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“Salvian - De Gubernatione Dei (extracts- original Latin Text with English translation”

Salvian reflects on why God allowed the "barbarian" invasions of the Roman Empire.  The extracts are (book. chapter) 3. 9; 4. 12-14; 5. 4.

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Click here to read at in the original Latin (with dictionary lookup links). The English translation below is Sanford (Columbia University Press, 1930).

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3. 9. In all the points of which we have spoken our Lord has ordered us to obey him, but where are those who obey all his ordinances or even a very few of them? Where are those who love their enemies or do good to those that persecute them, or overcome evil by doing good, who turn their cheeks to those that strike them, who yield their property without a lawsuit to those that rob them? Who is there that permits himself no slander whatever, that injures no man by evil speaking, that keeps his lips silent that they may not break out in bitter curses? Who is there that keeps these least commandments, not to speak of those greater ones which I mentioned a short time ago? Since this is the case and since we keep none of the Lord's commands, why do we complain of God, who has far more right to complain of us? Why should we grieve that he does not hear us, when we ourselves do not hear him? What right have we to whisper that God does not look upon the earth, when we ourselves do not look up to the heavens? What reason have we to be vexed that our prayers are despised by the Lord, whose commands we despise? Suppose that we were equal to our Lord; what chance is there for just complaint when each side receives the same treatment it gives? And this entirely overlooks a point easily proved, that we are very far from receiving what we give, since God really treats us much more kindly than we do him. For the moment, however, let us act on the assumption that I proposed. The Lord himself spoke thus: "I cried unto you and ye did not hear me: you too shall cry unto me and I shall not hear you." What is more fair and just than this? We have not hearkened, therefore he does not hear us. We have not been mindful of him, therefore he does not consider us. What mortal master, I ask, is content to treat his underlings according to this rule, that he will scorn them only in proportion to their contempt of him? And yet we do not stop with such injurious scorn of God as mortal masters receive from their slaves, since the greatest contempt a slave can show is in not doing what he has been ordered. We, however, bend all our efforts and energy not only to neglecting our orders, but even to acting directly contrary to them. For God commands us all to love one another, but we rend each other in mutual hatred. God enjoins us all to give our goods to the poor, but we plunder other men's goods instead. God orders every Christian to keep his eyes pure; how many men are there who do not wallow in the filth of fornication? What more can I say? It is a heavy and sorrowful charge that I must bring: the church itself, which should strive to appease God in all things ---- what else does it do but arouse him to anger? Except a very few individuals who shun evil, what else is the whole congregation of Christians but the very dregs of vice? How often will you find a man in the church who is not a drunkard or glutton or adulterer or fornicator or robber or wastrel or brigand or homicide? And what is worst of all, they commit these crimes endlessly. I appeal to the conscience of all Christians; of these crimes and misdeeds that I have just named, who is not guilty of some part, who is not guilty of the whole? You would more easily find a man guilty of them all than of none. And because what I have said; may perhaps seem too severe an accusation I shall go much farther and say that you could more easily find men guilty of ail evils than of a few, more easily find men guilty of the greater faults than of the less. That is, it is easier to find men who have committed the greater sins along with the less than the less without the greater. For almost the whole body of the church has been reduced to such moral depravity that among all Christian people the standard of holiness is merely to be less sinful than others. Some hold the churches, which are the temples and altars of God, in less reverence than the houses of the least important municipal magistrates. The common run of men indeed do not presume to enter the doors, I shall not say of illustrious potentates, but even of governors or presiding officials, unless the official has called them or contracted business with them, or unless the honor due their individual position permits their entrance. If anyone enters without due occasion he is flogged or roughly put out or punished by some humiliation or personal indignity. But to the temples, or rather the altars and sacred shrines of God, all mean and evil men resort violently, entirely without reverence for his sacred honor. I do not mean to deny that all should hasten thither to pray to God, but he who enters to win God's favor should not go out to arouse his anger. The same action should not demand his indulgence and provoke his wrath. It is a monstrous thing for men to keep committing the same sins which they lament having committed, and for those who enter the church to weep for their old misdeeds to go out [to commit new ones]. Go out, did I say? They are usually planning fresh crimes in the very midst of their prayers and supplications. While men's voices do one thing, their hearts do another; while their words lament their past misdeeds their minds plan further wrongs, and thus their prayers increase their guilt instead of winning pardon for it. So the scriptural curse is truly fulfilled upon them, that from their very prayers they go out condemned and their petition is turned into sin. Finally, if any one wishes to know what men of this sort are thinking in church, let him consider this. When their religious duties are accomplished they all hurry off at once to their accustomed pursuits ---- some, for instance, to steal, others to get drunk, others to commit fornication, others to commit highway robbery ----so that it is perfectly clear that they have spent their time inside the temple in planning what they will do after leaving it.


4. 12. If God does regard human affairs, some one may say, if he cares for us, loves and guides us, why does he allow us to be weaker and more miserable than all nations? Why does he suffer us to be conquered by the barbarians? Why does he permit us to be subject to the rule of our enemies? To answer very briefly, as I have already said, he suffers us to endure these trials because we deserve to endure them. Let us consider the disgraceful habits, the vices and crimes of the Roman people, as we have described them above, and we shall then understand whether we can have any claim on his protection when we live in such impurity. If we examine in this light our customary argument that our misery and weakness show God's neglect of human affairs, what do we really deserve? If he permitted us, living in such vice and wickedness, to be exceedingly strong, prosperous and completely happy, then perhaps there might be some ground for suspicion that God did not see the evil-doing of the Romans, if he allowed such wicked and abandoned men to be happy. Since instead he bids such vicious and evil men to be most abject and wretched, it is perfectly evident that we are seen and judged by God, for our sufferings are fully deserved. We, of course, do not think we deserve them, and consequently are the more guilty and blameworthy for failing to recognize our deserts. The chief accusation of wrongdoers is their proud assertion of innocence. Among a number of men charged with the selfsame crime none is more guilty than he who does not acknowledge his guilt even in his own thoughts. We have, therefore, this single addition to make to our wrongdoings, that we consider ourselves guiltless. But, you may object, grant that we are sinners and wicked men, certainly you cannot deny that we are better than the barbarians, and this alone makes it clear that God does not watch over human affairs, because we, who are better, are subject to men worse than ourselves. Whether we are better than the barbarians, we shall now consider; certainly there can be no doubt that we ought to be better. And for this very reason, we are worse than they, unless we are actually better, for the more honorable position makes any fault doubly blameworthy. The greater the personal dignity of the sinner, the greater is the odium of his sin. Theft for example is a serious crime in any man, but a thieving senator is doubtless far more to be condemned than one of the lower classes. Fornication is. forbidden to all, but it is a much more serious vice in one of the clergy than in one of the people. So also we, who are said to be Christians and catholic, if we are guilty of vices like those of the barbarians, sin more seriously than they, for sins committed by men who claim a holy name are the more abominable. The more lofty our claim to honor, the greater is our fault; the very religion we profess accuses our faults, A pledge of chastity increases the sin of lewdness; drunkenness is more loathsome in one who makes an outward show of sobriety. Nothing is more vile than a philosopher who pursues a vicious and obscene life, since in addition to the natural baseness of his vices, he is further branded by his reputation for wisdom. We therefore, who out of the whole human race have professed the Christian philosophy, for this reason, must be believed and considered worse than all other nations, since, living under so great a profession of faith, in the very bosom of religion, we still sin.

13. I know it seems to most men intolerable that we should be called worse than barbarians. What possible good does it do us to have this seem intolerable? Our condition is made so much the more serious if we are worse than they and yet insist on believing ourselves better. "For if a man think himself to be something," the apostle said, "when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself. But let every man prove his own work." We ought to put our trust in our works, not in our opinion; in reason, not lust; in truth, not in our will alone. Since, then, some men think it unsupportable that we should be adjudged to be worse, or even not much better than the barbarians, let us consider in what way we are better, and in relation to which of the barbarians. For there are two kinds of barbarians in the world, that is, heretics and pagans. To all of these, as far as the divine law is concerned, I declare that we are incomparably superior; as far as our life and actions are concerned, I say with grief and lamentation that we are worse. However, as I said before, let us not make this statement of the whole body of Romans without exception. For I except first of all those men who have devoted themselves to a religious life, and then some laymen who are equal to them; or, if that is too much to say, at least very like them in their upright and honorable actions. As for the rest, all or practically all are more guilty than the barbarians. And to be more guilty is to be worse. Therefore, since some men think it irrational and absurd that we should be judged as worse, or even not much better than the barbarians, let us see, as I said, how we are worse, and in relation to which barbarians. Now I say that except for those Romans alone, whom I mentioned just now, the others are all or almost all more guilty than the barbarians, and more criminal in their lives. You who read these words are perhaps vexed and condemn what you read. I do not shrink from your censure; condemn me if I do not succeed in proving my words; condemn me if I do not show that the Sacred Scriptures also have said what 1 now claim. I myself who say that we Romans, who judge ourselves far superior to all other nations on earth, are worse in many respects, do not deny that in certain ways we are superior. For while we are, as I have said, worse in our way of life and in our sins, yet in living under the catholic law we are incomparably superior. But we must consider this, that while it is not our merit that the law is good, it is our fault that we live badly. Surely it profits us nothing that our law is good, if our life and conversation are not; for the good law is the gift of Christ, whereas the faulty life is our own responsibility. On the contrary, we are more blameworthy if the law we worship is good and we who worship it are evil. Nay, we do not worship it, if we are evil, for an evil worshipper cannot be properly said to worship at all. He who does not worship sacredly that which is holy does not worship at all, and hereby the very law we hold accuses us.

14. Disregarding, therefore, the privilege of the law, which either does not help us or even brings just condemnation upon us, let us compare the lives, the aims, the customs and the vices of the barbarians with our own. The barbarians are unjust and we are also; they are avaricious and so are we; they are faithless and so are we; to sum up, the barbarians and ourselves are alike guilty of all evils and impurities. Perhaps the answer may be made: if we are equal to them in viciousness, why are we not also equal to them in strength? Inasmuch as their wickedness is like ours and their guilt identical, either we should be as strong as they, or they as weak as we. That is true, and the natural conclusion is that we who are weaker are the more guilty. What proof have we? The proof is, of course, inherent in my demonstration that God does everything in accordance with judgment. For if, as it is written: "The eyes of the Lord are in every place, beholding the evil and the good:" and in the words of the apostle: "The judgment of God is according to truth against all wicked men," we, who do not cease to do evil, see that it is by the judgment of a just God that we endure the penalties for our evil-doing. But, you object, the barbarians commit the same sins, and yet are not as wretched as we. There is this difference between us, that even if the barbarians do the same things that we do, our sins are still more grievous than theirs. For our vices and theirs can be equal without their guilt being as great as ours. All of them, as I said before, are either pagans or heretics. I shall discuss the pagans first, since theirs is the older delusion: among these, the nation of the Saxons is savage, the Franks treacherous, the Gepids ruthless, the Huns lewd ---- so we see that the life of all the barbarians is full of vice. Can you say that their vices imply the same guilt as ours, that the lewdness of the Huns is as sinful as ours, the treachery of the Franks as worthy of accusation, the drunkenness of the Alemanni as reprehensible as that of Christians, the greed of an Alan as much to be condemned as that of a believer? If a Hun or Gepid is deceitful what wonder is it in one who is utterly ignorant of the guilt involved in falsehood? If a Frank swears falsely, what is strange in his action, since he thinks perjury a figure of speech, and not a crime? And why is it strange that the barbarians have this degree of vice, since they know not the law and God, when a majority of the Romans, who know that they are sinning, take the same attitude? Not to speak of any other type of man, let us consider only the throngs of Syrian merchants who have seized the greater part of all our towns---- is their life anything else than plotting, trickery and wearing falsehood threadbare? They think words practically wasted that do not bring some profit to their speaker. Among these men God's prohibition of an oath is held in such high esteem that they consider every sort of perjury actually profitable to them. What wonder is it, then, that the barbarians, who do not know that falsehood is a sin, practice deception? None of their actions are due to contempt of the divine ordinances, for they do not know the precepts of God. A man ignorant of the law cannot act in defiance of it. This is our peculiar guilt, who read the divine law and constantly violate its terms, who say that we know God and yet walk roughshod over his commands and precepts; and therefore, since we despise him whom we believe and boast that we worship, the very appearance of worship is an injury to him.


5. 4. But as for the way of life among the Goths and Vandals, in what single respect can we consider ourselves superior to them, or even worthy of comparison? Let me speak first of their affection and charity, which the Lord teaches us are the chief of virtues, and which he commends not only through the Sacred Scriptures but also in his own words, when he says: "By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye love one another." Now almost all barbarians, at least those who belong to one tribe, under one king's rule, love one another, whereas almost all the Romans are at strife with one another. What citizen is there who does not envy his fellows? Who shows complete charity to his neighbors? All are indeed far from their neighbors in affection, however near in place; though living side by side, they are far apart in spirit. While this is a most grievous wrong, I wish it were true only of citizens and neighbors. But the situation is still more serious, for not even relations preserve the bonds of kinship. Who renders a brotherly service for his next of kin? Who pays to family affection the debt he knows is due to the name he bears? Who is as closely related by his affections as by blood? Who is not fired with a dark passion of ill will? Whose emotions are not the prey of envy? Who does not look on another's good fortune as his own punishment? Who does not reckon another's good as his own evil? Who finds his own good fortune so ample that he is willing that another should be fortunate also? Most men are now suffering a strange and incalculable evil, in that it is not enough for any man to be happy himself unless another is thereby made wretched. What a situation is this, how savage, how rooted in the same impiety we deplore, how alien to barbarians and familiar to Romans, that they proscribe one another by mutual exactions. My last words, perhaps, give a wrong impression, for it would be much more tolerable if each man endured what he himself had inflicted on others. The present situation is harder to bear, for the many are proscribed by the few, who use the public levies for their individual gain, and convert the bills of indebtedness to the public treasury to their private profit. Nor is it only the highest officials who do this, but the least too in almost equal measure; not only the judges, but their obedient underlings as well. For what cities are there, or even what municipalities and villages, in which there are not as many tyrants as curials? Still perhaps they preen themselves on their title, since it seems to be one of power and honor. Brigands usually rejoice and exult at being considered somewhat more ruthless than they really are. What place is there, as I said before, where the very lifeblood of widows and orphans is not drained by the leading men of their states, and with them that of all godly men? For these last are classed with widows and orphans, since they are either unwilling to protect themselves, out of devotion to their vows, or unable because of their simplicity and humility. Therefore not one of them is safe, indeed scarcely any are safe, except the very greatest, from the plunder and ruin of this universal brigandage, other than those who are a match for the brigands themselves. Matters have come to such an evil pass, to such a criminal condition, that only the wicked man may count himself secure.

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Salvian Presbyter
De Gubernatione Dei
On The Government of God
Eva M. Sanford Translation
Roman Empire
Barbarian Invasions
Sack of Rome
Why did God allow the Barbarians to conquer Rome?
Church History
Migne Latin Text
Patrologiae Latinae Cursus Completus
Patrologia Latina


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