved pirate ships’. The pirate ships, the myoparones, are light ships and thus easy to manoeuvre and dangerous to large men of war. Indirectly, Cicero Against Verres describes the character of these light vessels:

Is it because while you (Verres) were praetor, a most beautiful fleet, the bulwark of Sicily, the defence of the province, was burnt by the hands of pirates arriving in a few light galleys? Cic. Verr. 2, 3, 80, § 186

The ‘light galleys’ are the myoparones and their maritime strategy is based on their number (always several) the impossibility easily to foresee their movements and their speed, which makes them difficult to target. They are the equivalent of light cavalry attacking a formation of foot soldiers. Describing these light vessels as ‘curved’ is pointless. Most ships are curved and the shape of a myoparō not very important. It would be more reasonable, therefore, if pandos referred to the primary meaning of the verb pandere, that is, to spread out, extend; to unfold, or expand and described the ‘spread-out’ formation of the small ships when they attack heavy vessels. Moreover, if we believe that pandos refers to the shape of the individual vessel we tacitly imply that Sidonius is engaged in an ethnographic description of The Saxon Boat. Evidently he is not! boat, sail and anchor are instruments in the hands of the Saxons. He is concerned about these pirates’ naval skills, their landfall, their terrorising innocent people and murdering them in the most gruesome way – honestly believing that they do the right thing.

In Euric’s days coasting the Atlantic shores on his behalf as Namatius does, would be sailing all the way up to the mouth of the Somme hunting pirates in the sea and on land as the expression indicates when Sidonius describes the admirals assignment: atque inter officia nunc nautae, modo militis—‘and among assignments now naval, partly military’. Consequently, Sidonius describes the Saxon fleet as an effective naval force anchored in waters outside a coastal settlement making land fall although it is their seamanship that catches the eye. Since they are ‘setting sails from the continent’ to their homeland, these Saxons may have come from England as well as from the isles in the Wadden Sea or further north. Be this as it may, Sidonius relates second- or third-hand knowledge, which sounds very much like a narrative originally told by people who had encountered Saxons along the French coast and have had reason to be impressed by their tactics, because they were unusual and difficult to come to grips with. Sidonius’ description of the symbiosis between Saxon, ship and sea strongly suggests that 480 ce sailing ships existed in Northwest Europe.

Sidonius writes primarily to prove that he understands the perils of Namatius’ coast guarding and secondly in the end of his letter he demonstrates that he has complete confidence in the admiral. Nothing in the description of these terrorists seems wrong, and as Sidonius knows, taking more prisoners than one can safely bring home is a very good reason for sacrificing every tenth of them by chance if you are a rational and not just superstitious barbarian believing in fate. The prisoners are on the boats and thrown overboard just before the Saxons set out to sail home and decimation – as practiced by the Roman army – creates discipline.

If we look at the description of their setting sails:

Praeterea, priusquam de continenti in patriam vela laxantes hostico mordaces anchoras vado vellant, mos est—Moreover, prior to leaving the continent and enemy territory for their homeland, about to pull out their biting anchors and broad sails, it is their habit … .

we understand that they are living on their ships on the water as pirates making landfall. When Sidonius writes … priusquam de continenti in patriam vela laxantes hostico vado vellant, mos est …, he falls back on Vergil, Aeneid 1 169 (1) when Aeneas anchors on the Libyan coast. The 5th c. Afro-Roman author Dracontius, moreover, seems to have been drawing on both Vergil and Sidonius in his description of boats anchored on a shore, a very North-African situation. The fact that Sidonius writes to someone able to judge his description and that he inspires a poet to draw upon his formulation when describing a common phenomenon indicates that Sidonius’ second-hand description stood out as authentic.


There is something Pirate or Viking about Sidonius’ Saxons. Their tactics described in section 14, match a piratic strategy and it is not surprising that traveller Widsith has been together with two kinds of EIA Vikings. Indirectly, we may infer the existence of Vikings from the function of the barrages in EIA Denmark and find support for Viking behaviour in the odd water-related name on early runic inscriptions, such as Sikijaz (one who lives on a syke) or Wagagastiz (a guest from the wave). There are also similarities between Sidonius’ letter and Beowulf. The poem touches upon sailing and raiding allegedly one generation after Sidonius. Beowulf and his 15 armed warriors sail. Probably they are arch-pirates to Sidonius, but heroes in the poem. These fifteen men do not set out on their expedition until they have observed omens (vv 204 and 217). Later in the poem we are told that King Hygelac was killed in an attack on Friesland and the Franks by a Merovingian force. His combined naval and military operation failed and from the first description of the strife in which Hygelac was killed, it is obvious that it took place at least partly on the ships. As it happens, Beowulf, having fought well, jumps overboard and swims home. Fate, disrespect for water and the symbiosis Saxon–ship–sea, which Sidonius pointed to, would seem to have found a fantastic and eloquent exponent in Beowulf (vv 2354-66). Although Sidonius’ letter and Beowulf value their material differently they describe the same technology-based warfare.

Given the complementarity of their perspectives the actual profile of the Grönån canal (OtRR 4 February, 2013), becomes chronologically interesting. As Jan Bill points out (Bill 1997:187f. finns i reflistan) referring to the shape of the Oseberg ship, its frames were made of several pieces of wood in a brace-shaped [ }] rather than curved [ )] section. This construction created a stability essential for sailing the ship. Curved sections on the other hand result in faster albeit crank ships. Sidonius/Beowulf, c. 500, the Grönån section, c. 600, the Salme ships, c. 700 (2) and the Oseberg ship circa. 800 ce indicate a long and gradual technological development of the sailing ship in a naval/military Scandinavian setting. It is this long-term perspective which suggests that the Saxons were in fact sailing home already c. 480 CE.


(1) Tizzoni, Mark Lewis. 2014. Dracontius and the wider world. Cultural and intellectual interconnectedness in late fifth-century Vandal North Africa. Networks & Neighbours: Vol. 2.1: ‘Comparisons and Correlations’. Pp. 87-105.

(2) Bill, Jan. 1997. Ships and Seamanship. In: Peter Sawyer (ed.). The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings. Oxford. Pp 182-201.
Juri Peets. 2013. Salme ship burials. Revealing a grim cargo of elite Viking warriors. Current World Archaeology vol 58. Pp. 18-24

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: