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The war with Gildo and the publication of the Letters of Symmachus

Christopher Lougheed

University of Alberta

This paper argues that the war against the rebellious African commander Gildo in 397 CE was the impetus for the publication of the Letters of Quintus Aurelius Symmachus (c. 340-402), both as a one-book and as a later seven-book collection. Roda (1981 71-74), supported by Sogno (2006, 61-62) and Salzman (2011 lx-lxi), has convincingly demonstrated that Symmachus’ son Memmius published only the first seven books of what is now a ten-book collection between 402 and 408. The more polished first book was almost certainly prepared and probably already released by Symmachus himself, as argued by Callu (1972, 17-18). The circumstances of this publication would shed light on the intentions behind the seven-book collection, but there is as yet no agreement on these. The letters could, in theory, have been published as early as 381-382 (Kelly 2015, 214-217), posthumously after 402 (Cameron 2016, 94-95), or any point in between, with Salzman (2011, liv n. 199) suggesting before 392. This paper argues for the date of Lougheed (2017, 64, 172-224), in the late 390s.

The events of the late 390s called for literary self-presentation. Symmachus was both extraordinarily well-connected at court in the late 390s, as noted by Sogno 2006, 78-85, and deeply unpopular in the immediate fallout of the war with Gildo in 397 (Ep. 6.61, 6.66.1), which he had supported at the behest of court and which threatened the provisioning of Rome. Adopting the heuristic fiction of intense public scrutiny, in Rome in 397 CE, of Symmachus’ contacts with the court of Honorius, this paper explains the more unexpected features of both the seven and the one-book collection of the Letters.

If these collections were meant not to demonstrate Symmachus’ friendship-dependent success but to justify it, their limited attention to personal successes is understandable. The seven-book collection rarely mentions his consulship of 391 (Ep. 2.62-2.64, Ep. 5.10 and Ep. 5.15). If the nature of Symmachus’ friendships with members of the Western court had been called into question, it is natural that the hundreds of friendly letters of  this collection show Symmachus as a genuine and equal friend. Finally, if this collection addresses readers who considered themselves more ambivalent than Symmachus toward the Western court of Honorius, the inclusion of cordial letters to the Eastern regent Rufinus (Ep. 3.81-91) becomes deliberate. The placement of these letters immediately before the letters to his Western rival Stilicho (Ep. 4.1-14), clearly suggests that Symmachus’ friendship transcended court politics. Although the seven-book collection cannot have been published until 402, it is a reasonable response to the events of 397.

The case for a seven-book collection connected to 397 is strengthened if the previously-released one-book collection on which it elaborates was released soon after 397. This one-book collection idealizes senatorial relations with the court of Gratian, in which Symmachus played an important mediating role. The early to mid-380s would be an unlikely date for publication if senatorial disenchantment with Gratian was at its height, as Symmachus’ Relation 3.1 would suggest. A publication in the late 390s, however, could simply remind readers of a safely distant earlier period in which Symmachus’ court connections had been much less controversial. The Letters, in both the one and seven-book collections, place the politics of Symmachus in a bland context of elite social relations; reactions to the war with Gildo suggest why he did so.

Session/Panel Title

Late Antique Literary Developments

Session/Paper Number

1.2

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