Symmachus (Family) - Encyclopedia Britannica 1911




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SYMMACHUS, the name of a celebrated Roman family of the 4th to 6th centuries of our era. It belonged to the gens Aurelia and can be traced back to Aurelius Julianus Symmachus, proconsul of Achaea (according to others, vicar or vice-prefect of Macedonia) in the year 319. Lucius Aurelius Avianius Symmachus, presumably his son, was prefect of Rome in the year 364, and had also other important posts. He was celebrated for his virtues and the senate awarded him in 377 a gilded statue.

Quintus Aurelius Symmachus (c. 345-4 10), son of the lastnamed, was one of the most brilliant representatives in public life and in the literature of 4th-century paganism in Rome. He was educated in Gaul, and, having discharged the functions of praetor and quaestor, rose to higher offices, and in 373 was proconsul of Africa (for his official career see C.I.L. vi. 1699). His public dignities, which included that of pontifex maximus, his great wealth and high character, added to his reputation for eloquence, marked him out as the champion of the pagan senate against the measures which the Christian emperors directed against the old state religion of Rome. In 382 he was banished from Rome by Gratian for his protest against the removal of the statue and altar of Victory from the senate-house (see Gibbon, Decline and Fall, ch. 28), and in 384, when he was prefect of the city, he addressed to Valentinian II. a letter praying for the restoration of these symbols. This is the most interesting of his literary remains, and called forth two replies from St Ambrose, as well as a poetical refutation from Prudentius. After this Symmachus was involved in the rebellion of Maximus, but obtained his pardon from Theodosius, and appears to have continued in public life up to his death. In 391 he was Consul ordinarius. His honesty, both in public and in private affairs, and his amiability made him very popular. The only reproach that could be made against this last valiant defender of paganism is a certain aristocratic conservativeness, and an exaggerated love of the past. As his letters do not extend beyond the year 402, he probably died soon after that date.

Of his writings we possess: (I) Panegyrics, written in his youth in a very artificial style, two on Valentinian I. and one on the youthful Gratian. (2) Nine books of Epistles, and two from the tenth book, published after his death by his son. The model followed by the writer is Pliny the Younger, and from a reference in the Saturnalia of Macrobius (bk. v., i. § 7), in which Symmachus is introduced as one of the interlocutors, it appears that his contemporaries deemed him second to none of the ancients in the "rich and florid" style. We find them vapid and tedious. (3) Fragments of Complimentary Orations, five from a palimpsest (also containing the Panegyrics), of which part is at Milan and part in the Vatican, discovered by Mai, who published the Milan fragments in 1815, the Roman in his Scriptorum veterum nova collectio, vol. i. (1825), and the whole in 1846. (4) The Relationes, which contain an interesting account of public life in Rome, composed for the emperor. In these official writings (reports as prefect of the city), Symmachus is not preoccupied by style and becomes sometimes eloquent; especially so in his remarkable report on the altar of Victory.

His SOn, Quintus Fabius Memmius Symmachus, was proconsul of Africa (415) and prefect of the city (418). He was probably the father of the Symmachus who was consul in 446, and whose son was Quintus Aurelius Memmius Symmachus (d. 525), patrician, one of the most cultivated noblemen of Rome of the beginning of the 6th century, editor (e.g. of Macrobius, Somnium Scipionis) and historian, and especially celebrated for his building activity. He was consul in 485. Theodoric charged him with the restoration of the theatre of Pompey. He was father-in-law of Boetius, and was involved in his fate, being disgraced and finally put to death by Theodoric in 525.

See E. Morin, Etudes sur Symmaque (1847); G. Boissier, La Fin du paganisme (1891), vol. ii.; T. R. Glover, Life and Letters in the Fourth Century (1901); S. Dill, Roman Society in the last century of the Western Empire (1898); T. Hodgkin, Italy and her Invaders, (1880-1899) vol. iii. (on the Boetius "conspiracy"); M. Schanz, Geschichte der romischen Litteratur (1904), vol. iv. pt. I; and TeuffelSchwabe, Hist. of Roman Literature (Eng. trans., 1900), pp. 4 2 5, 477, 4.

All editions of the works of Symmachus are now superseded by that of O. Seeck in Monumenta Germaniae historica. Auctores antiquissimi (1883), vi. 1, with introductions on his life, works and chronology, and a genealogical table of the family.

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