Sulpicius Severus' Vita Martini

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Philip Burton
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , November
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Upon opening a study on a hagiographic treatise like Vita Martini, the reader initially expects a work on theology. This book, by Latinist and translator Philip Burton,  meets this expectation only in part. Before us is a fundamental philological study in which theology is given neither the first, nor the last place.

Vita Martini is one of the first Latin Christian Lives. Almost half of the text is a chronological essay, a report on the facts of Martin's life, almost devoid of dialogues and moralizing digressions. Unlike other works of a similar orientation, Sulpicius does not reveal the improvement of his hero in the spiritual life, he tells not about “tacit prayer.” but about external actions. Martin cures the sick, drives out demons, converts pagans, resurrects the dead. The saint is shown as an example of monastic and episcopal life.  In the 4th century the Christian hagiography was still in its infancy. The monastic ideal is already replacing the ideal of the martyr, but the very concept of holiness is still being formed: is it necessary for a saint to be a martyr or a confessor, or can a bishop be a saint? The existence of different ideals forced each author to make his own selection of material. The treatise of Sulpicius Severus also had an apologetic task; he wanted to correct a hostile attitude towards his hero. Therefore, Sulpicius pays so much attention to the wonders of Martin that they prove the sanctity of the latter.

In the best traditions of such studies, Burton analyzes Vita Martini from different angles. First, a biographical note about Sulpicius Severus (1–9) is given, then the author goes directly to the treatise, where Martin’s biography is examined in detail in the context of not only Vita Martini, but also passages from other writings of Sulpicius Severus, Gregory of Tours, Ammianus Marcellinus and so forth (p. 9–12).

The next section is devoted to “The Genre of Hagiography” (25–32). Here Burton categorically states that Vita Martini is clearly similar to the Gospels. Perhaps philologists will agree with this statement, but theologians will insist that the similarity, if any, is very superficial since the goals and objects of these texts are completely different. In the subsection devoted to the influence of pagan writings on Vita Martini, Burton is limited only to mentioning such treatises as Vita Apollonii Tianei, indicating that both the direct and indirect influences of this and Neoplatonic lives on the work in question are missing (31).

In the sections devoted to typology (32–40), Burton gives a comparative table, where he points out parallel points from the life of Elijah, Elisha, John the Baptist, Jesus Christ, and Martin on eight points. However, for almost every item, this table could be supplemented with a comparison with Vita Apollonii. Of course, this does not prove the influence of Vita Apollonii on Vita Martini, but it does indicate a commonality of plots that could be the subject of a no less fundamental study. As a classical philologist, Burton does not excessively enter the territory of professional theologians, and only superficially touches upon issues that are not directly related to his competence.

However, in the “Style of the Vita Martini” section (40–81) we see a comprehensive philological study of the ancient text. Burton analyzes the vocabulary, where he focuses on special lexical markers of Christian identity, poeticisms and archaisms, and other features of the text. Next, the morphology and syntax of the text, sentence structure, sound-rhythmic effects, word order, sound and graphic effects are considered in more detail.

In the “Notes on the Text” (81–89), Burton indicates how the text differs from the Fontaine publication, on which, in fact, it is based, citing discrepancies in the preserved manuscripts (see p. 82 for a list of them).

The Latin text Vita Martini with an English translation takes up pages 91–129.

Detailed comments to the text make up almost half of the volume of the publication (131-259), and they are primarily philological in nature. At the same time, in the commentaries to chapter 2 there is also a digression of a hagiographic character. In the commentaries to chapter 6, Burton discusses Arianism, the Council of Nicaea, and other Councils. In the commentaries to chapter 9, he gives details about the episcopate, and so on. In these digressions, a professional theologian is unlikely to find anything new. However, such digressions are quite appropriate since the book must introduce an inexperienced reader to the context of the epoch.

Despite the commentaries to almost every word, indicating the modern name of Ticinum—Pavia (to chapter 1, I), Burton does not state the modern name of Sabaria—Szombathely in Hungary.

The book is complete with a bibliography and three indices.

Philip Burton did important work by preparing a book that meets modern standards. His publication and translation of Vita Martiniwill serve as a good basis for the further work of theologians and for translators of the treatise by Sulpicius Severus into other languages.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Illya Bey is Professor of Patristic Studies at the Center for Religious Studies at the National Pedagogical Dragomanov University. Ukraine.

Date of Review: 
November 6, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Philip Burton is reader in Latin and Early Christian Studies at the University of Birmingham.


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