Praetextatus – A holy man for the pagans? (Ch. 6)




Maijastina Kahlos, Vettius Agorius Praetextatus – A Senatorial Life in Between. Acta Instituti Romani Finlandiae no. 26, Roma 2002.


As we have seen in the Saturnalia, Praetextatus was an exceptionally great man for Macrobius but was he a holy man for the pagans either in the fourth or fifth century? The late Roman Empire was a good period for holy men, pagan as well as Christian, who rose as leaders of their local communities and enjoyed special prestige and authority among their fellow citizens. These men were both Christian ‘saints’, such as the apostle Paul, the ascetic Anthony or the erudite Origen, and pagan sages such as Apollonius of Tyana, and pagan philosophers, such as Pythagoras or Plotinus.[1] Plato had already outlined the principles of a divine sage in his Republic, stating that a philosopher who kept company with the divine and orderly, became himself divine and orderly in so far as it was possible for man.[2]

Although the divine was thought to be present everywhere and in all human beings, only a few exceptional individuals were capable of detecting the divine element in themselves, and, as Porphyry stated, “only the mind of the sages is sanctified as the temple of the divine.”[3] Thus, a holy man, theîos anér, had a particularly intimate contact with the supernatural and thus, he functioned as a mediator between the human and divine spheres.[4]

Consequently, the holy man possessed special wisdom and intelligence superior to other humans.[5] Macrobius also depicts his Praetextatus as the great sage who alone knows all sacred things, sacrorum tamen omnium Vettius unice conscius.[6] Furthermore, Praetextatus’ funerary poem in CIL VI 1779 stresses his arcane knowledge of sacred things.[7] A was closely involved with pagan cults. Both Porphyry and Iamblichus pointed out that philosophy and religious practice alike belonged to the ideal life of a philosopher, for his duty was to honour the gods and ensure that the public cults were practised properly.[8] This recalls Praetextatus, who promotes polytheistic cults, accumulating numerous priesthoods and protecting sacred buildings, as well as his friend Symmachus, who is concerned with the maintenance of public Roman cult practices (ch. 2.3).

Platonic and Pythagorean ideas of divine men had influenced the pagan conception of the holy man in antiquity. Thus, the philosopher-priest was regarded as the highest type of sage because philosophers had special sacred knowledge of the divine sphere; Pythagoras, Plato, Epicurus and Plotinus were models for divine men. For Porphyry, a philosopher was at the same time the priest of the universal god.[9] The philosophical and religious aspects were connected in Praetextatus, who is known to have been devoted to philosophy (ch. 3.2) and accumulated pagan priesthoods (ch. 2.3) as well as cultivated the universal divinity, the numen multiplex.

Divine men, pagan philosophers as well as Christian saints, are usually well-known for their self-discipline and ascetic way of life; through contemplation they have directed their sublime thoughts beyond earthly things.[10] Both Symmachus and CIL VI 1779 depict Praetextatus as an ascetic who despises worldy honours as transient (chapters 3.3 and 4.1). A theîos anér keeps peace of mind always and everywhere.[11] Consequently, in Macrobius’ Saturnalia Praetextatus controls himself in the face of all Euangelus’ insults and his personal conduct reflects internal harmony and serenity (ch. 5.2).

There are several elements of a holy man or a divine sage in the various images we get of Praetextatus but do these make him such an exceptional figure after his death?[12] In his lifetime he does not seem to differ much from his fellow senators, in his descent, worldly career and otium devoted to literature, but after his death he was celebrated as a ‘great man’ by his contemporaries, was strongly attacked by Christians and was idealized later by the next generation.

The reactions to Praetextatus’ death and all the honours that were paid to him show how influential and mighty aristocrats were in late antiquity. Rutilius Namatianus illustrates, though also exaggerating, the prestige of senators as local leaders, as he writes that the whole Lydia worships Lachanius’ fame like a deity among the natives of her soil.[13] Because the emperors no longer lived in Rome, Roman senators were the real ‘princes’ in the city, especially city prefects who governed Rome virtually as vice-emperors. Instead of emperors, the senators appeared as great benefactors and organized spectacles for the Roman people.[14] Consequently, the new ‘princes’ of Rome were often depicted with imperial imagery; e.g. Claudian celebrates the sons of the mighty Petronius Probus, Olybrius and Probinus, who were appointed consuls in 395, as future gods among the stars.[15] Praetextatus was one of these prestigious Roman senators but, moreover, he is praised for his gravity and integrity and compared with M. Iunius Brutus, a symbol of the Roman virtus. Ammianus’ Praetextatus was exceptional among all the city prefects and Roman senators because he did not seek glory but yet everything that he did was esteemed.[16] Thus, he seems to have acquired special authority and influence over the emperors, his fellow senators and even the people of Rome. After his death, Praetextatus is also connected with another Roman hero of the glorious past for he is celebrated in the Saturnalia by Macrobius in a very similar way as Cicero glorifies Scipio Africanus the Younger in his Republic. The gate of heaven lies open, caeli porta patet, for both Scipio and Praetextatus in their funerary poems (see p. 176). Furthermore, Praetextatus is still remembered in the late fifth century as a man exceeding in every virtue.[17]

As a priest of many polytheistic cults and particularly as a member of the college of pontifices, Praetextatus must have enjoyed prestige and authority among his fellow pagans. After his death the Vestal Virgins honoured him with a statue which was an unusual gesture as Symmachus’ indignation indicates. Symmachus set himself against the statue because the Vestals had never before paid such honours even to Numa Pompilius, Metellus or any pontifex maximus.[18] According to J.J. O’Donnell, Symmachus’ words pontifices maximi hint that Praetextatus was among the high priests of the Roman religion. After Emperor Gratian had abandoned the title of pontifex maximus, Praetextatus might have continued the line of the Roman high priests as “the logical and lawful heir to the title”. Therefore, O’Donnell proposes that Symmachus opposed the statue because he did not want to recognize Gratian’s refusal of the title or because he did not want to annoy Christian emperors.[19] The latter alternative sounds more probable to me since Symmachus himself writes to Nicomachus Flavianus that he did not oppose the Vestals in public because open controversy might have been harmful to pagan cults.

The adherents of pagan religions had to conform to the changed circumstances. G. Fowden remarks that, as emperors had become Christians, either aristocrats or philosophers took the role as the leaders of old religion; for example, the Neoplatonist Proclus in fifth-century Athens regarded a philosopher as a ‘hierophant of the whole world in common.’[20]

Though the fascinating interpretation of Symmachus’ words as a reference to Praetextatus pontifex maximus is far from certain, it is supported by some pieces of evidence. In Macrobius’ Saturnalia Praetextatus is compared with Vergil with whom he is said to be equal and who is called a pontifex maximus in the same work.[21] Macrobius and other fifth-century antiquarian pagan-minded writers may have regarded Vergil as well as Praetextatus as their symbolic pontifex maximus. The memory of Praetextatus as a cult leader and priest lived on still in the sixth century – perhaps thanks to Macrobius – when John Lydus placed him as a hierophant at the foundation rites of Constantinople.[22]

Praetextatus was the ‘pope’ of the pagans, the ‘antipope’ for Bishop Damasus, the ‘pope’ of the Christians.[23] He was the holy man of the pagans, a symbolic pontifex maximus – if not necessarily a consecrated high priest in reality – which makes the attacks by Jerome and the Carmen contra paganos even more understandable (ch. 4.2). He ascended to the Capitol not only as a triumphator but also as a symbolic high priest which irritated Jerome who also wanted to refute his immortality manifested in CIL VI 1779.


C. Ligota identified the person ascending to heaven in the so-called apotheosis diptych of the Symmachi[24] as Vettius Agorius Praetextatus.[25] The diptych has been the subject of much scholarly discussion and several identifications have been proposed, Julian by most scholars but also Antoninus Pius, Constantius Chlorus, third-century emperors and tetrarchs, Emperor Maxentius’ son Romulus, the usurper Eugenius, Theodosius senior magister militum (Emperor Theodosius’ father) and Q. Aurelius Symmachus have been suggested. The dating of the diptych ranges from 308 to 486, and the origin varies from Roman and North-Italian ateliers to Alexandrian and Oriental ones.[26]

The apotheosis diptych depicts an ascension to heaven in three parts. In the lowest part, four elephants draw a carriage on which a colossal statue of a man is seated in an aedicula. The statue of the person, bearded and dressed in a Roman toga, holds a sceptre in his left hand and a laurel in his right hand. Four drivers ride on the elephants, two of them holding a prod in their hands. Two elephant drivers carry round objects, which have been identified either as bread distributed to the plebs or as discs used to make sounds to which elephants react.[27] The lowest scene is a pompa circensis, a public procession where the images of the deified emperors were carried before the circus games, ludi circenses.

There is a three-layered funeral pyre, rogus, in the central part of the diptych, and a naked youth, with a cloak flying high above his head, drives a quadriga over the top of pyre. The young, godlike figure on the pyre is either the Sun god Helios or a celestial god, or Hermes, and he appears here as the psychopompos of the deified person. Furthermore, two eagles, also interpreted as psychopompoi, fly upwards. Two eagles might imply two deified persons, the other one having been depicted in the lost part of the diptych.

In the upper part of the diptych, two naked winged figures, often identified as either genii or wind gods, or aiones, gods of eternity, carry the bearded person to heaven. The winged figures have two pairs of wings, one pair springing from the shoulders, one from the head; moreover, one wind god is bearded while the other one has no beard.[28] The deified man extends his right hand to a group of men already waiting for him in heaven. These five men also wear a Roman toga, one of them is bearded whereas the rest are not bearded. There are several suggestions who these caelicolae are: they have been identified as gods or divi, deified ancestors of the ascending emperor, or philosophers of which the bearded one could be Socrates.[29] In the right upper corner of the diptych, there are the Sun god with nimbus and rays and the last six signs of zodiac, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius and Pisces. It is noteworthy that the wing of the bearded wind god or aion touches the zodiac at Capricorn, which was believed to be the portal of heaven through which the soul returned to its celestial home and joined the gods.[30] Above the ascension scene there is a monogram which has usually been interpreted as SYMMACHORUM.[31] The lost half of the diptych may have depicted either an apotheosis scene of another person, e.g. the deified man’s wife, or the birth of the deified man on the extant part.[32]

Praetextatus could fit the deified person of the diptych in many aspects though all these elements remain highly speculative and can be refuted with strong counter-arguments; he, for example, died in December, i.e. under Capricorn that is depicted on the diptych. However, the sign of Capricorn touched by the wing of the wind god is also significant enough as the gate of heaven for souls. The figure of the Sun on the diptych could refer to Praetextatus’ (supposed) solar theology and if he is held as the target of the Carmen contra paganos, the (supposed) bread being distributed could allude to the polluted bread for the Roman plebs in the invective, pollutos panes infectans ture vaporo / poneret (v.42-43), etc.; unfortunately, all parts of this argument for the identification of Praetextatus remain hypothetical.

The imperial elements – quadriga, pyre, elephants, eagles, laurel wreath and sceptre[33] – do not fit Praetextatus but rather imply an imperial apotheosis whereas the non-imperial elements – the person in senatorial toga and without diadem – would refer to a distinguished senator but not an emperor.[34] Furthermore, the images of the zodiac, the Sun and the chorus deorum[35] recall the elements in Praetextatus’ funerary poem and in Jerome’s letter – sofi to whom the gate of heaven lies open and the lacteum caeli palatium – but it can argued against these parallels that these elements resemble each other because ideas and images of astral immortality and the soul’s ascent to heaven were commonplace in late antiquity.

The caelicolae or the zodiac or other elements of the apotheosis scene are not manifestly or exclusively ‘pagan’ but – as I have already discussed in ch. 4.3 – the same symbols and expressions were used in Christian funerary art and inscriptions. Thus, the caelicolae in the diptych recall both the sofi in pagan Pratextatus’ epitaph and the chori caelestes in Christian Petronius Probus’ funerary poem.

I will not argue for the identification of the deified person as Praetextatus; I only point out that the diptych need not depict an imperial apotheosis but could be an illustration of a private apotheosis as well. Imperial attributes were adopted by mighty aristocrats who virtually acted and appeared like princes in late antiquity. Moreover, during the Empire, imperial apotheosis had been ‘democratized’, spreading widely to all levels of Roman society, and immortality had ceased to be the privilege of heroes and emperors. Apotheoses of private persons appear in numerous funerary inscriptions in which the deceased person either becomes a god, as in CLE 975, corpore consumpt[o] viva anima deus sum, or ascends to the gods, as in CIL VI 30552, in deo[rum nume]ro recepta est and in CIL VI 2160, in hoc tumulo iacet corpus cuius spiritus / inter deos receptus est. Thus, the expressions and iconography of the imperial apotheosis were adapted to describe the ascent of private persons on epitaphs and in funerary art.

[1] For the holy men in late antiquity, see Bieler; Cox 17-44; Brown 1978, 7-20, 58-59; Brown 1971, 80-101; Brown 1993, 877-894; Fowden 1982; von Heintze 163-189; Pricoco 509-527; Marcone 1998, 348. Paul was glorified in the Acts of Apostles, Anthony in a biography by Athanasius, Origen by Eusebius, Apollonius Tyana by Philostratus, Pythagoras by both Porphyry and Iamblichus, and Plotinus by Porphyry.

[2] Plat. rep. 6.500c-d.

[3] Porph. Marc. 11.

[4] E.g. in Porph. abst. 2.45. Bieler 17; Brown 1978, 13-17; Brown 1971, 92.

[5] Cox 21-23.

[6] Macr. Sat. 1.7.17.

[7] … tu pius mystes sacris / teletis reperta mentis arcano premis, / divumque numen multiplex doctus colis (v. 13-15).

[8] E.g. Philostr. v. Apollon. 1.6; 4.19. Plotinus, who did not value worshipping of the gods, is an exception: Porph. vita Plot. 10.

[9] Porph. abst. 2.49.1; Porph. Marc. 16. Fowden 1982, 33, 38, 52-53; Bieler 17; Cox 17; Pricoco 513.

[10] Bieler 60; Brown 1978, 13-17; Cox 25-30.

[11] E.g. Plotinus’ strength of character against assaults: Porph. vita Plot. 10. Brown 1993, 879; Fowden 1982, 36; Bieler 59.

[12] Bowder 149 calls Praetextatus a “pagan saint”.

[13] Rut. Nam. 1.595-596: Famam Lachanii veneratur numinis instar / inter terrigenas Lydia tota suos.

[14] Matthews 1975, 20, 70-71.

[15] Claud. paneg. Olybr. et Prob. coss. 240-248: en nova Ledaeis suboles fulgentior astris / ecce mei cives, quorum iam Signifer optat / adventum stellisque parat convexa futuris. / Iam per noctivagos dominetur Olybrius axes / pro Polluce rubens, pro Castore flamma Probini. / Ipsi vela regent, ipsis donantibus auras / navita tranquillo moderabiter aequore pinum. / Nunc pateras libare deis, nunc solvere multo / nectare corda libet. Niveos iam pandite coetus …

[16] Amm. 22.7.6; 27.9.8-10.

[17] Zos. 4.3.3.

[18] Symm. epist. 2.36.2-3 to Nicomachus Flavianus. See ch. 4.1.

[19] O‘Donnell 1979, 76-77. There is evidence of restorations of the Regia, the house of the pontifex maximus in the Forum Romanum, in the fourth and fifth centuries and its alteration for use as a private house as late as the seventh or eighth century. LaBranche 54-55, 219 nr. 130.

[20] Marin. v. Procli 19. Fowden 1998, 552.

[21] Macr. Sat. 3.10.1; 1.24.16.

[22] Ioh. Lydus, de mens. 4.2. For the discussion of the passage, see ch. 1.2.

[23] The anecdote of Praetextatus in Hier. c. Ioh. 8 could also be interpreted as a joke between the ‘popes’ of Rome.

[24] An ivory diptych 30 x 11.3 cm in British Museum, London. Described e.g. by Volbach 39-40 nr. 56; Wytzes 364-367 nr.6; Stutzinger 671-673 nr. 248; Zwirn 70-71 nr.60.

[25] C. Ligota (referred to by Bertelli 314). Alföldi 1943, 63-64 proposed that the deified person in the extant half is Julian while the person in the missing part must have been another champion of paganism, either Praetextatus or Eugenius.

[26] Antoninus Pius was proposed by Weigand 124-125; Julian e.g. by Volbach 39-40, Arce 153-155, Straub 1962, 323-324, Wessel 140-151 and St. Clair 205-211; Theodosius senior by Cracco Ruggini 1977 and Lizzi – Consolino 910; Symmachus by Alan Cameron 1986, 52.

[27] Bread: Cracco Ruggini 1977, 464 and Stutzinger 672; discs: St. Clair 205.

[28] Four wind gods are depicted on several funerary monuments – bearded and beardless often in pairs – for winds were believed to purify and carry dead souls to heaven. Either a genius or an aion carries Emperor Antoninus Pius and his wife Faustina to heaven in an apotheosis relief on the base of the column of Antoninus Pius (Musei Vati­cani, Rome) and either a genius or Aeternitas, the personification of eternity, carries Empress Sabina to heaven in a relief on the Arco di Portogallo (Palazzo dei Conservatori, Rome).

[29] Cracco Ruggini 1977, 474; Volbach 40.

[30] Wessel 142, 144; Cracco Ruggini 1977, 453, n. 96, 475. Macr. Comm. Somn. 1.12.1-2: Capricornus deorum quia per illum animae in propriae immortalitatis sedem et in deorum nume­rum revertuntur. See also my discussion of the astral immortality of the soul in ch. 4.3.

[31] The monogram has also been read as HORMISDAS V(ir) C(larissimus) by Delbrück 227-230 (referred to by Wessel 144). Hormisdas was a Persian prince who had served under Emperors Constantine, Constantius II and Julian.

[32] The first six signs of the zodiac and Selene, the Moon goddess probably were represented in the lost part of the diptych. The zodiac, the Sun and the Moon were used frequently in funerary art. Cracco Ruggini 1977, 453, n. 96, 475.

[33] A quadriga, multi-layered pyre, elephants and eagles were common motifs on imperial consecration coins. Nonetheless, a laurel wreath refers to a triumphator, not necessarily exclusively to an emperor, and, as Alan Cameron 1986, 47 points out, a sceptre was also used by consuls and proconsuls.

[34] Cracco Ruggini 1977, 476-478 admits that she also considered Praetextatus as a possible subject of the diptych but then rejected the hypothesis.

[35] The caelicolae on the diptych recall several expressions in funerary inscriptions: see p. 176 n. 99.

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