Sidonius Apollinaris’ Humorous Description Of Visigothic King Theodoric II

Theodoric II (r. 453-466) ruled a client kingdom of the Roman Empire that traced its origins back to Alaric, the Visigoth leader who sacked Rome in 410. Alaric’s successors, of which Theodoric II was one, made peace with Rome and eventually were given control of their own kingdom, centered in the French city of Toulouse, then known as Palladia Tolosa. Once the Visigoth sub-kingdom was established, it began to expand its boundaries further into Spain and Gaul (basically ancient France).

The Visigoth Kingdom of Tolosa eventually expanded into the region of Auvergne, which would bring King Theodoric II into the proximity of an interesting nobleman named Sidonius Apollinaris (c. 430-479/480). Apollinaris was a Gallic-Roman aristocrat, poet, politician, and finally a reluctant Christian bishop of Arvernis (Clermont). Although he was allegedly not officially a priest when he became bishop, he did his duty valiantly enough to be canonized as a saint after his death. His surviving letters and poems give valuable insight into the daily life of 5th-century Gaul.

Sidonius Apollinaris had quite a way with words, especially when he was informally writing letters to his friends and relatives. When Apolloinaris’ brother-in-law, a man named Agricola, asked for a written description of King Theodoric II, the future saint stretched his writing muscles and diligently went to work penning an overly exaggerated, highly caricatured, and generally funny sketch of the king’s appearance and personality. When he was in the mood, Apollinaris definitely had a knack for comedy.

In a response to his brother-in-law Agricola’s request, Apollinaris wrote that Theodoric II was the kind of king to hire mimes as entertainers, for their silence meant “no guest is ever exposed to the wound of a biting tongue.” Of the king’s facial hair, the saint wrote, “Every day the hair springing from his nostrils is cut back; that on his face springs thick from the hollow of the temples, but the razor has not yet come upon his cheek, and his barber is assiduous in eradicating the rich growth on the lower part of his face.” Possibly the greatest physical description from Apollinaris was inspired by the king’s legs—“His thighs are like hard horn; the knee-joints firm and masculine; the knees themselves the comeliest and least wrinkled in the world.”

Sidonius Apollinaris described the hobbies of King Theodoric II with the same amusing, exaggerated tone as he did with the physical description of the king. Theodoric was apparently a fan of games. Apollinaris gave an excited play-by-play description of the king’s skillful moves in such activities: “When inclined for the board game, he is quick to gather up the dice, examines them with care, shakes the box with expert hand, throws rapidly, humorously apostrophizes them, and patiently waits the issue.” Arguably the most humorous of Apollinaris’s lines came with his description of the hunting habits of Theodoric II. He wrote that when the hunting party encountered wild game, “He will ask you beforehand what you would like him to transfix; you choose, and he hits. If there is a miss through either’s error, your vision will mostly be at fault, and not the archer’s skill.” All of the quotes listed above came from Sidonius Apollinaris’ letter to Agricola, translated by O. M. Dalton, and can be easily accessed online for anyone who wants to see the letter in its brilliant entirety (see the link below for one free example).

For those curious about the fate of the king who was depicted by Apollinaris in such a lively way, it did not end peacefully. Theodoric II was eventually killed by his own brother in 466. This brother, King Euric (r. 466-484), is considered by many historians to have been the most effective of the Visigoth kings of Tolosa. During his reign, Euric’s domain eventually gained recognition as an independent kingdom, free from the authority of Rome. Sidonius Apollinaris was initially an active opponent to Euric’s rule, but he was eventually captured and imprisoned by the king. The saint, however, was released and, before his death, had been allowed to resume his role as a bishop in Euric’s kingdom.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (A poster of TEODORICO II, Visigoth king, n° 8 in the chronological order of the book digitalized by Google since the bookshop in the University of Oxford. [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


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