Q. Aurelius Symmachus: A Political Biography (review)
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Reviewed by
Cristiana Sogno Q. Aurelius Symmachus: A Political Biography Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006 Pp. 140.

In this study framed by embassies that first in 368 and finally in 402 took Q. Aurelius Symmachus from the Roman curia to the imperial court, Cristiana Sogno sets out to reconstruct this iconic senator's "political career" free of the distortions imposed by his reputation as a "wealthy landowner with literary pretensions" or as "one of the last great pagans" (vii). Sogno pursues her streamlined reappraisal through three chapters and a brief conclusion. In an order that corresponds to stages of Symmachus's career, Sogno focuses in turn upon the fragments of his eight preserved speeches, the official dispatches (relationes) that as urban prefect in 384 he sent from Rome to the imperial court, and the nine books of his published letters, most of which post-date that office. Each chapter begins with a review of textual and editorial problems that impinge upon historical interpretation and continues with discussion of relevant issues raised by each set of texts.

Symmachus's cursus honorum has been long known and Sogno does not tamper with it. Rather she highlights the verbal dexterity and facility for networking that distinguish him among his peers and are for her the essence of his careerism. Thus Symmachus's orationes receive long overdue attention. The delivery of three of these before emperors at Trier, to which Symmachus came on that embassy of 368, demonstrates his early acclaim as a speaker. His decision to remain there, cultivating friendships with Ausonius and Gratian while "weaving a far-reaching web of connections" testifies to his savvy as well as his recognition of the importance of court contacts for political survival (22). Proof of his good judgment arrives with the proconsulship of Africa in 373. At Rome, Symmachus's oratory continued to win accolades, and at least twice he was designated to read imperial letters before the senate. His appointment to the urban prefecture in the spring of 384, when his friend Vettius Agorius Praetextatus was at court as praetorian prefect, follows almost naturally.

Sogno's second chapter skillfully dissects the forty-nine relationes, laying bare the administrative challenges that faced a prefect so often left to mediate "between the local reality of the Roman senate and the central power" (40). The chapter also documents an increasing disillusionment brought on by the failure of Symmachus's plea (relatio 3) for restoration of the Altar of Victory to the senate house, exacerbated by the personal attacks and insubordination that crippled [End Page 430] his effectiveness and sealed by the death of Praetextatus that left him deprived of strong support in Milan. Even though the only other office Symmachus held was a coveted consulship in 391, the epistulae written in the final two decades of his life signal his ceaseless efforts to maintain his own social position and guide the political fortunes of relatives and friends through the treacherous shoals of "aristocratic competition" (64). Whether recovering from the stumble of his panegyric for Magnus Maximus, fostering his son's senatorial career, or salvaging that of his son-in-law, Nicomachus Flavianus, Jr., we find him traveling to court, seeking new friendships, and putting to "systematic use" the connections that he had "nurtured over the course of a lifetime" (80). Indeed, our final glimpse of Symmachus finds him ill but leading an embassy through Goth-infested northern Italy in the winter of 402.

This book is a timely effort. Symmachus has indeed been victimized by both selective use of an abstruse body of writings still lacking a complete translation in a single modern language and the desire to lionize or denigrate him as tradition's champion in an overly romanticized story of paganism's last stand. Sogno often presents balanced judgments. She favors Domenica Vera's argument that neither Symmachus nor his son Memmius prepared the relationes for publication (34). For this and other reasons she rejects the popular idea that the letter collection was ever modeled on the Plinian corpus while doubting that the letters were "sanitized" for publication (60–63). She replaces Symmachus's militant "paganism" with a bustling network of...


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