Quintus Aurelius Symmachus (KWIHN-tuhs aw-REE-lee-uhs SIHM-uh-kuhs) was born to parents from politically prominent families; his paternal ancestors had served as senators since at least the early third century c.e. He won renown as a gifted orator, composing panegyrics of Valentinian I, Gratian, and Theodosius the Great. He served as quaestor, consul, proconsul (governor) of Africa, and prefect of the city of Rome (384-385 c.e.). In addition to his public orations, he wrote some nine hundred posthumously published letters. These include Relationes (n.d.; The Relationes of Symmachus, 1973), and forty-nine official dispatches to Valentinian II dealing with senatorial, legal, ceremonial, and other matters.
Symmachus is best known for his part in the fourth century c.e. struggle of religions. Like many senators of the day, he was a pagan who hoped that his faith might find accommodation within a world of Christian emperors and influential churchmen such as Saint Ambrose. The issues involved in the ongoing disconnection of state from pagan state-religion are crystallized in a famous dispatch (Relatio 3) to the emperor; eloquently advocating an ecumenical religious policy, Symmachus asks that an altar and statue of the goddess Victory be restored to the place they had occupied in the senate house since the time of Augustus. Ambrose interceded to quash the idea, and in 391 c.e., paganism was outlawed altogether.
Symmachus is a late example of the classic Roman ideal of the “good man, skilled in speaking.” His unheeded plea for tolerance of others’ religious beliefs has enduring relevance.
Barrow, R. H. Prefect and Emperor: The Relationes of Symmachus, a.d 384. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1973.
Cox, Claude E. Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion in Armenia. Atlanta, Ga.: Scholars Press, 1996.