Symmachus’ speeches were rediscovered in the early nineteenth century by Cardinal Angelo Mai. The manuscript is a fragmentary palimpsest from Bobbio, the same codex as gave us what we possess of Cicero’s De Re Publica and the letters of Fronto. None of Symmachus’ speeches survive complete.
This speech, we know from Ep. 1.44, was delivered on 9 January 376, just over a week after the events described in Ep. 1.13. The context is the same: the immediate aftermath of the accession of Gratian and a change of attitude towards the senate, and of his father’s return from temporary exile. The speech was to support the designation of the young son of his colleague Trygetius as praetor in ten years’ time. The praetorship was the office which in this period launched a senatorial career, in the holder’s late teens: it’s suggested that the games a praetor had to put on were so expensive that time that the family needed time to prepare. Symmachus appears to have hijacked this speech in order to thank the senate for his father’s recall, and to praise the young emperor in terms reminiscent of Pliny on Trajan. He later sent copies to many leading senators.
I am not aware of any previous translation into English. There is a German version by Angela Papst; and the speeches were translated in the fifth and final volume of Callu's Budé of Symmachus, published about a month ago. Symmachus' precise meaning is often hard to gauge. Any corrections gratefully received!
‘… from longing for (?) you [the senate] when we are away, from witnessing you, when we come. Nor do we fear Envy. She has felt and experienced how she benefited from hostility to my father. Now, he had of his own accord yielded to the convenience of a few though his modesty, and free of cares was cultivating his mind with literature in order to return to you a finer man. But this the most excellent order did not long tolerate: at once you besought him, as if from far away, that he should agree to return – you told him, I’d rather say, for the senate, when it asks, gives rather firm instructions. 2. This seemed too little for those who asked it. Especially noble men are sent to him as ambassadors, to convey and announce the public will. How great is this procession of your longing, which wanted its benefaction almost to seem like canvassing. I believe it was your will, that he should be called in some way by fetiales: only the rods and scared herbs were lacking. What you ask, conscript fathers, is sure to be followed and cannot be refused, but he was summoned as if he could have said no.
3. To you too, revered emperor, the highest of this praise should be offered: the man keeps a republic free, under whom something enviable is in the senate’s grant. This is why you are great, this is why you are outstanding, because you prefer to be first than to be alone. Whatever good men obtain, benefits your age. Many once dragged… [lacuna]… sighs, and, as though being loved were permitted only to emperors, trod down the merits of private citizens. But to me he seems truly the father of the fatherland, under whom the best man is not afraid to be praised. That too is the freedom from care of your time, that nobody thinks himself less in the prince’s eyes if the emperor prefers a second person to him. For what room is there for envy, since all are loved by you in their rightful place?
4. But that’s already more than enough about us! Let us give some effort, some time to Trygetius, a man who is a faultless senator, who desires that I should pray and prevail upon you, that the tenth year from now should be designated for his son to fill the duties of Praetor. If his willingness is to be examined, you ought to approve a senator who is generous; if his resources, you can impose nothing more. 5. It is fitting that I too be considered in this business, who am accustomed to offer thanks, who do not allow good deeds to be ignored. It’s right that favours are lent for the second time, when the first have been strong. Bind this man with a new debt, and me with a double…’