Maijastina Kahlos, Vettius Agorius Praetextatus – Senatorial Life in Between. Acta Instituti Romani Finlandiae no. 26, Roma 2002.
A SENATORIAL LIFE IN BETWEEN
The life and personality of Vettius Agorius Praetextatus become comprehensible in the context of the fourth century which was a crucial period of transformation in late Roman society whereas the aristocratic way of life of late Roman senators can be approached through Praetextatus’ religious, intellectual and political activities.
The fate of Praetextatus is divided into two parts, his life and his ‘afterlife’. In the first part of this work, I surveyed his senatorial career, religious and cultural pursuits while in the second part I discussed his subsequent fate post mortem, his death, conceptions of his immortality, attacks against his memory and the idealization of his person as a great man by the succeeding generation.
During his lifetime Praetextatus appears as a senator among others, a more or less typical member of the Roman senatorial order. He went through an administrative career typical of the highest nobility, starting from the quaestorship and praetorship, continuing with some governorships of provinces and the influential post of city prefect and finally ending with the highest posts, praetorian prefect and consul (though he died before entering the consulate), which show that he belonged to the most influential elite of the senatorial order. In the fourth century senators, though displaced from all military and some civil offices, continued in civil administration.
A man of letters
Praetextatus seems not to have held any political positions for sixteen years, between his city and praetorian prefectures (368-384), which has led modern scholars to presume that he fell into disfavour during Gratian’s reign. I rather suggest that he retired from public life into private life voluntarily to devote himself to otium litteratum in the same manner as another learned senator, Manlius Theodorus. Long periods of otium cum dignitate belonged to the aristocratic way of life in late antiquity though a senator was also expected to hold some offices between the periods of otium.
As a man of letters Praetextatus was a typical cultivated Roman aristocrat who preferred to be remembered as a man of culture rather than as a magistrate. Thus, in CIL VI 1779 his noble birth is praised but his literary erudition is valued even more. The literary culture was still regarded as a mark of status and as a part of the senatorial way of life in the fourth century.
In his letters to Praetextatus, Symmachus praises his literary talent, regarding him as an unchallenged arbiter of literary taste and describing his passion for ancient authors and the past. In his love of old texts Praetextatus was no exception but followed the general antiquarian tendencies of his time since in the fourth and fifth centuries aristocrats are known to have patronized the copying of ancient authors; Symmachus and Flavianus, for example, patronized the editing of Livy. Symmachus’ letters and the words “you have improved upon what you have taken up for your reading” in CIL VI 1779 may refer to the emendation of ancient texts but unfortunately we do not know which texts Praetextatus might have collated.
Praetextatus is known to have translated from Greek to Latin the paraphrases of Aristotle’s Analytica priora and posteriora written by the Constantinopolitan philosopher Themistius, whom he probably knew personally. Praetextatus was one of those learned men who transmitted the Greek philosophical tradition to the Latin West, in the same way as Marius Victorinus, a Roman philosopher and teacher of rhetoric who translated texts of Plato, Aristotle and Porphyry into Latin. A Pseudo-Augustinian Categoriae decem ex Aristotele decerptae has sometimes been attributed to Praetextatus but it is unlikely that he was the author of the treatise. In addition to Praetextatus, there were other intellectual aristocrats who devoted themselves to philosophy in Rome, e.g. Albinus who studied Aristotle’s logic and dialectics. Praetextatus clearly is connected closely with the revival of Aristotle in the West but some modern scholars have interpreted him as a Neoplatonist. Sharp distinctions between philosophical schools are not always very useful in explaining late philosophical antique culture and particularly here in Praetextatus’ case. Many Western intellectuals were influenced by Platonic ideas but they still cannot be called Neoplatonists since the Greek philosophy adopted in Rome was eclectic and the influence of Platonic philosophy and Platonic koine appears everywhere in the late antique literary culture. Therefore, if Praetextatus were labelled a philosopher, I would call him an eclectic.
In Praetextatus’ funerary poem his intellectual activities, literature, philosophy and above all religion, are emphasized, instead of the worldly career that had been an important part in the traditional laudatio of a senator. The participation in cults is even more important than literature and philosophy. In my interpretation, the poem reflects the grades of the virtues that often appear in late antique texts; in this hierarchy the political virtues were placed on the lowest grade. Praetextatus’ studies in literature and philosophy could be interpreted as the second grade of virtues, the cathartic virtues, while his participation in numerous pagan cults is the third grade, the contemplative virtues. His interpretation of various gods as the universal divinity, the numen multiplex could be understood as the highest level, the paradigmatic virtues that are present in the nous, the Intellect of the Universe.
A man of gods
In order to understand Praetextatus in the religious context of fourth-century society, the dimension of assimilation and accommodation must be emphasized in the relations between pagans and Christians instead of the antagonism and conflict that has often been overstated in the scholarly literature. Praetextatus lived for the most part during the period from Emperor Constantius II to Valentinian I which was a long period of transition since the Christianization of Roman society was a slow, gradual process. The reign of Valentinian I appears to a certain extent as a period of peaceful coexistence for pagans and Christians. His religious policy was mainly tolerant for practical political reasons since he wished to maintain internal peace in the Roman Empire by keeping an equilibrium between pagans and Christians.
On the level of daily reality, pagans and Christians had to accommodate themselves to compromise and toleration though there was polemic at the ideological level. In the city of Rome polytheistic cults enjoyed a privileged position in the imperial religious policy and it seems that the religious legislation was not always even intended for Rome. Polytheists and Christians lived in a mixed culture in fourth-century society where the pagan environment influenced Christianity and vice versa and where sharp boundaries between pagans and Christians tended to blur. There was to a certain extent a cultural unity within the senatorial aristocracy in spite of religious diversity because pagan and Christian senators shared the same cultural values and way of life.
The Roman senatorial aristocracy was gradually Christianized during the fourth century though the final turning point from paganism to Christianity occurred as late as during Gratian’s reign in 375-383. Praetextatus, however, never converted to Christianity. Gratian’s change in the religious policies of his predecessors (e.g. the abandonment of the title of pontifex maximus and withdrawal of public subsidies from the Roman religion) thus reflects the polarization of pagan and Christian in the religious atmosphere at the end of the century, for even though the repressive legislation against pagan cults did not begin in Praetextatus’ lifetime, there were already signs of restrictions on polytheistic cults in the 380s.
The numerous polytheistic priesthoods gathered by Roman aristocrats in the fourth century represent the last syncretistic phase in Graeco-Roman paganism. As the calendar of 354 and inscriptions attest, many pagan cults were still alive and several festivals and rituals were celebrated in the late fourth century. The accumulation of priesthoods and other activities of the Roman pagan aristocracy should not be interpreted as a conscious anti-Christian manoeuvre but rather as a part of the social and cultural matrix of the senators. Priesthoods and initiations of polytheistic cults and public appearances in religious celebrations formed a part of the aristocratic way of life since with their religious titles fourth-century Roman senators demonstrated that they belonged to the well-to-do club of the aristocracy. In this cultural background, both Praetextatus’ and Paulina’s involvement with several polytheistic cults becomes comprehensible. Praetextatus was augur, pontifex Vestae, pontifex Solis and quindecemvir sacris faciundis, had sacred offices in the cults of Magna Mater, Mithras and Hecate and was initiated into the mysteries of Dionysus, Isis and Sarapis and into the Eleusinian mysteries whereas Paulina took part in the Eleusinian and the Lernan mysteries, the cults of Hecate in Aegina, Magna Mater and Isis. With their numerous priesthoods and initiations, they were not an exception in fourth-century Rome because several Roman senators are known to have accumulated priesthoods both in the Roman religion and the mystery cults.
Praetextatus tried to keep polytheistic cults visible in the cityscape of Rome, restoring and protecting pagan shrines. As city prefect he cleaned up the Maeniana, the extra structures added to temples and as praetorian prefect he obtained from Valentinian II an edict that empowered official investigations concerning the spoliation of temples. Praetextatus’ restoration activities reflect not only the aristocratic need for publicity but also the vitality of cult place for polytheistic religions which could not function without their sacred sites. During his city prefecture, Praetextatus also restored the Porticus deorum consentium in Forum Romanum. City prefects and other high magistrates could exploit their offices to control the building and restoration projects in Rome, and several polytheistic senators are known to have restored pagan shrines as magistrates in Rome. Nevertheless, the restoration of all pagan temples should not be interpreted simply as expressions of fervent paganism since sacred buildings were not necessarily restored because they were pagan or Christian but because they were public buildings.
In CIL VI 1779 Praetextatus is said to have worshipped the divum numen multiplex, a universal divinity, which has sometimes been interpreted as the Neoplatonic concept , mens, the Intellect of the Universe. However, in my opinion, it is more likely that the Roman cultured aristocrats in the fourth century, Praetextatus among them, followed the general monotheistic and henotheistic tendencies of the period. Pagan monotheistic views in fourth-century Rome were not necessarily particularly Neoplatonic but they had rather been influenced by the various philosophical traditions of Graeco-Roman antiquity. Praetextatus’ cultic activities do not reflect Emperor Julian’s or his Neoplatonic philosophers’ particular influence, as has sometimes been suggested by modern scholars, but rather show the general religious and cultural atmosphere of the fourth century. I would not connect Praetextatus with the Iamblichian or hieratic sect of Neoplatonism either. Instead, if we can name persons who may have influenced Praetextatus, it was the Greek rhetorician Themistius, who may have passed on Greek philosophical tradition to the Roman senator.
Praetextatus has sometimes been seen as an ‘ardent’ pagan against Christianity and his activities have often been overinterpreted as militant paganism, e.g. in interpreting his action in the dispute between Damasus and Ursinus, the two contenders for the bishopric of Rome in 366. I am inclined to think that in solving the conflict and restoring order in Rome as city prefect he did not differ from his predecessor since they both followed imperial orders and banished Ursinus; his action probably had nothing to do with his religious adherence. I also propose that Praetextatus and Damasus were allied with each other and that they may have even made a kind of division of power in Rome. Praetextatus may have been an active adherent of polytheistic religions but I would rather emphasize the aspect of peaceful coexistence instead of conflict in his life. In his alliance with the Bishop of Rome he resembles other pagan and Christian aristocrats who moved within the same circles in fourth-century Rome.
The making of the memory of a ‘great man’
In his lifetime Praetextatus is one among other aristocrats – though a highly cultured man belonging to the elite of the senatorial order – but after his death he appears exceptional. The reactions after his death show him as a ‘great man’ whose personality and immortality get much attention and cause controversy.
The fact that Praetextatus’ death in 384 was mourned by the whole Roman populace illuminates his charisma and excellence, though the public manifestations of sorrow caused by a great man’s death were a popular theme in literature and funerary inscriptions. These strong reactions are understandable because mighty senators were now the real ‘princes’ in Rome, having replaced emperors as the great donors and providers of spectacles.
The self-awareness of the fourth-century senators is manifested on epitaphs, especially in long funerary poems, as in Praetextatus’ poem in CIL VI 1779. In CIL VI 1779 Praetextatus’ worldly career is recorded exceptionally briefly because the emphasis is on his intellectual and religious activities as well as on his immortality. It is noteworthy that Christian senatorial epitaphs do not differ much from pagan ones but introduce similar ideas, for instance, of the astral immortality of the soul; in fact, the ideas of immortality expressed in Praetextatus’ funerary poem could appear in a Christian epitaph as well. It may have been this similarity of ideas and certainty of immortality in the funerary poem that irritated the Christian Jerome, as his attacks against Praetextatus in his letters (Hier. epist. 23 and 39) show. His attacks were a part of the ideological combat between pagans and Christians that became more conspicuous in the 380s, after a long period of peaceful coexistence in Rome. The unnamed senator under attack in the anonymous poem Carmen contra paganos has usually been identified with Nicomachus Flavianus but in my opinion both external and internal evidence supports the identification of the senator as Praetextatus.
While Christian apologists sneered at Praetextatus, other writers praised him. Ammianus Marcellinus tends to describe Praetextatus in a positive light though he severely criticizes other Roman aristocrats. He deliberately distances Praetextatus from the notorious trials during the reign of Valentinian I, describes him as an ideal magistrate who acted with integrity and uprightness and compares him with M. Iunius Brutus, a virtuous figure from the republican past. Ammianus’ Praetextatus is extraordinary among all the city prefects for he seems to have had special influence on the emperor, his fellow senators and the people of Rome.
The succeeding generations of the fifth and sixth centuries, at least Macrobius, Zosimus and John Lydus, produced and cherished the memory of Praetextatus, depicting him as an ideal of a learned and divine man. Macrobius’ Saturnalia introduces a literary circle of erudite Roman aristocrats led by Praetextatus but it cannot be relied upon as a primary source because, as an idealization of the saeculum Praetextati, it reveals the antiquarian nostalgia of Macrobius’ own generation rather than pursuits of Praetextatus’ generation. Macrobius follows the tradition of symposium literature and compilations, borrowing the discussions from literary sources and creating types, not real personalities. Consequently, 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. The memory of a charismatic personality often remains strong but the portrait of a ‘great man’ is interpreted in the terms of the next generation. Therefore, in my opinion, Praetextatus’ image in Macrobius’ Saturnalia is a symbolic figure of the past, a stereotype of a great Roman senator and a late antique sage. He enjoys particular prestige due to his knowledge of sacred things; hence, it is Praetextatus who gives a long speech on solar theology and later a treatise on the pontifical law. He is even compared with Vergil, who is called a pontifex maximus, and is asserted by others to be equal with him; Macrobius may have regarded Praetextatus as a symbolic pontifex maximus.
Macrobius’ Praetextatus is devoted to philosophy, theology and antiquarian issues which corresponds with the historical Praetextatus whose philosophical and literary studies and cult activities are attested by contemporary sources. The concept of the universal divinity, numen multiplex in CIL VI 1779 and Praetextatus’ many priesthoods recall the syncretistic theology of Macrobius’ Praetextatus. Thus, the ideas that Macrobius attributes to him may represent his ‘real’ views but only very roughly and his own religious views remain an unsolved question though it is probable that he followed the general monotheistic tendencies of his time.