Ausonius, DECIMUS MAGNUS, a professor and poet b. about A.D. 310; d., probably, about A.D. 394. The son of a physician of Bordeaux, he studied first in that city, then at Toulouse, with his uncle Aemilius Magnus Arborius. The latter having gone to teach in Constantinople, Ausonius returned to Bordeaux, where he became professor of grammar, and later on of rhetoric. Between 364 and 368, Valentinian I invited him to Trier to teach his son Gratian. In 368 and 369 Ausonius accompanied the emperor on the expedition against the Alemanni, and received a young Swabian, Bissula, as his share of the booty. The emperors overwhelmed him with honors, and made him first Prefect of the Gauls, then Prefect of the West conjointly with his son Hesperius (between August, 378, and July, 379). In 379 he became consul. After the assassination of Gratian, his benefactor (383), Ausonius moved to Bordeaux, where he lived among many admiring friends, and wrote a great deal of poetry. He lived through almost the whole of the fourth century. The writings of Ausonius are generally short, and they form a miscellaneous collection which is divided into two groups:
OCCASIONAL WORKS.—(I) “Epigrams”: short poems on different subjects, often translated from the Greek Anthology. (2) “Parentalia”: thirty eulogies on deceased relatives, with some occasional expressions of personal sentiment (about 379). (3) “Commemoratio professorum Burdigalensium”: a collection like the preceding, giving an idea of a university in the fourth century (after 389). (4) “Mosella”: a description of the River Moselle and the country through which it flows, written while travelling from Bingen to Trier (c. 371). This poem has a. certain local and archaeological interest. (5) Charming poems relating to Bissula (after 368). (6) Many brief poems, which Ausonius called eclogues or “Epyllia”; paschal-time prayers (368); “Epicedion”: dirge on his father’s death (d. 378); advice to his grandson (about 380); “Cupido crucifixus”: description of a painting in a dining-room at Trier, which represented Cupid as tormented in hell by the women who pursued him on earth, etc. (7) “Gratiarum actio dicta domino Gratiano Augusto”, in which Ausonius expresses in prose his thanks for having been made consul. This was read at Trier in 379, and is made up of flowers of rhetoric and conventional flatteries. (8) “Ephemeris”: the account of daily duties, from morning to night; a fragment (379). In this work is found a morning prayer composed of Biblical expressions in which the doctrine of the Trinity is set forth in detailed formulae directed against the heresies of the times. (9) “Letters”: twenty-five epistles, mostly in verse. The most interesting are addressed to St. Paulinus of Nola (393) and in them Ausonius bewails a conversion that deprives the State and literature of the benefit of such a brilliant mind, and tries to lead the saint back to worldly life at Rome. This correspondence lays before us two ideals of life; it expresses in clear colors the views which at that time were in conflict with each other, and divided society. (10) “Praefatiunculae”: prefaces and envois to poems. SCHOOL EXERCISES AND FRAGMENTS.—These are chiefly mnemonic verse: “Caesares”, on the Roman emperors; consular annals; “Ordo nobilium urbium”, eulogies on cities, beginning with Rome and ending with Bordeaux (after 388); “Eclogae”, a collection of mnemonic verses, treating of trees, the months, the calendar, weights, etc.; “Periochae” (Contents), prose headings for the Iliad and the Odyssey. It is doubtful whether Ausonius wrote these, but they were at least the work of a member of the circle to which he belonged; short poems on the labors of Hercules; on the Muses; on ethical subjects (translations of Greek originals, inspired by Pythagorean philosophy). Other writings are lectures by a professor; Epitaphs, eulogies on dead heroes of the Trojan War, modeled after the Greek, and epitaphs on Niobe, Diogenes, etc., translated from the Greek; Epyllia, various pieces, among others an enigma on the number three, a diversion of a courtier forced to go to war (368); “Cento nuptialis” (an ingenious conceit of the same origin, the result of a wager made with Valentinian), extracts from Virgil, the conclusion of which (consummatio matrimonii) is not very refined (368); “Technopaegnion”, a collection of verses in which each ends in a monosyllable; the authenticity of the Consul Ausonius’s prayer, written in ropalic verse (verse composed successively of words of one, two, three, four, five syllables and so on) is doubtful; “Ludus septem sapientum”; this product of the seven sages is a kind of scholastic drama, in which, after a prologue, each sage recites a proverb; at the end, they invite the audience to applaud. It is a document interesting for the history of pedagogy and also for the medieval drama.
To appraise Ausonius justly it must be borne in mind that he represents the professor of the fourth century. Some of his works, therefore, written for the school and in the spirit of the school, frequently translations from the Greek, are unimportant. A versifier to whom any subject could appeal (the more difficult and the less poetical it was, the better), Ausonius knew by heart the works of his predecessors, but by his taste and metrical peculiarities showed himself a disciple rather of the poets of the new school (neoterici, poetic innovators of the time of the Severi) than of the classic poets. In this work the letters to Paulinus of Nola are an exception to the whole, which is almost void of ideas. Ausonius’s attitude in regard to Christianity should be explained in the same way. The paganism of his works is the paganism of the schools, and, if one would base on that the doubt that he was a Christian, inversely, his literary manner of treating mythology should make it questionable whether he was a pagan. But the paschal prayer, and still more, the prayer of the “Ephemeris”, could not have been written by a pagan. An orthodox Christian in his prayers, he was a pagan in the classroom. Hence his works, which are classroom productions, may very naturally seem pagan. It is said that after the edict of Julian (362) Ausonius had to give up teaching; but there is nothing to prove this, nor is there any proof to the contrary, as Julian died the following year. It is supposed that, like some of his contemporaries, Ausonius remained a catechumen for a long time. It is possible that he was not baptized until the time when we lose all trace of him, in the last silent and obscure days of his old age.