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THE USE OF HISTORY IN THE CHRONICON OF

ISIDORE OF SEVILLE

PAUL MERRITT BASSETT

L. ISIDORE AS HISTORIAN

From the perspective of modern historiography, the historical works of Isi-


dore of Seville (c. 560-636) are of poor quality. They fail to discriminate
between the important and the unimportant. They are silent when it would
seem that their author should be taking note of what we know was hap-
pening -matters of which he was surely aware. They sometimes offer ex-
tended remarks on small items. And at times they are unbearably homiletical.
We are inclined to think it unfortunate that they became major sources and
models for medieval historiography.
E. A. Thompson, after ruefully admitting that for the period from 589 to
632 Isidore's works are our only sources for Visigothic Iberia, says of the
good bishop's Historia Gothorum Wandalorum Sueborum: "He could hardly
have told us less, except by not writing at all."'
Ernest Brehaut says:

His view of the past had no perspective; or rather, it had an inverted perspective,
because the increasing confusion of every department of the sublunar world led
him to dwell in preference upon the earlier time when the course of history was
confined to the pure stream of Hebrew tradition, when the supernatural manifested
itself more frequently, and when even the names of personages were charged with
prophetic meaning.2

On the other hand, Jacques Fontaine in his work, Isidore de Seville et la


culture classique dans l'Espagne wisigothique, insists that the historical situ-
ation in which Isidore worked was a formative element in his writings and
that, in turn, Isidore was deliberately responding to specific, perceived prob-
lems and needs. Modern historians, says Fontaine, have tended to overlook
this interaction between the man and his Sitz-im-Leben and have therefore
not fully appreciated Isidore's works on their own terms.3

1. The Goths in Spain (Oxford, 1969), 7.


2. "An Encyclopedist of the Dark Ages: Isidore of Seville," Columbia University
Studies in Economics, History and Public Law, XLVIII, no. 1 (whole no. 120; 1912), 80.
3. (2 vols.; Paris, 1959), I, 3-5. Also see Jacques Fontaine, Isidore de Seville: Traite
de la nature (Bordeaux, 1960), 1-3.

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THE USE OF HISTORY IN ISIDORE OF SEVILLE 279

This present essay is a report on research that has taken Fontaine's critique
and suggestion seriously. It is an attempt to show that Isidore, whatever the
difficulties he presents to the modern historian in search of information about
Visigothic Spain, does indeed have more profound purposes in writing his
historical works than chronicling or presenting collections of news items
from antiquity. The evidence seems to show that Isidore wrote to elicit
specific social responses, and that he wrote from the perspective of a rather
well-developed philosophy of history.
Extensive examination will be made of the Chronica maiora or, as it is
better known, the Chronicon.4 The short chronicle which he included in his
Etymologiarum sive originumn is also taken into account, but not in detail.5

II. CLUES TO ISIDORE'S PURPOSE

The Chronicon was probably written in 615, during the reign of Sisebut in
Toledo and Heraclius in Constantinople.6 On the surface, it appears to be
an almost uncritical splicing of materials from Julius Africanus, Eusebius
of Caesarea, Jerome, and others, with some of Isidore's own data. His di-
vision of history into six "ages"9 seems at first glance to come from Augus-
tine.7 He makes clear his own indebtedness.8 But already at this early stage
of our analysis, it must be noted that Isidore does not follow the organiza-
tional patterns of those from whom he borrows words. For instance, Julius
and Eusebius had set down in parallel columns the chronologies of various
peoples.9 Isidore, by contrast, produces his Chronicon in the form of a

4. The best edition of the Chronica maiora is that of Theodor Mommsen, MGH, Aiict.
Ant., XI, 391-497. Parenthetical page references in this paper will be to this edition, and
Chironica naiora will be abbreviated Cliron. The edition by Faustino Arevalo, MPL,
LXXXIII, 1017-58, is still useful.
5. The best edition of the short chronicle is found in part of Mommsen's edition of
the Chroti. Cf. n. 4, supra. It is there entitled Clironica ininiora. Two editions of the
Etyvnologiae, each with its own peculiar difficulties, are useful: Faustino Arevalo, MPL,
LXXXII, and Isidori Hispalensis episcopi etymologiarum sive originum libri X X, ed.
W. M. Lindsay ("Oxford Classical Texts": 2 vols.; Oxford, 1911). Also see W. M. Lind-
say, "The Editing of Isidore's Etynologiae," Classical Quarterly 5 (1911), 42-53.
6. Cf. J. A. de Aldama, "Indicaciones sobre la cronologia de las obras de S. Isidoro,"
Miscellaniea Isidoriana: Homenaje a San Isidoro de Sevilla en el XIII centenario de Sni
miterte, 636 - 4 de Abril - 1936, ed La Provincia de Andalucia S.I. con la colaboracion
de escritores nacionales y extranjeros (Rome, 1936), 62-64. Also see Mommsen, Cliron.,
407. On the authenticity and sources of the Chron., cf. Jose Madoz, San Isidoro de Se-
villa, seinblanza de Sn personalidad literaria (presentado por Carlos G. Goldaraz [Leon,
1960]), 28-29, and Max Manitius, Geschlichte der lateinischen Literatur des Mittelalters,
3 vols. (Munich, 1911-1931), 1, 59.
7. Cp. De civ. Dei, xviii.
8. Chtron., i (424).
9. A good edition of the Chronicles of Sextus Julius Africanus is Reliqniae Sacrae, ed.
M. J. Routh, 2nd ed., 5 vols. (Oxford, 1846-1848), II, 238-309. Also see H. Gelzer,

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280 PAUL MERRITT BASSETT

single narrative, placing all peoples together as he proceeds, which prompted


R. G. Collingwood to observe that this is the first "single universal chronol-
ogy."10 To be sure, there were narrative histories in Isidore's day - indeed,
some histories more clearly narrative than his. But an attempt to set down a
universal history in narrative form was novel. Is it an indication of a concern
Lo say something of human solidarity at a time and in a place in which people
were very conscious of what we, today, would call ethnic differences?
Another clue to Isidore's historiographical intention may be that as he
developed a "single universal chronology," he did not segregate biblical from
non-biblical data. In others of his works, he clearly exhibits his conviction
that the biblical record is unique;"1 but in the Chronicon, the Bible serves
simply as one more source of data. In none of the six divisions or "ages" of
the Chronicon is the Bible the only source from which he draws, not even in
his account of the very first "age."12
As a corollary to this, it should be noted that Isidore devotes almost ex-
actly as much space to what he calls the sixth age as he does to the other five
ages combined - a rather remarkable fact, since the first five are well within
the temporal purview of the Bible, while the sixth is primarily post-biblical.'3
In fact, an extended discussion of Isidore's sixfold division of his history
will show that it is a very important index to his reason for writing it.'4

Julius Africanuts untid die byzantinische Chroniographie, 2 vols. (Leipzig, 1880-1.898). One
edition of Eusebius' Chronicle may be found in MP', XIX, 99-598. A better one is that
of R. Helm, Die griechisclen chlristlichen Schriftsteller, Eusebilus Werke, VII, 1-2 (Leip-
zig, 1913 and 1926).
10. The Idea of History (New York, 1956), 51.
11. For instance, compare the typologizing of Genesis i in his Mysticorum expositiones
seu quaestiones inl Vetuts Testanen turm (MPL, LXXXIII, 209-212), with the very straight-
forward use of the passage in Chron., 3 (426).
12. E.g., C/iron., 15-17 (428). Here the biblical account of the building of the ark by
Noah is connected to an account by Josephus (Anitiquities, I, 2. 70) of the men who, in
the time of Noah, erected two pillars, one of brick, the other of stone. They inscribed
their discoveries on both so that if they and one pillar were taken by fire or flood, one
pillar would remain and be of value to posterity. Isidore garbles Josephus' story (e.g.,
Seiris, the resting place of the stone pillar "to this day" - a location as yet unidentified
by modern scholarship - is identified as Syria by Isidore), but the essential elements
are all there.
13. This observation holds true of both the Etymologies and the Chronlicon and makes
Brehaut's assessment quite difficult to understand (cf. n. 2, supra). As a matter of fact,
the sixth age, which is primarily post-biblical, receives only one-half column less space
than the other five ages combined in the MPL edition of the Etymologies - the edition
used by Brehaut. In the Mommsen (MGH) edition of the Chroniconi, the sixth age, again,
post-biblical, actually accounts for about 55 per cent of the total work. Even the fifth age,
which is well within the chronological framework of the Bible, contains but five items
from the biblical text and these are from those works considered apochryphal. The fifth
age accounts for about 14 percent of the total length of the work.
14. Mommsen (MGH, Auict., Ant., XI, 420-421) expresses some doubts as to the gen-
uineness of the division of the C/hron. into the six ages. While at this point in

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THE USE OF HISTORY IN ISIDORE OF SEVILLE 281

IIlo ISIDORE AND AUGUSTINE ON THE SIXFOLD


DIVISION OF HISTORY

Isidore's division of his Chronicon into six parts reflects either or both of
two venerable notions: the six ages of man or the six days of creation. The
idea of sixfold division probably has its source in Augustine's De civitate
Dei.'5 Augustine, in turn, seems to draw on the genealogy of St. Matthew
which moves in three successive sets of fourteen generations each from
Abraham to Christ. Augustine adds three periods of his own devising, two
before Abraham and one since Christ. Whatever Isidore's debt to Augustine,
however, he significantly alters Augustine's format, and in doing so leaves
very important indications of his purposes in presenting the Chroniconm
Augustine makes it clear that he is primarily concerned to trace the his-
tory of God's commonwealth, the civitas Dei.16 The reader is left with little
doubt that the methodological categories for such tracing are theological.17
Further, Augustine separates almost completely the histories of the two
"cities."18 When, at length, he comes to speak extensively of the civitas
terrenae, in Book XVIII, he tends to ignore his sixfold scheme. In fact,
Augustine was philosophically committed to a position that left him unable
to see history as a series of meaningful stages, except in terms of progress in
fulfilling spiritual potential or prophecy.19 From his point of view, even the
historical writings contained in the Bible are of value primarily as they point
beyond the this-worldly to the active work of Providence.20
Surprisingly enough, Isidore's clearest statement of his philosophical com-
mitment on this point is found in his De fide catholica. There he speaks of
the Incarnation as the proof that mundane history is of the same essence as

essay the division is used only as a methodological tool for purposes of comparison, it is
accepted as an authentic characteristic of the original work in its several editions It
would seem that the significant differences between the way Isidore constructs his chron-
ology and Augustine constructs his would argue that the divisions are genuinely Isidore's,
especially if it be granted that Mommsen is correct in believing that Isidore is following
Augustine. If the divisions of the Chlron. were added by a later hand, it would seem quite
likely that either the Matthean or the Augustinian divisions would have been the model,
given the usual early medieval attitudes toward traditions and the work of the copyist.
15. E.g., De civ. Dei, xv-xviii.
16. Augustine works at length with the earthly society only in cap. xviii, after some
seven capitidae on the heavenly.
17. De civ. Dei, xi. Also cf. ibid. xvi, 2.
18. In De civ. Dei, xv-xvi, Augustine does work more or less simultaneously with both
"cities," but even there he separates the two very definitely, even more definitely than do
the very biblical passages from which he is working.
19. Cf. Karl Lbwith, Meaning in History (Chicago, 1949), 171-172. While Ldwith
may have overstated the point, it appears to be valid.
20. The principle is stated in De spirit et litt., iv, 6. Methodologically, it is evidenced
in Augustine's assertion that only the divinely cleansed will can know the authority of
Scripture (e.g., Contra Faust. Manic/h., xxxiii, 9).

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282 PAUL MERRITT BASSETT

divine history.2' For Augustine, the Incarnation tends to point away from
the earthly.22 Isidore sees history in terms of the movement of all men toward
tne Judigment. For him, there is but one history. For Augustine, there are
two, one of which is lot real, metaphysically speaking. Augustine's position
is best seen in his deliberate separation of the chronicles of the two societies.
Only the history of the civitas Dei is put into periods, and in telling its story,
Augustine generally limits himself to biblical materials. In fact, he so ties his
discussion of the heavenly city to the Bible that lie does not venture to say
much about its vicissitudes since the time of the composition of the New
Testament books. And, as he moves the history of the city of God forw
he becomes less and less concerned with demarcating eras.23
The chronological framework, for Augustine, seeins to serve as little more
than a literary outline. Isidore, on the other hand, uses the chronology to
give unity and universality to the course of history, and it serves as a reminder
that the world is moving toward the consuininatio saecuii.4 Isidore's ages
seen to have a more dispensational character than those of Augustine.
These differences are seen best in the way the two men mark the shifts
from age to age and in the different means they use to maintain continuit
among the ages. The differences are clearest from the second age onwar
so analysis will begin there.
Augustine draws only a vague line between the generations from Adam
to Noah and those begun with Noah's son, Shem.'5 However, for all his close
attention to chronological details (especially those pertallining to the longevity
of the antediluvians) lhe does not take the kin-d of interest in the progression
from generation to generation that characterizes the work of Isidore.26

21. De fide cath., i, 5. 1-11 (MPL, LXXXIII, 460-462). Also see, De fide cat/h., i, 61.
1-9 (MPL, LXXXIII, 496-498).
22. Cf. Ldwith, Meaning in History, 165-166, 172-173. Also see Adolph Harnack,
History of Dogma, transl. Neil Buchanan, 7 vols. (New York, 1961), III, 270.
23. Cp. De Genesi ad litt., i, 23, 25 and De civ. Dei, xviii. 1. In the former, the divi-
sions are: 1. from Adam to the Flood; 2. from the Flood to Abraham; 3. from Abraham
to David; 4. from David to the Babyionian Captivity; 5. from the Captivity to Christ.
In the latter: 1. from Adam to the Flood; 2. from the Flood to Abraham; 3. from Abra-
ham to "ithe time of the Israelite kings"; 4. from the time of the kings to Christ. More-
over, within the De civ. Dei itself, one manifestation of Augustine's intermittent concern
with marking off distinct boundaries between ages may be seen in noting that Book xvi
works with history from Noah to Joseph, with brief mention of Moses and Joshua, then
it includes a very short comment on. Saul and David. Book xvii works from Eli and
Sarmuel to David and Solomon, and on to the post-exilic prophets with very incidental
concern for chronology.
24. Chron., 418 (481). To be sure, De civ. Dei, xviii-xxii shows that Augustine, too,
was quite conscious of the coming judgment. But he saw it much less in chronologica
much more in theological, terms than did Isidore.
25. De civ. Dei, xvi, 3.
26. De civ. Dei, xv, 12-15.

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THE USE OF HISTORY IN ISIDORE OF SEVILLE 283

Isidore begins the second age with the birth of Arphaxad, son of Shem
and grandson of Noah. It was with Noah that the first age had clearly ended.
But why begin with Arphaxad? Augustine had begun the age with Shem,
and, to a degree, Japheth, because of the special place of Shem in the divine
purposes. Noah had especially blessed him (Gen. 9:26,27), and he was the
first post-diluvian ancestor of Christ (Luke 3:36). Then too, his very name,
Augustine had noted, has spiritual significance.27
Isidore begins the age with Arphaxad because Arphaxad represents the
past, being Noah's grandson, because he is altogether a child of post-flood
times (Gen. 10:11), and because he is also, as Isidore understands it, the
father of the major peoples populating the earth after the flood.
The first two points are made by the Bible itself, but Isidore goes beyond
the biblical evidence to make the third. He says that Arphaxad was the pro-
genitor of the Chaldeans and the father of Heber, from whom the Hebrews
issue. He also claims the Samarites as descendants of Arphaxad's son Sala.28
The Genesis account gives only the names of the three men and their sons.29
The basis of continuity, for Isidore, is primarily genealogical at this point.
It is only remotely, if at all, spiritual.30 Augustine, on the other hand, had
maintained continuity between the first and second ages on a spiritual basis,
moving from Noah, to Shem, to Heber, in terms of his grander theme, the
history of the civitas Dei.3'
Yet Isidore is not seeking to avoid the notion of spiritual continuity. In
the way in which he begins the third age, he may be seen strengthening the
note of spiritual continuity. He sets Isaac at the head of this period, where
we might expect Abraham.32 Strictly speaking, Abraham is between eras,
for his birth is recorded in the second age.33 Could it be that in placing
Abraham between eras, Isidore intends to sharpen the idea of spiritual con-
tinuity while at the same time heightening for the reader the sense of genuine
change in eras? Why does the age close with Zoroaster?34
Isaac is the firstfruit of the divine promise, and thus the continuity is based

27. De civ. Dei, xvi, 1-2.


28. Chron., 19-20 (429).
29. Gen. 11:12. Augustine, De civ. Dei, xvi, 10, mentions Sala, but speaks no word
of the Samarites or Indis.
30. There may be a hint of spiritual continuity in the inclusion, and mode of inclusion.
of Melchezidek with the added information, "condidit urbem Salem, quae nunc vocatur
Hierusalem." Chron. 19 (429).
31. Cf. De civ. Dei, xvi, 3, especially where Augustine must speak of "the people of
Israel, among whom was the city of God, mysteriously prefigured in the entire people,
and truly present in the saints."
32. C/hron., 34 (432). Certainly the Matthean (1:1-16) and Lukan (3:23-38) genealo-
gies would lead us to expect Abraham, as would De civ. Dei (cf. n. 23, supra).
33. C/iron., 31 (431).
34. C/iron., 32-33 (431-432).

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284 PAUL MERRITT BASSETT

upon both genealogy and certain spiritual factors. Isaac represents a new
order, but his roots are firmly fixed in the previous era by way of Abraham.
It may be that Isidore does not place Abraham at the very end of the second
age in order to impress upon the reader the novel character of the third age.
That is, in reading the account, we do not easily glide from Abraham to
Isaac, as the original events themselves attest.35 That the basis of continuity
here is primarily spiritual is also seen in Isidore's placing of Isaac's half-
brother, Ishmael. Ishmael, although also a son of Abraham and also the
inheritor of a divine promise, as well as being the father of a nation, belongs
to the old era.36
For Augustine, Abraham obviously marks the beginning of a new era in
the history of the city of God. The dividing line seems clear.37 Isaac plays
no well-defined role in Augustine's history. Abraham is obviously a primary
character.38 And while Augustine can become cumbersome working his way
through what seem to be very mundane details of the biblical narrative, such
as the age of each principal at each stage of the story, his clear and over-
riding purpose is to continue his account of the progress of the civitas Dei,39
a progress which he believes to be "more conspicuous" from Abraham on-
ward.40 So, while he had mentioned Hagar and Ishmael as symbolic of the
"carnal people of the old covenant" and Keturah and her children by Abra-
ham as symbolic of "carnal people who think they belong to the new cove-
nant," his interest is in God's commonwealth - hardly at all in the terrestrial
civitas.4i This holds true throughout his third age.
Isidore, on the other hand, peoples his third age with Greek kings and
pagan inventors. He notices the rise of cities, adds short notes on classical
writers and presents various other bits and pieces, biographical and other-
wise, along with mentioning the major biblical characters from Isaac to
Saul.42 This is done independent of any apparent scheme, except that it is
more or less in chronological order. Isidore's purpose cannot be what Au-
gustine's was. But is it merely that of presenting a plateful of historical
tidbits? Except for the general principle stated earlier, that Isidore aims at a
universal history in which all are seen as being products of divine activity,

35. Loc. cit.


36. Chron., 34 (432). "Abraham ann. C genuit Isaac ex Sarra libera, nam primum ex
ancilla Agar genuerat Ismahel, a quo Ismahelitarum genus, qui postea Agarensi, ad ul-
timum Sarraceni sunt dicti." The logic here is that Isaac is at the head of the third period
and that the "postea" places him in the previous era.
37. De civ. Dei, xvi, 12. The Matthean genealogy begins with Abraham. Cf. Matt. 1:2.
38. De civ. Dei, xvi, 12-34. Isaac is dispatched in 35-37, Jacob in 37-41.
39. For example, De civ. Dei, xvi, 15.
40. De civ. Dei, xvi, 12.
41. De civ. Dei, xvi, 34.
42. Chron., 34-106 (432-439).

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THE USE OF HISTORY IN ISIDORE OF SEVILLE 285

it is difficult at this stage to grasp Isidore's


said is that it is in no way the same as Augustine's. This observation holds
true whether or not the division of history into periods was part of Isidore's
own work or that of a later hand.43
Isidore sets the transition from the third age to the fourth in terms that
seem calculated further to heighten the reader's awareness that true con-
tinuity is essentially spiritual. Moreover, he now seems to want the reader
to understand that this spiritual continuity may include all mankind. Blood
relationship is now ignored in the movement from old to new order - surely
a non-biblical move. Yet further, while Augustine wavers between Saul and
David, and sees the importance of the age in the fact that it was "the era of
the prophets,"44 Isidore begins quite definitely with David.45 This would not
be at all surprising if the age stretched from David to the Babylonian exile
of the kingdom of Judah, or even on to the birth of Christ or the ministry
of John the Baptist. Such a division would be consonant with the Matthean
pattern. But this Isidore does not do. At the end of the fourth age stands
Solon, giving the law to the Athenians.46
Augustine had more or less begun the fourth age with David; but for him,
the primary significance of the period lay in the fact that it was "the age
of the prophets." Not that Augustine had avoided all mention of non-biblical
persons and events. In fact, he had included much of the non-biblical data
that Isidore includes. But the framework for the age and Augustine's ap-
parent intention as he had moved through its description are more narrowly
biblical than Isidore's.47
So it is that in the Augustinian work, non-biblical characters play no
essential role in the unfolding history. In Isidore's Chronicon, non-biblical
characters are historiographically on a par with biblical ones. Augustine
had occasionally entered lists of non-biblical names into his account - names
such as those of the great pagan philosophers48 - and there is occasionally
an attempt to correlate non-biblical with biblical chronology.49 But the focus
of interest is either to say something of the course of the earthly society apart
from the heavenly or to show the contrariety between the two.
For Isidore, the break between the fourth and fifth ages is radical, for
toward the end of the fourth Jerusalem falls, and with Solon Isidore moves
to an almost entirely secular history. The beginning of the fifth age is the

43. Cf. n. 13, supra.


44. Cf. De civ. Dei, xvi, 43 and xvii, 1.
45. Chron., 106-107 (438).
46. Chron., 166 (445).
47. For example, De civ. Dei, xviii, 27.
48. De civ. Dei, xviii, 25.
49. De civ. Dei, xviii, 24 (end) and xviii, 25.

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286 PAUL MERRITT BASSETT

captivity of the "Hebrews," "at which time the fire on the altar of God was
removed."50
We might have expected the captivity and the dying of the altar fire to
end an era, not to begin one. But what seems to happen is that Isidore here
sweeps the Jews into the flow of universal history. The mention of the Jews
at the head of the age focuses the reader's attention backward on an era in
which God's people were very carefully identified, and forward, by their
captivity and later dispersion, to a preparation for a shift in the meaning of
the term "chosen people."'51
Augustine, on the other hand, had made no break at the point of the
fall of Jerusalem. In fact, he had drawn the line between the fourth and fifth
ages at the time of the Incarnation, at least in the De civitate Dei.52 The
history of the celestial commonwealth suffers no change in direction as Judah
falls.
By now, as Isidore sees it, biblical history and secular have merged. It is
not just the Jews whose history moves toward the divinely appointed con-
summation, if ever that was the case. All men thus move, and for Isidore
this means that all are morally responsible. History is not a chain of fits and
starts. It presents an unfailing continuity to Isidore. To him, it also presents
an increasing luminosity, an increasing spiritual significance. All men are a
part of this significance from the beginning (as the scattering of extra-biblical
data indicates), but they become increasingly so. The Jews, with their special
role, become less and less prominent, less and less a unique case, as the point
that they were established to make becomes ever clearer to the world at large.
So it is that by the end of the fifth age, the spiritual scenery is all in place.
Peace settles on the "whole earth."53 Daniel's sixty-nine weeks are fulfilled.
Christ is born.54
We would have expected Julius Caesar, if not Christ, to stand at the head
of the sixth era. Isidore indicates elsewhere that Julius was the "first to hold
monarchy" among the Romans. Even Augustus seems a more logical begin-
ning point, for he was the first Roman emperor.55 But Isidore places Tiberius

50. Chron., 167 (445). At this point, Isidore plunges immediately into non-biblical
history, writing of Judith, Pythagoras, Ferecides, Xenophon, Servius Tullius, and Darius
before returning (very briefly) to biblical materials. (Cf., C/n-onl., 168-169).
51. This is quite consistent with Isidore's position in De fide Cath., v (MPL, LXXXIII,
508-510), in which he argues that at the time of the end, a Jew will be any man who
believes in Christ. This cap. is entitled, "Quia in fine mundi in Christum credituri sunt
Judaei."
52. Cf. De civ. Dei, xviii, 1. In De Genesi ad litt., i. 23, 25, however, he draws some-
thing of a line at the beginning of the Babylonian Captivity.
53. Chron., 235 (453-454).
54. C/iron., 236-237 (454).
55. Etyrn., v, 39:26 (MPL, LXXXII, 226) does place Octavius at the head of the era.
(Also cf. 453-454.) It would seem that inconsistencies of this sort can be resolved by
noting the clear differences in the purposes of the two works.

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THE USE OF HISTORY IN ISIDORE OF SEVILLE 287

at the opening of the sixth age. Tiberius does serve the theme of continuity
better than either Julius or Augustus precisely because he is not the first
emperor, and thus he shifts our glance backward. But more important, it is
during the reign of Tiberius, in its eighteenth year, that Christ is crucified:
Cper actis a principio muindi annis VCCXXVIII1."56 Here, then, is the con-
summation of biblical history. All that remains is the consummation of bibli-
cal prophecy. The long trail of increasing spiritual illumination and intensify-
ing responsibility, or sense of social accountability, along with the widening
of both, now comes to its temporal climax and to the clear disclosure of its
purposes and direction in the reign of Tiberius.57
Isidore makes no predictions for the remainder of the sixth age, and he
offers no eschatological speculations.58 But he does make it clear that t
sixth age is the end of the continuity, for at its conclusion everything will b
absolutely new. It is very much to the point to note in this connection th
was the Fourth Council of Toledo, under the presidency of Isidore, that at
last recognized the canonicity of the Apocalypse of John and ordered it to
be read in the Office from Easter to Pentecost.59 It seems clear enough that
for Isidore that obscure book was not to be taken as so much speculation
and kept out of the canon. It was to be taken as having to do with history
and social responsibility and therefore it belonged in the Hispano-Visigothic
canon as much as it had long since belonged in the canon of the church
at large.

IV. HISTORY AND THE UNIVERSALIZING OF DIVINE PROMISE

In its emphasis on social as well as temporal continuity this chronology draws


all men into the current of God's creation and into the progression of a
history that has spiritual significance above all else. In every case, the transi-
tion from era to era is an unfolding of God's promise over an ever wider
segment of mankind.60 Thus, the insertions of names such as Ascanius6
Romulus,62 or the apparent intrusion of notices of non-biblical events, such

56. C/liron., 239 (454).


57. This, in spite of Isidore's understanding of Tiberius' personal and political failures.
Cf. C/liron., 238 (454).
58. C/liron., 418 (481).
59. Cf. Toledo IV, canon 17 (Mansi X, 616). Brehaut, 79-80, attributes too much
apocalyptic interest to Isidore.
60. The first age ended with the small family of Noah; the second with the promise
to Abraham and the birth of Ishmael; the third with a kingdom of chosen people; the
fourth with their dispersal throughout the Eastern world; the fifth with the founding of
a genuine world empire; and the last will end with a judgment of all people.
61. Cliron., 99 (439).
62. Cliron., 143 (443).

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288 PAUL MERRITT BASSETT

as the capture of Troy,63 or the institution of the Olympiads,64 are not for
merely pedantic purposes.65 Yet, such a procedure would have been quite
foreign to Augustine, for whom the only metaphysically real history is that
of the heavenly commonwealth.
Moreover, Isidore's histories, and even his hagiography, are remarkably
restrained in their accounts of the miraculous, let alone the apocalyptic. This
is seen with special clarity in comparison with the Dialogues of Gregory the
Great or the works of Gregory of Tours, both of whom were roughly con-
temporary with Isidore. While he certainly does typologize elsewhere in his
works, and in So doing becomes fanciful,66 his histories, in dealing with the
biblical record, in no way exceed the interest in the miraculous found within
the Bible itself. His reserve regarding such matters in the non-biblical mate-
rials seems to be culturally atypical.
What is somewhat surprising, in the light of this, is his use of mythological
characters. Especially in the second and third eras, we find him weaving them
in and out of his narrative.6 This arouses some curiosity, for elsewhere we
find him quite caustic about mythology - and pagan letters in general.68
Perhaps the solution to the puzzle lies in the manner in which Isidore utilizes
the characters. He speaks of them as if they were men, not gods;69 and it is

63. Cliron., 95 (438).


64. C/iron., 140 (442).
65. The fourth period, from which all of the examples noted were drawn, is especially
instructive at this point. Among Jews and Gentiles both, great civilizing movements are
developing and governments are forming. But among the Jews, moral responsibility and
order are seen slipping away, while among the Gentiles, they are seen to be maturing.
So, the Temple built by Solomon is destroyed, and with it the moral and social focus of
the people, while among the Gentiles science (Thales), letters (Sappho) and law (Solon)
mature. This is not to say that all is lost for the Jews. They simply enter the universal
history more obviously at this point, and mention of the exilic prophets, along with the
faithfulness of the three Hebrew youth in the fiery furnace (and Daniel), reminds us
that morality was still a major concern among God's true people. Cf. C/ironl., 158-166
(444-445).
66. For example, Quaest. in Vet. Test. - In Geni. vii.5 (MPL, LXXXIII, 230). "Quod
arca trecentis cubitis long[a] est, ut sexies quinquaginta compleantur, sicut sex aetatibus
omne hujus saeculi tempus extenditur, in quibus omnibus Christus nunquam destitit
praedicari, in quinque per prophetiam praenuntiatus, in sexta per Evangelium diffamatus,
potest quidem et in his trecentis cubitis signum ligni passionis ostendi. Ipsius enim litterae
T numerus crucis demonstrat signum, per quod socii Christi passionis effecti per baptis-
mum longitudinem vitae aeternae percipimus."
67. For example, C/liron., 38-53 (433-434), where Jacob and Joseph appear with Sera-
pis, Prometheus, Atlas, Mercury, and Minerva.
68. For example, Senit., iii, 13.1-11 (MPL, LXXXIII, 685-688) and Setnt., i, 1.17 (MPL,
LXXXIII, 575-576).
69. Augustine does the very same thing with Atlas, and, by implication, Mercury,
Atlas' grandson. Cf. De civ. Dei, xviii, 8. Also see, for instance, C/iron., 46-47 (433-434).
"Tunc etiam frater eius Atlans astrologiam repperit motumque caeli et rationem primus
consideravit. Hoc etiam tempore in Graecia Corinthus condita ibique picture ars

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THE USE OF HISTORY IN ISIDORE OF SEVILLE 289

sometimes apparent that he is using them neither as gods nor men, but simply
as symbols inserted into the chronology to mark the invention of one or
another of the arts.7 Certainly euhemerism is important here, but it
some questions unanswered.
Isidore incorporates the wav in which the ancient Greeks and Romans
explained their pasts, insofar as such explanations were useful, into an
account of the pasts of all peoples in order to demonstrate the unity of
history. What this incorporation also does, though perhaps not intentionally,
is to universalize the various literatures as well. Jewish literature, because it
tells part of the story of mankind as a whole, becomes universal literature.71
So also with all other literary heritages. Thus, while the use of mythology
is at first surprising, it is not difficult to determine how even this literary
genre could find its place in Isidore's history. Perhaps, too, Isidore uses
mythology in this way as a means of yielding to the inevitable popularity of
the literature while at the same time putting it to Christian uses, as Augustine
and others had done earlier. All literatures become part of the common
heritage. Consequently, Isidore ranges far and wide in his compiling, ap-
parently out of the conviction that all literature belongs to him and to the
Visigoths,72 just as he and they all belong to the mainstream of universal
history. Augustine would not consciously have favored such an approach,
and for even such a lover of things classical as Jerome, Isidore's purposes
would have been too broad.
Literary borrowing was no new art, of course. But Isidore's appears to
be an early attempt, if not the first attempt, to show how the literature of
any given people may say something to the history of all peoples.
In looking at the Chronicon as a whole, it seems tenable to assert that
Isidore has here produced a summary of history that is consciously and gen-
uinely universal. It seeks to explain the origins of a number of peoples as
well as inventions and arts.73 In doing this, it is very much informed by the

Cleanthe reperta. Mercuriusque nepos Atlantis multarum artium peritus et ob hoc post
mortem in deos translatus."
70. For example, C/iron., 38 (433). "His temporibus apud lacum Tritonideem Minerva
in specie virginali apparuisse describitur, quae plurimus clhruisse ingeniis praedicatur,
haec enim inventrix fabricae fuisse dicitur: clipium et arcum haec repperit: ordire talem
et colorare lanas haec docuit." There are some critical problems with this passage, noted
by Mommsen.
71. Cf. Sent., i, 20.1-3 (MPL, LXXXIII, 586), and De ecc. ofj., i, 11.1-3 (MPL,
LXXXIII, 745-746). This is also the working hypothesis of De fide cathl., for Isidore
there bases the entire case for the truth of Christianity on the Old Testament.
72. Cf. Et)ym., i, 43.1 (MPL, LXXXII, 123), where Isidore says that even pagan
works of history can be helpful. Etym., iii, 25.1-26.1 (MPL, LXXXII, 169-170) speaks
of the positive contributions made by pagans to astronomy.
73. In the second age alone, there are ten different nations mentioned, the foundings
of Jerusalem and Babylon are noted, and the invention of magic and instruments of war-
fare is cited. Cf. C/hron., 18-33 (429-432).

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290 PAUL MERRITT BASSETT

genealogical information in the Bible. But it goes beyond this by way of


other literature which Isidore thought pertinent, regardless of its origin or
genre.74

V. HISTORY, MORAL RESPONSIBILITY, AND CATHOLICITY

What the Chronicon does not do is explain the "why's" of history by way
of some thesis or analysis, although it does indicates clearly a theological
bias and sets all of history in a theological context.75 From this standpoint,
the Chronicon is rather on the border between chronology and history, or,
as Isidore would put it, it is "part annal, part history."7" His choice of
descriptive terms seems more purposive than incidental.
What it does in addition to noting the origins and vicissitudes of nations
is to draw all of these things together under one chronological roof. This,
it would seem, is not a mere accident resulting from methodology. Rather,
Isidore begins by recalling that God made everything, by constantly show-
ing a synthetic appreciation, albeit in sketchy form, and by reminding the
reader that the end of time will see everything made new. But the roof is
more than chronology; the connections are more than mere temporal con-
tiguity. In the sixth age, according to Isidore, this entire past comes to bear
on the history of the Romans and their empire. And while in the first five
eras he shows the waxing and then the waning faithfulness of the Jews, in
the sixth age he records the expansion of Christianity, which has inherited
both the spiritual birthright and the geographical diffusion of the Jews, and
tells of its attempts to avoid apostasy. Isidore connects the reign of almost
every emperor he mentions with some martyr, doctor, council, or heretic
some event or person of importance to the Church.
Isidore seems to believe that the sixth age serves to point to the Romans,
now masters of the "whole world," as the inheritors of the culture of that
world.77 He shows that it is among the Romans that the inventions and
literature of the past come to fruition.78 And, what is very important, he
shows that it is by means of the Romans that the Goths come into this
broad inheritance.79 In fact, they come into it as a major heir.

74. E.g., the naming of the Peloponnesus and the "reign" of Zoroaster. Cf. C/hron.,
31-32 (431).
75. Not only does Isidore begin the Chlron. with the Judaeo-Christian creation story
and end it with the Christian Great Day of Judgment, he names as his sources Christians
only, though he uses others.
76. Cf. Etym., i, 44.3-4 (MPL, LXXXII, 124). "Inter historiam autem et annales hoc
interest, quod historia est eorum temporum, quae vidimus, annales vero sunt eorum an-
norum quos aetas nostra non novit." He goes on here to say that Sallust's work is history
and that the works of Livy, Eusebius, and Jerome are part annal, part history-"Ex
annalibus et historia constant."

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THE USE OF HISTORY IN ISIDORE OF SEVILLE 291

But, for Isidore, history also serves to point up moral responsibility, and
for this reason Isidore is not loath to comment upon the moral characters
of the emperors - not in the manner of a Suetonius, but in the manner of
a Christian bishop. So, he notes, Titus was "exceedingly bellicose" as a
military leader, although he did prove more humane as an emperor.80 Nero
"gave himself over to injustice, cruelty, and dissipation.' Even Constan-
tine's ethical flaws are ruefully noted.82
The sixth age also gives us a church history. For Isidore, this is probably
the point finally to be made. In fact, in spite of Isidore's care to keep us
informed of political history, he must remind us of the course of ecclesias-
tical affairs. Moreover, he indicates their interconnections with clarity. It
appears that Isidore saw in the Church the universal society par excellence,
the one true inheritor of all past good.

Holy Church, therefore, is called universal because it is spread through all the
the earth. Now the churches of the heretics are limited to certain parts of the world.
This true Church is spread out over the whole wide world, as Paul the Apostle
attests, "I give thanks to my God for all of you, that your faith is spoken of in
all of the world." Heresies, on the other hand, are found to influence some corner
of the world or only one group of people. The true Catholic Church, as it is ex-
tended through the whole world, is built up by the association of all peoples.
Who are heretics if not those who, deserting the Church of God, have chosen to
cast their lots with private associations?83

77. Cf. C/iron., 264-268 (458) in which Isidore speaks well of Trajan and Hadrian for
greatly extending the borders of the empire. In C/iron., 200-237 (449-454), Isidore inter-
weaves the rise of Rome, both politically and culturally, with other data of cultural note,
showing the increasing absorption of other societies by the Roman. One clue indicating
that this arrangement is not simply accidental is the fact that Isidore uses Jerome very
extensively throughout the section, but not in Jerome's original order.
78. Cf. Chron., 235-236 (453-454). It seems obvious that Isidore considers the varying
streams of history to come to a confluence under the reign of Octavian. His reference to
the end of sixty-nine of Daniel's seventy weeks reflects early Christian understandings
of "the fullness of time" - a moment in which sin, now universalized, finds its universal
redemption. In a sense, the universalizing of sin is nothing more nor less than the
universalizing of culture, just as the universalizing of salvation aims at the rectifying
of all culture. For full discussion of this very important theological point, cf. Oscar
Cullman, Christuts uind die Zeit (Zollikon-Zurich, 1946).
79. Chron., 311 and 314 (463) tell of the Goths taking over lands formerly under
Roman rule. C/iron., 372 (471) notes the taking of Rome by the Goths, and from this
point on, Isidore continues to write of the Eastern government as the Romani, but he
focuses his attention on the Gothic West. In fact, he tends now to note the East only as
it struggles with various heresies. See also his Historia Got/iorium Wandaloriin Suebo
4-7 (269-270), which gives a more detailed account of the relationships between the
Romans and the Goths in the earlier days of their contacts.
80. C/iron., 252-256 (456-457).
81. C/iron., 246-249 (455-456).
82. C/iron., 329-334 (465-466).
83. Sent., i, 16.6-7 (MPL, LXXXIII, 572). Cf. Etym., viii, i.1-2 (MPL, LXXXII,
293-295).

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292 PAUL MERRITT BASSETT

Isidore's understanding of catholicity has remarkable resemblances to the


more ancient notion of Romanitas; enough so that we may say that for
Isidore the Church is the true inheritor of proper Romanitas.84
While we see this parallelism developed even more fully in the Historia,
suffice it to say that Isidore saw in the Church the one society broad enough
to inherit the whole past. It is the Church into which the Romans, with all
of their past, have come, and it is the Church into which the Goths have
come, and thereby have been made heirs of the riches from the past. Uni-
versal history is now bound up with the history of a Universal Church, and
it is this Church, gathering together all of the ancient heritage, which is the
only suitable vehicle in which to ride out of time into eternity.85

Nazarene Theological Seminary


Kansas City

84. For a lucid description of Romanitas, see C. N. Cochrane, Christianity and


Classical Czlture: A Study of Thought and Action from Augustus to Augustine (New
York, 1957), 72-73.
85. De ecclesiasticis officiis, i, 2-3 (MPL, LXXXIII, 739-740) and i, 24.2 (MPL,
LXXXIII, 760-761). Also see Isidore's typological interpretation of Noah's ark in
Quiaest. in Vet. Test.-In Getz. vii, 2-3 (MPL LXXXIII, 229-230). "Arca enim ista
Ecclesiam demonstrabat, quae natat in fluctibus mundi huius."

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