Ausonius A Christian Aristocrat at Court

Decimus Magnus Ausonius was trained in the rhetorical schools of Bordeaux. In 367 C.E., he arrived to Trier to become the private tutor of Gratian. While he was in residence at the imperial court, he wrote the didactic travel poem called the Mosella. Considered to be his masterpiece, the poem is a charming description of Trier and the surrounding area including the river Moselle. But the Mosella is not just a pretty frivolity. It is a fine example of the high status of Greco-Roman literary values in an imperial court that used literature to further its own political ends. In this case, Ausonius' idyllic description of the frontier in the Mosella conveyed the court's message that the emperor was preserving peace among the fractious barbarians on the empire's borders. Aristocrats to whom the poem was directed delighted as much in the message of political security it conveyed as in the refined expression of that message. The poem had its intended consequence: wealthy aristocrats continued to support the emperor's military ventures.

The way Ausonius used the dignified classical poetic forms of Rome's literary golden age is similar to the way that the Roman senators appealed to the authority of Rome's imperial past to justify its traditional pagan religious practices. As members of the aristocracy, Christians and pagans had unique access to the classical education, which, in turn, guaranteed their political clout. It was an exclusive selective circle that religious considerations did not breach. Ausonius was no unassuming Christian professor. He was a professionally trained classical poet who had more in common with wealthy, privileged Roman senators like Symmachus than with the less-educated bureaucrats in the Christian court of Valentinian. Indeed, he and Symmachus met while Symmachus was at court in 368 C.E. and their correspondence reveals a complicated web of mutual acquaintances and reciprocal acts ofpatronage. Ausonius's actions at Valentinian's death (375 C.E.) further reveal his patrician, more than his Christian, sympathies and priorities. He was quick to join the group who purged the court of Valentinian's appointees. He seized the opportunity to replace them with his own family members and aristocratic friends, immaterial of whether or not they were Christians. For these he secured appointments, favors, and influence, and, for himself, the highest secular office in the government, the consulship of 379 C.E.

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