Bishop, administrator, preacher, theologian, born at Châlons in Burgundy, 470-71, died at Arles, 27 August 543, according to Malnory. He entered the monastery of Lérins when quite young, but his health giving way the abbot sent him to Arles in order to recuperate. Here he won the affection and esteem of the bishop, Æonus, who had him ordained deacon and priest. On the death of the bishop Caesarius was unanimously chosen his successor (502 or 503). He ruled the See of Arles for forty years with apostolic courage and prudence, and stands out in the history of that unhappy period as the foremost bishop of Gaul. His episcopal city, near the mouth of the Rhone and close to Marseilles, retained yet its ancient importance in the social, commercial, and industrial life of Gaul, and the Mediterranean world generally; as a political centre, moreover, it was subject to all the vicissitudes that in the early decades of the sixth century fell to the lot of Visigoth and Ostrogoth, Burgundian and Frank. Eventually (538) the latter, under King Childebert, obtained full sway in ancient Gaul. During the long conflict, however, Caesarius was more than once the object of barbarian suspicion. Under Alaric II he was accused of a treasonable intention to deliver the city to the Burgundians, and without examination or trial was exiled to Bordeaux. Soon, however, the Visigoth king relented, and left Caesarius free to summon the important Council of Agde (506), while in harmonious co-operation with the Catholic hierarchy and clergy he himself published the famous adaptation of the Roman Law known as the “Breviarium Alarici”, which eventually became the civil code of Gaul. Again in 508, after the siege of Arles, the victorious Ostrogoths suspected Caesarius of having plotted to deliver the city to the besieging Franks and Burgundians, and caused him to be temporarily deported. Finally, in 513, he was compelled to appear at Ravenna before King Theodoric, who was, however, profoundly impressed by Caesarius, exculpated him, and treated the holy bishop with much distinction. The latter profited by the occasion to visit Pope Symmachus at Rome. The pope conferred on him the pallium, said to be the first occasion on which it was granted to any Western bishop. He also granted to the clergy of Arles the use of the dalmatic, peculiar to the Roman clergy, confirmed him as metropolitan, and renewed for him personally (11 June, 514) the dignity of Vicar of Apostolic See in Gaul, more or less regularly held by his predecessors, whereby the Apostolic See obtained in Southern Gaul — still Roman in language, temper, law, and social organization — an intelligent and devoted co-operator who did much to confirm the pontifical authority, not alone in his own province, but also throughout the rest of Gaul. He utilized his office of vicar to convoke the importance series of councils forever connected with his name, presided over by him, and whose decress are, in part or entirely, his own composition. These are five in number: Arles (524), Carpentras (527), Orange (II) and Vaison (529), and Marscilles (533), the latter called to judge a bishop, Contumeliosus of Riez, a self-confessed adulterer, but who managed later to obtain a reprive through Pope Agapetus, on the plea of irregular procedure, the final outcome of the case being unknown. The other councils, whose text may be read in Clark’s translation of Hefele’s “History of the Councils” (Edinburgh, 1876-96), are of primary importance for the future religious and ecclesiastical life of the new barbarian kingdoms of the West. Not a few important provisions were later incorporated into the traditional or written law of the Western Church, e.g. concerning the nature and security of ecclesiastical property, the certainty of support for the parochial clergy, the education of ecclesiastics, simple and frequent preaching of the Word of God, especially in country parishes, etc. Caesarius had already drawn up a famous resume of earlier canonical collections known to historians of canon law as the “Statuta Ecclesiae Antiqua”, by the inadvertence of medieval copyist wrongly attributed to the Fourth Council of Carthage (418), but by Malnory (below, 53-62, 291-93) proved to be the compilation of Caesarius, after the Ballerini brothers had located them in the fifth century, and Maassen had pointed out Arles as the place of compilation. The rich archives of the Church of Arles, long before this a centre of imperial administration in the West and a papal direction, permitted him to put together, on the borderline of the old and the new, this valuable summary, or speculum, of ancient Christian life in the Roman West, in its own way a counterpart of the Apostolic Constitutions and the Apostolic Canons (see CANONS APOSTOLIC) for the Christian Orient. If we add to these councils his own above-mentioned council of Agde, those of Gerone, Saragossa, Valencia and Lérida in Spain (516-524), and these of Epaone (517) and Orléans (538, 541) in Gaul (influenced by Caesarius, Malnory, 115, 117), we have a contemporary documentary portrait of a great Gallo-Roman ecclesiastical legislator and reformer whose Christian code aimed at and obtained two things, a firm but merciful and humane discipline of clergy and people, and stability and decency of ecclesiastical life both clerical and monastic. To a Catholic mind the above-mentioned Second Council of Orange reflects special credit on Caesarius, for in it was condemned the false doctrine concerning grace known as Semipelagianism (g. v.); there is good reason for believing that the council’s decrees (Hefele, ad. an. 529; P.L., XXXIX, 1142-52) represent the work (otherwise lost) “De gratiâ et libero arbitrio” that Gennadius (De vir. ill., c. 86) attributes to Caesarius, and which he says was approved and widely circulated by Felix IV (526-530). It is noteworthy that in the preface to the acts of the council, the Fathers say that they are assembled at the suggestion and by the authority of the Apostolic See, from which they have received certain propositions or decrees (capitula), gathered by the ancient Fathers from the Scriptures concerning the matter in hand; as a matter of fact the decrees of the council are taken almost word for word, says de la Bigne (op. cit., 1145-46), from Saint Augustine. Finally the confirmation of the council’s doctrinal decrees by Boniface II (25 Jan., 531) made them authoritative in the Universal Church.
Caesarius, however, was best known in his own day, and is still best remembered, as a popular preacher, the first great Volksprediger of the Christians whose sermons have come down to us. A certain number of these discourses, forty more or less, deal with Old Testament subjects, and follow the prevalent typology made popular by Saint Augustine; they seek everywhere a mystic sense, but avoid all rhetorical pomp and subtleties, and draw much from the admirable psalm-commentary, “Enarrationes in Psalmos”, of Saint Augustine. Like the moral discourses, “Admonitiones”, they are quite brief (his usual limit was fifteen minutes), clear and simple in language, abounding in images and allusions drawn from the daily life of the townsman or the peasant, the sea, the market, the vineyard, the sheepfold, the soil, and reflecting in a hundred ways the yet vigorous Roman life of Southern Gaul, where Greek was still spoken in Arles and Asiatic merchants still haunted the delta of the Rhone. The sermon of Caesarius opens usually with an easy and familiar introduction, offers a few plain truths set forth in an agreeable and practical way, and closes with a recapitulation. Most of the sermons deal with the principles of Christian morality, the Divine sanctions: hell and purgatory (for the latter see Malnory, 185-86), the various classes of sinners, and the principal vices of his day and surroundings: public vice, adultery and concubinage, drunkenness, neglect of Mass, love of (landed) wealth, the numerous survivals of a paganism that was only newly overcome. In them the popular life of the Provincia is reproduced, often with photographic accuracy, and frequently with naive good-nature. These sermons are a valuable thesaurus for historical students, whether of canon law, history of dogma, discipline, or liturgy.
Many of these sermons were frequently copied in with works of Saint Augustine, whose text, as stated, they often reproduced. The editio princeps is that of Gilbertus Cognatus Nozarenus (Basle, 1558), and includes forty sermons, of which, according to Arnold (see below, 492), only about twenty-four were surely genuine. The great Maurists, Constant and Blancpain, made clear his title to 103, which they printed in the appendix to the fifth volume of the Benedictine edition of Saint Augustine (P.L., LXVII, 1041-90, 1121-25). Casimir Oudin, the ex-Premonstratensian and familiar in his Catholic period with the aforesaid Maurists, intended (1722) to bring out a special edition of the sermons and the writings of Caesarius, the former of which he calculated as one hundred and fifty-eight in number. The Benedictine editors of the “Histoire Littéraire de la France” (III, 200-217) put down as surely genuine one hundred and twenty-two or one hundred and twenty-three. Joseph Fessler, Bishop of Saint Pölten, had planned an addition of Saint Caesarius, but death (1872) surprised him, and his materials passed to the Benedictines of Maredsous in Belgium, who have confided this very important task to Dom Germain Morin. In the “Revue Bénédictine” (Feb., 1893) he made known the principles and the method of his new edition. Several other essays from the same pen and in the same place represent the choicest modern learning on the subject.
In the history of monastic life and reforms in Gaul, Caesarius occupies an honourable place between Saint Martin of Tours and Saint Honoratus of Lérins on the one hand, and Saint Columbanus on the other, while he is a contemporary of Saint Benedict, and in fact survived him but a few months. He composed two rules, one for men (“Ad Monachos”), the other for women (“Ad Virgines”), both in Migne, P.L., LXVII, 1099 sqq., 1103 sqq., reprinted from Holstein-Brockie, “Codex regularum monasticarum” (Augsburg, 1759). The rule for monks is based on that of Lérins, as handed down by oral tradition, but adds the important element of stability of profession (ut usque ad mortem suam ibi perseveret, c. i), a legal renunciation of one’s property, and a more perfect community of goods. This rule soon gave way to the Rule of Columbanus, and with the latter, eventually to the Rule of Saint Benedict. The rule for nuns, however, had a different fate. “It was the work of his whole life”, says Malnory (257) and into it he poured all his prudence, tenderness, experience, and foresight. It borrows much from the famous Epistle ccxi of Saint Augustine and from John Cassian; nevertheless it was the first rule drawn up for women living in perfect community, and has remained the model of all such. Even today, says Malnory (263), “it unites all the conditions requisite for a cloistered nunnery of strict observance”. His own sister, Saint Caesaria, was placed at the head of the monastery (first built in the famous Aliscamps, outside the walls of Arles, afterwards removed within the city), which at the death of the holy founder counted two hundred nuns. It astonished his contemporaries, who looked upon it as an ark of salvation for women in those stormy times, and drew from Pope Hormisdas a cry of admiration, preserved for us in the letter by which, at the request of Caesarius, he approved and confirmed this new work (super clericorum et monasteriorum excubias consuetas puellarum quoque Dei choros noviter instituisse te, P.L., LXVII, 1285).
The pope also confirmed the full exemption of the abbess and her nuns from all episcopal authority; future bishops could only visit them occasionally, in the exercise of their pastoral duties, or in case of grave violation of the rule. Elections, constitution, internal administration, even the choice of the Mass-priest, were confided exclusively to the community in keeping with the rule that Caesarius did not cease to perfect at all times; in the “Recapitulatio” which he finally added (and in his Testament) he insists again on the quasi-complete exemption of the monastery, as though this freedom from all external control or interference seemed to him indispensable. The nuns on entering made a solemn promise to remain until death; moreover, at his request, Pope Symmachus invalidated the marriage of any professional nun (Malnory, 264). The convent furniture was of the simplest and no paintings were allowed (a provision afterwards distorted in favour of Iconoclasm). Spinning of wool, the manufacture of their own garments, the care of the monastery, were their chief occupations, apart from prayer and meditation. It is to be noted, however, that the bishop provided for the copying of the Scriptures (inter psalmos et jejunia, vigilias quoque ac lectiones libros divinos pulchre scriptitent virgines Christi) under the direction of Caesaria. In the course of the sixth century the rule of the nuns was elsewhere in Gaul adapted to monasteries of men, while numerous monasteries of women adopted it outright, e.g. the famous Abbey of the Holy Cross at Poitiers founded by Saint Radegundis. Its extension was also favoured by the fact that not a few of his disciples became bishops and abbots, and as such naturally introduced the ideal of religious life created by their venerated master. When his end drew near, he made his will (Testamentum), with all the formalism of Roman law, in favour of his beloved nuns (P.L., LXVII, 1139-40; Baronius, Ann. Eccl., ad an. 308, no. 25), commending them and their rule to the affection of his successor, and leaving to his sister Caesaria, as a special memento, a large cloak she had made for him (mantum majorem quem de cannabe fecit). The genuinity of this curious and valuable document has been called in question, but without sufficient reason. It is accepted by Malnory, and has been re-edited by Dom Morin (Revue Bénédictine, 1896, XVI, 433-43, 486). Caesarius was a perfect monk in the episcopal chair, and as such his contemporaries revered him (ordine et officio clericus; humilitate, charitate, obedientia, cruce monachus permanet–Vita Caesarii, I, 5). He was a pious and a peaceful shepherd amid barbarism and war, generous and charitable to a fault, yet a great benefactor of his Church, mindful of the helpless, tactful in dealing with the powerful and rich, in all his life a model of Catholic speech and action.
We may add that he was the first to introduce in his cathedral the Hours of Terce, Sext, and None; he also enriched with hymns the psalmody of every Hour.
- Thomas Shahan. “Saint Caesarius of Arles”. . CatholicSaints.Info. 11 August 2016. Web. 20 February 2017. <>