Sunday, 5 December 2010
Tuesday, 16 November 2010
In 378, Ausonius, already joint praetorian prefect of the whole western empire except Illyricum, was appointed consul for the following year by his former pupil, the emperor Gratian. He invited his old friend Symmachus to come and celebrate his inauguration. Symmachus was in Italy, Ausonius was in Trier, the capital of the prefecture of Gaul. It is unsurprising that Symmachus avoided a month’s journey to Germany in midwinter. He may also have calculated that an invitation to Trier was not as attractive as it might have been had the emperor still been there; but Gratian was in the Balkans, dealing with the crisis after the eastern emperor Valens’ defeat and death at the hands of the Goths.
The letter opens with an unmistakable allusion to Pliny the Younger’s thanksgiving for his consulship (Panegyric 1.1), no doubt hinting at the speech of thanks which Ausonius would make (in fact he wrote his Gratiarum actio not for 1 January, but later in 379). The panegyrical mode can also be found in section 2, where we see comparisons of other teachers of great men (the first, unnamed pair being Aristotle and Alexander).
Well and wisely our forefathers (as in other things of that age) placed temples to Honour and Virtue together with twin façade, thinking, just as we have seen with you, that where the prizes of Honour are, there too are the rewards of Virtue. But nearby, in fact devotion to the Latin Muses is turned towards a holy spring, because the journey to winning magistracies is often advanced by literature. These institutions of our forefathers are the story of your consulship; the seriousness of your morals and the antiquity of your teaching have borne you the dignity of a curule chair. 2. Many hereafter will strive for the fine arts as the seeds of praise and the mothers of honours, but to whom will befall a pupil so fortunate or so ready to remember his debt? Or are we unaware that that great man, for whom fortune flowed beyond his prayers, bestowed nothing on his master, the man of Stagira? Doesn’t the fact that Ennius got only a cloak from the Aetolian booty dishonour Fulvius? And indeed neither was the price of his liberal teachings repaid to Panaetius by the second of the Africani, nor to Opillus by Rutilius, or to Cineas by Pyrrhus, or to his Metrodorus by Mithradates of Pontus. But now, a most educated emperor, and generous with riches and honours, as though he has conveyed the first things on you as interest payments, goes beyond that to the capital of the loan.§
3. In this great happiness of mine, what words can I offer for the fact I cannot come? I fear that, interpreting my excuses wrongly, you will fail to believe how much I congratulate you. I wanted to come before your eyes in an instant, but, at the end of my strength, which sickness has long drained, I decided to avoid lengthy travels and uncomfortable lodgings, as well as the arrival of the cold weather and the shortening of the days, and all the other things which are opportune for importuning. If you have a regard for me in your heart, I beg you to be fair to me and to accept my excuse which I put forward.* May luck befall that I obtain my old position of favour; now, what is enough, let me avoid giving offense. Farewell.
§I am not sure I have fully understood the financial metaphor here.
*has adlegationes boni consulas, an untranslatable play on Ausonius’ status as consul.
Monday, 18 October 2010
When Gratian became the senior emperor in the west, and Symmachus’ father was recalled by the senate from his temporary exile, Symmachus decided to use the opportunity of a bread-and-butter speech in the senate on quite another matter to push himself forward. His speech “For Trygetius”, or what is now left of it, is translated here. He sent copies to various friends and associates. One of these was Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, the former Urban Prefect (Ep. 1.44). Covering letters of this sort for rhetorical works are also found in the letters of Pliny the Younger, though it is my impression that Symmachus is even less modest than Pliny. Praetextatus replied with the expected praise, enabling Symmachus to reply to that reply (Ep. 1.52).
To Agorius Praetextatus
It is only fair, given your sedulous attitude towards me, that I should not let you be kept in the dark about things that have brought me glory. I think that rumour must have informed you that my father, in the country and on retreat, cooling off after the injustice of losing his house, was summoned by the senate with abundant requests and finally envoys sent to beg him, an unprecedented honour. For this reason, the very first time a day came with the opportunity of speaking before his colleagues, my father expressed his gratitude to the senate with that weighty eloquence for which he is well-known. That was on the Kalends which open the year [i.e. 1 January 376]. 2. Shortly afterwards, when I had promised to assist the son of my friend Trygetius, a candidate for praetor, duty pressed on my heart so that, taking the opportunity of this fixed obligation I fulfilled a task which I still owed my father, though he had discharged it to the senate. So on the ninth of January I made a speech before the most distinguished order. When it comes into your hands, you will guess from you own feelings the judgments of the rest. Uncertain of your critical eye, I thought that the opinions of the others should be concealed, so that I should not seem to press on you with the pre-judgment of so great an order. Farewell.
To Agorius Praetextatus
I rejoice not a whit less that my speech pleased you than that the senate, better part of the human race, heard it with a favourable opinion. You have added the weight of an oath and sworn in due form, being one you knows that the judgments of those who love one fall under suspicion of doing favours. For where friendship is undoubted, there the truthfulness of praise is more doubtful. Accordingly, sure of your critical eye I dismiss the opinions of the rest. What if you had been there, to hear such goodwill? Why, I would have touched the vault of heaven, as they say, with a finger. Some other time, perhaps, we shall have the opportunity, yet more desirable, to have you there at hand. For now we enjoy the testimony of your letter, then we shall benefit from the assistance of your support. Farewell
Monday, 11 October 2010
But on which day, 25 or 26 February? Reference works usually date Valentinian’s accession in 364 to 26 February. Seeck’s invaluable Regesten (published 38 years after his Symmachus edition) places it on 26 February. So does The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire and the Cambridge Ancient History.
Two sources give us the date: the chronicle known as Consularia Constantinopolitana gives die. v k. Mar. (“the fifth day before the Kalends [the first] of March”, counting inclusively). Ammianus tells us that the Roman empire was without a ruler for 10 days after the emperor Jovian died (which we know from other sources to have been on 17 February). But he also shows why counting inclusively from 17 to 26 February is not a straightforward answer. 364 was a leap year, and Ammianus takes the opportuinitry for a faux-learned digression on the leap year (26.1.8-14). The Romans added the leap-day not at the end of the month of February, but as a second 24 February – or in Latin, bis sextum kalendas Martias. It was therefore called the bissextile day. This was a day of ill-omen, and although Valentinian had arrived in Nicaea in time to be acclaimed on that day, he waited till the day after (26.1.7). If we choose to mark Valentinian’s dies imperii as the Romans did, it will be (as the Constantinopolitan Chronicle tells us), the fifth day before the Kalends of March, or 25 February. If we choose to translate to the modern Gregorian calendar, it will be 26 February. But we should remember that the anniversary would have been celebrated willy-nilly on the fifth day from the Kalends of March: 25 February in non-leap years, the day which we call 26 February only in leap years. So if Symmachus gave his speech in 368, you could describe it as being either 25 or 26 February, depending on your perspective. If he gave it in 369, it was on 25 February.
One final thought. Ammianus devotes a good deal of attention to depicting Valentinian’s reluctance to be acclaimed on a traditional ill-omen. On the fifth day before the Kalends of April (a month later, in Roman terms, 28 March in ours), Valentinian appointed his brother Valens as co-emperor at the suburb of Hebdomon, before processing with him back into Constantinople. As Neil McLynn has pointed out, this was also a significant day: Palm Sunday. Is Ammianus’ emphasis on Valentinian’s significant choice of the day for his accession influenced by his distaste for the day chosen for Valens?
Thursday, 7 October 2010
The letter to Gratian was written in the summer of 376. Symmachus' cheerleading of the new regime (see here and here and here) had been recognized by the court, and he had been chosen for the task of reading to the senate an imperial letter which announced the execution of the hated praetorian prefect of Gaul, Maximinus.
The letter is addressed to Gratian specifically, but at times breaks into the second person plural, not only because it is conventional when there are multiple emperors to do this, but also because Gratian was the guardian of his young half-brother, Valentinian II, who had been proclaimed dubiously shortly after his father's death, and reluctantly recognized by the senior emperor, Valens, and Gratian.
To Gratian Augustus
I know that it arose through the love of which you generally judge leading men worthy, that I was employed as the reader of your sacred oration. But when I think that that speech in every way outshone whatever other rescripts that the senate has heard up to this point, I think that I too am esteemed higher than the rest; after all, for great affairs, as for great comedies, selected actors are placed on stage. In reciting plays the same honour didn’t belong to Publilius Pellio as Ambivius, nor did equal fame befall Aesop and Roscius. 2. Therefore, most excellent emperors, I embrace as offered by the divine what you planned so well for me. Your praise, lord Gratian, is my duty, since you are so spirited that when you bring healing to the republic you summon the help of my voice: for you have reduced public disorders into tranquility. It scarcely stood in your way that we all lay prone - such a great crime had the men who possessed the highest positions through wicked means unsheathed. 3. That Maximinus, savage because of his favourable fortunes, the trampler of judgments, unable to end feuds, ready to enter them, has expiated with capital punishment for everybody’s tears. Now this shines through for mankind: the senate holds its ancient rights; it is permitted to live, it is no regret to have been born, and all things look to safety; danger comes to none from poverty; the republic has restored itself to antiquity, spirits have changed from shadow into pleasant daylight, after you gave encouragement to virtue. 4. We see care taken with equal vigilance so that the corn supply is brought in to sate the city more generously, a general cleansing boils away the wickedness of money-coiners, the assessor does not tip the scales to increase the gold from the provincials, a thousand other things -- if I wished to continue about them, I’d be caught out as having consideration for your glory but none for my own incapacity. For no prudent man corrupts oracles with mere human words
5. Therefore, may your divine mind, young Augustus, the glory of the Roman name, be carried in the chariot of its own eloquence. In offering thanks we abase ourselves in humble fashion, better suited to the comic slipper than the tragic buskin, now that rhetorical flair has begun to be a possession of empire: for, as I know, you have given a hospitable place in your palace to the Muses. May this turn out well for you [both] and for your piety, since you have no memory of haughtiness or indolence, those faults of loftier fortune. When you are well, it brings adequate health to me. The good fortune besought in public prayers will ensure for your clemency that the opportunity of advancing your plans will prove as great as the pleasure in describing them. Farewell.
Sunday, 12 September 2010
Ancient letters were always potentially public property, liable to be read out, and they often expressed social ambitions rather less subtly than we would consider normal – but it is still revealing to see what Symmachus chose not to publish.
Your reputation for letters has long made you someone I should like to cultivate, but I long postponed an expression of respect through writing for modesty’s sake, in case I seemed to be currying favour with one in a position at court: this is a disease so frequently adopted that men who care for their reputation blush for other people’s vices. Now all reason for my vacillation has been removed, since you have honoured me first with your greeting. After this generous welcome I shall enter the open gates of friendship and plan to make up for the delays of my shamefaced silence with more than frequent missives. 2. Only look with kindly indulgence, please, on the homage of an impoverished tongue, and for a moment relax the stern judgment of an imperial teacher. You have indicated that you have read some things of mine; I just ask for the same tolerance. I shall not be new to you and shall not be afraid of an unprepared critic: you have learnt to bear everything of mine. Also, an acquaintance has arisen, so as to make you more balanced towards me as a judge. Friendship after all is inclined to favour, and is changed from harsh examination towards kinder feelings by fondness. 3. But if I put aside the fear of my impoverished talent and promise you constant letters, you see how much more I have hopes from this generous barrel. I must acknowledge to you in friendly manner: I look for draughts of Gallic expressiveness, not because eloquence of Latium has left these seven hills, but because the rules of rhetoric were instilled in my breast by an old man who was once a foster-child of the Garonne; I have a real relationship with your schools through my teacher. 4. Whatever is in me, and I know how meagre it is, I owe to your heavens. So bedew us again from those Camenae which first gave me the milk of the liberal arts, and, if anything in my writing should offend you, either save with you silence someone who once attended your townsman, or you too, start teaching again. Farewell.