Samuel Dill (essay date 1899)
SOURCE: Dill, Samuel. “The Society of Q. Aurelius Symmachus.” In Roman Society in the Last Century of the Western Empire, pp. 143-66. Reprint. New York: Macmillan and Co., Limited, 1925.
[In the following excerpt from a work first published in 1899, Dill examines the Saturnalia and the letters of Symmachus for what they reveal about upper-class Roman society.]
In the preceding chapter we have reviewed the adverse judgments of some contemporary moralists on the state of society in the fourth and fifth centuries. But we fortunately possess, in the other literary remains of that age, materials for forming an estimate independent of either Christian or pagan censors. The letters of Q. Aurelius Symmachus,1 the poems of Ausonius, and the Saturnalia of Macrobius reveal to us the life of the cultivated upper class, both in the capital and the provinces, in the years immediately preceding the first shock of the great invasions. The poems and voluminous correspondence of Apollinaris Sidonius form an invaluable storehouse of information as to the tone and habits of Gallo-Roman society, in the years when the last shadowy emperors were appearing and disappearing like puppets in rapid succession at the beck of a German master of the forces, and when a Visigothic government had been organised in Aquitaine. Symmachus and Macrobius, although they witnessed the final triumph of the Church, belonged to the ranks of that conservative paganism which made a last stand in defence of the old system of religion, and nourished their patriotic and aristocratic pride with the dreams of a past that was gone for ever. Sidonius represents a society which, though obstinately Roman in culture and sentiment, had been nominally Christian for two generations, was living in close contact with the German invaders, and was becoming dimly conscious that the old order was passing away.
Q. Aurelius Symmachus belonged to a family which held a foremost place in the last quarter of the fourth century, but was not equal to some others in wealth and antiquity. His grandfather was consul in the reign of Constantine.2 His father had been prefect of the city in the reign of Valentinian I., and, after holding all the high offices, still survived in the year 382. The line was prolonged through a succession of distinguished descendants. Symmachi appear in the Fasti as consuls in 446 and 485. A female descendant of the orator was the wife of the great Boethius, and the mother of the two consuls of 522.3 Q. Aurelius Symmachus, the author of the letters, married a daughter of Memmius Vitrasius Orfitus, who was Urban prefect in the reign of Constantius. He was trained in speaking, as so many young Romans of that age were, by a Gallic professor of rhetoric;4 and in his early youth he formed a close friendship with the poet Ausonius at the court of Valentinian on the Rhine.5 His earliest efforts in oratory were panegyrics on that Emperor, and on Gratian, delivered at Trèves during the campaigns against the Alemanni. The oratory of Symmachus was greatly admired by his contemporaries,6 and he was repeatedly selected to put before the Emperor the views of the Senate on questions of the day. His speech on the removal of the Altar of Victory is not unworthy of his fame, and has acquired additional interest from the replies of his kinsman Ambrose and the poet Prudentius.
The inscription7 dedicated by Q. Fab. Memmius Symmachus to the memory of the great senator recites a long list of offices which he had held. He had been governor of several provinces, prefect of the city, pontiff and consul. He was admittedly the chief of the Senate. Yet probably no public man ever left behind him a collection of letters of so little general interest. In an age of great conflicts and great changes, it is startling to find Symmachus complaining to his correspondents of lack of matter.8 Either the government was very reticent,9 or Symmachus and his circle were very unobservant or careless of public affairs. The Senate was still treated by the emperors with ceremonious respect, and possessed many valuable privileges. But after the great reorganisation by Diocletian, it had ceased to have nay share in the government. Like the consulship, it remained as one of those dignified fictions by which the Roman disguised the vastness of the change which separated him from the days of freedom. It was indeed part of the policy of Stilicho to consult and pay deference to the Senate, and in the troubled years of Alaric's invasions that body appeared more than once to exercise some independent authority. But these were only the illusions of a moment. Occasionally the Emperor condescended to send it a despatch, the arrival of which, to men like Symmachus, was an event of the first importance. That not a moment might be lost, the august body would sometimes be summoned before dawn to hear the formal words of some despatch which may have little deserved such eager haste.10 To be chosen to read it to the assembled nobles was a coveted honour, and Symmachus, to whom the task often fell, is full of gratitude at being made the interpreter of the “divine words.”11 But all this was purely formal. Rome had long ceased to be the real seat of government. Not a single rescript in the time of Symmachus is dated from Rome. When Honorius paid his triumphal visit in 403, the palace of the Caesars at Rome had been practically deserted for a hundred years. While couriers were arriving day and night at Milan or Ravenna, and the imperial council were deliberating on the latest demands of Alaric, the Eternal City, the hearth of the Roman race, the home of its gods, in whose name the whole vast system was carried on, had almost as little influence on the course of government as Tibur or Praeneste. Now and then a feeling of neglect and desertion breaks out, as in the appeal of Claudian to the Emperor to return to his true home on the Palatine.12 Occasionally the pride of the Senate is soothed, as when it was consulted about the war with Gildo.13 Its hopes were roused for a moment when the barbarian conqueror raised Attalus to the purple.14 But, as a rule, a dull, gray atmosphere seems to brood over the high society of Rome, and we cannot help wondering how men like Probus,15 after governing provinces larger than any kingdom of modern Europe, could be content with the frigid dignity and the emptiness of their lives in the capital.
The Senate no doubt was impotent and ill-informed. Yet the calm silence of Symmachus in the face of dangers and calamities, which must have struck the most unobservant, is very puzzling. It may be the proud reserve of the member of a great race, which will not hint, even in a confidential letter, that the commonwealth is in peril. It may be also that unshaken faith in the destiny of Rome which, only a few years after her capture by Alaric, inspired the last true poet of Rome to celebrate her beneficence and clemency, and to predict for her an unending sway.16 The feeling was shared to some extent even by Christian writers like S. Augustine and Orosius.17 There is a tendency on all sides to treat the menacing troubles of the time as only a passing cloud, as necessary incidents in an imperial career, not worse than Rome had often surmounted in past ages. Yet, in spite of these considerations, it is startling to read a letter from Symmachus to his son in the year 402, the year of the great battles of Pollentia and Verona, which makes no allusion to the invaders.18 He confines himself to the bare announcement of the fact that, owing to the unsafe state of the roads, he has had to make a long detour in order to reach the Court at Milan.
There are a good many glimpses of the state of Rome during the anxious years of the Gildonic revolt. But we learn more from Claudian than from Symmachus about the meditated transfer of the African provinces to the Eastern Empire. Symmachus is concerned chiefly with the dignity of his order and the condition of the capital. It was a proud day when Stilicho had to report the opinion of the Senate on the conduct of Gildo,19 and when more majorum the traitor was voted to be a public enemy. We have many illustrations of Claudian's complaint,20 “pascimur arbitrio Mauri.” The African cornships ceased to reach Ostia with their wonted regularity, and the terror of famine spread among the mob of Rome.21 The masses were becoming sullen and dangerous. There were all the signs of a coming storm. Numbers of the higher families were flying to the safe seclusion of their country seats, and Symmachus prepared to send away his children from the capital.22 As the chief author of the condemnation of Gildo, he had himself to withdraw for a while to one of his villas.23 The distress was temporarily relieved by an oblatio of twenty days' supplies made by the Senate.24 And again Symmachus describes the delight with which, from his villa on the Tiber, he saw the corn fleet from Macedonia arrive.25 But there are few indications that he realised the grave social and economic dangers which are revealed by the Theodosian Code. He once casually mentions that he is debarred from the enjoyment of his country seat by the prevalence of brigandage.26 There is a slight touch of feeling in a reference to the gloomy appearance of the country which met his eyes in one of his excursions.27 Yet one would never gather from the passage that hundreds of thousands of acres in once smiling districts had returned to waste. The letters of Symmachus, if they had told us more of public events,28 might have been among the most precious documents in historical literature. As it is, their chief value lies in what they rather stintedly reveal of the life and tone of the class to which Symmachus belonged. Here we see it for the last time apparently secure in the possession of enormous wealth, great administrative power, and exquisite social culture, seemingly without a thought of the storm which was about to break.
The senatorial order was essentially a wealthy class. It had come to include nearly all the considerable proprietors in Italy and the provinces.29 And, as we shall see in another chapter, the wealth and social power of its members were increasing as what may be called the middle class (the curiales) rapidly declined in numbers and pecuniary independence. Of course there were many degrees of opulence in the ranks of the senators. That some were comparatively poor is evident from the fact that a certain number were relieved of the full weight of imperial imposts.30 But we have express testimony, apart from indirect evidence, that the wealth of others was enormous.31 A senatorial income of the highest class, exclusive of what was derived from the estates in kind, sometimes reached the sum of £180,000,32 and that at a time when the ordinary rate of interest was 12 per cent. More moderate incomes, such as that of Symmachus, amounted to £60,000 a year. Symmachus had at least three great houses in Rome or the suburbs, and fifteen country seats in various districts of Italy.33 He had large estates in Samnium, Apulia, and Mauretania. The tenure of a great office in the provinces gave a man the chance of acquiring such domains. Ammianus Marcellinus speaks of the estates of Sex. Petron. Probus as scattered all over the Empire,34 and he broadly hints that that great noble had not always acquired them by the fairest means. The elder Sallustius, when he was vicarius of Spain about 364,35 probably acquired the property in that province which his son enjoyed a generation later, in the time of Symmachus. The wealth of Paula, who abandoned it all to accompany S. Jerome to Bethlehem, of S. Paulinus,36 and many others of the Roman nobility, is known to us from Christian sources.
The fervour of asceticism may have led S. Jerome to overdraw his picture of Roman luxury. But there is one department of expenditure in which the letters of Symmachus reveal an almost reckless profusion. The praetorship, which every young senator of the highest class had to assume,37 was one of the heaviest burdens on the senatorial class, so heavy that some of them preferred to resign their order rather than undertake it. It had, like the consulship, long ceased to confer any power or authority. It remained as a disguised form of taxation for the pleasures of the mob of the capital. The younger Symmachus was still a mere boy in the hands of a tutor, when he was designated for this expensive honour of amusing the rabble of Rome. The games which the young praetor had to provide cost his father a sum equal to £90,000 of our money.38 So far from complaining of the expense, his father is eager to seize the opportunity of gaining popularity with the crowd,39 and rejects with scorn any idea of parsimony. His time and energies are devoted for several years to the preparations for the spectacle which is to usher his son into the career of public life. Symmachus, in everything a devotee of the past,40 was nowhere more conservative than in his belief in the ancient games. He had put aside the conventional tone of servility in demanding from the reluctant Theodosius the performance of what he regarded as an imperious duty to the commonwealth.41 But when the occasion arrived he was ready to act up to his own principles. Many of his letters are full of the coming games. He appeals to his friends in all parts of the world to assist him. Lions and crocodiles from Africa, dogs from Scotland, horses from the famous studs of Spain, are all sought for, and the most anxious provision is made for their conveyance from these distant regions.42 The gladiatorial shows had not yet been suppressed by Christian sentiment, and Symmachus was determined to have a band of Saxons,43 to crown the success of his games. He puts as much seriousness into the business as if it affected the very existence of the State.44 His anxiety is overpowering. In spite, however, of all his care and profusion, there were many accidents and disappointments. Some of the animals arrived half dead from the hardships of their long journey. Many of the splendid Spanish coursers had either perished by the way, or were hopelessly disabled.45 The crocodiles would not eat and had to be killed. Chariot-drivers and players, expected from Sicily, were, in spite of all searches along the coast, nowhere to be heard of.46 The most cruel blow of all was the loss of the Saxon gladiators, who, declining to make sport for the rabble of Rome, strangled one another before the hour of their humiliation in the arena arrived.47
This is the most interesting passage in the life of Symmachus as revealed in his letters. The world he belongs to was the slave of old tradition and conventionality, and, with all its splendour, must have suffered from ennui. The great man's day, just as in Pliny's time, was filled by a round of trivial social observances, which were as engrossing and as obligatory as serious duties.48 The crowd of morning callers and dependants had to be received as of old. All the anniversaries in the families of friends had to be duly remembered and honoured. If a friend obtained from the Emperor the distinction of one of the old republican magistracies, it was an imperative social duty to attend his inauguration.49 The service of the Sacred Colleges was another social obligation,50 although Symmachus hints broadly that some of his colleagues in the pontifical college were inclined to flatter the Court by absenting themselves;51 and even Flavianus and Praetextatus, who were pagans of the pagans, sometimes excused themselves by absence at their country seats or at some pleasure resort in Campania.52 In nothing were the demands of etiquette more imperious than in letter-writing. Again and again Symmachus recalls the rule of “old-fashioned manners,” that the friend who goes from home should be the first to write.53 It matters not whether he has anything to say. Indeed, it is hard to see why a great many of these letters should have been written at all. They are about as interesting as a visiting card, and seem to have had no more significance than a polite attention. The stiffness of etiquette, which was introduced into official life by Diocletian, and which invaded the legal style of the imperial rescripts, reigns in the correspondence of the period, even between near relations. The conservatism of Symmachus, indeed, revolts against the newfangled habit of prefixing titles to a friend's name in a familiar letter.54 Still, his own son is “amabilitas tua,”55 and his daughter “domina filia.” That there were warm affections and a kindly unselfish nature behind all this artificial stiffness in the case of Symmachus we shall see afterwards. With him and his caste the habit of social observance, however complicated and engrossing, had become a second nature, without always freezing the springs of natural kindliness.
Yet the cold dignity of the life in those palaces on the Caelian and Aventine, with its endless calls to frivolous social duties, and its monotony of busy idleness, must have grown irksome at times. It was not, perhaps, altogether the coolness of Praeneste, the gay abandon of Baiae, or the boar-hunting in the woods of Laurentum, that tempted the fashionable world away from the attractions of Rome. Symmachus loves Rome, with all its turbulence, even in times of scarcity and tumult, and he will linger in a suburban villa56 on the chance of being summoned to a meeting of the Senate; but even he feels the need of repose and emancipation from the tyranny of society. At one of his country houses, he is as happy as such a stately self-contained man will ever show himself, looking after the making of his oil and wine, laying down a fresh mosaic, receiving a friend or two, or drinking in the quiet freshness of the Laurentine woods that overhang the sea.57 There is no trace in his letters that nature has for him58 any of the romantic charm which it had for Ausonius and Rutilius. He was not much of a sportsman even in his youth. He loved the country for its stillness and repose, for the relief it gave from the monotonous strain of social duty which was doubly oppressive to his kind and conscientious nature. Above all, it gave him leisure for converse with the old favourites of his library.
Among the best men of the pagan or semi-pagan aristocracy of that time the passion for literature or erudition was absorbing. With many of them it took the place of interest in public affairs. The company whom Macrobius brings together in his Saturnalia were the leaders of Roman society—Praetextatus, Flavianus, two members of the great house of the Albini, Symmachus himself. They are joined by other guests of lower social rank, but equals in the literary brotherhood, Eustathius, a Greek professor of rhetoric, and Servius, the prince of Roman critics. Praetextatus, the arch-hierophant, initiated in all the cults of Syria and Egypt, is the exponent of priestly lore. Flavianus is the master of that augural art which led him to his doom when he espoused the cause of Eugenius and paganism against the Church. The Albini enlarge on the antiquarian exactness of Virgil.59 There was no originality in the literary enthusiasm of these men. It was an enthusiasm which spent its force in preserving and appreciating what the ages of creation and inspiration had left behind.60 Praetextatus, besides giving much attention to the emendation of the classics, translated the...
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