previous next


3. Q. Aurelius Symmachus, who flourished towards the close of the fourth century, and stood foremost among his contemporaries as a scholar, a statesman, and an orator. Educated in Gaul (Symmach. Ep. 9.83), apparently at Bourdeaux or Toulouse, in that age the most renowned seminaries in the world, in early life he became devoted to the liberal arts. By his example and authority he, at a subsequent period, inspired for a time new life and vigour into the literature of his country, which had long been wasting by gradual decay, and seemed now to be fast approaching the hour of dissolution. Having discharged the functions of quaestor and praetor, he was afterwards appointed (A. D. 365, Cod. Theod. 8. tit. 5. s. 25) Corrector of Lucania and the Bruttii; in A. D. 373 (Cod. Theod. 12. tit. 1. s. 73; comp. Symmach. Ep. 8.10, 10.3) he was proconsul of Africa, and became, probably about the same time, a member of the pontifical college. His zeal for the ancient faith of Rome, which exercised throughout life a marked influence on his character, checked for a while the prosperous current of his fortunes, and involved him in danger and disgrace. For having been chosen by the senate on account of his surpassing eloquence to remonstrate with Gratian on the removal of the altar of victory (A. D. 382) from their council hall, and on the curtailment of the sums annually allowed for the maintenance of the Vestal Virgins, and for the public celebration of sacred rites, he was ordered by the indignant emperor to quit the presence, and to withdraw himself to a distance of one hundred miles from Rome. Nothing daunted by this repulse, when appointed praefect of the city (A. D. 384) after the death of his persecutor, he addressed an elaborate epistle to Valentinianus again urging the restoration of the pagan deities to their former honours. The application was again unsuccessful, but did not upon this occasion prove personally injurious to the promoter, who was, however, soon exposed to a hazard still more perilous than any which he had previously encountered. In consequence of the hostile feelings which he naturally cherished against Gratian, he had always sympathised with Maximus, by whom that prince had been conquered and slain. When the pretender was threatening (A. D. 387) to invade Italy his cause was openly advocated by Symmachus, who upon the arrival of Theodosius was impeached of treason, and forced to take refuge in a sanctuary. Having been speedily pardoned through the intercession of numerous and powerful friends he expressed his contrition and gratitude in an apologetic address to the conqueror, by whom he was not only freely forgiven, but was received into favour and elevated to the consulship in A. D. 391, and during the remainder of his life he appears to have taken an active part in public affairs. The date of his death is unknown, but one of his letters (7.50) was written as late as A. D. 402, and he was certainly alive when the poem of Prudentius, usually assigned to A. D. 404, was published. His personal character seems to have been unimpeachable, as he performed the duties of the high offices which he filled in succession with a degree of mildness, firmness, and integrity, seldom found among statesmen in that corrupt age. The charge vaguely preferred, and unsupported by any distinct evidence, that he abused his power when chief magistrate of Rome, in order to oppress the Christians, seems totally destitute of foundation. That his leisure hours were devoted exclusively to literary pursuits, seems evident from the numerous allusions in his epistles to the studies in which he was engaged, and his friendship with Ausonius and other distinguished authors of that epoch proves that he delighted in associating and corresponding with the learned. His wealth must have been prodigious, for in addition to his town mansion on the Caelian Hill (Ep. 3.12, 88, 7.18), and several houses in the city which he lent to his friends, he possessed upwards of a dozen villas in the most delightful parts of Italy, many detached farms. together with estates in Sicily and Mauritania. The following inscription contains a list of his honours and titles as recorded by his son : --


The extant works of Symmachus consist of letters and fragments of speeches.


Epistolarum Libri X., published after his death by his son. The last book contains his official correspondence, and is chiefly composed of the letters presented by him when praefect of the city to the emperors under whom he served. The remaining books comprise a multitude of epistles, many of then notes extending to a few lines only, addressed to a wide circle of relations, friends, and acquaintances. They relate for the most part to matters of little moment, and notwithstanding the praises so liberally lavished by Politian and Laetus, are, taken as a whole, uninteresting and destitute of value. The style is elaborated with great and painful diligence. Pliny was the object proposed for imitation, and we are presented with a stiff copy of a stiff model, in which the degenerate taste and decaying Latinity of the fourth century are engrafted on the solemn pedantry and cold affectation of the original. We must, however, make an exception in favour of the most highly finished and important piece in the collection, the celebrated epistle " DDD. Valentiniano, Theodosio et Arcadio semper Auggg.," entreating them to restore the Altar of Victory to its ancient position in the senate house. This document, whether we consider the judicious choice of the arguments employed, the skilful arrangement according to which they succeed and mutually support each other, the art with which they are developed, the pointed energy with which they are enforced, and at the same time the tone of moderation and liberality which pervades the whole, impresses us with deep admiration of the genius, learning, dialectic acuteness, and eloquence of the author, who seems to have lacked nothing but a good cause for the display of his talents. Notwithstanding the folly and falseness of the doctrines which he advocates, this state paper is infinitely superior as a literary composition and a work of art to the well-known reply of St. Ambrosius, which is verbose, abusive, and not always honest.


Although we were told by Socrates (H. E. 5.14) and Callixtus (Hist. 12.21) that Symmachus had published many speeches which were greatly admired (ἄγαν ἀρίστους, not a single remnant of these was known to exist until very recently, when Mai discovered in one of the palimpsests of the Ambrosian library, fragments of eight orations, and subsequently in another portion of the same palimpsest, deposited in the Vatican, some additional fragments of these eight and also a portion of a ninth. The titles are,

1. Laudes in Valentinianum seniorem Augustum I.

We have twenty-three short chapters nearly entire; the beginning and the end of the speech are both wanting.

2. Laudes in Valentinianum seniorem Augustum II.

Extending to twenty chapters, in which there are several blanks and imperfections; the beginning and the end are wanting.

3. Laudes in Gratianum Augustum.

Extending to twelve chapters interrupted by two blanks; the beginning and the end are wanting.

4. Laudes in Patres.

Extending to four chapters ; the beginning and the end are wanting.

5. Oratio pro Patre,

returning thanks for the elevation of his father to the consulship. Ten chapters, interrupted by one blank; the beginning and the end both wanting.

6. Oratio pro Trygetio,

recommending the son of his friend Trygetius for the praetorship (see Ep. 1.44). Four chapters ; the beginning and the end both wanting.

7. Oratio pro Synesio,

recommending the elevation of Synesius, the son of his friend Julianus, to the dignity of a senator (see Ep. 5.43). Seven chapters interrupted by a blank, the portion which follows the third chapter having been obtained from the Vatican MS. We have here the commencement of the speech.

8. Oratio pro Flavio Severo.

Four chapters; the beginning and the end both wanting.

9. Oratio pro Valerio Fortunato,

on behalf of a high-born but poor individual who was unable to defray the expenses incurred by officers of the state. Five chapters; the beginning and the end are both wanting.


It will be seen that the above are all of a panegyrical or complimentary character, and while they exhibit considerable command of language and grace of expression, do not afford an opportunity for the development of oratorical powers of a high order.

Lost Orations

We may gather from notices in the epistles and in other writers the arguments of several lost orations, such as Panegyricus Theodosii senioris (Ep. 2.13.); Panegyricus Maximi tyranni (Socrat. H. E. 5.14, comp. Ep. 2.31); Oratio de abroganda censura (Ep. 4.29, 45, 5.9); Oratio de Polybii filio (Ep. 4.45); Oratio contra Gildonem, (Ep. 4.4); Gratiarum actio (Ep. 7.50. This, as Mai suggests, was perhaps not an oration but an epistle, comp. Ep. 2.22, 3.81 ).


The fragments of the eight speeches were first published by Angelo Mai, 8vo. Mediolan. 1815, in a volume which was reprinted, page for page, at Frankfort, 8vo. 1816, and they will be found appended to Niebuhr's edition of Fronto, 8vo. 1816.

The extended fragments, comprising the additions to the eight speeches, and the remains of the ninth obtained from the Vatican MS., are contained in the Scriptorum Veterum Nova Collectio e Vaticanis Codicibus edita ab Angelo Maio, 4to. Rom., 1825, vol. i.; see also Meyer, Orator. Roman. Fraoymenta, pp. 627-636, 2d ed.


Symmachus composed in verse as well as prose, among other productions a poetic history of Bauli. See the lines in Ep. 1.1.

Fragment from an historical work

Jornandes (de Rebus Get. 15) quotes a long passage from an historical work by Symmachus, but it is extremely doubtful whether this Symmachus is the same person with the Symmachus we have now been discussing.


The editio princeps of the epistles of Symmachus, which contains but a small number of letters, was printed in 4to., by Bartholomaeus Cynischus of Ameria, and although without date or name of place, is known to have been published during the pontificate of Pope Julius II., that is, A. D. 1503-1513. The second edition, 4to. Argentorat. 1510, is also very imperfect; but in those printed at Basle, 8vo. 1549, Paris, 4to. 1580, and by Vignon and his heirs, 1587, 1598, and 1601, the collection was gradually enlarged from MSS., until it attained to its present magnitude. No really good edition of these letters has yet appeared, but the most useful for general purposes are those of Juretus, 4to. Paris, 1604, and of Scioppius, 4to. Mogunt. 1608.

hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
404 AD (1)
402 AD (1)
391 AD (1)
387 AD (1)
384 AD (1)
382 AD (1)
373 AD (1)
365 AD (1)
1513 AD (1)
1503 AD (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: