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Posted September 3, 2016 by

Letters – Symmachus – 360 A.D~

Reviewed by: Michael Sympson          Date: 1 September 2002

Symmachus (c. 340-c. 405)

lettres si

When faced with indictments against Christians in his province, Pliny the Younger (61-113), during his tenure as Governor had three questions for the Emperor Trajan: first, whether in punishing Christians he should make exceptions for those not of an age to be completely responsible for their actions; second, whether he should make allowance for those who repented their Christian past and abandoned the new creed; and third, whether it was the very name of ‘Christian’ that was to be punished or whether he was to examine for crimes committed as a result of adherence to that faith. Trajan’s response was simple: avoid witch-hunts and punish only those who refused to make their abhorrence of Christianity public by sacrificing to ‘our gods.’ Beyond all legalism, Trajan was obviously answering to the underlying concern which had troubled Pliny in the first place. What Pliny could not stand about these people, in fact, was their pigheadedness: “Neque enim dubitabam, qualecumque esset quod faterentur, pertinaciam certe et inflexibilem obstinationem debere puniri.”

The panoply of religious experience in the Roman world before Constantine was simply bewildering: back-yard fertility rites vied with state- supported cults, Platonic philosophers devoted their entire life and work to explore the countless stations on the ascend to the inner sanctuary of the universe, public cults indigenous to the various parts of the empire looked back on traditions of centuries and millennia. The divinity of the emperors was still an official doctrine to forge political consent; there was a vast array of private enthusiasms. That such a spectrum of religious experiences should produce a single-minded population capable of forming itself into a single pagan movement with which Christianity could struggle is simply not probable. But it was convenient for the Christians to believe that this was the case. By the late fourth century Christian writers introduced the term “paganus” in an act of Christian idiosyncrasy to lump all non-Christians into one mass. We need not assume that the success of the term represents any essential feature of the various cults and creeds themselves.

In less than one generation a once prosecuted minority had become the persecutors of literally the rest of the human race if it refused baptism, though the habit had been there from the very beginning. Before Constantine’s edict of toleration in 314, Christian sects had already squabbled and frequently came to blows over heresies, even committed manslaughter; now they harassed the infidels and killed heretics with impunity. The state was on their side. Yet paganism did not die from a single stroke. Christianity in its various forms had started as an affair for traders and artisans, the nearest thing to a middle-class in Roman times, who in the beginning still had hesitated to acknowledge their own slaves as brothers. In fact Christian administrations resisted the eventual abolition of slavery when pagan legislators pushed the issue on humanitarian grounds. But discipline and zeal soon attracted even high ranking officials to the new faith. Only aristocrats and peasants proved to be a more difficult target – in a sense, they still are. A true aristocrat occupies himself with breeding and bloodlines and like a peasant, he needs to be rooted in the land; Christian morals offer him little. And for the peasant there is too much at stake, to risk the next harvest for giving preference to just one God and offending all the others.

Quintus Aurelius Symmachus (c. 340/345 – c. 402/405)

Quintus was of the 3rd generation of hereditary peers born into dynastic wealth of senatorial standing: his birth decided his station in life as a senator and orator. The Roman Senate was the hub of Roman society, a club of dynasts which were required by law to own a certain minimum of capital or landed property to maintain their membership. Senators of the period had to contribute to the imperial coffers four pounds of gold bullion annually, apart from the usual taxation. They could afford it. One of the wealthiest senators ever was the philanthropist Herodes Atticus (101 – 177 AD.). He had sponsored immense building projects everywhere in Greece and saved the Olympic Games from slow decline. Another Herod, almost as rich, Herod Agrippa I. (10 BC. – 44 AD.) had a second job as King of Judea and Galilee – from 41 to 44 AD. He was the emperor’s spokesman in the House. Such honors came for a price: Symmachus, found himself in a situation, where at enormous costs he was practically forced to entertain from his own pocket the Roman public with circus games (Ep. IV:8; V:62). He writes of hired artisans from Sicily, of imported rare animals – Dalmatian bears, lions from Libya, dogs from Scotland, even crocodiles – and of recruiting gladiators, “worse than the band of Spartacus,” but as popular as modern rock stars (Ep. II:46; 76; 77; IV:12; 33; 42; 63; 8; 58; 59; 60; 62; V:56; 82; VI:42; 43; VII:59; 100; 121;122; IX:20; 24; 125; X:10; 13; 15; 19; 20; 26; 28; 29).

More useful and within his duties was the maintenance and construction of aqueducts, roads, and temples. In 384 Symmachus served the empire as proconsul in Africa where he recommended a promising young man for an opening as teacher of rhetoric in Milan. The young man was later known as St. Augustine and would recommend forced conversions – cogite intrare – and find a theological angle to provide the theoretical ground for war and persecutions, all strictly based on a Manichaean interpretation of the New Testament, which is not so far off from the original intent in a collection of basically Gnostic documents. In the same year, Symmachus became appointed prefect of Rome and this caused a conflict with another Saint, Ambrose of Milan, a melancholy but aloof church politician, whose policy, under a mantle of unbending politeness, relied on acts of violence, calculated to look like caprices. He became a player of more significance for the course of history, than Jesus Christ himself. A few years earlier Constantine’s bigot son had ordered the removal of the statue of Victory from the senate house. Symmachus pleaded for the return of the statue. He said:

“… In the exercise, therefore, of a twofold office, as your Prefect I attend to public business, and as delegate I recommend to your notice the charge laid on me by the citizens. Here is no disagreement of wills, but it is our task to watch on behalf of your Graces. For to what is it more suitable that we defend the institutions of our ancestors, and the rights and destiny of our country? We demand then the restoration of that condition of religious affairs which was so long advantageous to the state. Who is so friendly with the barbarians as not to require an Altar of Victory? We will be careful henceforth, and avoid a show of such things. But at least let that honor be paid to the name which is refused to the goddess – your fame, which will last for ever, owes much and will owe still more to victory. … Do you refuse to desert a patronage which is friendly to your triumphs? For a power that is wished for by all, let no one deny the liberty also to venerate what he acknowledges to be desired. Allow us, we beseech you, as old men to leave to posterity what we received as boys.

Where shall we swear to obey your laws and commands? By what religious sanction shall the false mind be terrified, so as not to lie in bearing witness? All things are indeed filled with God, and no place is safe for the perjured, but to be urged in the very presence of religious forms has great power in producing a fear of sinning. That altar preserves the concord of all, that altar appeals to the good faith of each, and nothing gives more authority to our decrees than that the whole of our order issues every decree as it were under the sanction of an oath. … We ask, then, for peace for the gods of our fathers and of our country. It is just that all worship should be considered as one. We look on the same stars, the sky is common, the same world surrounds us. What difference does it make by what pains each seeks the truth? We cannot attain to so great a secret by one road alone. …

 With what advantage to your treasury are the prerogatives of the Vestal Virgins diminished? Is that refused under the most bountiful emperors which the most parsimonious have granted? Their sole honor consists in that, so to call it, wage of chastity. As fillets are the ornament of their heads, so is their distinction drawn from their leisure to attend to the offices of sacrifice. They seek for in a measure the empty name of immunity, since by their poverty they are exempt from payment. And so they who diminish anything of their substance increase their praise, inasmuch as virginity dedicated to the public good increases in merit when it is without reward. … The treasury retains lands bequeathed to virgins and ministers by the will of dying persons. I entreat you, priests of justice, let the lost right of succession be restored to the sacred persons and places of your city.

Let men dictate their wills without anxiety, and know that what has been written will be undisturbed under princes who are not avaricious. Let the happiness in this point of all men give pleasure to you, for precedents in this matter have begun to trouble the dying. Does not then the religion of Rome appertain to Roman law? What name shall be given to the taking away of property which no law nor accident has made to fail. Freedmen take legacies, slaves are not denied the just privilege of making wills; only noble virgins and the ministers of sacred rites are excluded from property sought by inheritance. What does it profit the public safety to dedicate the body to chastity, and to support the duration of the empire with heavenly guardianship, to attach the friendly powers to your arms and to your eagles, to take upon oneself vows efficacious for all, and not to have common rights with all? …

And let no one think that I am defending the cause of religion only. For from deeds of this kind have arisen all the misfortunes of the Roman race. The law of our ancestors honored the Vestal Virgins and the ministers of the gods with a moderate maintenance and just privileges. This grant remained unassailed till the time of the degenerate money-changers, who turned the fund for the support of sacred chastity into hire for common porters. A general famine followed upon this, and a poor harvest disappointed the hopes of all the provinces. This was not the fault of the earth, we impute no evil influence to the stars. Mildew did not injure the crops, nor wild oats destroy the corn; the year failed through the sacrilege, for it was necessary that what was refused to religion should be denied to all. …

 But some one will say that public support is only refused to the cost of foreign religions.  Far be it from good princes to suppose that what has been given to certain persons from the common property can be in the power of the treasury. For as the State consists of individuals, that which goes out from it becomes again the property of individuals. You rule over all; but you preserve his own for each individual; and justice has more weight with you than arbitrary will. … May the unseen guardians of all sects be favorable to your Graces, and may they especially, who in old time assisted your ancestors, defend you and be worshipped by us. We ask for that state of religious matters which preserved the empire for the divine parent of your Highnesses.”

Before the imperial court made a decision, it consulted St. Ambrose of Milan. He counseled to reject Symmachus’ proposal. And so it was. But in 387, when Magnus Maximus became emperor, Symmachus delivered the coronation address as speaker of the House and this time his plead succeeded. For a brief period of time, statue and privileges were restored. In 391 Symmachus became consul of Rome. His son, himself a senator who eventually yielded to pressure and converted to Christianity, collected and published his father’s correspondence in ten volumes.

Symmachus knew that his culture, which is the customary way people do things and think, was coming to an end, but he made a decision not to side with the victorious and became a pagan apologist. Christian posses, often led by their bishops, took the opportunity to legally vandalize pagan monuments, overturn and disfigure statues, pillage temples, and clear public libraries of blacklisted books, which often meant, all the books. And if in the confusion a synagog went up in flames, this was quite alright. Everywhere in the empire the oracles ceased to prophesy, temples fell in abandon, the boards of religious functionaries and priests found it increasingly difficult to recruit replacements; even the Olympic Games came under scrutiny and eventually closed down by imperial edict. To stem the tide, Symmachus and his colleagues accumulated in one person various religious offices from all over the empire. Members of the pagan elite simultaneously sought initiation in as many mystery cults as possible, even on proxy for another person, and not just in Eleusis.

According to Pausanias, every square-foot of Greek soil had once been home to some or other epiphany of the numinous, but this religious cottage industry had fallen in disrepair. The time would come when the corybants in their sudden madness would no longer lift snakes to the sky and with shining teeth tear the raw meat from a goat’s shank. It became more difficult to find initiates willing to undergo an expensive ceremony of rebirth and step into a basin underneath the altar to have the sacrificial gore of a slaughtered steer and a ram drench their hair and garb. And as if this wasn’t enough, one had to wear for ever the bloody garb in public, and even to refrain from bathing. Women still wept for Attys and Tammuz and celebrated their resurrection, but worshippers who gathered for the orgies of the Great Mother found themselves more and more disappointed in their lewd expectations. “Gnosis” – knowledge – alone would not guarantee salvation, the minutes of ritual became all important.

 Pagans as much as Christians had developed a perspective of the afterlife that outshone the surrounding misery. On both sides a whole hierarchy of demons and angels assisted the soul’s ascendancy to the divine spirit. Sorcery and divination of familiar spirits became common practice for pagans and Christians alike. On the height of ecstasy the athletes of mysticism from both camps claimed to perceive “a solitary light suddenly revealing itself – not as a reflection from some object, but pure and self-contained.” The similarity was more than superficial, but the Christian’s call for domination was absolute. We know from Ep. I:29; II:39 , that Symmachus used his position to protect a number of otherwise unknown philosophers from harassment by Christian authorities. So the better educated among the gentes turned their remaining energies to studying: in a time when the monotheist religions waved their holy books in the face of the infidel, Symmachus and like-minded scholars set out to publish definite editions of their own canon of classics.

Which meant, that the best gift for a friend, Symmachus could think of, was a corrected copy of Livy (Ep. IX:13). But it was Virgil, who almost had become an object of worship. Symmachus never tired to extend on the commentaries, or learn by rote entire passages, and even noted the Aeneid’s use for sortilegia – book oracles – (Ep. III:11; 13; IV:34). Symmachus’ own medium of expression was the letter, he saw Pliny the Younger as his literary model, but knew that in his day and age there would be no second Pliny. In a different period he would have been an essayist, but this was not the time for unsolicited opinions to go public. Even letters weren’t safe; the secret service routinely inspected the mail-bags. The intelligentsia responded with rejection and escapism. If not against his will, no author would care to mention anything referring to Rome after the fall of the Republic. The rivers appeared to run shallower and mountains had shrunk in size; the whole cosmos was in decline.

For a last time all the creative energy was to be concentrated on a “science” of oratory, which banked its stock in learning and political persuasion on the fine art of oral delivery. Figures of speech occupied the finest minds of the period, syntactic intricacies, for which we have no longer names, the prosodic characteristics of words, the all important question whether to start a sentence with anapests or spondees. Every gesture, the toss of a cloak’s hemp, was part of a code of histrionic delivery, which expressed an entire concept of physical and intellectual education. Every sentence, every line was a carefully crafted piece of art, but Symmachus himself knew all too well that and why times had changed since Cicero (Ep. II:35; I:45; IV:28; V:86; VII:9). The Senate had became more and more of an “asylum mundi totis” (Ammian XVI:20) – the last refuge for culture and humanity, and for the civic spirit of republicanism (Ep. VI:55; VIII:41; IX:67). Senators began to address each other as “brother” (Ep. I:89; V:62).

Symmachus has left us the memories and sometimes obituaries of his most courageous colleagues (Ep. I:2). He himself took considerable risks and in his addresses to Valentinian I, he interceded on behalf of the persecuted and oppressed (Ep. III:33-36; X:34). But as a grandee with independent means, he felt himself to be above the rat race for titles and promotions (Ep. IV:42). The style of his letters is strikingly modern – a mix of archaic simplicity with the latest jargon and abstract terminology (Ep. III:22; 44). The man had more dictionaries than people for friends – but as a truly modern mind he also was aware of the aesthetic rationale underpinning his work and reflected with bitterness on the political insignificance of his correspondence.

In the name of a quaint perception of ancient virtues, Symmachus like most of the grandees, had put his own daughters to carding and spinning the wool, or at least supervising the uncounted maidservants on his dozens of villas and their incredibly extended estates, with their administrative staffs of stewards, notaries, accountants, masons, oxcart drivers, sailors, and messengers, who supervised entire villages of slaves and the newly emerging institution of soil bound serfs (Ep. VI:67; 79). The extinction of so many of the senatorial dynasties concentrated such estates or “latifundia” in less and less hands. It affected the entire Italian economy, which depended on corn imports from Africa. The great landowners found themselves under suspicion by the regime, and burdened with costly “honors,” and ever more frequent billeting. (Ep. I:5; 10; II:52; VII:66; IX:40; 48) Despite their enormous resources often strapped for ready cash, these men of almost princely status lived a life of travelling the seasons and their estates.

Symmachus himself had manor houses at the “Via Appia” and the Vatican, villas at Ostia, Praeneste, Lavinium, and, for shelter against the summer-heat, at Tibur; a farm at Formiae, a house in Capua, and estates in Samnia, Apulia, and across the Mediterranean in Morocco. For the holiday season he owned retreats at the paradisiacal coast of Naples. The gulf of Bajae had always been the Roman’s favorite spa; they used to sail on colorful barges from the Avernian lakes into the gulf towards Puteoli, and from other ships and the villas at the shore a gentle breeze carried music, laughter and the splashes of swimmers (Ep. VIII:23), though Symmachus himself claimed, that he came to “Campania … ubi alte turbis quiscitur; … Lucrina tacita … Bouli magnum silentes … (Ep. I:8) – to find peace and quiet away from the bustle of city life: “… the new wine is going to be crushed, and shall be consigned to the care of oak barrels; stepladders reach all the way into the tops of the fruit trees; we now press the olive; and in hours of leisure we go after the game, and baying hounds sniff after the tracks of the boar (Ep. III:33).

And for a special treat, one would travel to Athens and imagine to relive the old days of beauty and philosophy (Ep. II,3; III: 51). A revery, catered to by a competitive tourist industry. Skippers earned an extra bonus for their quota of students and visitors they managed to land in Athens’ Pireius and hand over to contracted schools or freelancing instructors. The rivalry of schools and universities often led to brawls between the “quires” of armed students, even to bloodshed and murder and kept the criminal courts busy. But even at the turn to the 5th century, and after Constantine’s state had sponsored the pillaging of famous works of art for his new capital, Athens had still preserved the architectural core of its former grace, but the idols had fallen silent, and their message didn’t reach the ears of a new generation.


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