Magnus Felix Ennodius (c. 473 - 521) is one of our major sources of writing from the Ostrogothic period, and our only substantial source of private correspondence for that time. Born in Arles, he spent most of his life in northern Italy, becoming Bishop of Pavia in 513. His writings, comprising more than 450 pieces of work, were virtually all written in the period 501 - 513, when he was a clergyman in Milan.
Ennodius' reputation has been affected by the period in which he lived. Many historians have argued that the reasons for the fall of the western Empire can be found in the decadence of Roman society, most clearly expressed in its writing. Within this debased society, Ennodius himself is regarded as an obsequious parvenu, and his writings are seen as an example of an emphasis on ornate style at the expense of content.
His difficult style, commonplace contents, and apparent lack of personal importance have led historians to use him as an additional source of information on Ostrogothic Italy, rather than as an author who deserves study in his own right. In the twentieth century, this approach was typified by Sundwall in his Abhandlungen zur Geschichte des ausgehenden RÖmertums. His major work incorporated a lengthy essay on the chronology of Ennodius' writings, a prosopography of the aristocracy of that time, and an essay that propounded an influential thesis on the structure of aristocratic society. His chronological essay was driven by a desire to make Ennodius' work historically relevant, and his argument for a chronological ordering of the work ignored evidence that suggests that the individual pieces, particularly the non-epistolary works, are not in chronological order. Ennodius' work should not be confined to this use as a supplementary source that confirms dates and provides other prosopographical data, instead it offers an opportunity to gain new insights into Ostrogothic Italy.
A first step is a reassessment of Ennodius and his life. A review of his writings suggests that he came from a distinguished background. He was the son of a Praetorian Prefect of Gaul, Camillus, and the brother-in-law of Faustus niger, one of the most influential senators in Ostrogothic Italy. He was also related to a number of other senators and officials in Italy, and exchanged many letters with them.
His clerical career bears testimony to his ability and success. Before he was thirty, he wrote the defence of Pope Symmachus and the Synodus Palmaris during the Laurentian schism, which included the first systematic and legalistic development of the notion of papal supremacy. A few years later, he prepared a Panegyric on Theoderic, and, in 511, he played a major role in preparing the papal response to a letter from a group of eastern bishops questioning the western approach during the Acacian schism. Finally, he led embassies to Constantinople in 515 and 517 that endeavoured to resolve the schism in terms favourable to Rome. His writings, particularly his most important works, the Vita Epifani, Panegyric, and the Libellus, demonstrate his literary skills and his ability to adapt literary forms to suit specific circumstances.
Ennodius' writing can also be used in an assessment of aristocratic society in Ostrogothic Italy. Following Sundwall's lead, we currently depict their society as largely driven by divisions between senators and provincial aristocrats that manifested themselves in official appointments, and political and religious differences. Doubts about the loyalty of the Senate are supposed to have led Theoderic to favour the provincial aristocrats over senators for the senior official positions in the second half of his reign. However, an examination of the writings of Ennodius shows no evidence that contemporaries made a distinction between senators and provincial aristocrats. Instead, conflicts in aristocratic society, such as the Laurentian schism, although originating in individual differences over religious doctrine, were conducted largely in terms of regional loyalties.
Ennodius was a fairly typical representative of one type of aristocrat in Ostrogothic Italy, with interests in literary, political and religious matters. His work is of value, not only as an example of personal response to changing circumstances, but because it also offers insights into the aristocracy's response to social change.