The Second Delegation of Symmachus

In July 384 C.E.,Valentinian II appointed Quintus Aurelius Symmachus prefect of Rome and his good friend Vettius Agorius Praetextatus praetorian prefect of Italy, Illyricum, and Africa. These appointments ranked among the most important in the administration and represent the Realpolitik of the western court. Valentinian was young, inexperienced, and no match for the military might of Magnus Maximus' court at Trier. This was no time to alienate the Roman senate. Moreover, the conflict between Valentinian's Arian mother Justina and the staunchly orthodox Ambrose led the senators to believe that Ambrose was out of favor and that this might be a good opportunity to renew their protest against Gratian's edicts, particularly the removal of the altar of Victory. Symmachus must have felt confident leading another embassy to Milan, where Valentinian, the twelve-year-old half-brother of Gratian, was presiding over a weakened court.

Among his Relationes, "state papers," Symmachus presented a petition to Valentinian for the reinstatement of funds for state cults and for the restoration of the altar of Victory (see Primary Document 5.3). In Relatio 3.7, Symmachus invoked the actions of Constantius II to argue that even when he had ordered the altar of Victory removed in 357 C.E., he did not repudiate his obligations as Pontifex Maximus but continued to fund the state cults and their priesthoods. We may infer that a similar argument had been presented to Gratian at the time of the anti-pagan legislation he promulgated and that it was then, in 382-383 C.E., that he refused the pontifical robe and the role of Pontifex Maximus. By all standards, Sym-machus' document was a rhetorical triumph: it deployed all the persuasive logic and linguistic precision of the oratorical training that was at the heart of classical pagan education. He argued that the state needed the altar to protect it from barbarian invasions, and that the ancestral rites had always been venerated and should continue to be respected. It was by sanctioning varied religious practices, he continued, that the emperor revealed his own philosophical spirit and erudition. For Symmachus, the altar of Victory was a symbol of Rome's glorious imperial past. Each time the senators (pagans and Christians alike) passed it upon entering the Curia, they were reminded of the sentiment so often expressed by the classical writers—that as long as she revered the gods, Rome would continue to rule. Symmachus did not challenge the Christians (indeed, he argued for tolerance of all religious practices), and he never pleaded for the exclusive religious practices of the traditional cults, only that the emperor continue to support the ancestral gods, so that the gods would continue to support the state. Nonetheless, the arguments of Symmachus' Relatio fell on deaf ears.

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