The Letters of Ambrose

Before he even knew the details of the petition, Ambrose wrote a letter (Epitsulae 17) to Valentinian opposing the senators' request (see Primary Document 5.2). He argued that Valentinian would be endorsing paganism and persecuting Christian senators if he returned the altar of Victory. He threatened that he would not be received in a Christian church and would even meet with an unforgiving God if he yielded to the demands to restore funds and property for pagan rituals. How could the emperor grant revenues and property to Vestal Virgins, he asked, when Christian virgins dedicated to Jesus did not receive the same support? Above all, Ambrose demanded a copy of the Relatio so that he could write a pointed response. When he finally read the Relatio himself, Ambrose wrote a second letter (Epistulae 18) in response, with detailed refutations of the points (see Primary Document 5.4). Certainly, his responses were no more eloquent or logical than the arguments of Symmachus; nor were the requests of Symmachus as threatening as he claimed. Yet, Ambrose prevailed and neither the altar nor the subsidies were restored.

The key to Valentinian's decision may rest with the fact that he was indebted to Ambrose for his diplomatic intervention with Maximus. Just as Ambrose had intervened in the court rivalry over the bishops' councils— the one convened by Gratian at Aquileia in summer 381 C.E. and the one convened by Theodosius in spring 381 C.E. at Constantinople—and saved Gratian from considerable embarrassment, so now had his embassy to the court of Maximus provided Valentinian an interval of time to safely establish his court in Milan. While Ambrose equivocated in Trier, Valentinian consolidated his power base in Milan. Ambrose had shown himself to be an indispensable ambassador of the court.

In reading Symmachus' Relatio and Ambrose's responses, Valentinian does not so much choose the interests of the Christian aristocrat Ambrose over those of the pagan aristocrat Symmachus, but rather his own interests. The local religious icon Ambrose had already proved his loyalty and that he could achieve in diplomatic negotiations what the Roman senate could not. And in Letter 17, Ambrose reminded Valentinian of the debt owed to him for his recent successful embassy to Maximus on his behalf. This was the second unsuccessful delegation from the Roman senate to the Christian court to request the restoration of public subsidies for religious rites and to request that the altar of Victory, the very symbol of imperial Rome and her classical heritage, be returned to the Curia. Valentinian did not refuse because of any deep-seated doctrinal or faith-based objection. He refused because it was politically expedient to refuse, in order to return the debt owed to Ambrose for his critical diplomacy. It is the great irony of the situation that the very system of aristocratic political patronage that Valentinian honors in refusing the senate's request, is the system that the senate was defending.

Praetextatus unexpectedly died shortly after Valentinian refused the senators' petition. Symmachus was inconsolable at the loss of his longtime friend and in grief he resigned his post as prefect. But there were more deputations to restore state subsidies for pagan religious practices and to restore the altar of Victory.

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