Praetextatus – Saeculum Praetextati: The Image … (Ch. 5.2)


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


As Macrobius’ Saturnalia expresses fifth-century nostalgia and antiquarianism rather than the fourth-century historical circumstances, is its description of Praetextatus of any use on any level and is there anything left of the historical Praetextatus in Macrobius’ Praetextatus? In my opinion, the image of Praetextatus – and other characters in the Saturnalia as well – created by Macrobius cannot be used as a primary source because the writer was not Praetextatus’ contemporary. This image of Praetextatus is an idealized reconstruction of the past cherished by the next generation and therefore it rather illuminates the ideas and values of the next generation than gives information about the historical person.

The only thing that we can deduce for certain from the Saturnalia is that Praetextatus seems to have been an important figure for Macrobius’ generation, or at least for Macrobius, who calls the previous generation of the Roman pagan aristocrats saeculum Praetextati and who wants to show to his readers how significant and excellent Praetextatus and other pagan aristocrats had been. It is also possible that Macrobius took part in some kind of discussion or controversy concerning Praetextatus and other pagan senators in his own time.

Did Macrobius know anything of Praetextatus and other erudite pagan senators other than that they had devoted themselves to antiquarian studies? Alan Cameron renounces the reliability of Macrobius’ work, assuming that he adopted a highly idealized version of the golden days of the pagan past from Nicomachus Flavianus’ son, the younger Nicomachus Flavianus, whereas Flamant believes that Macrobius was not so far away from Praetextatus’ generation and thus, the memory of Praetextatus had remained alive in Macrobius’ generation. Flamant suggests that Macrobius might have used an oral tradition about Praetextatus and met people who had known Praetextatus personally because he describes Praetextatus in such a lively manner.[1]

It is true that the memory of a charismatic personality who has impressed his contemporaries often remains strong in certain circles. However, this portrait of a ‘great man’ becomes idealized and interpreted in the terms of the next generation. I think that Praetextatus’ image in Macrobius’ Saturnalia is not a lively picture of a real person but it is a symbolized figure, a stereotype of a great Roman senator and sage.[2] There is nothing personal or intimate in Macrobius’ description of Praetextatus and he probably never met Praetextatus personally.
An ideal host

Praetextatus is the host of the first day of the banquet since it was his idea to arrange the meeting during the saturnalia. Macrobius describes him as a polite, amiable and refined host; consequently, during the banquet all the guests are treated equally and Praetextatus shows kindness to all alike.[3] In his congenial hospitality, he recalls the host of Cicero’s Republic, Scipio Africanus.[4] Praetextatus himself is the only privileged person because of his age and personality but he never behaves with an air of superiority. On the contrary, he tries to make his guests to forget the authority he enjoys among others.[5]

Praetextatus’ urbane cultivation and deep erudition is emphasized as he is depicted receiving his guests in his library.[6] He represents the Roman gravitas, unfailing forbearance, serenity and strength of character and compared with Symmachus, who is depicted as more moderate, he sometimes appears pedantic and austere for he shows a conservative attitude towards luxury, disapproving of all dancing and singing.[7] Still, he shows a sense of humour as he corrects the young Avienus who disapproves of the use of archaisms, remarking that Avienus himself uses an archaic expression mille verborum.[8] Not only his austerity but also his clemency is pointed out as he always stays serene and calm even though Euangelus the troublemaker tries to quarrel all the time. While others shudder at Euangelus’ rudeness, Praetextatus controls himself with his strength of character and patiently answers Euangelus with a smile, hic cum omnes exhorruissent, Praetextatus renidens, and, ad haec Praetextatus renidens.[9] Only once does Praetextatus feel insulted and, despite his usual unfailing forbearance, serenity and strength of character, barely controls his feelings as Euangelus expresses his suspicions of a conspiracy among Praetextatus’ guests: Tunc Vettius quamvis ad omnem patientiam constanter animi tranquillitate firmus, non nihil tamen consultatione tam proterva motus …[10]

Omnium sacrorum praesul

Macrobius emphasizes Praetextatus’ wide erudition, science, and culture, depicting him as the religious leader of pagan aristocrats. Praetextatus is called the leading authority on all sacred matters, princeps religiosorum and sacrorum omnium praesul, and he is the only one who knows all sacred things, sacrorum tamen omnium Vettius unice conscius.[11] Thus, he gives a long speech on solar theology (Macr. Sat. 1.17-1.23) and later a treatise on the pontifical law in Vergil (Macr. Sat. 3.1-3.12). Moreover, he is capable of explaining the origin of religious festivals, like the saturnalia, and revealing the reasons for rituals.[12]

Praetextatus’ authority is unquestionable and he is always asked to begin the conversation and give his opinion first.[13] He is admired as a wise man and his memory, learning and religious knowledge are amazing and are praised by others since he alone knows the secret nature of gods, he alone is able to apprehend the divine and expound it: Hic cum Praetextatus fecisset loquendi finem, omnes in eum adfixis vultibus admirationem stupore prodebant; dein laudare hic memoriam ille doctrinam, cuncti religionem, adfirmantes hunc esse arcanae deorum naturae conscium qui solus divina et adsequi animo et eloqui posset ingenio.[14]

Thus, Praetextatus is a late antique sage who had secret and sacred knowledge of gods and universe. Furthermore, in learning he is even compared with Vergil and is declared by others to be equal with him.[15] It is Praetextatus who in his treatise on the pontifical law calls Vergil a pontifex maximus and remarks that to understand the depths of meaning in Vergil calls for a knowledge of both the divine and the civil law, videturne vobis probatum sine divini et humani iuris scientia non posse profunditatem Maronis intellegi?[16] Vergil was the great authority on all branches of learning for Romans and is the most important subject in Macrobius’ Saturnalia and Somnium Scipionis. Did Macrobius and other pagan-minded antiquarians in the fifth century regard Praetextatus in the same way as Vergil, as their pontifex maximus?

Apology for the Roman pagan aristocracy?

If we compare the Praetextatus whom Macrobius depicts in the Saturnalia with the picture conveyed by Praetextatus’ contemporaries, is there anything similar in these figures? It is well-known that in two digressions Ammianus Marcellinus severely criticizes the city of Rome and the Roman senators for enmity towards culture and inhospitality to foreigners.[17] Both unpleasant personal experiences as a peregrinus in Rome and a literary topos belonging to the genre of descriptions of cities can be discerned in both Ammianus’ strong attacks against Rome and its aristocracy.[18]

Ammianus’ description of the Roman aristocracy contrasts strongly with Macrobius’ idealization of Praetextatus’ circle. Ammianus reprimands the Roman senators for the cruel way in which they treated their slaves[19] whereas Macrobius composes a discussion in which he lets Praetextatus plea movingly for a more humane treatment of slaves and claim that slaves are human beings who “are born in the same way as you, enjoy the same sky, live like you and die like you”.[20] Here Praetextatus expresses Stoic views, according to which a slave’s fate is due to fortune and not to a difference in nature. Nevertheless, Symmachus’ attitude towards slaves in his letters resembles more Ammianus’ description of the attitudes of the Roman aristocrats than the lofty ideas put into Praetextatus’ mouth in Macrobius’ Saturnalia.[21]

Furthermore, Ammianus blames the Roman aristocracy for harshness towards culture and hostility to strangers, claiming that aristocratic houses teemed with the sports of idleness and echoed to the sound of singing and the tinkling of flutes and lyres. Instead of philosophers and orators, aristocrats favoured singers and teachers of stagecraft.[22] In the Saturnalia Praetextatus claims that his household gods were not accustomed to taking any pleasure in a cabaret show and that such a show would ill become so serious a gathering, ludicras voluptates nec suis Penatibus adsuetas nec ante coetum tam serium producendas.[23] Ammianus also attacks violently the luxury of the Roman aristocracy, despising their gluttonous banquets and various allurements of pleasures while Macrobius continously stresses the sobriety and modesty of the meal and the modesty of Praetextatus’ circle in general.[24]

Ammianus Marcellinus reprimands the Roman aristocracy in general but makes an exception for a few senators, among them Praetextatus whom he praises for dignity and probity, calling him a senator of noble character and old-fashioned dignity, praeclarae indolis gravitatisque priscae senator.[25] In Symmachus’ description of Praetextatus in his relatio, the deceased is said to have despised all physical pleasures as merely transitory, gaudia corporis … ut caduca calcavit. This picture of Praetextatus avoiding all luxury is also stressed by Macrobius who is eager to show the modesty of the interlocutors of the Saturnalia and who also points out that the earlier generations during the Republic were more concerned with luxury and pleasure than Praetextatus’ generation.[26]

It is possible that in his Saturnalia Macrobius defends Praetextatus’ and Symmachus’ circle which was crititicized by Ammianus and perhaps also by some Christians. It has been suggested that Macrobius and Ammianus did not write about the same group of aristocrats but that Ammianus’ attacks were targeted at a completely different section of Roman society.[27] However, Alan Cameron and A. Demandt insist that Ammianus’ attacks were targeted against the very same group and that Macrobius tried to defend Praetextatus’ circle, idealizing the past golden days of the saeculum Praetextati, though Cameron – in my opinion rightly – admits that Macrobius describes the pagan aristocratic circle shortly before Praetextatus’ death in 384 and Ammianus the same circle after Praetextatus’ death.[28]

Macrobius’ Praetextatus has devoted himself to studies of philosophy, great learning in religious matters and antiquarian interests, appearing as a strong defender of philosophy, who defines philosophy as a gift from the gods and as the discipline of disciplines, philosophia … quod unicum est munus deorum et disciplina disciplinarum.[29] Moreover, he is interested in Roman antiquity and lectures on the origin of the saturnalia and the Roman calendar, insisting that old traditions should be preserved, vetustas quidem nobis semper, si sapimus, adoranda.[30] Praetextatus’ activities within the fields of philosophy, religion, history and literature are attested in Symmachus’ letters, inscriptions, particularly CIL VI 1779, and other sources. Furthermore, Boethius and the Pseudo-Augustinian Categoriae decem refer to his devotion to philosophy. Therefore, Macrobius’ portrait of Praetextatus accords with the picture we get from other sources, at least approximately, and he certainly knew something of Praetextatus’ intellectual activities. However, the ideas that Macrobius attributes to Praetextatus derive generally from literature, religious views from various sources, antiquarian treatises from Varro, etc., as I will show below.


[1] Alan Cameron 1966, 38; Flamant 34 n. 84. Alan Cameron 1982, 380 argues against Flamant that the interval between the date of composition and the dramatic date of the Saturnalia is too long to keep Praetextatus’ memory alive.

[2] E.g. Macr. Sat. 1.5.4; 1.7.2; 1.7.5.

[3] Macr. Sat. 1.7.2: Sed Praetextatus ut erat in omnes placidus ac mitis.

[4] E.g. Cic. rep. 1.9; 1.11; 1.12.

[5] Macr. Sat. 1.2.16; 1.6.2; 6.7.1.

[6] Macr. Sat. 1.6.

[7] Gravitas: Macr. Sat. 1.5.4 ‘Bona verba quaeso’, Praetextatus morali ut adsolet gravitate subiecit, ‘nec insolenter parentis artium antiquitatis reverentiam verberemus, …’ Cf. Amm. 22.7.6: praeclarae indolis gravitatisque priscae senator. Strength of character: Macr. Sat. 1.7.5. Austerity: Macr. Sat. 2.1.7. Davies 4-5 calls this austerity priggish self-consciousness and lack of humour.

[8] Macr. Sat. 1.5.4-12.

[9] Macr. Sat. 1.11.2; 3.10.5.

[10] Macr. Sat. 1.7.5.

[11] Macr. Sat. 1.11.1; 1.17.1; 1.7.17. Cf. Apuleius’ (apol. 41) definition of a philosopher as omnium animalium haruspex, omnium deum sacerdos. Flamant 36 suggests – in my opinion wrongly – that the words sacrorum omnium Vettius unice conscius in Macr. Sat. 1.7.17 and qui solus divina et adsequi animo et eloqui posset ingenio in Macr. Sat. 1.24.1 might be understood as insinuations against Symmachus’ religious views since it was Praetextatus only who represented the truth.

[12] Macr. Sat. 1.7.17.

[13] Macr. Sat. 1.24.15; 2.1.16.

[14] Macr. Sat. 1.24.1.

[15] Macr. Sat. 3.10.1: Hic cum omnes concordi testimonio doctrinam et poetae et enarrantis aequarent…

[16] Macr. Sat. 1.24.16: Vergilius noster pontifex maximus; 3.9.16; cf. 1.16.12: Maro omnium disciplinarum peritus.

[17] Amm. 14.6.1-26; 28.4.1-35. Ammianus’ critique is also discussed in ch. 3.2.

[18] Pack 183-188, followed by Selem 35 and partly by Paschoud 1967, 61, suggests that Ammianus elaborates his Roman critique from a topos of hospitality to strangers that belonged to the Greek encomia of cities even though his antipathy toward Roman senators, particularly the Anicii, is genuine.

[19] Amm. 28.4.16.

[20] Macr. Sat. 1.11.7: Vis tu cogitare eos, quos ius tuum vocas, isdem seminibus ortos eodem frui caelo, aeque vivere, aeque mori? Servi sunt: immo homines. Servi sunt: immo conservi, si cogitaveris tantundem in utrosque licere fortunae.

[21] Symm. epist. 2.46; 4.48; 6.8. The Christian Jerome and Salvian hold the same contempt for slaves: Hier. epist. 54.5; Salv. gub. 4.26. Alan Cameron 1966, 38. According to Flamant 23, Macrobius wanted to show that pagans had always been humane to their slaves and that they did not have anything to learn from Christians and to stress the humanitarian tendency of the pagan festival of saturnalia.

[22] Amm. 14.6.18: Quod cum ita sit, paucae domus studiorum seriis cultibus antea celebratae, nunc ludibriis ignaviae torpentis exundant, vocabili sonu, perflabili tinnitu fidium resultantes. Denique pro philosopho cantor, et in locum oratoris doctor artium ludicrarum accitur, et bibliothecis sepulcrorum ritu in perpetuum clausis …

[23] Macr. Sat. 2.1.7. See also Macr. Sat. 3.14.4.

[24] Amm. 14.6.16: mensarum enim voragines et varias voluptatum inlecebras; Macr. Sat. 2.1.1; 3.14.1-2. For other connections between Ammianus and Macrobius, see Alan Cameron 1966, 38.

[25] Amm. 22.7.6; 27.9.8. Besides Praetextatus, the Roman senators esteemed by Ammianus are: Apronianus (26.3.1), Avianius Symmachus (27.3.3), Viventius (27.3.11), Eupraxius (27.6.14; 27.7.6-7; 28.1.25), Hymetius (28.1.17), Olybrius (28.4.1), Nicomachus Flavianus (28.6.28) and Hesperius (28.6.28).

[26] Symm. rel. 12.2; Macr. Sat. 3.13.16: Neque ego nunc antiquitati nos praeferendos vel comparandos dico, sed respondi obiurganti Horo, adserens, uti res habet, maiorem illis seculis deliciarum curam fuisse quam nostro. Also Macr. Sat. 3.13.-3.17; 3.14.2; 3.14.4; 7.4.3. The superiority of the present is also emphasized in Paneg. 2.20.5-6.

[27] Dudden 28; Fowden 1982, 40. Näf 58 points out that Ammianus did not turn against the Roman aristocracy or its values in general.

[28] Alan Cameron 1966, 38; Alan Cameron 1977, 16-17; Demandt 1965, 18-19. P. Hadot 1971, 38 considers Ammianus’ description of the corrupted Roman aristocracy as exaggeration.

[29] Macr. Sat. 1.24.21; cf. 7.15.14. Courcelle 1943, 16-17 points out that Macrobius defines philosophy in the same way as Aristotle’s Greek commentators, e.g. Ammon. in Isag. Porph. p. 6.25 Busse. Cf. Ammon. in Isag. Porph. p. 7.7 Busse.

[30] Macr. Sat. 1.4-1.16; 3.14.2.


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