Monday, November 5, 2012


Michele Renee Salzman, Michael Roberts (trans.), The Letters of Symmachus: Book 1. Writings from the Greco-Roman World, 30. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011. Pp. lxxii, 215. ISBN 9781589835979. $34.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Scott McGill, Rice University (

Version at BMCR home site

To paraphrase Fitzgerald, late Roman aristocrats were different from you and me. It is not just that most had wealth that would make a Zuckerberg blush. Members of that rarefied group also had extraordinary political and social power, though they often masked it with displays of studied modesty. Their modest poses formed part of an elite code of behavior and communication whose hallmarks were self-effacement and elaborate praise of an addressee, all delivered with irony that could at times achieve Socratic density.

Michele Renee Salzman and Michael Roberts provide an excellent view of this aristocratic world through their translation, with an introduction and notes, of Quintus Aurelius Symmachus' first book of letters. Symmachus is best known for the role he played in the Altar of Victory controversy of the early 380s. That incident demonstrates significant things about him: he occupied a leading position in the Roman senate; he had a reputation for eloquence and effective rhetoric; and he was a traditionalist in matters of culture and religion (which were often the same thing). Yet there is much more to Symmachus' life and career, and much more to be learned about late Roman politics and society from him. This first English translation of any of the ten books of his letters does much to open the way to the wider study of the man and his elite culture.

The book begins with a lengthy introduction, written by Salzman. Its first sections (pp. xvi-xliv) cover Symmachus' biography, with special attention to his lengthy political career. Salzman is in full command of this material and achieves the balance that such an introduction demands. She summarizes without thinning matters out too much, and examines details without treading too deep into any critical thicket. Salzman then proceeds to treat Symmachus' letters themselves (pp. vliv-lxviii). She is particularly insightful on their character and themes (pp. xliv-liii). Her discussion of the publication history of the ten books of letters (pp. liii-lxvi), meanwhile, is mainly good. With judicious reliance upon earlier scholarship, she argues convincingly that Symmachus published Book One (with letters up to 384) independently before conceiving of a collection with Books Two-Seven, which he did not live to see through. (His son Quintus Fabius Memmius Symmachus completed the project, Salzman contends, while Books Eight-Ten were added in the late fifth or early sixth century.) This reconstruction of the publication history of the volumes effectively challenges the view that Pliny's ten-book collection of letters was a model for Symmachus (see pp. lxii-lxiii). Yet Salzman's claim (pp. lxiv-lxvi) that Symmachus took his cue for his seven books of letters from Varro's Hebdomades seems overcooked. I doubt that Symmachus would have expected his readers to widely recognize "the symbolic value of seven and of Varro's work," as she suggests (p. lxvi), even if Varro was held in "real veneration" by fourth-century elites (p. lxv) – and the translation of the Hebdomades by Symmachus' father Avianius (pp. lxiv-lxv) is itself not the most robust evidence for that veneration. One might also question whether Salzman was wise to connect the seven niches for statues found in a Roman house that perhaps belonged to the Symmachi with a seven-book structure for the letters (p. xlvi).

The book continues with the Latin texts (from the editions of Seeck and Callu) of the letters with facing translations and notes. The clear aim of the translations was readability, which Roberts and Salzman admirably achieve. This means that they do not always capture the ├╝ber-ubertas of Symmachus' Latin – its thick verbosity and frequently baroque lavishness. Still, the accuracy and lucidity that mark the translations are altogether welcome, as they provide ready access to the letters for those without Latin and those unfamiliar or uncomfortable with Symmachus' language.

The notes that Salzman appends to Roberts's translations are very helpful, so much so that one might have wished for more. She is quite good not only on prosopography and historical details, but also on points of interpretation. Worth highlighting are her many insightful remarks on the purposes of the letters, on how they were meant to function both when they were initially sent and in the edited collections.

As historians since Gibbon have lamented, Symmachus' letters have little in the way of concrete historical details and lack extended reflections on events of the day. (Cicero and Pliny [especially his tenth book] are the obvious counter models.) When information does come, it is elliptical and incomplete. Thus in Book One, we get only partial glimpses into the lives and careers of Symmachus and his addressees: his father Avianius, Ausonius, Praetextatus, Probus, his brother Titianus, Ausonius' son Hesperius, Antonius, and Syagrius. Yet the letters are still useful for what they reveal about fourth century elite Roman culture, as Salzman asserts (p. xvi). Three aspects of that culture stand out in Book One. The first is epistolography. Symmachus is a master of the codes that govern letter writing in the period. He knows cold the accepted epistolary conceits and he is able to write with the ironic distance that illustrates the late- antique gentleman's savoir faire. In addition, Symmachus is very attentive to the etiquette of letter-exchange. He often chides others for not writing him enough and sometimes apologizes for his own reticence. These gestures are conventional, and they frequently work to highlight Symmachus' ties to addressees who are too busy – read: too prominent – to compose a letter. Yet they also imply that letters were understood to be a binding agent in Symmachus' society. The topos operates on that assumption, on the belief that elite men were to write letters to connect and to show that each mattered to the other. Salzman is consistently insightful about the social roles that letter writing played in Symmachus' world, about epistolary conventions, and about Symmachus' epistolary techniques. Readers interested in those areas and in Roman epistolography generally will find much here of value.

Symmachus' Book One also has much to tell us about elite power and influence, as manifested especially in recommendations. A great number of the letters in the collection find Symmachus recommending a person to a post or to the patronage of another. The letters reveal just how significantly links to the powerful still determined success in Roman society. While there might have been many paths to the divine, there was often only one route to advancement: a good word from a member of the elite. Salzman is very attuned to all of this in her introduction (pp. xlv-xlvi) and throughout her notes. At the same time, she recognizes that Symmachus' letters show him advertising his power rather than just exercising it. By publishing his letters of recommendation, he demonstrates to others (including, he surely hoped, posterity) who he was and the status he held.

The final topic upon which Symmachus' Book One casts considerable light is late Roman religion. Letters to Praetextatus, who shared Symmachus' attachment to the traditional gods and religious practices, provide some information about "pagan" priestly offices and their societal functions, at least into the 380s. In addition, Symmachus hints at problems that Christianity was causing traditional polytheism (Ep.. 1.51). Yet as Salzman reminds readers (pp. xlvii-l and passim), the secondary importance of religious differences comes through most forcefully in his letters. Time and again, literary interests or the concerns of recommendation transcend any divide between Symmachus the polytheist and his Christian addressees or subjects. (See, e.g., the letters to Ausonius and Ep.. 1.64). The letters and Salzman's remarks lend support to the position that religious strife did not occupy a central place in Symmachus' life (despite the Altar of Victory controversy) and did not materially disrupt his relationships or affect his behavior. I do not want to tread too far into this territory where positions are sometimes maintained with religious fervor. But it does seem that the letters argue against hard and contentious divisions between polytheism and Christianity and for religious co-existence and accommodation, at least into the mid-380s and in the particular case of Symmachus.

This is an important book, I think, that provides an accessible translation of Book 1 of Symmachus' letters and gives us insights into several important aspects of late antiquity. We can only hope that Salzman's and Roberts's excellent work will be a catalyst for similar annotated translations of other books of Symmachus' letters.

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