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Hilary of Poitiers

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Saint Hilary
The Ordination of Saint Hilary. From a 14th century manuscript.
"Malleus Arianorum" and the "Athanasius of the West;" Bishop, Confessor and Doctor of the Church
Born c. 300 AD, Pictavium, Gaul (modern-day Poitiers, France)
Died c. 368, Poitiers
Venerated in Roman Catholic Church
Eastern Orthodox Churches
Anglican Communion
Lutheran Church
Oriental Orthodoxy
Canonized Pre-Congregation
Feast January 13
January 14 (in some local calendars and among Traditional Roman Catholics)

Hilary of Poitiers (c. 300 – c. 368[1]) was Bishop of Poitiers and is a Doctor of the Church. He was sometimes referred to as the "Hammer of the Arians" (Latin: Malleus Arianorum) and the "Athanasius of the West." His name comes from the Greek word for happy or cheerful. His optional memorial in the Roman Catholic calendar of saints is 13 January. In the past, when this date was occupied by the Octave Day of the Epiphany, his feast day was moved to 14 January.[2]

Early life

Hilary was born at Poitiers about the end of the 3rd century A.D. His parents were pagans of distinction. He received a good education, including what had even then become somewhat rare in the West, some knowledge of Greek. He studied, later on, the Old and New Testament writings, with the result that he abandoned his Neo-Platonism for the Roman Catholic Church, and with his wife and his daughter (traditionally named as Saint Abra) received the sacrament of baptism.

So great was the respect in which he was held by the citizens of Poitiers that about 353, although still a married man, he was unanimously elected bishop (clerical celibacy was not required by the church until the late Middle Ages). At that time Arianism was threatening to overrun the Western Church; to repel the disruption was the great task which Hilary undertook. One of his first steps was to secure the excommunication, by those of the Gallican hierarchy who still remained orthodox, of Saturninus, the Arian Bishop of Arles and of Ursacius and Valens, two of his prominent supporters.

About the same time, he wrote to Emperor Constantius II a remonstrance against the persecutions by which the Arians had sought to crush their opponents (Ad Constantium Augustum liber primus, of which the most probable date is 355). His efforts were not at first successful, for at the synod of Biterrae (Béziers), summoned in 356 by Constantius with the professed purpose of settling the longstanding disputes, Hilary was, by an imperial rescript, banished with Rhodanus of Toulouse to Phrygia, where he spent nearly four years in exile.

Theological work

Thence, however, he continued to govern his diocese; while he found leisure for the preparation of two of the most important of his contributions to dogmatic and polemical theology: the De synodis or De fide Orientalium, an epistle addressed in 358 to the Semi-Arian bishops in Gaul, Germany and Britain, expounding the true views (sometimes veiled in ambiguous words) of the Eastern bishops on the Nicene controversy; and the De trinitate libri XII, composed in 359 and 360, in which, for the first time, a successful attempt was made to express in Latin the theological subtleties elaborated in the original Greek. The former of these works was not entirely approved by some members of his own party, who thought he had shown too great a forbearance towards the Arians; he replied to their criticisms in the Apologetica ad reprehensores libri de synodis responsa.

His urgent and repeated request for a public discussion with his opponents, especially with Ursacius and Valens, proved at last so inconvenient that he was sent back to his diocese, which he appears to have reached about 361, within a very short time of the accession of Emperor Julian.

Expulsion from Milan

He was occupied for two or three years in combating Arianism within his diocese; but in 364, extending his efforts once more beyond Gaul, he impeached Auxentius, bishop of Milan, and a man high in the imperial favour, as heterodox. Summoned to appear before Emperor Valentinian I at Milan and there maintain his charges, Hilary was mortified to hear the supposed heretic give satisfactory answers to all the questions proposed. His denunciation of Auxentius as a hypocrite did not save him from an ignominious expulsion from Milan.

In 365 he published the Contra Arianos vel Auxentium Mediolanensem liber, in connection with the controversy; and also (but perhaps at a somewhat earlier date) the Contra Constantium Augustum liber, in which he pronounced that lately-deceased emperor to have been the Antichrist, a rebel against God, "a tyrant whose sole object had been to make a gift to the devil of that world for which Christ had suffered."

Hilary is sometimes regarded as the first Latin Christian hymnwriter, but none of the compositions assigned to him is indisputable.

The later years of his life were spent in comparative quiet, devoted in part to the preparation of his expositions of the Psalms (Tractatus super Psalmos), for which he was largely indebted to Origen; of his Commentarius in Evangelium Matthaei, an allegorical exegesis of the first Gospel; and of his no longer extant translation of Origen's commentary on Job.

While he thus closely followed the two great Alexandrians, Origen and Athanasius, in exegesis and Christology respectively, his work shows many traces of vigorous independent thought.

Towards the end of his episcopate and with his encouragement Martin, the future bishop of Tours, founded a monastery at Ligugé in his diocese.

He died in 368; no more exact date is trustworthy.

Reputation and veneration

St Hilary holds the highest rank among the Latin writers of his century before St. Ambrose. Designated already by Augustine of Hippo as "the illustrious doctor of the churches"; he, by his works, exerted an increasing influence in later centuries; and by Pope Pius IX he was formally recognized as universae ecclesiae doctor (i.e. Doctor of the Church) at the Synod of Bordeaux in 1851.

Saint Hilary's feast day in the Roman calendar is currently celebrated on January 13. In some local calendars and among Traditional Roman Catholics his feast is still celebrated on January 14. From his previous feast day ofJanuary 14 is derived the name Hilary term.


Recent research has distinguished between Hilary's thought before his period of exile in Phrygia under Constantius and the quality of his later major works. Because Augustine cites part of the commentary on Romans as by "Sanctus Hilarius" it has been ascribed by various critics at different times to almost every known Hilary. A vita of Hilary was written by Venantius Fortunatus c. 550 but is not considered reliable. More trustworthy are the notices in Saint Jerome (De vir. illus. 100), Sulpicius Severus (Chron. ii. 39-45) and in Hilary's own writings.


The cult of Saint Hilary developed in association with that of St. Martin of Tours as a result of Sulpicius Severus' Vita Sancti Martini and spread early to western Britain. The villages of St Hilary in Cornwall and Glamorgan and that of Llanilar in Cardiganshire bear his name.

In France the majority of dedications to Saint Hilary are to be found to the west (and north) of the Massif Central from which areas the cult eventually extended to Canada.

In north-west Italy the church of sant’Ilario at Casale Monferrato was dedicated to him as early as 380 AD.

In the context of English educational and legal institutions Saint Hilary's festival lies at the start of the Hilary Term which begins in January.


  1. Michael Walsh, ed. Butler's Lives of the Saints. (HarperCollins Publishers: New York, 1991), 12.
  2. "Calendarium Romanum" (Libreria Editrice Vaticana 1969), p. 85

External links


br:Hilarius Poatev

ca:Hilari de Poitiers ceb:Hilario sa Poitiers cs:Hilarius z Poitierseo:Hilarosw:Hilari wa Poitiers la:Hilarius Pictaviensis hu:Szent Hilariuspt:Hilário de Poitiers ro:Ilarie de Poitiers ru:Иларий Пиктавийский sc:Ilario de Poitiers sq:Shën Hilariusi sk:Hilarius Pictaviensis sl:Sveti Hilarij iz Poitiersa fi:Hilarius Poitierslainen sv:Hilarius av Poitiers

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