In 378, Ausonius, already joint praetorian prefect of the whole western empire except Illyricum, was appointed consul for the following year by his former pupil, the emperor Gratian. He invited his old friend Symmachus to come and celebrate his inauguration. Symmachus was in Italy, Ausonius was in Trier, the capital of the prefecture of Gaul. It is unsurprising that Symmachus avoided a month’s journey to Germany in midwinter. He may also have calculated that an invitation to Trier was not as attractive as it might have been had the emperor still been there; but Gratian was in the Balkans, dealing with the crisis after the eastern emperor Valens’ defeat and death at the hands of the Goths.
The letter opens with an unmistakable allusion to Pliny the Younger’s thanksgiving for his consulship (Panegyric 1.1), no doubt hinting at the speech of thanks which Ausonius would make (in fact he wrote his Gratiarum actio not for 1 January, but later in 379). The panegyrical mode can also be found in section 2, where we see comparisons of other teachers of great men (the first, unnamed pair being Aristotle and Alexander).
Well and wisely our forefathers (as in other things of that age) placed temples to Honour and Virtue together with twin façade, thinking, just as we have seen with you, that where the prizes of Honour are, there too are the rewards of Virtue. But nearby, in fact devotion to the Latin Muses is turned towards a holy spring, because the journey to winning magistracies is often advanced by literature. These institutions of our forefathers are the story of your consulship; the seriousness of your morals and the antiquity of your teaching have borne you the dignity of a curule chair. 2. Many hereafter will strive for the fine arts as the seeds of praise and the mothers of honours, but to whom will befall a pupil so fortunate or so ready to remember his debt? Or are we unaware that that great man, for whom fortune flowed beyond his prayers, bestowed nothing on his master, the man of Stagira? Doesn’t the fact that Ennius got only a cloak from the Aetolian booty dishonour Fulvius? And indeed neither was the price of his liberal teachings repaid to Panaetius by the second of the Africani, nor to Opillus by Rutilius, or to Cineas by Pyrrhus, or to his Metrodorus by Mithradates of Pontus. But now, a most educated emperor, and generous with riches and honours, as though he has conveyed the first things on you as interest payments, goes beyond that to the capital of the loan.§
3. In this great happiness of mine, what words can I offer for the fact I cannot come? I fear that, interpreting my excuses wrongly, you will fail to believe how much I congratulate you. I wanted to come before your eyes in an instant, but, at the end of my strength, which sickness has long drained, I decided to avoid lengthy travels and uncomfortable lodgings, as well as the arrival of the cold weather and the shortening of the days, and all the other things which are opportune for importuning. If you have a regard for me in your heart, I beg you to be fair to me and to accept my excuse which I put forward.* May luck befall that I obtain my old position of favour; now, what is enough, let me avoid giving offense. Farewell.
§I am not sure I have fully understood the financial metaphor here.
*has adlegationes boni consulas, an untranslatable play on Ausonius’ status as consul.