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The Letters of Symmachus: Remembering a Roman Aristocrat and His Family

Michele Salzman

As I, and others, have recently argued, the ten books of Symmachus’s letters were published in increments and not in imitation of Pliny’s alleged ten-book epistolary collection.  Moreover, Symmachus published Book 1 soon after he left the office of urban prefect in 384. This is one of the first books of letters to have been circulated in the Latin west in the fourth century; and Symmachus published his letters, in my view, to promote his and his family’s prestige and values.   Twenty years later, between 402-408, Symmachus’s son, Q. Fabius Memmius Symmachus, published Books 2-7 of the correspondence.   Books 8–10 were a late fifth- or early sixth- century addition, perhaps by the consul and son-in-law of Boethius, Quintus Aurelius Memmius Symmachus.  This complicated publication history has not, however, been fully considered by scholars who use these letters as simple reflections of fourth century aristocratic society and its values. 

As I will demonstrate, by considering the publication dates for Symmachus’s letters in conjunction with contemporary evidence from the 380s and 400s (notably The Carmen Contra Paganos and the laws in the Theodosian Code), we can discern some key shifts in the religious and political concerns of the late Roman aristocracy.  Though the language of patronage and the emphasis on family remained constant, the letters published in the first decade of the fifth century  (Books 2-7) indicate that Symmachus’s support for state cult was no longer a desired means of self- presentation.  This is reflected in the language and thematic concerns in these later letters.   As I will show, terms like pietas and religio, and references to the gods (in the plural) along with notices of state cult and festivals decline in frequency as compared to Book 1.   At the same time, these books demonstrate an increasingly open measure of support for the state, as evidenced by echoes of imperial slogans in these letters, and a number of letters to ‘barbarian’ generals.  Hence Books 2-7 – edited as they were by Memmius Symmachus - reflect the political realities of the first decade of the fifth century where the imperial state and its generals were in close contact with Rome’s leading aristocratic families in a time of military threat.

By the late fifth century when a member of this family collected the remains of Symmachus’s letters for publication as Books 8-10, it was far more important to remember Symmachus as statesman and patron.  Links to the imperial bureaucracy and to the generals were not as valued as they had been, judging from the recipients of these later books.   Letters of recommendation predominate, especially in book 9. in an attempt to teach new Germanic rulers about the value of epistolary etiquette and of this family and its patronage links in the late fifth century.   

Differences in the intended purposes of these three parts of Symmachus’s letter collection, published at three different times, reflect the changing needs of two centuries of Symmachi. Nonetheless, the importance of family and the centrality of Roman aristocratic society explain the influence of Symmachus’s letters through these changing times.


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Epistolary Fictions and Realities

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