Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century/Symmachus Q. Aurelius

Symmachus (3) Q. Aurelius, the last eminent champion of paganism at Rome, son of L. Aurelius Avianus Symmachus, who was prefect of the city in 364, consul suffect and pretorian prefect in 376, and one of the envoys sent by Julian to Constantius (Ammian. xxi. 12, 24). He was educated at Bordeaux (Epp. ix. 88), where he and Ausonius became firm friends (Auson. Id. 11, in Migne, Patr. Lat. xix. 895; Symm. Epp. i. 13–43). After being questor and praetor, he became corrector of Lucania and Bruttium in 365 and proconsul of Africa in 373 (Cod. Theod. viii. tit. v. 25; xii. tit. i. 73). Being again in Gaul c. 369, he delivered his first panegyric on Valentinian as he witnessed the construction of his fortifications on the Rhine (Laud. in Valent. Sen. ii. 6). He was appointed prefect of the city at the end of 383 or the beginning of 384. He bore himself modestly in that office, which had been conferred on him unsolicited, declining the silver chariot which his predecessors had permission to use (Epp. x. 24, 40) and the title of "Magnificence" (Epp. iv. 42). In 382 he headed a deputation in the name of the majority of the senate, to the emperor Gratian, to request the replacement of the altar of Victory in the senate house and the restoration of their endowments to the vestals and the colleges of priests. The Christian senators, who, according to St. Ambrose, were really the majority, forwarded through pope Damasus a counter-petition, and by the influence of St. Ambrose the efforts of Symmachus were defeated, as again in 384, after Gratian's death (S. Ambi. Epp. 17, 18, 57, in Patr. Lat. xvi. 961, 972, 1175; Symm. Epp. x. 61. He probably took part in the missions for the same purpose sent by the senate by Theodosius after the fall of Maximus, and to Valentinian II. in 392 (S. Ambr. Ep. 57); and again suffered the same disappointment. In 393 the pagan party had a momentary triumph. Eugenius, at the instigation of Flavian and Arbogast, who had placed him on the throne, restored the altar of Victory and the endowments of the priests (Paulin. Vita S. Amb.. in Patr. Lat. xvi. 30), but they were again abolished by Theodosius after the defeat of Eugenius and Arbogast. Symmachus appears to have made a final attempt in 403 or 404; at least such is the natural inference from the two books of Prudentius, contra Symmachum, written after Pollentia and consequently c. 404.

Though a champion of the pagan cause, Symmachus was on excellent terms with the Christian leaders. He was a friend of pope Damasus and apparently of St. Ambrose himself, whom Cardinal Mai considers to be the Ambrose to whom seven of his letters are addressed (Epp. iii. 31–37), of St. Ambrose's brother Satyrus (S. Ambr. de Excessu Fratris, i. 32, in Patr. Lat. xvi. 1300), and of Mallius Theodorus, to whom St. Augustine (Retr. i. 2, in Patr. Lat. xxxii. 588) dedicated one of his works. When prefect, he sent St. Augustine as a teacher of rhetoric to Milan (Conf. v. 19, in Patr. Lat. xxxii. 717), and was thus the unconscious instrument of his conversion. His Christian opponents always speak in high terms of his character and abilities. He was a member of the college of pontiffs, and as such exercised a strict supervision over the vestal virgins. In the case of one of the Alban vestals, who had broken her vow of chastity, he demanded the enforcement of the ancient penalty against her and her paramour (Epp. ix. 128, 129), and sternly refused the request of another to be released from her vows before her time of service ended (Epp. ix. 108).

The letters of Symmachus give a remarkable picture of the circumstances and life of a Roman noble just before the final break-up of the empire. His wealth, though not above that of an average senator (Olymp. ap. Not.), was very great. He had a mansion on the Coelian near S. Stefano Rotondo and other houses in Rome (Epp. iii. 14), and numerous country residences, of which he mentions four suburban (Epp. i. 6, ii. 57, iii. 55, vi. 58) and several more remote (Epp. i. 1, 8, 10, ii. 60, iii. 50, iv. 44, vi. 66, 81, vii. 15, 35). He had property near Aquileia and in Samnium, Sicily, and Mauritania (Epp. iv. 68, vi. 11, ii. 30, vii. 66). The expenses of his son's praetorship; which he paid, amounted to 2,000 pounds of gold (Olymp. u.s.), and in many of his letters he asks his friends to send him rare wild beasts for the sports of his son's praetorship and questorship. Among other, seven Irish wolf-dogs are mentioned (Epp. ii. 77). In three of his letters he speaks of his advancing years (Epp. iv. 18, 32, viii. 48). He was certainly alive in 404.

His letters are reprinted in 10 books in Patr. Lat. xviii. Early in the 19th cent. Cardinal Mai discovered in the Ambrosian Library fragments of 9 speeches of Symmachus, which he published in 1815, and again in 1846. A new ed. of the Relationes, his official correspondence with emperors, was pub. in 1872 by W. Meyer.