Praetextatus – Cultural Pursuits: The Senatorial otium (Ch. 3.1)


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


As far as we know, Praetextatus’ own writings are not extant but he is known to have devoted himself to literary studies as well as to philosophy. Symmachus’ letters to him reveal his interest in ancient writers while Boethius in the sixth century mentions that he had translated Greek commentaries on Aristotle into Latin.



Amicitia and letter writing in the senatorial code of life

The first book of the collection of Symmachus’ letters includes his twelve letters to Praetextatus.[1] Praetextatus is known to have also corresponded with Symmachus’ father, Avianius Symmachus.[2]

Symmachus’ letters to Praetextatus are mainly mere salutations because late antique aristocratic letters were not a means of conveying information but rather instruments of social and cultural rituals. The network of the amicitiae was maintained and manifested by correspondence which was regarded as a duty, officium. The Roman relations of amicitia were understood as a kind of foedus, an alliance that was based on reciprocity (vicissitudo), faithfulness (fides) and equality (similitudo) and was filled with duties and manifestations of solidarity between amici.[3]

Though Symmachus uses conventional terms to describe their friendship (adfectio, amor, amicitia, diligentia, favor, fides, officium, gratia), there is a special tone of intimacy and confidence in his letters to Praetextatus.[4] In epist. 1.48 Symmachus sympathizes with Praetextatus’ concern about Paulina’s state of health and thanks gods for her recovery while Praetextatus has comforted Symmachus on the death of Symmachus’ brother Celsinus Titianus: in epist. 1.54 Symmachus answers him and thanks him for his consolation: Maestitiae meae solacium grande tribuisti. Nam ut dudum tibi fama fecit indicium, fratris obitu vulneratus continuo animi dolore discrucior. Praetextatus is also Symmachus’ confident when the orator writes on religious issues with bitterness and resignation.[5] Symmachus’ letters also show respect and admiration for Praetextatus, who belonged to the elder generation, to the generation of Symmachus’ father, though he often also jokes with a facetious and familiar tone.

As a foedus, alliance, the Roman amicitia between aristocrats was also a means of influence in political and social life. Symmachus’ letters indicate that the amicitia between Praetextatus and Symmachus was based mainly on literary interests but also on mutual support between magistrates. In 384 Praetextatus became praetorian prefect before Symmachus entered the urban prefecture and it is possible, though not certain, that it was Praetextatus who influenced the appointment of Symmachus to the city prefecture. There seems to have been an interactive relation between the praetorian prefect Praetextatus and the city prefect Symmachus who depended on the support of his more influential friend (see ch. 1.2). Epist. 1.55 – usually dated to 384 – illustrates this aspect in the relationship between Praetextatus and Symmachus: Praetextatus offered himself as a conciliator in a dispute between Symmachus and a third person whose name is not mentioned. This third person, perhaps a dignitary at the imperial court in Milan, had somehow disapproved of Symmachus and therefore, Praetextatus, who was already praetorian prefect and stayed at the court, had to prepare the way for the urban prefecture for Symmachus, conciliating Symmachus’ enemies at the court. Symmachus’ congratulations, tibi pro nostra amicitia satis gratulor, cuius labor saluti publicae commodabit could indicate that Praetextatus had just entered a high office, i.e. the praetorian prefecture and that Symmachus was not yet appointed city prefect.[6] Symmachus seems to have depended totally on Praetextatus’ support at the court of Valentinian II in Milan. After Praetextatus’ death Symmachus felt forced to resign from his urban prefecture because he could no longer lean on his friend’s support. He describes his sorrow eloquently to the emperors, complaining that he could not say the usual words of praise for Praetextatus for he is too shocked at heart, cuius ego laudes et iusta praeconia animi consternatione praetereo. Symmachus uses the word consternatio, a term of great intensity, only once elsewhere when he describes his anxiety over his daughter’s illness.[7]


Praetextatus as an arbiter of literary taste

In the letters to Praetextatus Symmachus praises his literary talent, according to conventions of late antique letter writing. On the ninth of January, 376, Symmachus gave a speech Pro Trygetio in the senate, thanking the senators for the rehabilitation of his father Avianius Symmachus, and sent a copy of his speech to Praetextatus who had been absent from the meeting of the senate.[8] Symmachus sent the speech to several friends, to Hesperius, Syagrius, Iulianus Rusticus and Neoterius, boasting that his speech was a success in the senate.[9] In his letter to Praetextatus Symmachus sounds more modest, Ergo a.d. quintum Idus Ianuarias verba feci in amplissimo ordine; quae ubi in manus tuas venerint, ex tuo animo conicies iudicia ceterorum. Ego sub incerto examinis tui aliorum sententias occulendas putavi, ne te praeiudicio tanti ordinis viderer urgere. He keeps silent about his success in the senate and asks Praetextatus for his opinion of the speech. It seems that the opinion of other correspondents is not as important as the judgment of Praetextatus who is an unchallenged arbiter of literary taste for Symmachus.

Praetextatus obviously answered, enthusiastically praising Symmachus for his speech, since Symmachus receives his compliments with great joy: Orationem meam tibi esse conplacitam nihilo setius gaudeo, quam quod eam secunda existimatione pars melior humani generis senatus audivit. Praetextatus had tried to convince Symmachus that his praises were not due to his benevolence as a friend: Adiecisti sacramenti pondus et in bona verba iurasti, ut qui scires in suspicionem gratiae venire amantium iudicata. Nam ubi certa est amicitia, ibi fides laudis incertior. Symmachus asserts that he cares only for Praetextatus’ opinion and claims eloquently that if Praetextatus had been present in the senate as such a benevolent listener, his success and happiness would have been even greater, he would have been in heaven: Quid si adfuisses, tam bonae voluntatis auditor? Ne ego digito, ut aiunt, supera convexa tetigissem.[10]


The parsimony of good words

Symmachus reprimands Praetextatus jokingly for having written too short a letter and asks him to let his letters to be increased by numerous pages: … facito epistulae tuae multiiugis paginis augeantur. Odi parsimoniam verborum bonorum. Scribendi quippe brevitas magis fastidio quam officio proxima est. Nolo litteras stillantes de summo ore; illas peto quae arescere nesciunt, quae ex intimo pectoris fonte promuntur. Symmachus’ words odi parsimoniam verborum bonorum are an indirect compliment but he continues complaining that brevitas a mark of distaste rather than politeness and claiming that he prefers many words to the few words in the highest style. Symmachus invites Praetextatus to a literary contest, to write in the same style as he does, in the Roman or Attic style, sed ego Romanis tecum legibus ago et, si ita vis, Atticis, quibus tantum decus a facundia fuit. He insinuates that the Attic eloquence gained so much glory that the Lacedaemonians directed their efforts in the opposite direction because they feared comparison; this Spartan brevity is obviously a reference to Pratextatus’ style.[11]

In epist. 1.50 Symmachus reproaches Praetextatus again for the negligence of the officium of letter writing and asserts that he is not complaining because Praetextatus writes nothing but he is annoyed because Praetextatus has sent to him and his father a joint-letter. Nevertheless, it was common to send one joint-letter to several persons.[12] Symmachus also blames other correspondents for the brevitas of letters and complains of their silentium if they have not written or tarditas if they have written too late.[13] Similar reproaches also appear in the correspondence of other writers.[14] The purpose of all these complaints is to show affection for the correspondents.


Libris veterum ruminandis – Praetextatus’ otium litteratum

In another letter Symmachus reproaches Praetextatus for having otium at Baiae and neglecting his pontifical duties in Rome. He hints at the luxury of Campania, using images from the Odyssey, lotus-eaters, Circe and sirens, but then admits that Praetextatus does not spend his otium in luxury and amusements, neque ego te pingues ferias agere contendo aut virtutem puto friguisse deliciis. Instead, Praetextatus devotes his otium to literature, spending his time in solitude and taming his mighty intellect (in the study of philosophy), sed dum tibi legis, tibi scribis et urbanarum rerum fessus ingentem animum solitudine domas. It is the selfishness of Praetextatus’ lonely otium that Symmachus disapproves of because Praetextatus reads and writes for himself and not for Symmachus. Symmachus praises his friend for his otium litteratum and his ingens animus but at the same time reprimands him for neglecting his social and religious duties.[15]

There was a long interval in Praetextatus’ public career, between his urban prefecture and praetorian prefecture. Senators often had pauses in their career since an otium litteratum was a part of the aristocratic way of life and especially a part of the life of a vir litteratus, a learned man like Praetextatus. The voluntary and purposeful retreat to the countryside, secessus in villam from public political life was popular within aristocratic and Neoplatonic circles in the fourth and fifth centuries but had belonged to the aristocratic tradition long before late antiquity. A Christian cultured retirement, such as Augustine’s retreat at Cassiciacum, was part of the same tradition.[16] As Symmachus’ letters show, Praetextatus dedicated the period between his administrative offices to otium litteratum because literary activities were the only justifiable way of enjoying leisure for cultivated aristocrats. In fact, in the tradition that valued otium higher than negotium, Roman cultivated aristocrats preferred to be remembered as men of culture and erudition rather than as magistrates.[17]

In epist. 1.53 Symmachus writes again of Praetextatus’ otium litteratum and praises his literary talent. Praetextatus has pretended that he spent his time in leisure and hunting, otio et venatibus gloriare[18] but Symmachus does not believe him since he is famous for his devotion to literature and his letters are too sophisticated to be written by one who has spent his time in the forests. Symmachus can tell from the flavour of his letters what he has been doing by night and by day and what has been the daily nourishment of his genius: Ego actus, quos pernox et perdius curae tibi habes, tum cotidiana ingenii pabula de litterarum, quas mihi tribuis, sapore coniecto. His words should be rustic and uncouth, Symmachus writes, if he wants to pretend to be a hunter: Quare cum scribis, memento facundiae tuae modum ponere. Rustica sint et inculta, quae loqueris, ut venator esse credaris. Symmachus compares him with the Greek poet Hesiod, the shepherd who was crowned with a laurel by the Muses.[19]

In the same letter Symmachus refers to Praetextatus’ passion for ancient authors and the past: Nam remissa tempora et ab negotiis publicis feriata libris veterum ruminandis libenter expendis. Love for old texts has influenced Praetextatus’ own style which is characterized by using antique words with novel meanings, sensuum novitas, verborum vetustas. Many scholars have understood Symmachus’ words libris veterum ruminandis as a reference to the emendation of texts[20] but I think that the words refer to Praetextatus’ study of antique literature and philosophy in general. He absorbed the old texts that he had read (libris ruminandis) and adapted them to the new context in order to express new ideas (sensuum novitas verborum vetustas). Thus, his love of ancient authors was closely connected with the general antiquarian and archaizing tendencies in late antique literature.[21]

Praetextatus was also recognized as an orator since Symmachus’ relatio 24 states that after his death the imperial court was interested in getting copies of the speeches he had given in the senate and in the assemblies of the people. The imperial court asked the city prefect Symmachus to send special excerpts from the accounts of meetings of the senate and the assemblies of the people so that Praetextatus’ speeches and acts could be gathered together. Symmachus’ answer in rel. 24 can be understood as ironic because the prefect’s office had already been sending the accounts of the meetings of the senate and the assemblies of the people to the emperor every month, per vices mensium singulorum; nevertheless, Symmachus sent a collection of Praetextatus’ speeches to the court.[22]


The literary activities of the Roman aristocracy

The literary culture and the classical education – ‘pagan’ at least in form – were still regarded as a mark of status in late antiquity and consequently new members of the senatorial elite adopted the cultural traditions of the previous generations. The significance and prestige of literature and education were recognized even in Constantius’ legislation where knowledge of literature was regarded as greatest of all virtues, litteraturae, quae omnium virtutum maxima est.[23]

Various interpretations have been proposed for the cultural activities of the Roman senatorial aristocracy. Modern scholars often labelled the cultural revival in the Latin West in the fourth century as pagan, referring to a circle gathered around Symmachus that consisted of cultured senators interested in old Latin literature and saw it as a reaction of the Roman pagan aristocracy against Christianity.[24] Alan Cameron has rightly criticized modern scholars of over-emphasizing the pagan aspect. Aristocratic families that continued to patronize literature were mostly Christian families, like the Anicii who supported the poet Claudian. The circle of Symmachus, which is an artificial concept, was not responsible for the cultural revival of the fourth century since the revival had begun long before Symmachus. Moreover, the circle did not gather around Symmachus but rather around Praetextatus. While Symmachus does not appear as a particularly cultivated person in his letters – he had read only traditional Latin writers and he did not knew Greek very well – it is more likely that Praetextatus was the central figure of the circle of the aristocratic litterati. Cameron stresses apathy within the pagan aristocracy and even claims that Praetextatus was their only intellectual[25] but I regard this as rhetorical exaggeration.

Two authors, Ammianus and Macrobius, give us totally different pictures of the cultural attitudes and activities of the Roman aristocracy. In his famous critique on Rome, Ammianus, who was Praetextatus’ and Symmachus’ contemporary, attacks the Roman aristocrats and rebukes them for their hostility to culture whereas Macrobius, who belonged to the next generation in the fifth century, idealized the saeculum Praetextati in his Saturnalia. The picture of the circle of cultured Roman aristocrats is mostly based on Macrobius’ Saturnalia which was not necessarily meant to be an accurate description of the circle.[26]

In the fourth and fifth centuries the senatorial aristocracy patronized the copying of ancient authors. Learned aristocrats did not only have earlier authors’ texts copied but revised the texts, as the subscriptiones from the fourth and fifth centuries preserved in medieval copies of these texts show. In 1851 Otto Jahn collected these late antique subscriptiones in manuscripts and attributed nearly all of them to pagans in high positions, dating them from the beginning of the fourth century until the fifth century. Because the subscriptiones seemed to increase at the end of the fourth century, Jahn interpreted them as a reaction against Christianity. Jahn, followed by many other scholars, believed that the subscribers wanted to preserve texts that represented their pagan sympathies, presupposing without any justification that the aristocratic subscribers had pagan sympathies.[27]

It is, however, impossible to find out the motives of the aristocratic subscribers and most of them cannot be accurately labelled as pagans or Christians. The interest in secular ‘pagan’ literature does not necessarily imply religious pagan views for Latin secular literature, e.g. Vergil, Horace and Cicero, were esteemed by Christians as well as by pagans.[28]

Praetextatus devoted himself at least to philosophical texts while Symmachus and Nicomachus Flavianus are known to have concentrated on historiography and patronized the editing of Livy. Flavianus also wrote a work of history himself, the Annales which is not extant.[29] It seems, however, that the emendation of texts by Symmachus, Flavianus and other cultured aristocrats was not critical or systematic but rather a work by amateurs since they simply checked the copies made for them by copyists. Their manuscripts were copies for personal use for their own libraries and were not intended as critical editions. Moreover, there is no evidence to suggest that the texts for which subscriptions are attested were in danger of being lost – as is often claimed – since the favourite texts belonged to a narrow range of standard school texts or popular works and were esteemed and read also by Christians.[30]

The viri litterati in the fourth and fifth centuries were especially interested in the limited canon of Cicero, Livy and Vergil but Persius, Nonius, Martial, Quintilian, Juvenal, Apuleius, Horace, Lucan, Caesar, Valerius Maximus, Pliny the Elder and Fronto were also copied and read. The interest of the cultured aristocrats in the old Latin literature reflected their veneration of the Roman past as Symmachus’ example shows. He yearned for the ancient Republic as the pulcherrimus rerum status, the golden age of the triumphalis senatus and the traditional Romanitas; for him the present was rutuva.[31] The old authors were also imitated in form and in style; Symmachus’ father Avianius Symmachus, for instance, composed poems on famous men as his letter to his son reveals. Symmachus manifests that vetustas is his ideal, ego quoque in scribendo formam vetustatis amplector.[32] G. Cavallo even suggests a programme of political restoration[33] but I think it is an exaggeration to claim that the cultured pagan aristocrats (Praetextatus, Symmachus and later senators) had a conscious ‘political’ aim to maintain or restore old political traditions. I would rather speak of nostalgia for the golden age that the ancient authors had depicted. Furthermore, aristocrats were not  motivated simply by love of literature. As well as in the religious sphere, it must be stressed here that literature and literary activities belonged to the aristocratic way of life of a Roman senator. Literary erudition functioned as a class marker[34] for the senatorial elite in late antiquity.


[1] Symm. epist. 1.44-1.55, dated by Bruggisser 1993, 343-345: epist. 1.44, 1.50, 1.52 in 376; 1.45, 1.47, 1.48, 1.53 between 376-384; 1.46 between 376-380; 1.49 in 378; 1.54 in 380; 1.51 in 383; 1.55 in 384. Over a quarter of the nine hundred letters of the collection are recommendations but there are no letters of recommendation to Praetextatus because the extant letters to him derive from the period when he was not in office, between 368-384.

[2] Symm. epist. 1.50.

[3] Bruggisser 1993, 3-7, 13, 327-328, 430; Matthews 1974, 61-64; Näf 142-144; Romano 94-95; Garzya 366. Similitudo: Cic. Lael. 50.

[4] Symm. epist. 1.44-47, 1.50, 1.52, 1.54, 1.55. Bruggisser 1993, 347-348, 355.

[5] Symm. epist. 1.55. See ch. 2.3.

[6] The dating of Symm. epist. 1.55 is based on the interpretation of the words cuius labor saluti publicae. Callu 116 n.1; Vera 1981, lix, Bruggisser 1993, 344, 370 and Seeck 1883, xc, date the letter to 384 when Praetextatus had already been appointed praetorian prefect but Symmachus had not yet entered the city prefecture; Symmachus did not hold any office for he proclaims that he did not want to regard the dispute as a question of rank, sequestrata ratione fortunae. According to Roda 1973, 66 n.54, the letter refers to Praetextatus’ city prefecture in 367-368 when Symmachus was a young man. Seeck 1883, xc, however, pointed out that the letter is a reflection of equal friendship, not a young man’s letter to an elder magistrate.

[7] Symm. rel. 11.

[8] Symm. epist. 1.44.

[9] Symm. epist. 1.78; 1.105; 3.7; 5.43.

[10] Symm. epist. 1.52.

[11] Symm. epist. 1.45. Bruggisser 1993, 383-386.

[12] McGeachy 118.

[13] E.g. Symm. epist. 1.18 to Ausonius.

[14] Cf. e.g. Aug. epist. 42 to Paulinus of Nola and Therasia: Utinam saltem tam opima mensa iam annosum ab stilo tuo ieiunium meum tandem accipias!

[15] Symm. epist. 1.47.

[16] For otium litteratum, see Matthews 1975, 1-12; Cracco Ruggini 1986, 102, 106-115; Roda 1985, 95-96; Lomas Salmonte 276-277, 280; Février 1983, 36-37; MacPherson 41. See also ch. 3.3. For the Christian retreat, see Brown 1967, 115-116; Fontaine 35-53; Yarborough 157.

[17] Symmachus also devoted his otium to literature: Symm. epist. 4.18; 4.44; 5.78.; 8.23.3. The ideal of a cultivated man and the importance of the cultura animi in late antiquity: Marrou 1938, 217-218, 229; Neri 175-201; Wes 1987, 183; Roda 1985, 96.

[18] Hunting was a popular theme in letters, see Bruggisser 1993, 397-400, 432-433.

[19] Cf. Symm. epist. 8.69 where Symmachus’ friend Valerianus has modestly pretended to have spent his time in gardening but in fact has devoted himself to literature.

[20] E.g. Cavallo 96.

[21] Antiquarian and archaizing tendencies in late antiquity: e.g. Cracco Ruggini 1985a, 142.

[22] Symm. rel. 24.1-2: … quid vir praecelsae et inlustris memoriae Praetextatus vel ad amplissimum ordinem vel ad devotum vobis populum pro saeculi vestri commendatione pertulerit … sed quia speciatim sacris litteris imperastis, ut, si qua ab eo Romae in his coetibus gesta sunt, agenti in rebus excerpta tradantur, misi omnia iussis caelestibus obsecutus, quae ipso praesente venerabilium orationum vestrarum sanctio definivit et patrum probavit auctoritas; praeterea quae apud plebem locutus est, ut cunctos in amorem bonorum temporum provocaret, adiunxi. For Symmachus’ irony, Vera 1981, 181-182; Matacotta 242.

[23] CTh 14.1.1 (Feb. 24, 360). Marrou 1965, 444-445; Näf 142-144..

[24] Bloch 1963, 210-213; Geffcken 173; Reynolds – Wilson 33-37; Schanz 1914, 537-538.

[25] Alan Cameron 1984, 54; Alan Cameron 1977, 2, 17, 29-30, 35.

[26] Amm. 14.6.1-26; 28.4.1-35. For further discussion, see ch. 5.2.

[27] O. Jahn, ‘Über die Subscriptionen in den Handschriften römischer Classiker’, Berichte über die Verhandlungen der R. säch. Gesellschaft der Wiss. zu Leipzig, Phil. Hist. Classe 3 (1851), referred by Cavallo 93-94. Mentioned in manuscripts: Nicomachus Flavianus, Nicomachus Dexter, Aurelius Memmius Symmachus (at the end of the fifth century), Turcius Rufius Apronianus Asterius, Vettius Agorius Basilius Mavortius (in the sixth century), etc. Aurelius Memmius Symmachus, a descendant of Q. Aurelius Symmachus, and Macrobius Plotinus Eudoxius, a descendant of Macrobius emended Macrobius’ Somnium Scipionis, and Vettius Agorius Basilius Mavortius, possibly a descendant of Praetextatus (cf. p. 164), and the rhetorician Felix emended Horace’s epodes and Prudentius. Cavallo 95-96, 117; Petrucci 174-175, 178.

[28] Alan Cameron 1984, 53; Alan Cameron 1977, 5-7, 27.

[29] CIL VI 1783 = ILS 2948: et us(que) ad annalium, quos consecrari sibi a quaestore et praefecto suo voluit; CIL VI 1782 = ILS 2947: historico disertissimo. For Nicomachus Flavianus’ Annales and its influence on late antique history-writing, see Schlumberger 181-182, 240-248.

[30] Symm. epist. 9.13. Pecere 59-60, 67, 80; Alan Cameron 1977, 27-28.

[31] Symm. epist. 1.4.2: tu rutuvam proximae aetatis inluminas.  Cracco Ruggini 1986, 102, 106-115; Cracco Ruggini 1985b, 288-289; Bruggisser 1993, 86-87, 128-129.

[32] Symm. epist. 1.2;  Symm. epist. 2.35.1.

[33] Cavallo 103.

[34] Heather 1994b, 184-185 on the educational system as a class marker and as a key to élite status and successful careers.



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