In 384 the Roman Senator and Prefect of the City of Rome, Quintus Aurelius Symmachus represented the Senate of Rome when it requested that the Altar of Victory be returned to the Senate House and state support for Pagan temples and ritual be restored. The Altar had originally been removed by Constantius in 357, restored by Julian, then removed again by Gratian in 382, along with funding for the temples and state cults. In 382 Symmachus represented the Senate in requesting that the Altar be restored and was not even granted an audience. Following Gratian’s death, the Senate tried again and again they chose Symmachus to represent them. Symmachus wrote an eloquent letter or relatione to Valentinian II, generally considered an outstanding example of Latin literature, asking for religious tolerance and requesting that the Altar and subsidies be restored. 1
Winged Victory statue found at Ephesus (from Wikipedia Commons)
To a large extent (not entirely, see below), this characterization of Symmachus originated with Ambrose and was picked up by Prudentius. Ambrose seems to have been eager to paint himself as the person who went toe-to-toe with Symmachus to defend Christianity from attack. This conflict did not happen in this way and Ambrose’s counter to Symmachus’ letter in favor of restoring the Altar of Victory in the Senate and public support of state cults happened after the Senate request had been denied. 3
Prudentius, apparently writing shortly after Symmachus’ death around 403, wrote his Contra Orationem Symmachi or Reply to the Address of Symmachus in two books. In it Symmachus is described as an enemy attacking Christianity. 4 He is called a “silly pagan” and a “cunning workman” who possesses “the power of deception.” He “dares, alas! to attack our faith.” His voice is polluted with sin and speaks of “unclean monstrosities.” I could go on. 5
On closer examination, the characterization of Symmachus as an enemy or even an opponent of Christianity seems unjustified. While he does criticize some actions taken in the name of Christianity, in particular the plundering of pagan temples, he never, in what I have read, criticizes Christianity itself. While most of this characterization appears to have developed posthumously (even Ambrose’s letter was published later as part of a collection) he did have to defend himself from one accusation. Praetextatus(Prefect of Italy, Africa and Illyricum) obtained an Imperial order from Emperor Valentinian II permitting Symmachus, as Prefect of Rome, to investigate the spoliation of pagan temples and bring those responsible to justice. Symmachus was accused by an unnamed individual (Symmachus doesn’t name him but implies he is someone close to the Emperor) of imprisoning and torturing Christians during this investigation. Valentinian II wrote a public letter telling Symmachus to stop and free everyone. In response Symmachus wrote a passionate relatione explaining that he hadn’t even started his inquiry and that even Pope Damasus had written that no Christians had received any insulting treatment. If such malicious rumours against him persist then he asks (I’m sure this is rhetorical) that he be tried for his crimes. However serious this accusation may have been at the time, it can’t have stuck with him for too long as he was named Consul for 391. 6
Based on his writings and what is known of his actions, Symmachus does not appear to consider himself opposed to Christianity, however the more aggressive Christians chose to portray him this way. In fact, as Prefect of Rome Symmachus was partially responsible for the construction of a Christian church, what is today known as the S. Paolo fuori le mure. 7 He was also a friend of Christians such as Ausonius, writes letters of recommendation for Christians and asks his brother to help a Caesarian bishop whose city was unable to pay its taxes after the fisc was seized by a rebel. 8 Even Ambrose never attacks Symmachus personally, just his request, and the two exchange several letters following the Altar of Victory incident, not as friends but as a powerful bishop and powerful senator who respectfully conduct business with one another.
A closer examination of Relatione 3 (the one which Ambrose and Prudentius wrote against) shows that his argument is not so much against Christianity as in favor of tradition. The Gods of Rome have always protected her, how can they be ignored now? Disaster will result if the protectors are spurned. Already a famine has occurred, the likes of which Rome has never seen, where people are reduced to eating twigs and acorns.
In contrast to attacking Christianity, Symmachus frequently asserts that Christians (and the Emperor) should be allowed to worship as they see fit. “Of course, we can list Emperors of either faith and either conviction: the earlier Emperors venerated our ancestral religious rites, the later did not abolish them.” 9 “Everyone has his own customs, his own religious practices; the divine mind has assigned to different cities different religions to be their guardians.” 10 “Allow them [the Gods] to defend you, us to worship them.” 11
Within this, a very important passage deserves mention, as this has become one of the defining phrases of Symmachus: 12
It is reasonable that whatever each of us worships is really to be considered one and the same. We gaze up at the same stars, the sky covers us all, the same universe encompasses us. What does it matter what practical system we adopt in our search for truth? Not by one avenue only can we arrive at so tremendous a secret.
Symmachus does not come across, in this and his other writings, as particularly closed-minded about religion. He seems to believe (or at least he has adjusted to the reality of the new, growing religion) that people should be free to worship as Christians. However he does want the traditional support for state cults to continue. In his writings, this is to safeguard the Empire, and I have no reason to think he didn’t believe this. I’m sure various other factors play into this such as his role as a Priest, the importance of the cults being linked to his importance as an individual, and his sense of self. However he does not seem to be an opponent or enemy of Christianity, or even a rabid supporter of paganism, as he has sometimes been portrayed. From his writings, Symmachus seems more than anything to be a traditionalist. At times, this love for tradition is displayed in unexpected ways.
Shortly following the death of Vettius Agorus Praetextatus in 384 the Vestal Virgins proposed to erect a statue in his honor. Praetextatus was one of Symmachus’ closest friends and a staunch political ally. Symmachus offers his death as one of the main reasons why he asks Valentinian permission to resign as Prefect of Rome. Even so, he opposes the proposed statue. Symmachus writes to Nichomachus Flavianus stating that while Praetextatus is worthy of this honor, this has never been done before and may establish a dangerous precedent. 13 When the Emperor sent an ornate carriage for the Urban Prefect to ride in, Symmachus declines, both as he feels such opulence is inappropriate and in favor of tradition. 14
Ultimately, Symmachus’ passion for Roman tradition translates itself in Relatione 3 as passion for the state cults. I think it’s useless to try to separate the Roman religion from tradition. To Symmachus, the two will likely have been so intertwined as to be one. To him, supporting the state cults was part of what it meant to be Roman. Other religions had always existed and so he shows no opposition to Christianity, however the state must continue to revere the Gods. It was necessary for the continued health of the Empire and it was what had always been done. As an ardent traditionalist, he became an ardent supporter of the cults. 15
NOTE: I’ve used Barrow(1973) for my references to Symmachus’ relationes however an English translation of Relatione 3, about the Altar of Victory, is also available and for much less money in Liebeschuetz and Hill(2010).
Abbreviations used in Notes:
CS – Contra Symmachus
Rel – Symmachus’ Relationes
1 Relationes were official dispatches sent by Roman adminstrators to the Emperor. Some of these were simply to keep the Emperor up on what was going on but others were to ask for judicial review or to send greetings from the Senate (The praefectus urbi had a substantial judicial role and was also the titular head of the Senate). In judicial cases, Relationes accompanied the evidence and served to explain the situation more fully.
2 You can find the same language on several online sources (likely some have borrowed from each other) such as Brittannica.com. It is also present at an exhibit at the British Museum.
12 Symmachus, Rel 3.10. Kahlos(2002) pp 109-110 proposes that Symmachus was influenced by Themistius as you can find a similar message in Themistius Or. 5.68d-69a., addressed to Jovian in 364, “… while there exists only one judge, mighty and true, there is no one road leading to him …” and, “If you allow only one path, closing off the rest, you will fence off the broad field of competition.”
Barrow, Reginald Haynes, ed., Prefect and Emperor: The Relationes of Symmachus, A.D. 384. Oxford: Oxford University Press (1973). ISBN: 978-0-19814-443-4.
Heather, Peter and Moncur, David, trans. & ed., Politics, Philosophy, and Empire in the Fourth Century: Select Orations of Themistius. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (2001). ISBN: 978-0-85323-106-0.
Kahlos, Maijastina, Vettius Agorius Praetextatus: A Senatorial Life in Between. Acta Instituti Finlandiae Vol. 26. Rome: Institutum Romanum Finlandiae (2002). ISBN: 952-5323-05-6.
Liebeschuetz, J.H.W.G. and Hill, Carole, trans. & ed., Ambrose of Milan: Political Letters and Speeches. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press (2010). ISBN: 978-1-84631-243-4.
McLynn, Neil B., Ambrose of Milan: Church and Court in a Christian Capital. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press (1994). ISBN: 978-0-52008-461-6.
Salzman, Michele Renee and Roberts, Michael, The Letters of Symmachus: Book 1. Atlanta, Georgia: Society of Biblical Literature (2011). ISBN: 9-781589-835979.
Sogno, Cristiana, Q. Aurelius Symmachus: A Political Biography. Ann Arbor, Michigan: The University of Michigan Press (2006). ISBN: 978-0-472-11529-7.
Thomson, H.J., trans. & ed., Prudentius: Volume I. Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library (2006). ISBN: 978-0-674-99426-3.
Thomson, H.J., trans. & ed., Prudentius: Volume II. Cambridge, MA: Loeb Classical Library (2006). ISBN: 978-0-674-99438-4.