The Works of Ausonius, edited with Introduction and Commentary by R. P. H. Green, Oxford 1991, 193-231.
Ausonius’ Epistulae is a collection of 25 letters to various addressees; these include his father; his son Hesperius; and his friends Axius Paulus, Theon, Tetradius, Ursulus, Symmachus, Probus, and his student Paulinus of Nola. The collection is prosimetrical, but a majority of the letters are in verse: only one, in fact, is completely in prose (Ep. 17, to Symmachus), while others, although in verse, include a prose introduction (Ep. 11, to Axius Paulus; Ep. 16, to Probus).
Since few of the epistles contain internal references that allow us to date them, the question of their chronology is particularly complex. In fact, although it is occasionally possible to fix a letter’s date with relative certainty (e.g. Ep. 1, written upon his son’s birth in 335 AD), more often one finds vague temporal references that only allow us to postulate a probable timeframe for composition. This is the case, for example, in the letters where Ausonius claims to have abandoned the oratorical and rhetorical activity and the thankless duty of teaching: it is possible to attribute them broadly to the period 380-383 AD, when his importance in the court had diminished and he spent increasing amounts of time in retirement on his country estates. Especially vexed is the dating of his exchange with Paulinus of Nola, which consists of seven epistles that can be divided into two clear groups: the first, comprising Ep. 19-21, dates to the period before Paulinus had embraced spiritual life, while the second, comprising Ep. 22-25, offers few bases for establishing their relative chronology.
Despite their multiplicity of addressees and themes, the letters of Ausonius find no parallel in the great collections of antiquity: they consist primarily of epistles to friends, are often written in an encomiastic tone, and not infrequently contain invitations or solicitations to compose poetry. Furthermore, some display a full, bombastic style that may have their origin in exercises meant to show off the author’s virtuosity and flaunt his learning. The letters nevertheless represent a valuable document for reconstructing Gallo-Roman social life of the 4th c. AD, as details from this sphere are very often revealed to us in Ausonius’ lively portraits of daily life. Even at their most intimate — e.g. in describing the birth of Ausonius’ son, the pleasure of reading, the serenity of otium in the country, the bitterness of being relegated to the margins of political life — the epistles regularly connect their themes to the contemporary cultural climate. A prime example of this tendency can be seen when Ausonius (despite himself presenting as a Christian, at least formally) expresses scarce approval at Paulinus’ decision to abandon a traditional political career in favor of an ascetic spirituality. [A. Borgna; tr. C. L. Caterine].