So what is Symmachus letter 1.13 all about (incidentally, I decided to add the Latin text to the previous post)? Perhaps I should have read more widely, but I have yet to see the context of this letter properly explained. Here is my take.
Symmachus was a prominent and aristocratic young member of the Roman senate in January 376. But he was not yet what he was to become: a Prefect of the City (in 384-5) or a consul (in 391). Indeed, his father L. Aurelius Avianus Symmachus had on the very same day returned to Rome from unofficial exile, after after an unwise alleged remark prompted the plebs to burn down his townhouse. But Symmachus did have one advantage over his peers: most of them had never been to court – indeed, the senate had a notoriously bad relationship with the emperor Valentinian – but Symmachus had, on an embassy at the turn of the 360s/370s. At Trier he had given panegyrics of the emperor Valentianian and of his young son Gratian and been promoted to Count, third class; he had also met Gratian’s tutor, Ausonius. And Ausonius, like his imperial masters, had never been to Rome. They maintained a correspondence thereafter (occasionally, as the opening lines of this letter suggest).
On 17 November 375, a month and a half before the events described in this letter, the emperor Valentinian died of a stroke, in Brigetio, near modern Budapest. The heir to the western empire was Gratian, who had held the title of Augustus since 367, but who was many hundreds of miles away in Trier. The civil and military high command on the ground, aided by Valentinian’s widow, decided on the quite unconstitutional promotion to Augustus of Gratian’s half-brother, Valentinian II, in Aquincum (Budapest) on 23 November.
Imagine the position of the teenage Gratian, hearing, perhaps in late November, that his father is dead and that he is the sole western ruler, and then a week later, that the army in Illyricum, many hundreds of miles away, has proclaimed his four year old half-brother as an emperor. He can’t disown his brother, but neither can he allow the civil and military authorities in Illyricum, abetted by his stepmother, to establish a puppet emperor (it is vitally important, I think, that Gratian is in a separate Prefecture, that of Gaul, which also covered Britain and Spain, from that of Illyricum, which also covers Italy and north Africa).
Gratian needs to exercise his control over the whole of the Roman west, the Gallic and Illyrican prefectures, and particularly over Rome itself; he needs to make sure that Valentinian II is not a threat to him. So he needs to win over the senate, who have suffered under his father from investigations on charges of magic and treason. Torture and executions have occurred. A message of conciliation needs to be got to them – by New Year’s day they have spent weeks wondering how Gratian will react to Valentinian II. If you consider that Gratian in Trier may not have heard of his father’s death and the threat from his younger brother till well into December 375, it is not incredible that his messenger to the senate may only have arrived in Rome on the night of the New Year, the day when the new consuls were announced. The messenger’s breathless haste may not be a commonplace! He may really have been in a desperate rush.
To whom had Gratian turned to compose his message to the senate, asserting conciliation and control? Roman emperors had on official who drafted laws and speeches, the quaestor sacri palatii – and Gratian’s quaestor was Ausonius. This is why Symmachus represents Ausonius as so keen to know how the message went down (though preserving the established fiction that the speech is Gratian’s own). In a different sense, the fact that Ausonius was Gratian’s quaestor, and that Symmachus is one of the only senators who has actually met him, is why Symmachus is so keen to exploit the connection. Gratian’s and Ausonius’ concessions to the senate obviously helped to establish their control over the whole of the west. And, as I shall show in future posts, Symmachus’ sycophancy worked in making him a leading spokesman of the Roman senate and in reestablishing his and his father’s credentials.