Baring-Gould’s Lives of the Saints – Saint Fulgentius, Bishop, Confessor

detail of a 17th century portrait of Saint Fulgentius of RuspeArticle

(A.D. 533)

[Roman Martyrology and nearly all the Latin Martyrologies. His life was written by one of his disciples, and addressed to his successor, Felicianus. Many of his writings are extant.]

Fulgentius belonged to an honourable senatorial family of Carthage, which had, however, lost its position with the invasion of the Vandals into Northern Africa. His father, Claudius, who had been unjustly deprived of his house in Carthage, to give it to the Arian priest, retired to an estate belonging to him at Telepte, a city of the province of Byzacene. And here, about thirty years after the barbarians had dismembered Africa from the Roman empire, in the year 468, was born Fulgentius. Shortly after this his father died, and the education of the child devolved wholly on his mother, Mariana. It has been often observed that great men have had great mothers. Mariana was a woman of singular intelligence and piety. She carefully taught her son to speak Greek with ease and good accent, and made him learn by heart Homer, Menander, and other famous poets of antiquity. At the same time, she did not neglect his religious education, and the youth grew up obedient and modest. She early committed to him the government of the house, and servants, and estate; and his prudence in these matters made his reputation early, and he was appointed procurator of the province.

But it was not long before he grew weary of the world; and the love of God drew him on into other paths. He found great delight in religious reading, and gave more time to prayer. He was in the habit of frequenting monasteries, and he much wondered to see in the monks no signs of weariness, though they were deprived of all the relaxations and pleasures which the world provides. Then, under the excuse that his labours of office required that he should take occasional repose, he retired at intervals from business, and devoted himself to prayer and meditation, and reduced the abundance of food with which he was served. At length, moved by a sermon of Saint Augustine on the thirty-sixth Psalm, he resolved on embracing the religious life.

There was at that time a certain bishop, Faustus by name, who had been driven, together with other orthodox bishops, from their sees, by Huneric, the Arian king. Faustus had erected a monastery in Byzacene. To him Fulgentius betook himself, and asked to be admitted into the monastery. But the Bishop repelled him saying, “Why, my son, dost thou seek to deceive the servants of God? Then wilt thou be a monk when thou hast learned to despise luxurious food and sumptuous array. Live as a layman less delicately, and then I shall believe in thy vocation.” But the young man caught the hand of him who urged him to depart, and, kissing it said, “He who gave the desire is mighty to enable me to fulfil it. Suffer me to tread in thy footsteps, my father!” Then, with much hesitation, Faustus suffered the youth to remain, saying, “Perhaps my fears are unfounded. Thou must be proved some days.”

The news that Fulgentius had become a monk spread far and wide. His mother, in transports of grief, ran to the monastery, crying out, “Faustus! restore to me my son, and to the people their governor. The Church always protects widows; why then dost thou rob me, a desolate widow, of my child?” Faustus in vain endeavoured to calm her. She desired to see her son, but he refused to give permission. Fulgentius, from within, could hear his mother’s cries. This was to him a severe temptation, for he loved her dearly.

Shortly after, he made over his estate to his mother, to be discretionally disposed of, by her, in favour of his brother Claudius, when he should arrive at a proper age. He practised severe mortification of his appetite, totally abstaining from oil and everything savoury, and his fasting produced a severe illness, from which, however, he recovered, and his constitution adapted itself to his life of abstinence.

Persecution again breaking out, Faustus was obliged to leave his monastery, and Fulgentius, at his advice, took refuge in another, which was governed by the Abbot Felix, who had been his friend in the world, and who became now his brother in religion. Felix rejoiced to see his friend once more, and he insisted on exalting him to be abbot along with himself. Fulgentius long refused, but in vain; and the monks were ruled by these two abbots living in holy charity, Felix attending to the discipline and the bodily necessities of the brethren, Fulgentius instructing them in the divine love. Thus they divided the authority between them for six years, and no contradictions took place between them; each being always ready to comply with the will of the other.

In the year 499, the country being ravaged by the Numidians, the two abbots were obliged to fly to Sicca Veneria, a city of the proconsular province of Africa. Here they were seized by orders of an Arian priest, and commanded to be scourged. Felix, seeing the executioners seize first on Fulgentius, exclaimed, “Spare my brother, who is not sufficiently strong to endure your blows, lest he die under them, and strike me instead.” Felix having been scourged, Fulgentius was next beaten. His pupil says, “Blessed Fulgentius, a man of delicate body, and of noble birth, was scarce able to endure the pain of the repeated blows, and, as he afterwards told us, hoping to soothe the violence of the priest, or distract it awhile, that he might recover himself a little, he cried out, ‘I will say something if I am permitted.'” The priest ordered the blows to cease, expecting to hear a recantation. But Fulgentius, with much eloquence, began a narration of his travels; and after the priest had listened awhile, finding this was all he was about to hear, he commanded the executioners to continue their beating of Fulgentius. After that, the two abbots, naked and bruised, were driven away. Before being brought before the Arian priest, Felix had thrown away a few coins he possessed; and his captors, not observing this, after they were released, he and Fulgentius returned to the spot and recovered them all again. The Arian bishop, whose relations were acquainted with the family of Fulgentius, was much annoyed at this proceeding of the priest, and severely reprimanded him. He also urged Fulgentius to bring an action against him, but the confessor declined, partly because a Christian should never seek revenge, partly also because he was unwilling to plead before a bishop who denied the divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ. Fulgentius, resolving to visit the deserts of Egypt, renowned for the sanctity of the solitaries who dwelt there, went on board a ship for Alexandria, but the vessel touching at Sicily, Saint Eulalius, abbot at Syracuse, diverted him from his intention, assuring him that “a perfidious dissension had severed this country from the communion of Saint Peter. All these monks, whose marvellous abstinence is noised abroad, have not got with you the Sacrament of the Altar in common;” meaning that Egypt was full of heretics. Fulgentius visited Rome in the latter part of the year 500, during the entry of Theodoric. “Oh,” said he, “how beautiful must the heavenly Jerusalem be, if earthly Rome be so glorious.” A short time after, Fulgentius returned home, and built himself a cell on the sea-shore, where he spent his time in prayer, reading and writing, and in making mats and umbrellas of palm leaves.

At this time the Vandal heretic, King Thrasimund, having forbidden the consecration of Catholic bishops, many sees were destitute of pastors, and the faithful were reduced to great distress. Faustus, the bishop, had ordained Fulgentius priest, on his return to Byzacene, and now, many places demanded him as their bishop. Fulgentius, fearing this responsibility, hid himself; but in a time of such trial and difficulty the Lord had need of him, and He called him to shepherd His flock in a marvellous manner. There was a city named Ruspe, then destitute of a bishop, for an influential deacon therein, named Felix, whose brother was a friend of the procurator, desired the office for himself. But the people, disapproving his ambition, made choice unanimously of Fulgentius, of whom they knew only by report; and upon the primate Victor, bishop of Carthage, giving his consent that the neighbouring bishops should consecrate him, several people of Ruspe betook themselves to the cell of Fulgentius, and by force compelled him to consent to be ordained. Thus, he might say, in the words of the prophet, “A people whom I have not known shall serve me.”

The deacon, Felix, taking advantage of the illegality of the proceeding, determined to oppose the entrance of Saint Fulgentius by force, and occupied the road by which he presumed the bishop would enter Ruspe. By some means the people went out to meet him another way, and brought him into the Cathedral, where he was installed, whilst the deacon, Felix, was still awaiting his arrival in the road. Then he celebrated the Divine Mysteries, with great solemnity, and communicated all the people. And when Felix, the deacon, heard this, he was abashed, and refrained from further opposition. Fulgentius received him with great sweetness and charity, and afterwards ordained him priest.

As bishop, Saint Fulgentius lived like a monk; he fed on the coarsest food, and dressed himself in the plainest garb, not wearing the orarium, which it was customary for bishops to put upon them. He would not wear a cloak (casula) of gay colour, but one very plain, and beneath it a blackish, or milk-coloured habit (pallium), girded about him. Whatever might be the weather, in the monastery he wore this habit alone, and when he slept, he never loosed his girdle. “In the tunic in which he slept, in that did he sacrifice; he may be said, in time of sacrifice, to have changed his heart rather than his habit.”

His great love for a recluse life induced him to build a monastery near his house at Ruspe, which he designed to place under the direction of his old friend, the Abbot Felix. But before the building could be completed, King Thrasimund ordered the banishment of the Catholic bishops to Sardinia. Accordingly, Saint Fulgentius and other prelates, sixty in all, were carried into exile, and during their banishment they were provided yearly with provisions and money by the liberality of Symmachus, Bishop of Rome. A letter of this Pope to them is still extant, in which he encourages them, and comforts them. Saint Fulgentius, during his retirement, composed several treatises for the confirmation of the faith of the orthodox in Africa. King Thrasimund, desirous of seeing him, sent for him, and appointed him lodgings in Carthage. The king drew up a set of ten objections to the Catholic faith, and required Fulgentius to answer them. The Saint immediately complied with his request, and his answer had such effect, that the king, when he sent him new objections, ordered that the answers should be read to himself alone. He then addressed to Thrasimund a confutation of Arianism, which we have under the title of “Three Books to King Thrasimund.” The prince was pleased with the work, and granted him permission to reside at Carthage; till, upon repeated complaints from the Arian bishops, of the success of his preaching, which threatened, they said, the total conversion of the city to the faith in the Consubstantial, he was sent back to Sardinia, in 520. He was sent on board one stormy night, that he might be taken away without the knowledge of the people, but the wind being contrary, the vessel was driven into port again in the morning, and the news having spread that the bishop was about to be taken from them, the people crowded to say farewell, and he was enabled to go to a church, celebrate, and communicate all the faithful. Being ready to go on board when the wind shifted, he said to a Catholic, whom he saw weeping, “Grieve not, I shall shortly return, and the true faith of Christ will flourish again in this realm, with full liberty to profess it; but divulge not this secret to any.”

The event confirmed the truth of the prediction. Thrasimund died in 523, and was succeeded by Hilderic, who gave orders for the restoration of the orthodox bishops to their sees, and that liberty of worship should be accorded to the Catholics.

The ship which brought back the bishops to Carthage was received with great demonstrations of joy. The pupil of the bishop, and eye-witness of the scene, thus describes it:—”Such was the devotion of the Carthaginian citizens, desiring to see the blessed Fulgentius again, that all the people ardently looked for him whom they had seen wrestle so manfully before them. The multitude, which stood upon the shore, was silent in expectation as the other bishops disembarked before him, seeking with eyes and thoughts only him whom they had familiarly known, and eagerly expecting him from the ship. And when his face appeared, there broke forth a huge clamour, all striving who should first salute him, who should first bow his head to him giving the benediction, who should deserve to touch the tips of his fingers as he walked, who might even catch a glimpse of him, standing afar off. From every tongue resounded the praise of God. Then the people, going before and following after the procession of the blessed confessors, moved to the Church of Saint Agileus. But there was such a throng of people, especially around Fulgentius, whom they especially honoured, that a ring had to be formed about him by the holy precaution of the Christians, to allow him to advance upon his way. Moreover, the Lord, desiring to prove the charity of the faithful, marvellously poured upon them, as they moved, a heavy shower of rain. But the heavy down-pour deterred none of them, but seemed to be the abundant benediction of heaven descending on them, and it so increased their faith, that they spread their cloaks above blessed Fulgentius, and composed of their great love a new sort of tabernacle over him. And the evening approaching, the company of prelates presented themselves before Boniface, the bishop (of Carthage) of pious memory, and all together praised and glorified God. Then the blessed Fulgentius traversed the streets of Carthage, visiting his friends and blessing them; he rejoiced with them that did rejoice, and wept with them that did weep; and so, having satisfied all their wishes, he bade farewell to his brethren, and went forth out of Carthage, finding on all the roads people coming to meet him in the way with lanterns, and candles, and boughs of trees, and great joy, giving praises to the ineffable God, who had wondrously made the blessed Fulgentius well pleasing in the sight of all men. He was received in all the churches as if he were their bishop, and thus the people throughout Byzacene rejoiced as one man over his return.”

Arrived at Ruspe, Saint Fulgentius diligently laboured to correct what was evil, and restore what was fallen down, and strengthen what was feeble in his diocese. The persecution had lasted seventy years, so that many abuses had crept in, and the faith of many was feeble, and ignorance prevailed. He carried out his reformation with such gentleness, that he won, sooner or later, the hearts of the most vicious.

In a council, held at Junque, in 524, a certain bishop, named Quodvultdeus, disputed the precedency with the Bishop of Ruspe, who made no reply, but took the first place accorded him by the council. However, Saint Fulgentius publicly desired, at the convention of another council, that he might be allowed to yield the precedence to Quodvultdeus.

About a year before his death, the bishop retired from all business, to prepare his soul for its exit, to a little island named Circinia. The necessities of his flock recalled him, however, to Ruspe for a little while.

He bore the violent pains of his last illness with great resignation, praying incessantly, “Lord grant me patience now, and afterwards pardon.” He called his clergy about him, and asked them to forgive him if he had shewn too great severity at any time, or had offended them in any way, and then, committing his soul into the hand of God as a merciful Creator, he fell asleep in the evening of January 1st, a.d. 533, in his sixty-fifth year.

Relics, at Bourges, in France, where May 16 is observed as the feast of his translation, in the year 714.

MLA Citation

  • Sabine Baring-Gould. “Saint Fulgentius, Bishop, Confessor”. Lives of the Saints, 1872. CatholicSaints.Info. 5 May 2018. Web. 22 February 2019. <>