In the fourth century, when Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire, a statesman named Quintus Aurelius Symmachus developed a reputation as the “last great pagan.”
But was he really?
As it turns out, that dubious moniker was foisted on Symmachus by allies of his most prominent rival, St. Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, according to Cristiana Sogno, Ph.D., assistant professor of classics at Fordham.
In her presentation on Jan. 27, “How Did Symmachus Become the Last Great Pagan?” Sogno explained that Symmachus was the victim of a classic political tactic—victors extolling the strength of their opponents to make their own accomplishments seem even greater.
The seeds of the nickname were sown in a report, or relatio, issued in 384 A.D. to the 12-year-old Western emperor, Valentinian II, in which Symmachus mounted a defense of the traditional religion of Rome.
“There can be little doubt that the relatio is a beautifully constructed speech, and by far the most appealing piece of writing produced by Symmachus. Its compelling plea for religious toleration—in contrast with the almost fanatical intolerance that transpires from St. Ambrose—makes the text closer to the sensibilities of 21st century readers,” she said.
The problem, Sogno said, is that Symmachus never published it.
“In fact, the 49 reports that Symmachus produced during his relatively brief and difficult time as urban prefect remained locked away in his private archive. According to the most plausible reconstruction of their transmission, the reports were only published in the sixth century by someone who had access to the family archive,” she said.
“Paradoxically, the speech became well known because it was circulated as part of St. Ambrose’s letters.”
Sogno placed responsibility for Symmachus’ reputation as an ardent defender of paganism on Aurelius Prudentius Clemens, a Roman Christian poet who, in the fourth century, called Symmachus a shining star of Latin oratory, superior even to Cicero.
“If only he had chosen to praise the Christian God instead of polluting his clear voice with the crime of defending the pagan pantheon, his mouth would be ‘shining with gold eternal,’” Sogno quoted.
She took the position that Prudentius praised Symmachus to underscore the triumph of Christianity and, by association, St. Ambrose.
“It’s a David vs. Goliath situation: the bigger the opponent the greater the victory. More importantly, the rhetorical brilliance of Symmachus is tainted by its intrinsic falsity.”
Later writings in the 12th century about Symmachus dwell more on his rhetorical skills, but in the 18th century, Sogno said, English historian Edward Gibbon focused on Symmachus’ religious leanings in his six-volume set The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
“I would like to suggest that Gibbon was at least in part responsible for the religious turn. According to Gibbon, ‘The breast of Symmachus was animated by the warmest zeal for the cause of expiring paganism; and his religious antagonists lamented the abuse of his genius and inefficacy of his moral virtues,’” she quoted.