Paulus Orosius – A Forgotten Augustinian Historian

Paulus Orosius – A Forgotten Augustinian Historian

“In the next little light smiles that pleader of Christian times, of whose Latin work Augustine availed himself.”[1] This is how Dante described his brief encounter, in Paradise, with an ancient historian whose name apparently needed no mention. Throughout the ages, most people have identified him with Paulus Orosius, mentioned by name by Dante in some of his other writings. Who was this man, still so familiar in Dante’s times, and why has he been largely forgotten?

Paulus Orosius was born to a wealthy family towards the end of the fourth century, possibly in Braga (in today’s Portugal). Nothing is known about his life before 414, except that he was ordained a priest. In 414, he visited Augustine in Hippo Regius (in today’s Algeria) to discuss with him some questions regarding some fast-growing heresies in Spain. He described these in his first known work, Commonitorium de errore priscillianistarum et origenistarum (the Priscillianists taught a Gnostic doctrine of dualism). Augustine’s response is recorded in his Ad Orosium contra priscillianistas et origenistas.

In 415, Augustine suggested that Orosius visit Jerome in Palestine to receive further advice. Writing to Jerome on the origin of the human soul, Augustine introduced his young pupil: “Behold, a religious young man has come to me, by name Orosius, who is in the bond of Catholic peace a brother, in point of age a son, and in honour a fellow presbyter,—a man of quick understanding, ready speech, and burning zeal, desiring to be in the Lord’s house a vessel rendering useful service in refuting those false and pernicious doctrines, through which the souls of men in Spain have suffered much more grievous wounds than have been inflicted on their bodies by the sword of barbarians. For from the remote western coast of Spain he has come with eager haste to us, having been prompted to do this by the report that from me he could learn whatever he wished on the subjects on which he desired information. Nor has his coming been altogether in vain. In the first place, he has learned not to believe all that report affirmed of me: in the next place, I have taught him all that I could, and, as for the things in which I could not teach him, I have told him from whom he may learn them, and have exhorted him to go on to you.”[2]

Orosius arrived in Jerusalem at the height of a Pelagian controversy, and sided with Jerome in attacking this heresy. He participated to a council held in 415 in Jerusalem by the bishop of that city, John II. There, Pelagius was able to convince the bishop that he simply believed that man can avoid sin with the assistance of God’s grace. Pelagius was then acquitted of all charges of heresy, prompting Jerome to call the meeting a “miserable synod.” Augustine, however, specified that “it was not heresy, that was there acquitted, but the man who denied the heresy.”[3]

Swayed by Pelagius’s reasoning, John II misunderstood Orosius’s views as a denial of man’s ability to avoid sin with God‘s grace. In answer to this charge, Orosius wrote his Liber apologeticus contra pelagianos, leaving no doubts about his position. This treatise is also an accurate account of the council.

Before returning to Spain, Orosius stopped again to see Augustine, who had just begun writing his De civitate Dei. It was most probably after a discussion on the history of Rome and the common perception of that history that Augustine encouraged Orosius to write something on that subject. The result was a seven-book survey of the history of the world from creation to 417, published in 418 after two years of research and study of other ancient historians. This work, entitled Historiarum adversus paganos, is the first world history written by a Christian.

In the course of time, Ororius’s work has been praised by many, including Prosper of Aquitaine, Gelasius, Cassiodorus, Gregory of Tours, Isidore of Seville, and Venantius Fortunatus. It was used widely in the Middle Ages and was translated (albeit freely) into Anglo-Saxon by Alfred the Great. Alfred’s revisions were important because much had changed since Orosius wrote his work, and some neglected areas, such as the British islands, needed to be included.

Orosius’s work was also translated into Arabic by Abd-ar-Rahman III, caliph of Cordoba. This choice was a testimony to the work’s importance at that time, because the Arabs translated many Greek writings but very few Latin works.

Why then has Orosius been forgotten? Mostly, because his history is not free of errors. Also, because his belief in a better world under Christianity has been associated by many (such as Edward Gibbon) with a belief in the triumph of Christendom.

While these concerns are valid, medieval Christians had other reasons to value Orosius’s work. First, it provided proofs to support Augustine’s thesis in the third volume of the De civitate, that is, history has always been filled with catastrophes which cannot be imputed to Christianity (as many pagans asserted). It is intriguing to imagine the conversation that might have taken place between Augustine and Orosius on this topic.

Historiarum adversus paganos is also the first work to represent history as the story of God directing humanity toward a goal. Before then, historians had focused on the history of one nation or people – more recently, all history had been taught from the viewpoint of the Roman empire. Orosius understood instead that all history and all human beings are directed by God’s providence – a providence that seems to move slowly but, in so doing, fulfils God’s purpose.

Like Augustine’s De Civitate, Orosius’s Historiarum is both a realistic and optimistic survey of history. It is realistic in its depiction of the miseries of war, which stands in contrast against the general acclaim of warring heroes in classical writings. It is also realistic in comparing facts with facts and not with nostalgic feelings toward a rosy past. But it is optimistic in its conviction that Christianity had ushered in a new era of grace and will in time provide a remedy to evils.

We can value this work, as dated and inaccurate as it is, by viewing it with the eyes of Orosius’s contemporaries as the radical and comforting work it was at that time. And, besides this work, we can appreciate Orosius as one of the many lesser-known voices that rose in the 5th century against Pelagianism and other popular and wide-spreading heresies.


[1] Dante, Paradiso X, 119, my translation

[3] Quoted in Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 311-600, §148,


Simonetta Carr