AMONG the gorgeous canvases of Rubens which crowd the great galleries of Europe, there is none more memorable, and none surely which better illustrates the superb mastery of the painter, than a certain one in the Belvedere at Vienna, which represents a swarthy man, in the full vigor of middle age, wearing the spiked crown of a Roman Emperor upon his thick, short hair, and accompanied by a group of attendants no less stalwart than himself, and even fiercer in expression. Pressing unitedly and vehemently forward up a flight of steps, at whose head stands a stately mitred figure, they suddenly pause, — arrested, as it would seem, by an almost imperceptible gesture of the prelate’s hand, and reluctantly acknowledging in every tough fibre of their warlike frames the ascendency over mere brute force of the spiritual power by which they are confronted. No need to consult the catalogue for an explanation of this picture. The incident of St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, turning back from the doors of the Portian basilica the man who had ordered the massacre of Thessalonica is too picturesque not to have held its place in the least retentive memory, and Rubens has portrayed it once for all. But the vigorous genius of the artist does more than this. It kindles in the gazer’s mind a new curiosity concerning the causes and consequences of so dramatic an event. How, after all, did it come about, this first prostrate submission of the ruler of the world to a mere local dignitary of the Christian Church, and what were its immediate results ? The teeming moral chaos of the time, the spirit brooding over the darkling waters, the general inundation and subversion of the old upon the one hand, and on the other the dimly emerging proportions of the new, — these things could hardly, as I think, be better illustrated than by collating the following curious facts. Theodosius was denied by Ambrose the shelter and sacraments of the Church from the April day commemorated in Rubens’s picture until the following December ; and during this period of excommunication he restored to favor and nominated to the consulate of the following year, 391, Q. Aurelius Symmachus. one of the stanchest as well as ablest pagans of his age,—a man whose religious opinions were notorious, and who had already had more than one démêlé concerning them with the Bishop of Milan himself.
Symmachus and Ambrosius were nearly of the same age, and both scions of the old Roman nobility. Whether they were acquainted in boyhood is uncertain, but it is hardly likely that they met before 353, when the death of his father, who had been prefect of Gaul, brought Ambrose back to Rome. With him came his widowed mother, and the sister, already a professed virgin, who is known to the faithful as St. Marcellina, and to whom so many of his subsequent letters are addressed.
The chances are, however, that, belonging as they did to the same social rank, the two youths knew one another at least by sight. The family of Ambrose was Christian, indeed, but he himself was still a layman, and he may well have frequented, along with Symmachus and Hieronymus (afterwards St. Jerome), the lectures of that Victorinus the story of whose long vacillation and final conversion to Christianity may be read, like so much else which helps to vivify that time, in the Confessions of St. Augustine: “ Let me tell what I have learned concerning Victorinus, . . . once master of rhetoric at Rome, that illustrious and most erudite old man, an adept in all the liberal sciences, who had read, weighed, and elucidated so many works of the philosophers ; who had been the instructor of so many noble senators ; who, for the excellent discharge of his official duties, had merited and obtained what the men of this world think a supreme honor, a statue in the Roman Forum, — he to so great an age a worshiper of idols, and partaker of those sacrilegious rites which the haughty Roman nobility of that day, almost without exception, imposed upon the people, . . . now a disciple of Thy Christ and a child of Thy baptism,” etc. The passionless yet ever poignant narrative, quiet from the very excess of emotion which underlies it, runs its even course, bearing unintentional testimony of the strongest kind to the state of religious opinion in the middle of the fourth century, in that capital which was still the one City to all who spoke the Latin tongue.
That the Christian colony at Rome, now long delivered both from the terror and the stimulus of persecution, was flourishing and perpetually recruited is made evident, not so much by the vehement assertions of controversial writers as by certain incidental indications. Among these, three may be named as most significant. — the many churches erected or enlarged, the increasing splendor of living affected by the Bishop of Rome, and the considerable number of persons who relapsed to paganism.
The great mass of Christian converts belonged to that sturdy middle class of traders and artisans, by whom Protestantism was fostered in France in the seventeenth century, and Methodism in England in the eighteenth. The basso popolo — and very base, for the most part, it was — wavered from side to side in obedience to its material instincts ; but when the rites of the Church and the pleasures of the circus came into conflict, the latter usually carried the day. As for the senatorial caste of Rome, with a few noble and familiar exceptions, there is no reason to suppose that any distinct presentiment had at this time visited its members of the complete revolution so soon to occur. Constantine had established religious equality; they shrugged their patrician shoulders and acquiesced. The ceremonies of the old worship were kept up, auspices taken and sacrifices offered, as one necessary part of the ritual of a Roman existence; just as the incessant frequentation of those magnificent baths, doomed also erelong to become a thing of the past, constituted another. It hardly seems that the augurs can have been sufficiently alert of mind, even to smile any longer behind their sheltering hands.
We must remember, too, that the Rome in which the functions of Pontifex and Sacerdos were thus punctually performed lacked nothing as yet of the splendor of that marble city which Augustus had left. Two late cults, those of Mithras and Cybele, had indeed arisen, and had attracted many of the worshipers of the old divinities; but the superb temples of the latter, even when not frequented, continued to exist in all their golden glory, and garden, street, and forum were still thronged with statues.
There is a certain dry enumeration of the principal monuments of the secular city in the middle of the fourth century, which is invaluable to the modern student, for the very reason that it is plainly but the careful and conscientious list of a mere sight-seer who had no point to make. I will copy Publius Victor’s catalogue of the edifices which adorned that portion of Rome where modern investigation has been most active : —
Ward VIII. contains: —
The great Roman Forum, the rostra.
The golden genius of the Roman people, and the horse of Constantine.
The little Senate-House.
The hall of Minerva,
The fora of Cæsar, Augustus, and Nerva Trajan.
The temple of the Divine Trajan, his column one hundred and twenty-eight feet high, having within a spiral staircase with one hundred and eighty-five steps and forty-five windows.
Six cohorts for guards.
The temple of Concord.
The navel of Rome.
The temples of Saturn and Vespasian.
The Capitol with its monuments.
The Golden Milestone.
The temples of Julia, the Castors, and Vesta,
The storehouse built by Agrippina in memory of Germanicus.
Four shrines in the crypt of the temple surrounded by water.1
The hall of Cacus.
The street of the ox-herds and perfumers.
The Greek embassy.
The portico of the pearl-merchants.
XXXIV streets, XXIX shrines, XLVIII superintendents of roads and ways, II curators, IIIDCCCLXXX apartment houses, CXXX dwellings, XVIII granaries, LXXXVI I baths. CXX ponds, XV bakeries.
Baffled and bewildered by the attempt to realize all this, the mind retains only a vaguely dazzling impression of unparalleled riches and majesty. Yet the vision has once been depicted almost as conclusively as the humiliation of Theodosius, and the very Roma aurea of our dreams — a cloud-capped city, a vista of warm-hued colonnades along a shining river, a suffusion of unearthly sunshine — lives for whoever will seek it out in that most poetic of Turner’s classical pictures, The Landing of Agrippina with the Ashes of Germanicus.
When Constantius, the son of Constantine the Great, visited Rome in 356, — that is to say, thirty-five years before the discipline of Theodosius, —and went through with his vain travesty of a Roman triumph, he was simply overpowered by the architectural splendor of the ancient capital. “ He went over the whole city,” says the faithful historian Ammianus Marcellinus, “ both the level parts and the slopes and summits of the seven hills; he visited all the suburbs, also, and every new object which he beheld seemed more glorious than the last; but the temple of Tarpeian Jove transcended all the rest, he thought, as heaven transcends the earth.” 3
Nevertheless, it was Constantius himself, during this very visit, who made the first ominous attack upon the pagan worship in Rome, by ordering the altar of Victory to be removed from its place in the Curia Julia. This altar and the celebrated statue of the divinity by which it was surmounted4 were both easily portable, and it had long been the custom to set them up wherever the Senate assembled, and, after the burning of incense upon the altar, for the senators there to take their civic oath of fidelity to the Emperor.
“ Constantius, of august memory,” says Ambrose, in the course of a long letter to Valentinian II. on this exceedingly vexed question, “ though not initiated into the sacred mysteries, thought himself polluted by the sight of that altar ; he commanded it to be removed, he did not command it to be replaced. His order has the force of an act; his silence does not bear the authority of a precept.”
Inasmuch as Julian, the successor of Constantius, had formally reinstated the altar, this seems a little beside the point; nor does Ambrose here mention any strong feeling among the minority of Christian senators concerning this matter. The elder Valentinian was not disposed to trouble himself about the altar, nor indeed about the Senate itself, nor any of the — to him — shadowy concerns of the Eternal City ; it was during his reign, however (362-375), that Ambrose and Symmachus began to play the conspicuous parts assigned them at a memorable moment of history.
Both have left a mass of correspondence, of which the major part is unimportant, the remainder of the highest significance. The dates of the letters of Symmachus are especially hard to fix, but the earliest which has come down to us appears to have been written during the urban prefecture of his father, the elder Symmachus, who held that office in the years 364, 365. It runs as follows: " To Flavian, my brother : The valuers of property accused of malversation, whom your Highness ordered to be brought in from the Abruzzi, have arrived, escorted by a detachment of the prætorian guard. But since the case falls within the jurisdiction of the prefect of the city, my lord, our relative, who holds that office, by virtue of his legal right, and wishing to testify his confidence in yourself, has assumed the charge of these persons and of the whole business. I write this by way of assuring you that no blame should attach to the sergeant who surrendered them to your relative and to the laws.”
This letter is noteworthy, not only as a specimen of the concise and courteous official style of Symmachus, but because the Flavian to whom it and many more were addressed played a very prominent part in the last revival of paganism. He was an intimate friend of Symmaehus, and probably also connected with him by some tie of blood. But whether this were the case or no, — for both frater and communis parens were expressions which, in the days of Symmachus, were occasionally applied to mere friends, — the identity of this Flavian is always clear, and he need never be confused with the two other persons of the same name who sometimes figure in the correspondence, one of whom was his own young son, and a great favorite with our Symmachus, the other a gentleman with whom the latter was on extremely formal terms.
About the same time a correspondence begins with Agorius Prætextatus, the most eminent member of the pagan party, and its titular leader up to the time of his sudden and melancholy death, nearly twenty years later. One of these letters alludes to an incident which might have occurred yesterday, so familiar to our thoughts and fears is the tension of feeling between rich and poor which it illustrates. The elder Symmachus had a beautiful palace in Trastevere, which the Roman mob burned down one night, because he had wounded their sensibilities by saying that he would sooner slake lime with his wine than sell it at the low figure then prevailing. The son writes : “ To Prætextatus : Pray forgive me if I insist upon telling you something to my own advantage. You must have heard that while my father was in rural retirement, endeavoring to digest his indignation at the loss of his house, the Senate, after passing repeated votes for his recall, paid him the unheard-of compliment of sending an embassy to bring him back. He accordingly embraced the earliest opportunity of returning thanks to the Senate, and he did it with that sober eloquence of his which you know so well. This was on January 1st; and almost immediately after, I had to fulfill an earlier promise, and make public acknowledgment on behalf of the son of my friend Trigetius, who had been elected prætor, thus doing for another what I had not done for my own father, who, however, as I have already told you, had discharged his duty to the Senate in person. So, on the 9th of January, I too spoke at considerable length, and I send you my speech herewith, begging that you will judge it upon its own merits. While awaiting your criticism, I have thought it right to withhold from you the opinion of others, lest I should seem to wish to influence you by their unanimity. Farewell.”
The contrast, in this ingenuous letter, between the irrepressible self-satisfaction of the opening sentence and the ceremonious modesty of its conclusion is amusing.
In 368, or somewhere about his thirtieth year, Symmachus went to Germany to perform military duty, and there, at the court of Valentinian II., to which his rank gave him easy access, he met and became warmly attached to Ausonius, the Burgundian poet and tutor of the heir apparent, Gratian. Ausonius was old enough to have been his father, but the two men had many tastes in common, and may well have been a resource to one another in the Belgian capital and the imperial camp. Symmachus delivered two panegyrics during his residence in Germany, — one of the Emperor, and one of the lad Gratian on the occasion of his investiture with the purple. He had been corrector of Lucania before serving his term in the army, and when the latter was concluded he was made proconsul of Africa, and distinguished himself in that office.
At the close of 373 we find him once more in Rome, and already married to that fair Rusticiana whose sympathy with her husband’s literary pursuits Sidonius Apollinaris illustrates so quaintly by saying that she held “ candles and candlesticks ” for him when he worked at night. Orfitus, the father of Rusticiana, was one of the wealthiest of the Roman patricians. He erected a new temple to Apollo, and raised a statue to the great hero of his party, Julian the Apostate. He got statues in return, after his own race was run, and some of their inscriptions yet remain, bearing witness to the sterling qualities of his character and his fervent devotion to the faith of his fathers.
The palace which was burned seems never to have been rebuilt, and later we find the town house of the family of Symmachus upon the Cœlian hill. Villas indeed they had, enough and to spare, in every one of the well-known suburbs, and on the remoter and yet lovelier sites, distinguished by the fashion and adorned by the taste of four hundred years : at Tivoli, Ostia, Formiæ and Capua, and upon the Bay of Naples. The writings of Symmachus abound in careless allusions to these different country-seats, but we find no elaborate descriptions, like those of which the younger Pliny had started the vogue. In fact, the great quality of the letters of Symmachus is their simplicity. Their language is the clumsy and often obscure Latin of the time, but they are singularly devoid of affectation, whether personal or literary. Take as a specimen the following pleasant note to Flavian, one of ninety odd letters and billets addressed to this friend :
“Your special messenger with letters found me at my little place on the Appian Way. You must know the one I mean, where I put up such a mass of buildings on so narrow a piece of land. I have had a most delightful rest out here; that is to say, if anything can be delightful without you. Now, however, I must hie me home on account of the feast of Vesta ; 5 and I don’t know yet whether I can come back, or whether I shall have to remain with my fellowcitizens. I am longing to know what you decide to do ; really, you have been too long away! But my candidature — please the gods — will bring you back at once. Your presence will give more éclat to my taking of office than that of any other relative or friend whom I have in the world.”
The letters of this time are all those of a conservative Roman gentleman, loyally abiding by the traditions, political, social, and religious, of the great days gone by, who notes with sharp regret that “ once men filled even their familiar correspondence with the affairs of Rome, now become so insignificant, or rather null.”
The worship of Vesta, concerning which our friend was especially punctilious, had a peculiar sacredness for every Roman of the vieille souche. Not merely was Vesta the divinity of hearth and home, but her handmaids had charge of the sacred fire, and of those mysterious relics which formed the fatale pignus imperii. — the ‘‘fateful pledge of Rome’s eternal sway.” The Vestal Virgins themselves enjoyed infinite privileges and immunities. Their independence of the conventional trammels of ordinary womanhood might have satisfied the soul of any modern reformer of their sex, and how they struck a contemporary may be seen from the work of a nameless geographer, of about 374, and known to us only through a Latin translation from the original Greek : —
“ So Italy, abounding in all good things, possesses, moreover, this chief good, — the greatest, most eminent and royal city, which shows its quality by its very name of ROME, which they say the boy Romulus founded. Thus it is especially extensive, and adorned with sacred edifices. For every Emperor, whether of former times or of the present day, has desired to build something there, and each of them has left such a work, bearing his own name. If you look for those of the Antonines, you will find numberless things, as, for example, the forum of Trajan, which contains a striking basilica called by his name. The city has a well-situated circus, much ornamented with brass. There are in this same Rome, also, seven ingenuous virgins of noble birth, whose duty it is to insure the safety of the city by caring for the sacred things of the gods, according to the custom of the ancients. These are denominated the Vestal Virgins. Rome has, likewise, a river known to many, the Tiber, which is of use to the aforesaid city, dividing it on its way to the sea ; and by means of this, all things which come from foreign parts make their way up a distance of eighteen miles, and so the city abounds in all good things. Moreover, it has a great Senate of rich men ; and if you consider its members one by one, you will find they have all been, or are to be, judges, or in some other post of authority, though reluctantly, as men who prefer to enjoy their own possessions in security. Also, they worship certain of the gods, Jupiter and the Sun, and they are said to cherish the rites of the mother of the gods. Certainly, good aruspices are to be found there. So much for Rome.'’
I have given this extract entire, as affording one more striking illustration of how completely to outward appearance Rome was still the peerless pagan city, serenely unconscious or sublimely careless of the new life which had increased so mightily within her walls, and which was about to make, in the period to which we have now arrived, a tremendous assertion of its vigor.
The chair of St. Peter was at this time occupied by Pope Damasus, known to us chiefly from the testimony of his enemies, but even thus approving himself a man of great, and varied ability. He ruled his flock both adroitly and firmly, and was a man of letters also, being the rival of Ambrose as a hymnwriter, and one of the first of his age to discard the learned measures of Greece in favor of the old-fashioned rustic poetry of accent. After carefully trimming between the Catholic and Arian parties, during the alternate bishoprics of the Pope Liberius and the Anti-Pope Felix, he was elected, on the death of the former, in 366, as orthodox Pope, while the choice of the Arians fell on one Ursicinus. Twice, during the month of his election, Damasus came to blows with his rival; and on the occasion of the second of these conflicts, which took place in the Liberian basilica, Sta. Maria Maggiore, one hundred and sixty Arians of both sexes are said to have perished. These unseemly disturbances were finally quelled by Prætextatus, in his capacity of urban prefect. " Ursicinus was exiled.’’ says Ammianus, “and there ensued a time of great quiet, very desirable for the citizens of Rome, whereby the fame of the distinguished ruler who had carried so many wise measures was much increased.”
The labors of Damasus in the catacombs, where he " constructed flights of stairs leading to the more illustrious shrines and adorned the chambers with marble, opening shafts to admit air and light where practicable, and supporting the friable tufa walls with arches of brick and stone work,” 6 show plainly enough how far past was the day when Christian rites needed the shelter of secrecy. The anecdote is perhaps not perfectly authenticated which represents Prætextatus as saying jestingly to Damasus, with reference to the luxury of the latter’s establishment, that if he could be Bishop of Rome he would not himself mind turning Christian : but Ammianus bears his dryly impressive and always trustworthy testimony to the curious contrast between the pontiff’s way of living and the hardships of his provincial clergy.
The year 374 was the last in which the title of Pontifex Maximus was borne by a legitimate Roman Emperor, and we know to whom that title ultimately fell; but the same year was even more memorable to the Christian Church, as being that of the elevation of Ambrose to the bishopric of Milan.
Already famous as an advocate at Rome, Ambrose had gone to Milan about four years earlier under the patronage of the prefect Anicius Probus, — a nominal Christian like himself, but probably like himself, also, still unbaptized. When the then Arian Bishop of Milan came to die, it fell to Ambrose, as a civil magistrate, to attempt to quiet the violent disturbances attending the election, extremely popular in form as then conducted, of his successor. The great advocate was addressing a sort of massmeeting in the metropolitan church, which occupied the posterior part of the present cathedral, when a child’s voice was heard to pipe the words, “ Bishop Ambrose ! ” The cry was caught up by the crowd ; Catholic and Arian swelled the shout, and the Roman lawyer was chosen bishop by acclamation. Feeling himself profoundly unfit for the solemn charge so strangely thrust upon him, Ambrose made strenuous efforts, first to decline the honor altogether, and then to defer the time of its acceptance, but without avail. Heaven was believed to have spoken; and Ambrose, though his traditions were orthodox, being as yet unpledged to either of the warring parties in the Church, considered that the “ enemy and the aggressor ” would surely be “ stayed ” by the inspired proclamation of the babe in the basilica. The Emperor, when heard from, highly approved, and Probus was naturally gratified at the signal fulfillment of his own parting words to Ambrose, when the latter was leaving Rome: “Farewell, and conduct yourself like a bishop rather than a judge.”
But it required miracles not only in Milan, but at Rome, where he paid a visit shortly after his election, fully to convince Ambrose of his own episcopal vocation. His position would have been difficult enough in any case in a capital where pagan influences were still as predominant as at Milan, but it was yet further complicated by the presence in the city of that extremely clever woman the Arian Empress Justina, together with a large following who shared her opinions and were devoted to her person. She was the second wife of Valentinian I., and upon that Emperor’s sudden death, having caused her fouryear-old boy, who bore his father’s name, to be proclaimed co-ruler with his half-brother Gratian, she herself acted as regent and guardian, and continued, so long as she lived, to afford efficient protection to the Arian sect.
From this time on, it becomes doubly curious to compare the letters of Ambrose the Bishop and Symmachus the Pontifex Major. The identity of their social habits and traditions causes them to use precisely the same tone and language about trivial affairs.
“ Thanks for your splendid mushrooms,” says the former; “ they were amazingly big. Not wishing, as the proverb says, ‘to hide such a gift, in my bosom,’I shared with my friends, and kept only a part. But do not fancy that by this seductive offering you are going to propitiate my righteous wrath against you for staying so long away from your friends,'’ etc.
“Your exploits in the hunting-field,” Symmachus writes to two young sportsmen of his acquaintance, “ are a sufficient proof that you are in robust health. Allow me, then, first to congratulate you on being able to enjoy field sports, and then to thank you for your gift of game. It is thought a suitable compliment even to the gods to consecrate the horns of stags, and fasten the teeth of boars to our doorposts. How much more, then, to offer to a friend the spoils of the forest! ” etc.
But the moment public matters are broached, the enormous difference in the point of view of the two dignitaries becomes evident. Thus there came before each of them for adjudication the painful case of a virgo devota accused of having broken her vow of chastity. The one culprit was a Christian nun, the other a Vestal Virgin. Ambrose, though distressingly prolix, reiterating the evidence for and against the culprit, and examining the subject from all possible points of view, is yet merciful and tender to the unhappy girl. Symmachus, in the case of the Vestal, is brief, dignified, and absolutely pitiless. It is the difference between the piety of the new world and the virtue of the old. In purely religious matters the contrast is, of course, yet more striking.
“ As a true citizen, born for the good of the state,” writes Symmachus to Prætextatus, “ you desire the very latest, intelligence concerning our harassing affairs. I thought I had good reason for supposing that all was going well. Then came a time of suspicious silence, followed by disquieting rumors. I never propose to distress myself about anonymous reports, but I am made exceedingly anxious by the fact that, although sacrifices of all sorts have been offered again and again by all the authorities, no efficient atonement has yet been made in the public name for the portentous occurrence at Spoleto. The eighth victim seems hardly to have propitiated Jove, and the eleventh sacrifice to the goddess of the Public Fortune has produced no result, notwithstanding the unusual number of victims. You see what a state we are in. It is now proposed to call a meeting of all our colleagues” (the Pontifices Majores), “and if the gods give any signs of relenting I will assuredly let you know.”
Beside this grave bulletin from one perturbed statesman to another we will set a letter of Ambrose to Marcellina : —
“ To my lady sister, dearer than life and eyes, her brother : Since it is my custom to keep your holiness apprised of all that goes on here in your absence, I beg now to inform you that we have found some holy martyrs. For when I was in the act of dedicating the basilica, I was interrupted by a great and general cry of ‘ Dedicate it as you did the Roman one ! ’ ‘I will do so,’I replied,
‘ if I find any relics of martyrs.’ And all at once I felt within me the glow of a strong presentiment. To be brief, God granted me this very grace. For, in spite of the alarm of the clergy,7 I caused the earth to be opened in front of the altar rail of SS. Felix and Nabor, and there I found the accustomed tokens. Moreover, while they were bringing in people for me to lay my hands upon them, the holy martyrs began to work so powerfully that, before a word had been spoken, an urn8 was seized and flung prostrate upon the sacred sepulchre. We then found two male bodies, of that extraordinary size which was customary in ancient times. Their bones were all intact, and there was a good deal of blood. For two days there was an immense concourse of people. But not to enlarge, we arranged the remains in perfect order, and carried them at nightfall to the Faustan basilica. There we kept vigil all night, and there was some laying on of hands. The next day the relics were taken to the basilica which they call the Ambrogian,9 and a blind man was healed during the translation. I addressed the people as follows.”
The sermon of St. Ambrose is too long to quote, even if it were not too polemical in tone to be altogether agreeable reading. The strife of Catholic and Arian was then at its bitterest at Milan, but the invention of these relics of the saints, Gervasius and Protasius, gave the orthodox party an immense popular lift, and after the death of the Empress Justina their ascendency was confirmed.
We will now resume the thread of those public events which were destined to bring into sharp collision our two representative Romans. When the death of Valentinian I. had been followed, four years later, in 379. by that of his brother Valens, Emperor of the East, Gratian, as is well known, raised to the throne of Constantinople the great Spanish general Theodosius, assigned to his boyish half-brother, Valentinian II., the Italian peninsula and a portion of the Illyrian coast, and reserved to himself the kingdom of the West. It was the last wise act of Gratian’s brief and ineffectual reign, but it is Ambrose who must be held chiefly responsible for the unfortunate reversal of his religious policy.
Perfect liberty of worship had been the law of the Roman Empire since the conversion of Constantine, in 325: and now, after fifty years of rest, recuperation, and marvelous growth, the Christians were beginning to clamor for permission to become persecutors in their turn. They had their way in the East sooner than in the West, and both the orthodox and the pagan subjects of the Arian Emperor Valens had to suffer severely for their religious opinions. Valentinian, however, continued, so long as he lived, to deal out to all parties a rough but even-handed justice, and Gratian, on his first accession, not merely confirmed the edicts of toleration, but even suffered his father’s apotheosis, after the pagan fashion. The imperial youth was probably, for the moment, still swayed by the ideas of his free-thinking and never properly converted tutor, Ausonius ; but the time was approaching when the influence of Ambrose would become paramount with him. Already, in 379, Gratian had written to the Bishop of Milan expressing his willingness to receive religious instruction, and the bishop had forwarded to the Emperor five doctrinal treatises of his own. In 381, Gratian made a considerable stay in Milan, and it was in August of this year that he published his first edict restricting liberty of worship and forbidding heretics to preach their false doctrines. Another deprived relapsed Christians of the right to testify in the courts, and in 382 a law was promulgated which struck at the very heart of paganism. It was enacted that the fateful altar of Victory should be definitively removed from its place in the curia, while a considerable proportion of the income of the pagan priesthood, including all provision for the worship of Vesta and the support of her handmaids, was alienated to the imperial treasury.
It was unlikely that this edict should have been meekly received at Rome, and we are not surprised to find Symmachus at Trèves shortly after, as head of an embassy, come to remonstrate with Gratian against the injustice of the new laws. This mission failed signally, and it, is but natural that the usurpation of Maximus and the fall and death of Gratian in the following year should have been complacently regarded by the pagan party. To Ambrose, however, the blow was a severe one. He went at once in person to Maximus to beg the body of Gratian ; and though his petition was as curtly refused as had been that of Symmachus concerning the desecrated altar, he seems to have succeeded, by means of his unalienable personal prestige, in binding over Maximus to keep a species of peace, which lasted for three years.
The letters of Ambrose at this period abound in eulogies of the murdered youth and lamentations over his untimely end ; nor can the name of Gratian be quite kept out even of his strictly religious writings. His disquisition on the sixty-first psalm is thus prefaced, probably by another hand : “ In treating of this psalm, Ambrose the bishop severely censures the impiety and bad faith of the tyrant Maximus, who dared by wiles and fraud to compass the death of his lord the Emperor Gratian, which Emperor, he tells us, doth now dwell in the tabernacle of God and on his holy hill.” On the other hand, Zosimus, the pagan historian, affirms roundly that Gratian was slain by the gods for his insults to the pontiffs, and the Arian Philostorgus finds a striking similarity between his character and that of Nero.
So the year 384 appeared, upon the whole, to open with favorable auspices both for the Arians at Milan and the pagans at Rome. Our friend Symmachus was prefect of the city, the illustrious Prætextatus was prætorian prefect of Italy and consul designate for the ensuing year, and between these two, so united in sentiment and aim, was maintained a brisk interchange of letters, which curiously remind one, in their careless frankness and pithy informality, of the correspondence of Count Cavour, in the last pregnant years of his life, with the Marchese d’Azeglio in London.
Symmachus, on assuming office, had first of all to provide for the grain supply, rendered dangerously scanty by the bad harvests of the past two years in Italy and the failure of the African crop. He is very anxious for a time concerning this matter, and pleads eloquently with the Emperor Theodosius to order the shipment of grain from abroad; then, when he has won his point, he pours out his feelings of relief to one Ricomer, a pagan general in the army of Theodosius, of whom we shall presently hear more : —
“ Your letter found me snatching a little rest at my suburban farm.10 For why, indeed, should one stay in Rome when you have left it ? The estate in question overlooks our Tiber, and runs for some distance alongside the river, so that I have an excellent view of the daily arrival of grain in the Eternal City, whereby the harvests of Macedonia are feeding the storehouses of Rome. For we were, as you may remember, on the very brink of a famine, owing to the failure of the African crop, when our most gracious Emperor, born for the public weal, came to our assistance by ordering foreign supplies. The first of several fleets has just cast anchor in our port, and we are completely reassured. May all manner of good everywhere attend this excellent prince ! I have written both that you yourself may be a sharer in our common joy, and that you may inform the master of the world of the results of his bounty.”
This letter bears no date, but it must have been before the close of this autumn of 384, which had seemed to begin so cheerfully, that pagan Rome sustained a crushing calamity in the sudden death of Prætextatus.
The leadership of the conservative party devolved, as a matter of course, upon Symmachus, and it also became his duty officially to announce the death of the prætorian prefect at the seats of government. We have his dispatches to the Emperors of Constantinople and Milan ; none to Maximus has been preserved. I quote from the first of these :
“ To the ever divine Theodosius and the ever divine Arcadius ” (lately created associate Emperor by his father), “Symmachus the Consular, Prefect of the City : —
I could have wished that I might be the bearer of good news to your august Majesties, but the obligations of my public office impose on me a sadder necessity. Your servant Prætextatus, a man clothed in honor, a champion of the oldtime probity, adorned with every public and private virtue, has been snatched away from us by sudden death. It will be no easy matter for your eternity, admirable as are the selections which you have made hitherto, to find a man to fill his place. He has left a great void in the republic, a great anguish in the hearts of well-disposed citizens. As the bitter rumor gained credence in Rome, the people forsook the solemn amusements of the theatre, bearing testimony by acclamation to the noble character of the dead, and heavily accusing that fate which had robbed them of the good gift of our illustrious princes. He indeed has obeyed the law of nature ; but I, who was associated with him both by inmost sympathy and by your appointment, am so confounded by the blow I have received that I beg to be allowed to retire. There are other reasons which help to make the prefecture intolerable to me, but of these I say nothing now. The loss of my colleague is enough in itself to justify my prayer,” etc.
What these other reasons were is explained more fully in a second letter to “ their eternities ” at Constantinople. Theodosius had issued an edict, in the time of Prætextatus, forbidding the spoliation and defacement of public edifices ; that is to say, forbidding the Christians to lay violent hands on the statues, altars, and other hated emblems of a, to them, idolatrous worship, — a grievance demanding incessant legislation. A counter - complaint was then laid before Theodosius that the urban prefect Symmachus was proceeding, under cover of this edict, to torture and imprison the Emperor’s Christian subjects, whereupon Theodosius wrote very sharply to Symmachus, ordering him to release his captives without delay. The prefect replied by an indignant denial of the charge, respectfully worded, but very much to the point, and inclosing a written statement of Pope Damasus to the effect that no one of his flock had been subjected to the slightest annoyance.
“ Since, therefore, the excellent bishop officially denies that any one of his subjects has been put either in chains or prison, I am at a loss to understand who the individuals may be whose release is so strenuously commanded. A certain number of persons are in confinement, accused of various crimes, but I have fully ascertained that no one of these cases has anything to do with the mysteries of Christian law.
“ It is my desire implicitly to obey the commands of your eternity, and I therefore beseech you to repudiate the false accusation which has disturbed the calm of your divine mind to the extent of inducing you to put forth so severe an edict. I am fortified against the malice of my enemies by the assurance that an accusation once proved false can thereafter find no access to your sacred ears. Should there be any attempt to renew these calumnies, I demand a trial. My accusers, though unable to prove me guilty, will at least find me patient under the Emperor’s decision.”
In the ensuing year, 385, Symmachus was once more aux prises with Ambrose. Going to Milan, at the head of a deputation of senators, probably to present the Emperor with his quinquennial money tribute, it seemed a good opportunity to press the claims of the pagan party by laying before the young prince, who was at least no orthodox Christian, and whose position for the moment was far from assured, a fresh complaint concerning the altar of Victory. The address of Symmachus upon this occasion is preserved both in his own correspondence and in that of Ambrose, and it contains a statement of the pagan case, at once full, temperate, and forcible. A few extracts will give an example of its quality. After a brief preamble, the orator comes boldly to the point: —
“ Our prayer is that you will restore those religious conditions which for so long a time proved beneficial to the republic. . . . Grant, I beseech, that what we received in youth we may transmit as old men to our descendants. The love of ancient custom is a mighty thing. The innovations of the divine Constantius were transitory, and deservedly so. It is for you to shun a course of action which experience has proved to be futile. I beseech your eternity to care for your own fame, for your own future divinity, and to take heed that coming ages find no fault of yours to censure. Where, I ask” (if that altar be removed), “ shall we swear obedience to your own laws and precepts ? What sense of things divine shall withhold the deceitful soul from bearing false witness ? Truly, I know that all things are full of God, and that there is no safe refuge anywhere for a perjured man. Nevertheless, the actual presence of a sacred object has great power to overawe a delinquent. And this altar subserves the harmony of all, while confirming the faith of each. That which gave the decrees " (of the Senate) " their paramount authority was ever their attestation by this solemn witness. A profane spot would be an invitation to perjury, and will our illustrious rulers, now protected by the public oath of allegiance, judge it worth while to offer such ? It is urged that the divine Constantius did the selfsame thing ” (remove the altar), “but there are other deeds of that prince which are worthier of imitation, and even he would have committed no such aggression if he had had previous example to guide him. I mean because the error of a predecessor serves always as a warning, and amendment is born of the condemnation of another’s guilt. It may have been that your clemency’s illustrious relative had no thought of incurring odium by an act then wholly unprecedented. But no such excuse can avail ourselves, if we do what our own consciences disapprove.
“ I prefer, however, to invite your eternity’s attention to other and worthier deeds of the prince in question. By him the holy virgins were shorn of no privilege: he conferred the priesthood upon nobles only ; he granted the customary supplies for the expenses of the Roman ceremonial, and, following the rejoicing Senate through the streets of the Eternal City, he mused upon the shrines of the gods, he read their names engraved thereon, he inquired into the origins of the temples and expressed his admiration of their builders. Himself professing another faith, he defended in his empire the exercise of this. Every man has his own practice, his own ritual. The divine spirit has given each city into the hands of its own keepers. As souls are distributed to men at birth, so is its own genius awarded unto every people. . . . Therefore we ask peace for the gods of the country, the gods of the soil. Surely, that which all men worship must be one. We look up to the same stars, we have a common heaven above us, one universe enfolds us all. What matters it by what method a man seek truth ? It is impossible that all should arrive at so great a secret by the same road. But these are perhaps idle speculations.”
He then makes one more earnest appeal on behalf of the despoiled Vestals, to whose wrongs he is inclined to attribute the late famine, and concludes: —
“ May the unknown guardians of all the sects, even those whom we worship, defend your clemency from harm as they defended your ancestors, . . . and, for the sake of your own fame in coming time, rescind those measures which are so palpably unworthy of a prince.”
To this address of Symmachus Ambrose replied in two celebrated letters, examining point by point, and technically demolishing the arguments of the prefect with all the ingenuity of an acute and experienced lawyer, as he was. If the forensic style of these epistles, only one of which was composed before the Emperor’s decision was made known, be a little less congenial to the ordinary reader than the straightforward earnestness of Symmachus, the bishop, on the other hand, makes a powerful appeal to our sympathies in a passage like the following : —
“ We glory in shedding our blood ; they are troubled by questions of expense. That which they regard as injury is victory to us. They never did us a greater service than when they caused us Christians to be scourged, proscribed, and slain ! Religion made a reward of what was intended as torture. Noble creatures, truly ! We have thriven upon insult, penury, and persecution. They cannot even keep up their ceremonies without asking alms.”
But the next sentence chills us a little : " He ” (Symmachus) clamors for the restoration to the Vestals of their immunities, — naturally, since he cannot believe in such a thing as gratuitous virginity. They tempt with lucre where they dare not trust to virtue. And after all, how many virgins have they secured by their rich promises ? Barely seven ! Just so many, and no more, have been persuaded by their veils and their fillets, their purple-dyed garments, the pomp and circumstance of litters accompanied by crowds of attendants, the fattest emoluments, the largest immunities, and finally a limited period of virginity !”
Now, though Ambrose may very easily have carried the Milanese court with him when he proceeded to offset against the aristocratic pretensions of these pampered maidens the humility and devotion of the meek multitude of Christian nuns, he knew perfectly well, of course, that from time immemorial the number of Vestals had been limited by law. First four were permitted, then six, never at any time more than seven. Again, is he quite ingenuous when he says, a little later, that Christian priests are not allowed to receive private legacies ? The law only forbade the acceptance of bequests from widows and unmarried women ; and that such an enactment was required in defense of family rights is made clear by the remark of St. Jerome: “ I am not complaining of the law, but I am sorry that we should have needed it.” We are with Ambrose entirely, however, when he brings a little plain common sense to bear on the supposed supernatural origin of the recent famine.
The Empress Justina had no love for the orthodox Bishop of Milan, but her mouth, as has been intimated, was shut by the fact that a certain proportion of the confiscated revenues went straight into the privy purse of her son ; and the end of it all was that the petition of Symmachus was refused, and he had to retrace the weary stages of his ten days’ journey, arriving at Rome ill in body and sad at heart, but by no means as yet despairing.
But the lawyer-bishop, though triumphant in this case, had his own experience of defeat. Two years later, that is to say in 387, in the summer of the year in which he had baptized St. Augustine at Easter, Ambrose, who had already made one unsuccessful expedition to the court of the usurper Maximus at Trèves, was again present as a petitioner there, and he tells with great animation to Valentinian II. the story of his second discomfiture : —
“ The day after I arrived at Trèves, I presented myself at the palace. A certain Gaul, a chamberlain and royal eunuch, received me, and when I demanded an audience he asked me whether I had your clemency’s commission. I said that I had, and he then informed me that I could be heard in the consistory only. ... I remarked that such a tribunal was unworthy of my office, but that I must acquit myself of the charge which I had received. . . .
“ When, therefore, I entered the consistory where he ” (Maximus) “ was sitting, he rose, as though to give me the kiss of peace. I, however, kept my place among the members of the consistory, some of whom advised me to go up the steps. Finally, he himself invited me. My answer was, ‘ Why should you kiss one whom you do not acknowledge ? For, if you had acknowledged my credentials, you would not have seen me in this place.’ ‘ Bishop,’ he replied, ‘ you are excited.’ ‘ Not at all,’ I answered. ‘ I am only outraged at being summoned to appear in a place that is unfit for me.’ ‘ But you appeared in the consistory on the occasion of your first mission.’ ‘ It was no fault of mine,’ said I, ‘ but that of him who summoned me,’ ”
There was a good deal more of this verbal sparring, with his own share of which the bishop seems tolerably well satisfied, the end of it all being that Maximus consented to treat.
“ But when,” concludes the highspirited yet not intolerant ambassador, " he found that I would not communicate with bishops who had administered the communion to him, or who had put any — even heretics — to death, he got very angry, and ordered me to be off without delay. I was willing enough to go, even though the common opinion was that I should certainly fall into some sort of ambush. My greatest distress was for the aged Bishop Hyginus, now almost at his last gasp, who had been driven into exile. I was pleading with the guards not to suffer this old man to be driven forth without a robe to cover him or a pillow to lay his head upon, when I was myself thrust out. Such is the report of my mission. Farewell, Emperor, and be on your guard against one who hides warlike designs under the cloak of peace.”
The warning came none too soon. Within a year Maximus had thrown off the mask, and crossed the Alps at the head of a formidable army. Valentinian, with his mother and sisters, was in flight, and the hopes of the pagan party rose high. Symmachus is known to have delivered a eulogy on Maximus, which has, however, been lost; but even the bold Ambrose preached submission, from the episcopal chair of Milan.
The episode proved a brief one. The great Theodosius came from the East, Maximus was defeated and slain at Aquileia, Justina died, and the first of January, 389, saw the nominal restoration to Valentinian II. of his insignificant bit of royalty.
Personally, the youth, still only eighteen years of age, was completely overshadowed by Theodosius, who became from this time the ruling spirit of the peninsula. Once, and once only, as this history began by saying, he acknowledged in the person of Ambrose an authority mightier than his own.
Theodosius passed more than two years in Italy, setting in order the affairs of his young colleague, now his brother-in-law ; for the conqueror, being a widower, had fallen captive to the charms of Justina’s beautiful daughter Galla. The summer of 389 was passed by the two Emperors in Rome. They entered the city in triumph; and with them came Honorius, the son of Theodosius’ former marriage, who then witnessed those gladiatorial games which twenty years later he definitively suppressed.
Symmachus received an official pardon for the crime of lèse - majesté involved in his panegyric of Maximus, but made haste once more to compromise his position with the party in power by introducing into his address of congratulation to Theodosius a few additional words concerning the altar of Victory. For the scene which followed a controversial writer of the next century is, so far as I know, the only authority:11 —
“ To this prince, whom he knew for a Christian, one Symmachus, a man marvelously instructed and endowed, but a pagan, suggested, in the course of a panegyric, delivered in the consistory with all the eloquence of which he was master, that the altar of Victory should be restored to the Senate. But Theodosius drove him straightway from his presence ; and having been thrust into a cart without cushions, he was ordered to come no more within an hundred miles of Rome.”
Whether or no he were treated with the personal indignity here described, it is plain from the correspondence of Symmachus that he remained for more than a year in deep disgrace with the powers that were. Take as an example of the letters of this period of eclipse one more of the many addressed to his friend Flavian: —
“ I know that you are both a lover of justice and very fond of me, and I am afraid that you will get into trouble and bring odium upon yourself by attempting to defend my reputation in my absence. I do therefore entreat you to keep quiet. I shall probably have an opportunity some time of representing the truth to the eternal prince, our lord, Theodosius, whose former favor to me was in fact the cause of this invidious attack. I do not think my case can be as bad in these peaceful times as it was under the tyrant,” etc.
Symmachus appears to have lived in wholly dignified retirement, mostly in the house of his married daughter at
Bauli, on the Bay of Naples ; and he soon regained so large a measure of the Emperor’s favor as to be inaugurated at the beginning of 391 into the office of consul.
But what a change, and from the consul’s point of view what a woful one, had passed over the face of affairs since he held the office of urban prefect, six years before ! In that interval the tide had turned ; the brilliant imperial visit of 389 had at length brought Christianity into fashion among the remnant of the Roman nobility. “Under the influence of Theodosius,” says Prudentius, “ the patricians, the noblest lights of the world, were to be seen exultant; the assembly of those venerable Catos rejoiced in a whiter toga, laying aside their pontifical vestments, and putting on the snowy robe of piety; ” while the city flocked as one man “to the tomb under the Vatican hill where sleep the ashes of our beloved progenitor, or thronged to the Lateran church and brought back the sacred banner anointed by the king.”
This is the language of poetry, so called, but St. Jerome bears substantially the same testimony. Sorrowfulest of all, to Symmachus, must have been the fact that the edict which closed the temples of Rome and its environs arrived during his consulate.
Yet, though the ultimate issue was no longer doubtful, the cause of paganism at Rome was to have one last sparkle of revival. There is no proof that Symmachus was privy to the conspiracy of Arbogastes, but he wrote two letters to the Frankish general Ricomer, recommending to his notice a grammarian named Eugenius; and he must thus be held responsible for the first introduction to public life of the singular puppet whom, after the murder of Valentinian II. in 392, it pleased Arbogastes to invest with the purple.
The nominal Christianity of the pseudo-Emperor did not prevent his putting himself at the head of the pagan party. and restoring for a brief interval most of its abrogated privileges. His standard bore a figure of Hercules in place of the labarum; he placed the mountain passes, where he knew he would have to meet Theodosius, under the protection of Jupiter Tonans; and he uttered the vaporous boast that when he should have entered Milan in triumph, its basilicas should become stables and its clergy common soldiers.
That triumphal entry, as we know, never took place. The army of Eugenius was ignominiously routed, the usurper slain; Arbogastes, his patron, and Flavian, his chief lieutenant, the frater of Symmachus, committed suicide. It was Theodosius who triumphed at Milan; but the fatigues of the function cost him his life.
His sons, who now divided the empire of the world, found it easy to be merciful to the shadowy remnant of an opposition which had forever ceased to be formidable. Even the son of Flavian received pardon, and recovered a part of his father’s attainted property. Symmachus, who plainly felt his own position to be quite secure, wrote many letters on the youth’s behalf, both to Ambrose and to the renowned general Stilicho, then just emerging into prominence. The ex-consul had retired altogether from public affairs; he had, in fact, survived his party. But he was at no pains to conceal the bias of his own sympathies, nor to disguise the satisfaction which he derived both from the death of Valentinian and the brief ascendency of Eugenius.
The policy of Ambrose was more ambiguous, and his deferential attitude towards the upstart Eugenius has been sharply criticised by some writers,12 and is regretfully admitted even by so passionless a writer as Beugnot. “ Beaucoup de chrétiens,” he says, with simplicity, “avaient sans difficulté reconnu Fautorité de l’usurpateur, et malheureusement il faut placer Saint Ambroise à leur tête.” It is certain, however, that Ambrose remonstrated with Eugenius for reopening the pagan temples; and if his address upon this occasion also evinces rather the subtlety of the ingenious pleader than the self-abandonment of the willing martyr, we must never forget that Ambrose had been trained for the bar, and that it is not possible for a man ever wholly to divest himself of the habits of mind and the style of reasoning which he has assiduously cultivated until forty years of age. Such as the celebrated Bishop of Milan was, with his qualities and his defects, his character and career remain one of the beacon lights of what is perhaps, upon the whole, the darkest and stormiest passage in the history of man, on this planet. The rest of his life and his death belong to the general history of the Christian Church, while the circumstances of Symmachus’ departure, when and how he finally faded out of the world which had grown so strange to him, are unknown.
After the fall of Eugenius the pagan party never again raised its head, though it was long before life was quite extinct in that herculean frame. Curiously enough, however, the statue of Victory, the goddess of that altar which, by common accord, had been made the gage of battle and the touchstone of division, makes one more triumphant appearance in history. It has been claimed that the poet Claudian is merely elaborating a poetic image, but I myself cannot doubt that he alludes to a visible fact, and one to his own profoundly pagan heart most thrilling and uplifting, when, in the act of describing the triumphal entry into Rome, not many years later, of the all-conquering Stilicho, he uses the fiery words of which I give a necessarily feebler version: —
Went up to the hero, while over his head
Inviolate Victory, bodied before us,
Wide, wide to the ether her pinions outspread !
O guardian goddess of Rome in her splendor,
O radiant palm-bearer, in trophies arrayed,
Who only the spirit undaunted canst ren-der
Who healest the wounds that our foemen had made !
I know not thy rank in the heavenly legion,
If thou shinest a star in the Dictæan crown,
Or art girt by the fires of the Leonine region,
Or bearest Jove’s sceptre, or winnest renown
From the shield of Minerva, or soothest in slumber
The War-god aweary when battle is o’er, But come all the prayers of thy chosen to number,
Oh, welcome to Latium! Leave us no more!”
H. W. P. and L. D.
- Aquam cernentem IV sacros sub œde.↩
- This suggests those monsters in clipped yew and box still found in old-fashioned English gardens.↩
- It is impossible to omit here the anecdote of the subtle Persian, Hormisdas, who had come to Rome in Constantius’ suite. When asked by the Emperor what gratified him most in Rome, he replied by one of the great epigrams of the world, ‘’The thought that here also men must die.”↩
- The statue had been originally brought as booty from Tarentum, and it is to this that Suetonius alludes in his description of the funeral of Augustus : " Also the Senate, in order to give éelat to the ceremony and honor his memory, set about its preparations with such zeal that among many other things they ordered that the funeral procession should be conducted after the manner of a triumph, the Victory which is in the Senate going at its head.”↩
- Probably that which occurred early in June.↩
- Roma Sotterranea, Northcote & Brownlow. Compiled from Rossi. pp. 97.↩
- Owing to penalties lately enacted concerning the disturbance of graves.↩
- Several able commentators have held that urna must be a corrupt reading for una, and that it was a woman possessed by an evil spirit who was seized and thrown down. But surely the Sort of commotion involved in the displacement of the urn has always been one of the accepted modes of spiritual manifestation.↩
- Still known as San Ambrogio.↩
- On the Vatican hill, which was considered much cooler than the city proper.↩
- Lib, de Promise. et Prædict. Dei, incerti Auetoris; a nonnul. S. Prosp. Aq. attrib.↩
- Not, however, by Gibbon, who might be expected to lead the cry, for he says, " The inflexible courage of Ambrose alone had resisted the claims of successful usurpation.’↩