Sunday, 12 September 2010

Symmachus’ first letter to Ausonius (9.88)

If I carry on translating Symmachus at this rate, I will have plenty left for my retirement. Here is Symmachus’ first letter to Ausonius. The rest of Symmachus’ letters to his older friend are found in a group in the first book of his correspondence –the only book which it is certain that Symmachus himself edited (for examples see here and here and here and here and here). This one comes from book 9, in which this and most other letters lack an addressee; the book was almost certainly published long after Symmachus’ death. It was long known that the professor of Bordeaux, Ausonius, met the Roman aristocrat Symmachus when Ausonius was the tutor of the young emperor Gratian and Symmachus a senatorial envoy at the court in Trier of Gratian’s father Valentinian, in the late 360s. It was Sergio Roda (in the Revue des etudes anciennes for 1981) who revived a suggestion of Symmachus’ seventeenth century editors that this letter was in fact addressed to Ausonius – and that it was Ausonius’ first letter in the correspondence, when the two knew each other only by reputation. He must certainly be right.

Ancient letters were always potentially public property, liable to be read out, and they often expressed social ambitions rather less subtly than we would consider normal – but it is still revealing to see what Symmachus chose not to publish.

Your reputation for letters has long made you someone I should like to cultivate, but I long postponed an expression of respect through writing for modesty’s sake, in case I seemed to be currying favour with one in a position at court: this is a disease so frequently adopted that men who care for their reputation blush for other people’s vices. Now all reason for my vacillation has been removed, since you have honoured me first with your greeting. After this generous welcome I shall enter the open gates of friendship and plan to make up for the delays of my shamefaced silence with more than frequent missives. 2. Only look with kindly indulgence, please, on the homage of an impoverished tongue, and for a moment relax the stern judgment of an imperial teacher. You have indicated that you have read some things of mine; I just ask for the same tolerance. I shall not be new to you and shall not be afraid of an unprepared critic: you have learnt to bear everything of mine. Also, an acquaintance has arisen, so as to make you more balanced towards me as a judge. Friendship after all is inclined to favour, and is changed from harsh examination towards kinder feelings by fondness. 3. But if I put aside the fear of my impoverished talent and promise you constant letters, you see how much more I have hopes from this generous barrel. I must acknowledge to you in friendly manner: I look for draughts of Gallic expressiveness, not because eloquence of Latium has left these seven hills, but because the rules of rhetoric were instilled in my breast by an old man who was once a foster-child of the Garonne; I have a real relationship with your schools through my teacher. 4. Whatever is in me, and I know how meagre it is, I owe to your heavens. So bedew us again from those Camenae which first gave me the milk of the liberal arts, and, if anything in my writing should offend you, either save with you silence someone who once attended your townsman, or you too, start teaching again. Farewell.