Reading Sallust in Medieval Political and Intellectual Culture

How was the classical historian Sallust read in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and what does this reveal about medieval moral thought? These are the questions Philippa Byrne asks in her new article (now live on the Cerae website). Philippa introduces it for us here on the blog, taking a look at how the research developed and what new questions it raised…

L.D. Reynold’s Texts and Transmission, first published in 1983, is a book every medievalist should know. It is the starting point for working out which texts from the classical world survived into the middle ages and, roughly, in what quantities. That makes it a beacon for many newly-minted graduate students, especially those unfamiliar with medieval texts beyond the one they are working on and who are trying to determine whether an author’s use of Lucan, Seneca, Quintilian (etc) is unusual for their time and place, and thus worthy of further investigation and commentary. Opening Reynolds is the first step towards establishing which classical texts survived into the middle ages and where and when they were being read. It is the best kind of guide, providing the lay of the land before one moves onto more specialised texts like catalogues of monastic libraries.

Reynolds sets down one of the ‘big questions’ for medieval scholarship—a big question long before 1983, and which will remain so far into the future—what parts of the classical world survived into the middle ages, what was preserved and copied, and who had access to it? The question I try to address in my article is one which follows on from that. We have a fairly good understanding of how much of the Roman historian Sallust (d. 35BCE) survived into the middle ages: but how was he read, and which parts of him were read and redeployed? Sallust embodies the way in which that classical inheritance was most like a box of Lego bricks: the constitutive parts could be broken down and used as the building-blocks of a new set of structures.

My article began in the course of reading two twelfth-century chronicles: the History of the Czechs by Cosmas of Prague and a history of Sicily written by an author we know as Pseudo-Hugo Falcandus. These are works separated by some considerable geographical distance, yet both made similar use of similar parts of Sallust: how did they have access to it? That last, Sicilian text, was particularly interesting to me: we know very little about the author known as Pseudo-Hugo and so a consideration of its sources provides one way into an analysis of the work. The same set of Sallustian quotations and ideas key popping up in other authors, like Gerald of Wales.

Thus the genesis of this article was the question of what appeal that part of Sallust had to authors writing in strikingly different political contexts. The chronological spread was also interesting to me, as a researcher interested in the timing and structure of the phenomenon sometimes called the ‘Twelfth-Century Renaissance’: these Sallustian quotations are evident in the 1080s and continue to be used into the later thirteenth century. This spread is testament to the continuing importance and enduring appeal of classical texts even in the period after the reception of new Latin translations of Aristotle in the mid-thirteenth century. Even when one had Aristotle’s Politics, one could still reach for a text like Sallust to make a political point—he still retained his status as a political auctoritas; that was something which did not die off in the central middle ages only to be revived in the Renaissance proper. (There is nothing medievalists like more than undermining early modernists’ claims to newness: it is why we get up in the morning.)

My article has, admittedly, a narrow focus—it peers through a small window, trying to determine how a couple of paragraphs of Sallust were received, how they might have fitted into a broader intellectual and political culture. I have no doubt the same thing could be done with many other parts of many different classical texts. Examining their afterlife in greater detail will be surprising—undoubtedly many classical texts were not being used in the ways we assume. The significance of seemingly minor passages may balloon; new themes may come into view.

I had one final thought when editing this article. Modern everyday English conversation is littered with widely-known quotations: ‘show me the money’, ‘let there be light’, ‘to boldly go where no-man has gone before’, ‘once more into the breach’ (to pick a random sample). We insert them into our own conversation to entertain or to allude to a different set of ideas. Perhaps (and psychologists and anthropologists are better placed to argue this than I), this is a fundamental feature of human thought and speech. But we use them as medieval antecessors did: wrenched from context, deployed in a new and constructive way, appealing to a shared formation and common body of ideas that might rarely be explicitly recorded or expressed. Like these medieval authors, we are also making new things out of old.

Philippa Byrne

University of Oxford

Feature Image: Luca Signorelli – Sallust – Fresco, 1499-1502, Chapel of San Brizio, Duomo, Orvieto

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