16 Best 5th-Century Authors to Explore Early Philosophy and Poetry

Discover our guide to the best 5th-century authors and follow the course of history, religion, and poetry at a critical turning point.

Take a minute to think of any 5th-century writers you know about, it’s probably tough to come up with an example or even a novel you associated with the era. This was a very early time for writing worldwide, and the preservation of manuscripts was becoming a popular practice.

However, it was also a significant century in many respects. Key forms of poetry were invented in China, foundational religious texts defining eastern and western Christian churches were being written, and philosophy was on the rise. In this list, we’re exploring the time’s top authors and their immense impact on the centuries to come. Important note for medieval fans, our list is strictly about authors who lived in the 5th century CE, not those preserved by monks or oral tradition.

Here Are The Best 5th-Century Authors

1. Macrobius (Rome)

Macrobius
Macrobius via Wikipedia, Public Domain

Macrobius frequently surfaces as a crucial Roman writer of the 5th century, including several essential volumes that have taught us much about the state of Rome and the amount of Greek culture they had imported by this time. As a provincial in the Roman government, much of Macrobius’ life remains a mystery. He appears to have been a foreigner, possibly Greek, who was adopted into the Roman lifestyle.

We know that Macrobius loved to write and used his public office to spread his works, including the Commentarii in Somnium Scipionis, one of the only surviving sources of how Platonism influenced Roman society at the time. He also wrote the collection Saturnalia, which followed discussions (across many current topics) at a fictional dinner. This type of writing contrasts the many religious texts developed in the Western hemisphere at the time.

2. Liu Hsieh (China)

While we don’t have many influential works from the 5th century in China – let alone many with good translations in English – Liu Hsieh stands out as one of the most notable. He grew up in poverty just before the dawn of the Liang dynasty and, when grown, apprenticed under a Buddhist monk to study literature. Eventually, he assumed public office and won some acclaim for his literary criticism and Buddhist influences, eventually leading to a commission by the emperor.

However, Liu Hsieh’s most significant work, The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons went largely unappreciated in his life until it was later spread among the intellectuals of his day and recognized as one of the greatest works of literary criticism available at the time. He attempts to divide literature into different genres based on its purpose and maintains that literature should meet classic Confucian and Taoist standards of simplicity and truth rather than over-ornamentation.

3. Augustine of Hippo (Africa)

Augustine of Hippo
Augustine of Hippo via Wikipedia, Public Domain

One of the most famous Christian writers of the early church, Augustine was well-known as a convert who embraced his new faith with the zeal of a philosopher, combining many concepts of Christian thought into a cohesive structure for the first time. He is famed for his work, the City of God, where he proposes an earthly kingdom to mirror the Kingdom of Heaven, allowing the faith to flourish.

This was considered fundamental to the early growth and choices of the Catholic Church and is one reason he is considered a saint to both Western and Eastern orthodoxies. Augustine also cemented several other early religious ideas, including the concept of grace relating to salvation and the idea that Christians could wage a “just war” during certain circumstances. Consider him required reading for anyone interested in early Christian history.

4. Boethius (Rome)

Boethius
Boethius via Wikipedia, Public Domain

Boethius was a Roman philosopher born into the wealthy, well-connected Anicia family. With the blood of emperors in his veins and a famous father responsible for deposing the last Western Roman emperor of the day, Boethius always had a target on his back among certain groups. Despite his influence, he was eventually thrown in prison and executed by the suspicious King Theodoric the Great, who didn’t want a repeat of the Anicia family’s past exploits to threaten his throne.

However, during his time in prison, Boethius had time to compose his greatest work, the Consolation of Philosophy. It’s no surprise that this book delves into philosophical ways to accept misfortune, death, the circumstances of your birth, and other everyday human struggles. The work was so influential that it remained highly read for centuries, influencing later philosophy, famous poets, and even religious doctrine.

5. St. Patrick (United Kingdom)

St. Patrick
St. Patrick via Wikipedia, Public Domain

St. Patrick is an interesting and mysterious case for this list, but we have included him because he is a well-known historical figure with a story worth telling. Much of his life remains apocryphal or downright mythical, like the tale of him driving all the snakes from Ireland. Only a couple of letters believed to have been written by him have survived. But from what we know, he appears to have been captured by a raiding party in Britain and taken to Ireland when he was 16. After several years of enslavement, he escaped and returned to Britain, eventually joining the church.

After becoming an ordained bishop, Patrick resolved to go back to Ireland. Here his history quickly becomes the stuff of myth and miracles, but it’s undeniable he (or at least his legend) had an enormous impact on Ireland’s development. That includes the celebration of his death on St. Patrick’s Day, but readers should start with The Confession of Saint Patrick, an autobiography with the most interesting – and confirmed – details of his life.

6. Benedict of Nursia (Rome)

Benedict of Nursia
Benedict of Nursia via Wikipedia, Public Domain

Another saint enters the list! Benedict may be familiar to some of you from references to The Rule of Saint Benedict, and for a good reason. Benedict founded numerous communities for monks in his region of Italy and eventually developed unifying principles to guide and restrict them. His work was so famous that European monasteries widely adopted it across the continent in the following centuries.

The Rule is reminiscent of other monastic works from around the world, focusing on the simplicity of living and meditation on the divine nature of things, with a severe, almost military-like tone. However, it also doesn’t deny the fact that people get bored, have to deal with chores they don’t like, and occasionally mess up.

7. Emperor Yūryaku (Japan)

Emperor Yūryaku
Emperor Yūryaku via Wikipedia, Public Domain

We head to Japan for this fascinating encounter, Yūryaku is a notable historical figure and the 21st emperor of Japan, but his tales are primarily legends. We aren’t sure when he reigned, although he is considered a 5th-century monarch. The tales about him are myths involving gods, demons, and monsters – and the man himself is often portrayed as cruel and capricious. 

However, he was also traditionally acclaimed as a poet, and several poems in famed Japanese collections are attributed to him. Readers may want to start with a translation of the Man-yoshu, or Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves, one of the best collections of historical Japanese poetry.

8. Theodoret of Cyrus (Cyrus)

Theodoret of Cyrus
Theodoret of Cyrus via Wikipedia, Public Domain

A theologian and bishop from Cyrus, Theodoret was considered a miracle birth by his wealthy family and was given a full education, both secular and religious. This put him in an excellent position to influence the early church, even more so once he won fame for giving his family’s wealth to the poor upon inheritance.

Theodoret stood in contrast to his saintly peers by focusing on earthly works: Improvements to unfair tax systems, building public roads and bridges and encouraging his community to provide refuge and care for the needy. Such focus also put him in conflict with leaders like Cyril of Alexandria. His most famous works involve a literary (and sometimes literal) battle for the early soul of the church and the Creeds it would adopt.

9. Priscus (Greece)

Priscus
Priscus via Wikipedia, Public Domain

Priscus served as a diplomat but is most known for his work on histories, where he preserved valuable information of the past that would otherwise be unknown to us. Of course, his role as a diplomat to such figures as Attila the Hun and his wide travel experience helped provide him with a valuable perspective.

His History of Byzantium is probably his most famous work and is lauded for being a straightforward account that avoided many of the embellishments other historical texts fell victim to. He is an excellent read for those looking to learn more about the secular and political situation of the time – or for writers who plan on setting a story in a similar era who want to learn more details.

10. Kālidāsa (India)

Kālidāsa’s legend is one that all writers can aspire to. He was so beautiful that a royal princess fell in love with him and allowed him to marry into the family, securing his future for life. However, the story goes that Kālidāsa’s poor upbringing constantly embarrassed him until he prayed to Kali for relief.

According to the story, his gift was a brilliant mind that allowed him to produce great poetry, notably works like the Raghavamsha and the Meghaduta. Kālidāsa is considered a master of the kavya Sanskrit style, a court version of poetry known for its complex structure and interwoven use of metaphor. While lengthy, this style influenced Indian art for centuries and is worth a read for anyone interested in world literature.

11. Tao Yuanming (China)

Tao Yuanming
Tao Yuanming via Wikipedia, Public Domain

This famed poet of the Six Dynasties era was famous for his solitary lifestyle. After serving in public office, he openly retired to live in the countryside and write. Unsurprisingly, his poetic musings focused on the quiet moments, the difficulties we face in life, and the charm that solitude offers.

This was an unusual take in the era, as poetry had become increasingly flowery (something Liu Hsieh had also noticed). But it also won the poet acclaim, which quickly rose in the centuries following his death. Today, the poet is known as one of the best representatives of the Fields and Gardens style.

12. Cyril of Alexandria (Greece)

Cyril of Alexandria
Cyril of Alexandria via Wikipedia, Public Domain

Cyril of Alexandria is a more contentious religious writer than many on our list. Many count him as a father of the early Christian church. However, the emperor declaimed him, and the Nestorian branch of bishops called him a heretic. He is infamous for questionable actions, such as driving all Jewish people out of Alexandria.

Against this background, his works gain another level of interest, as they focus on key theological debates such as the nature of Christ, believed to be both human and divine. Works like On the Unity of Christ explore this issue and will be incredibly fascinating reads for any who follow the Christian faith today.

13. John Cassian (Europe)

John Cassian
John Cassian via Wikipedia, Public Domain

Born in what we would today identify as the Romanian region of Europe, Cassian differed from many of his fellow theologians by being more of a mystic and preaching greater seclusion from the world. He was especially inspired by the asceticism of the Egyptian monasteries and is considered one of the critical writers of the Egyptian monastic approach – which would also help inspire St. Benedict. Cassian is another excellent read for those who wish to learn more about the monastic order, how monks lived, and why they chose to leave the world behind.

14. John Chrysostom (Greece)

John Chrysostom
John Chrysostom via Wikipedia, Public Domain

This early archbishop of Constantinople is regarded as one of the most important founding fathers, especially for the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches, and is recognized as a saint by many eastern churches. Chrysostom, in particular, is worth reading to understand the vast split between the eastern and western churches at this time, which eventually led to two fundamentally different traditions that even now have little regard for one another.

To jump into the most controversial writings, look for his homilies against including Jewish people in Christianity. Those looking for a quieter start may appreciate his work On Wealth and Poverty and his advocacy for the poor, along with his anger about the corruption in the church.

15. Lingyun Xie (China)

Lingyun Xie
Lingyun Xie via Wikipedia, Public Domain

In some ways, Lingyun Xie was similar to some of the other Chinese poets highlighted on this list. He served as an official, was a devoted Buddhist, and wrote notable poetry that later on defined important genres in Chinese literature. However, some things make him a bit more exciting than other picks: Notably, he was famous for his defiance regarding other political and religious factions, which eventually led to his exile – and when that didn’t stop him, his capture and execution.

While poets like Tao Yuanming were known for the Fields and Gardens style, it is perhaps appropriate that Lingyun Xie was a master of the Mountain and Streams style, with powerful, complex poetry that challenged readers with many allusions.

16. Sidonius Apollinaris (Rome)

Considered one of the most important Gaul writers of the 5th century, Sidonius Apollinaris was a bit of a renaissance writer long before the actual renaissance occurred. He dabbled in history, covering a number of emperors (helped by his family connections), theological writing, and poetry. He is even known for his lifestyle writing due to several letters describing his appetites and the day’s conditions.

One of the most famous preserved works from Sidonius refers to a warrior king of the Britons, which lines to the approximate timeline for the first King Arthur legends, and is used by some to argue that a historical “King Arthur” did exist in some fashion. Looking for some more modern reading material? Check out our round-up of the best 21-st century authors!

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  • Tyler has been published on Huffington Post and Motely Fool. His article and blogs experience includes working for The Content Standard, Mad Mobile, Digital Landing, and Apass Education, among many others.