Sidonius Apollinaris was no ordinary clergyman. Born around the year 430, the future saint was descended from a family of Gallo-Roman nobility. Like the silver-tongued scholars of ancient Rome, Sidonius Apollinaris exploited his skill in poetry for political gain. He married well, achieving in year 452 a marriage to Papianilla, the daughter of Emperor Avitus. Although it was a prestigious marriage, Sidonius Apollinaris was not able to benefit from his father-in-law’s power for very long—Emperor Avitus had a very short reign, only ruling from 455-456. Sidonius Apollinaris spent the next decade or more dabbling in politics, supporting some Roman and Visigothic leaders, while helping organize resistance against others. Around 469 or 470, he was elected (reportedly against his will) as the bishop of Clermont-Ferrand, in the region of Auvergne.
Unfortunately for Sidonius Apolinaris, he came to power just as King Euric of the Visigoths was claiming large swaths of Roman Gaul and Spain for the Visigoth people. Auvergne fell to the Kingdom of Visigoths in 475 and Sidonius Apollinaris was momentarily imprisoned—he had publicly supported Euric’s rival. Thankfully, Sidonius Apollinaris was forgiven and released from prison by 476. Upon release, he resumed his role as bishop of Clermont-Ferrand and cultivated a saintly reputation. In particular, he was known for having a tremendous drive to help the poor and to give charity to those in need.
While most people judged Sidonius Apollinaris’ charity work as saintly, one woman was reportedly extremely annoyed by the saint’s endless giving. The woman in question was none other than the saint’s own wife, Pampianilla, daughter of the late Emperor Avitus. Bishop Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594) recorded a story about Sidonius Apollinaris that perfectly captured the exasperating relationship between the saint and his wife.
In the account given by Gregory of Tours, Sidonius Apollinaris comes across as a man who donated alms to the poor as freely as if he was scattering feed to wild birds—handfuls of silver at a time, strewn in all directions. According to Gregory of Tours (History of the Franks, Book II, section 22), Sidonius Apollinaris did not use church tithes for this charity work, but instead handed out his own silver cutlery, plates and goblets to the poor. His wife, Pampianilla, was understandably quite perturbed when she kept opening her cupboards to find all of her precious tableware missing. As the story goes, Pampianilla would give Sidonius Apollinaris no small amount of grief over the missing silver. Always the dutiful husband, the chastised saint would track down each and every missing piece and buy them back from the poor at a very generous price. According to Gregory of Tours, the cycle of Sidonius Apollinaris handing out his silverware to the needy, then buying it back with a hefty sum was a frequent cycle, which annoyed his wife to no end.
The charity work of Sidonius Apollinaris, as well his masterful application of his poetic eloquence to his sermons, gained the bishop a great reputation. He died around 480 and was quickly recognized as a saint by his peers.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Image of Sidonius Apollinaris, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and picryl.com).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.