Pagans and Christians The Altar of Victory

Then Constantius, upon entering Rome [357 C.E.], the hearth of sovereignty and all excellence,... the most famous seat of power from ancient times, stood in amazement, overwhelmed by the wonderful sights which crowded upon him on all sides wherever he looked [and] having reviewed many amazing and awe-inspiring sights, the emperor complained that Rumor must be weak or spiteful because, while always exaggerating everything else, she is feeble when it comes to describing the wonders of Rome.

—Ammianus Marcellinus, Res gestae 16.10.13-17

The description of Emperor Constantius II's first visit to Rome excerpted above reveals the passion the city could evoke, for mighty emperors and humble pilgrims alike. Even though the centers of imperial power had shifted eastward under Constantine, the majestic splendor of Rome still held great appeal. Christian emperors exploited its symbolic significance to create an image of political solidarity and economic power. Moreover, the emperors needed the patronage of the Roman senatorial aristocracy. They sought the senate's goodwill in spite of the fact that this conservative patrician class was the very embodiment of Rome's pagan classical heritage.

The fourth-century shift from Rome to capitals more strategically located had allowed the Roman aristocracy opportunities to extend its powers. The senate gained prestige as its members assumed judicial and administrative duties. They assumed the role of the emperor in maintaining public monuments, providing spectacles and shows, and preserving public order in the city. At major public spectacles and civic events they perpetuated their "Roman" heritage, with all the trappings of the old religion.

Public funds were used to finance traditional pagan religious ceremonies. Public funds financed the temple rituals, compensated the Vestal Virgins who guarded the temple fires, subsidized the priests, and were used to pay for the extravagant and lavish spectacles themselves.

Christians came to resent this mixture of religion and tradition that characterized the public life of Rome. These Christians challenged the Roman aristocracy's insistence upon traditional pagan rites and ceremonies. In this chapter we will focus upon one of these conflicts between Christian and non-Christian patricians, the removal of the altar of Victory from the Roman Curia, "senate house." The Christian bishop Ambrose and the Roman senator Quintus Aurelius Symmachus presented their arguments in an exaggeratedly civil literary correspondence. Ambrose, the feisty and opinionated bishop of Milan, in northern Italy, argued against replacing the altar while Symmachus, the pagan patrician city prefect, presented the case for its return. For the senators, the issue was nothing less than the preservation of the revered cultural heritage of Rome—religious, literary, political, and artistic—that the altar had come to symbolize. For Ambrose and the Christians, the issue was the conversion of imperial Rome and its historic ruling aristocracy from an archaic pagan "superstition" to Christianity. We will see that the pagan and Christian aristocracy alike valued their shared cultural heritage even as Christianity emerged as the lawful religion of the empire and Rome emerged as its capital.

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