Praetextatus – Death and Immortality: The Reactions (Ch. 4.1)


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



The date of Praetextatus’ death. In 384 Praetextatus was appointed as consul designatus for the following year but he died before the New Year of 385.[1] In his letter to Marcella, Jerome writes that before his death Praetextatus had ascended the Capitoline hill like a triumphant general.[2] Praetextatus’ solemn ‘triumphal’ appearance before the Roman people has been interpreted as a kind of a triumph by D. Vera, a triumph connected with the gladiatorial games that were celebrated in Rome after the victory over the Sarmatians. Emperor Valentinian II offered Sarmatian prisoners for the gladiatorial games and in relatio 47 Symmachus thanks him, calling the celebration a triumphal spectacle, spectaculum triumphale, though it cannot be regarded as a real triumph since the triumphator and the army were not present in Rome. Vera and Cracco Ruggini identify this ‘triumph’ with Praetextatus’ ascent to the Capitoline hill described by Jerome as quasi de subiectibus hostibus triumpharet.[3] It is possible that Praetextatus’ appearance was somehow connected with the triumphal spectacle and clearly was provocative in the eyes of Christians, as Jerome’s words indicate.[4]

As I have already discussed in ch. 1.2, Praetextatus must have been alive when Symmachus wrote relatio 47 because Symmachus, when praising the victorious general Bauto, does not mention his consulate. D. Vera dates Praetextatus’ death between Dec. 8 and Dec. 10, 384, basing his argument on Praetextatus’ participation in the celebration of the gladiatorial games that began on Dec. 2. As a reaction to his death, the Roman people did not attend the theatrical spectacles that started on Dec. 12 but Symmachus does not mention the absence of the plebs from the gladiatorial games. Consequently, Praetextatus was still alive when the first cycle of the gladiatorial games ended on Dec. 8 but died before the theatrical spectacles began on Dec. 12.[5] Vera also dates Praetextatus’ death in relation to the death of Damasus, Bishop of Rome, that took place on Dec. 11, 384, assuming that Praetextatus must have died before him. Thus Praetextatus’ death must have taken place between the last day of the first cycle of gladiatorial games and Damasus’ death, or between Dec. 8 and Dec. 10, 384.[6] F. Cavallera already pointed out that Jerome mentions Praetextatus’ recent death in two letters dated to the end of 384 but he does not mention Damasus’ death. Jerome would probably have mentioned the death of his patron if Damasus had already been dead since this would have been an excellent opportunity to compare Praetextatus, the miserable pagan, with Damasus, the Bishop of Rome.[7]

The manifestations of grief. According to Jerome, the whole city of Rome mourned Praetextatus’ death, ad cuius interitum urbs universa commota est.[8] In rel. 10 Symmachus reports to the emperors that his death caused so great a sorrow that the people of Rome abstained from the usual pleasures of the theatre when the news became known, and moreover, testified with acclamations to his glorious memory. Symmachus describes the painful grief of the citizens and the whole res publica with emotional words such as desiderium and dolor.[9] In rel. 11 Symmachus writes to the emperors that the mourning of all the Roman people made Praetextatus’ death famous, mortem celebrem dolor omnium fecerit, and again, in rel. 12, he writes that both the people and the senate grieved for the loss of Praetextatus.[10]

These public manifestations of grief were partly ‘ceremonial’; the sorrow caused by a great man’s loss is also a popular theme in funerary inscriptions. Iunius Bassus’ (PVR 359) funerary poem, for example, claims that the great man’s death caused such sorrow in the whole city of Rome that everyone, women, children, old people, senators and aristocrats, even the houses and streets of the city, groaned in pain for him:

[ur]bis perpetuas occidit ad lacrymas. …

[Fle]vit turba omnis matres puerique senesque,

[fle]vit et abiectis tunc pius ordo togis.

[Flere vide]bantur tunc et fastigia Romae,

[ipsaque tunc] gemitus edere tecta viae.[11]

As a city prefect Symmachus had to report his friend’s death to the emperors even though he was still suffering dreadful pain (crudo dolore).[12] Symmachus asked for release from the city prefecture because he was deeply shocked by his friend’s death and sought for consolation in private life. His words suggest that there were also other reasons for his resignation but he does not mention them. Perhaps he felt himself politically uncertain without the support of Praetextatus.[13]

Posthumous eulogies and honours. Symmachus’ relationes on Praetextatus are also laudationes funebres for his fellow senator in which he calls Praetextatus a remarkable man of his age, virum nostra aetate mirabilem and celebrates him eloquently for old-fashioned virtues, Praetextatus vester, Praetextatus bonorum, antiquae probitatis adsertor. He was a man of every virtue, private as well as public, vir omnium domi forisque virtutum, an equal of the ancient virtuous men, veteribus parem virtutum omnium virum and he had brought great glory to Rome, patriae … cui decus insigne praestabat.[14]

Symmachus praises Praetextatus for having always been even nobler than his offices (ille semper magistratibus suis celsior) and exalts his qualities: he had been clement for others, only severe on himself; he had been permissive without causing contempt and revered without causing fear (in alios temperatus, in se severus; sine contemptu facilis, sine terrore reverendus). Symmachus especially mentions that Praetextatus was too virtuous to misuse his positions for his own benefit, thus insinuating that this was a common practice among officeholders; Praetextatus, for example, had immediately returned all benefits ever passed to him under the terms of a will back to the nearest relative of the testator.[15] He neither envied another’s properties nor was he pleased for another’s misfortunes (qui nullius prosperis fractus est, nullius risit adversa). Because of his probity (aequitas) even his neighbours could trust him.[16]

Symmachus emphasizes the loss that the Roman state and the emperors themselves have suffered for the emperors will have difficulty finding a successor equal to the deceased and he stresses the greatness of Praetextatus’ character, describing him as a man who despised all physical pleasures as merely transitory, qui gaudia corporis, etiam cum hominem ageret, ut caduca calcavit.[17] This characterization of Praetextatus, particularly the word caduca, recalls the image of Praetextatus and the words caduca ac parva in Praetextatus’ and Paulina’s funerary poem (CIL VI 1779, see ch. 3.3).

This idealization of a friend continues the tradition of senatorial eulogies but also serves here as an argumentation for statues for a great man. After having described Praetextatus as a perfect senator, Symmachus asks the emperors in the name of the senate for permission to erect statues financed by the state to Praetextatus so that the memory of such a remarkable man would be handed on to posterity, senatus inpatiens dispendii sui solacium petit de honore virtutis vestrumque numen precatur, ut virum nostra aetate mirabilem statuarum diuturnitas tradat oculis posterorum.[18] Good men should be given visible honours like statues so that others would follow their example, sed quia ornamentis bonorum incitatur imitatio et virtus aemula alitur exemplo honoris alieni, and it would be appropriate that a man who stays in the hearts of all people should be remembered in speech as well, dignum est igitur, ut qui in pectoribus omnium manet, sit in ore populorum.[19] Inscriptions CIL VI 1778 and 1779a might have been connected with the statues erected in the Forum Romanum.[20]

The Vestal Virgins are known to have erected a statue to Praetextatus pontifex Vestae. Symmachus was against the statue in the college of pontifices because it was, he writes to Nicomachus Flavianus, inappropriate for the Vestals to pay such homage to men. Furthermore, it did not accord with tradition because that honour was never given to Numa Pompilius or Metellus or any pontifex maximus. Nevertheless, he did not express these opinions openly since he felt that controversy might be harmful to pagan cults.[21] Bloch oversimplified this issue, seeing it as a difference in religious opinions between the Traditionalists and Orientalists and regarded Symmachus’ opponents as the extreme Orientalists of the pagan party.[22] Matthews has rightly remarked that Symmachus did not react against the project of the Vestal Virgins because of mere narrow-mindedness but he was concerned with the present conditions of pagan religion, condicio temporis praesentis as well as the old religious practices, longae aetatis usus.[23]

Symmachus lost this dispute when the chief of the Vestals, Coelia Concordia, erected a statue in the name of all the Vestal Virgins.[24] Praetextatus’ widow Paulina erected a statue of Coelia Concordia, probably in her own house, to thank the chief Vestal for this honour.[25] In the extant inscription engraved on the base of the statue, CIL VI 2145, Paulina declares that Coelia Concordia had erected a statue to Praetextatus, to a man outstanding in every way and worthy of being honoured by the Vestal Virgins and priests:

Coeliae Concordiae, virgini Vestali maximae, Fabia Paulina, c(larissima) f(emina) statuam faciendam conlocandamque curavit, cum propter egregiam eius pudicitiam insignemque circa cultum divinum sanctitatem, tum quod haec prior eius viro Vettio Agorio Praetextato, c(larissimo) v(iro), omnia singulari dignoque etiam ab huius modi virginibus et sacerdotibus coli, statuam conlocarat.

There is a clear triumphant tone in the inscription and Paulina’s words could be understood as polemics against Symmachus. The word prior implies that Coelia Concordia was the first to set up a statue to Praetextatus and that Symmachus succeeded in getting permission to erect public statues to Praetextatus only after Coelia Concordia.

In my opinion, Polara and Cracco Ruggini have misinterpreted and modernized the text of the inscription, believing that the conservative Symmachus tried to prevent Roman aristocratic women from getting too much influence in Roman society when he set himself against Vestals in the controversy over Praetextatus’ statues, explaining that he did not regard it appropriate for women to erect statues to men.[26] There is a polemical tone in Paulina’s words in CIL VI 2145 and it is quite obvious that the polytheistic senatorial society in fourth-century Rome was not without internal contention on the prestige and prominence of its members but the controversy need not have been over a ‘female issue’.

Remembering ‘great men’. Several epitaphs (CIL VI 1777, 1778, 1779, 1779a) were erected after Praetextatus’ death. CIL VI 1779 (= ILS 1259 = CLE 111) contains a long funerary poem for both Praetextatus and Paulina in iambic senarii. In part d, Paulina addresses her husband for the last time and praises his qualities and achievements while in parts b and c Praetextatus praises his wife Paulina (see Appendix). The self-awareness of the senatorial aristocracy is manifested in funerary inscriptions, especially in long funerary poems in the fourth century, like Praetextatus’ and Paulina’s poem. In an inscriptional elogium, the name and gens of the deceased senator are introduced and his noble origin and status within the ordo senatorius and in the senate are emphasized, e.g. Alfenius Caeionius Iulianus Kamenius is said to be ornamentum ingens generis magnique senatus.[27]

The administrative career and other achievements of a senator as well as his influence and wealth are mentioned and his virtues like iustitia, integritas, prudentia, continentia, opulentia, liberalitas and eloquentia are listed on the epitaph.[28] The late antique aristocracy seems to have laid a special emphasis on erudition and culture in funerary inscriptions since a senator can be called orator, historicus, philosophus or doctus. Eloquence is particularly mentioned and valued on epitaphs.[29] The sorrow caused by the loss of such a great man is often emphasized and a eulogy ends with some pious wishes or consolation. Christian senatorial funerary inscriptions do not differ much from pagan ones; the same elements, origin of birth, career and virtues are included.[30]

There are several of these elements present in the poem of CIL VI 1779: first, Praetextatus’ aristocratic origin is mentioned, Agori, suberbo qui creatus germine (v.4). Second, his virtues are exalted in v.6-7: probitate mentis, moribus, studiis simul, / virtutibus apicem quis supremum nanctus es. His worldly career in v.18-20 is emphatically short and only mentioned as caduca ac parva while this part is usually listed in detail. Instead, Praetextatus’ elogium concentrates on his intellectual (v.8-12) and religious activities (v.13-29), continues with reference to Paulina and their offspring (v.30-35) and finally ends with the remarks about death and consolation (v.38-41).

In the funerary poem of Alfenius Caeionius Iulianus Kamenius, his widow addresses him in a similar way as Paulina addresses Praetextatus. After having made mention of his forefathers, virtues and honours, his wife with their little children weep over his early death night and day. Moreover, the castitas of their marriage is emphasized. These similarities make one surmise that Kamenius’ epitaph might have been influenced by Praetextatus’ and Paulina’s funerary poem since Kamenius died (Sept. 4, 385) shortly after Praetextatus.[31]

Postumius Rufius Festus Avienius’ dedicatory inscription to the goddess Nortia also describes a mighty man’s life, his gens, career (proconsul), his cultural activities, virtuous character, marriage and children:

Festus Musoni suboles prolesque Avieni,

unde tui latices traxerunt, Caesia, nomen,

Nortia, te veneror lare cretus Vulsiniensi,

Romam habitans, gemino proconsulis auctus honor[e],

carmina multa serens, vitam insons, integer aeum,

coniugio laetus Placidae numeroq(ue) frequenti

natorum exultans, vivax sit spiritus ollis,

cetera composita fatorum lege trahentur.[32]

The senatorial career of Sextus Petronius Probus (cos. 371), the head of the Christian family of the Anicii, is described in a similar way as on Praetextatus’ epitaph. Probus, a wealthy man, comes of noble family, is exalted in office and worthy of his consular grandfather.[33] But he is even greater than his own and his wife’s consular parents and ancestors and greater than other consuls since he has restored two consular households and been prefect four times, thus surpassing in fame every man in the world:

consulibus proavis socerisque et consule maior,

quod geminas consul reddidit ipse domos;

praefectus quarto, totum dilectus in orbem,

sed fama emensus quicquid in orbe hominum est (part a, v.3-6).

His virtues are exalted eloquently for as a friend of virtue, fidelity, duty and honour he does not spare his riches and is prodigal of himself, virtutis, fidei, pietatis, honoris amicus, / parcus opum nulli, largus et ipse sui (v.13-14).[34] However, his real nobility and honour originate from Christ, hic est verus honos, haec tua nobilitas. During his lifetime Probus had gained imperial favour and friendship, now, in the afterlife he was enjoying the special favour of Christ and his saints:

Laetabare prius mensae regalis honore,

Principis alloquio, regis amicitia:

Nunc propior Christo sanctorum sede potitus,

Luce nova frueris, lux tibi Christus adest.

Here the heavenly hierarchy resembles the wordly hierarchy as the senatorial tradition of worldly honours is connected with the Christian culture. Probus is described as a close associate of Christ himself in a similar way as Praetextatus’s wife Paulina is characterized as a friend of gods, amica numinum. Both epitaphs, Christian and pagan alike, serve as a means for senatorial self-expression, manifesting the intimacy of their relationship with the divine.


[1] Symm. rel. 12.5. Praetextatus was still alive on Sept. 9, 384 (CIust 1.54.5) but dead by Jan. 1, 385.

[2] Hier. epist. 23.2-3. ­Praetextatus is not mentioned by name but a consul designate who was non palmatus consul, sed sacratus because he was to be consul at the beginning of the next year. See also ch. 1.2.

[3] Symm. rel. 47.1. Vera 1983, 140-142; Cracco Ruggini 1979b, 17, 95 n.288.

[4] For my interpretation of Praetextatus’ ascent, see ch. 2.4.

[5] The gladiatorial games were held on fixed days, Dec. 2, 4-6, 8, 19-21, 23-24 and the theatrical spectacles on Dec. 12-14, 16-17. Philocal. fast. Dec. 2 (Inscr.It. XIII2 p.261, p.533). The reaction of the Roman people to Praetextatus’ death was immediate, ubi primum (Symm. rel. 10). Vera 1983, 140, 148-149; Vera 1981, 96-97.

[6] Damasus: Martyrol. Hier. IV Id. Dec.; Lib. pontif. 1.213.5 Duchesne. Vera 1983, 135-138, 149.

[7] Hier. epist. 23.2; 39.3. Cavallera 22-23, followed by Kelly 98, n.33. Though Vera 1983, 137 does not consider this argumentum ex silentio as provable, he still suggests that Jerome wrote epist. 23 between the deaths of Praetextatus and Damasus.

[8] Hier. epist. 23.3.

[9] Symm. rel. 10.2: Itaque summum sui in re publica desiderium magnumque civibus gratis reliquit dolorem … Nam ubi primum Romae amarus de eo rumor increpuit, recusavit populus sollemnes theatri voluptates memoriamque eius inlustrem multa adclamatione testatus graviter egit cum livore fortunae.

[10] Symm. rel. 12: nam praeter illum populi Romani inusitatum dolorem etiam senatus inpatiens dispendii sui solacium petit. The sorrow of the people is also expressed in Symm. rel. 24.3.

[11] AE 1953, 239. PLRE I, Bassus 15, 155. Cf. CIL V 6253: Lux patriae, sublime decus p(ate)r Osius urbis / mundo flente iacens conditur hoc tumulo. / Hunc M(edio)l(an)i populus nunc lugeat omnis, / noverit ut tanti pignus obisse viri.

[12] Symm. rel. 11: Ego tamen officii publici necessitate cogente excessum viri inlustris crudo adhuc dolore non sileo.

[13] Symm. rel. 10.2-3: Et ille quidem functus est lege naturae, nos vero socios animi sui vestrique iudicii tanto dolore confudit, ut otii remedium postulemus. Sileo cetera, quae me non sinunt praefecturam ferre patienter: vel haec una consortis admissio iusta est ad impetrandam vacationem. For Symmachus’ difficulties as city prefect, see ch. 2.4 and Vera 1978, 87-88.

[14] Symm. rel. 12.2; 10.1; 11.

[15] Symm. rel. 12.3: cui si quod commodum succesionis evenit, ad testatoris proximos mox revertit.

[16] Symm. rel. 12.3: cuius aequitati conterminus quisque limites suos credidit.

[17] Symm. rel. 10.1: in cuius locum vestrae quoque aeternitati, quae optimos novit eligere, nimis arduum est similem subrogare; 12.2-4.

[18] Symm. rel. 12.2. In addition to Praetextatus, at least five individuals are known to have received public statues from the senate in the fourth century: CIL VI 1683 = ILS 1221 Amnius Manius Caesonius Anicius Paulinus (PVR 334-335, cos. 334), CIL VI 1708 = ILS 1222 Caeionius Rufius Albinus (PVR 335-337, cos. 335), AE 1934, 159 Flavius Taurus, Symm. rel. 9.4; 43 Flavius Theodosius magister equitum, the father of Emperor Theodosius and CIL VI 1698 Avianius Symmachus.

[19] Symm. rel. 12.3. Vera 1981, lx suggests that in rel. 12 Symmachus argues with those who were perhaps against public honours for Praetextatus. According to Demandt 1965, 19 it is the erection of statues within Symmachus’ circle that was severely rebuked by Amm. 14.6.8 whereas Selem 48 argues that Ammianus does not criticize the habit of erecting statues if a man has merited a statue.

[20] Ensslin 1579 and Seeck 1883, lxxxviii (CIL VI 1779a); Nistler 472 (CIL VI 1778).

[21] Symm. epist. 2.36.2-3 to Nicomachus Flavianus: Ego qui adverterem neque honestati virginum talia in viros obsequia convenire neque more fieri quod Numa auctor, Metellus conservator religionum omnesque pontifices maximi nunquam ante meruerunt, haec quidem silui, ne sacrorum aemulis enuntiata noxam crearent inusitatum censentibus. Symmachus’ conservative attitude to the Vestals also in epist. 9.108-109; 9.147-148.

[22] Bloch 1945, 217-218 n. 46.­ Symmachus (epist. 2.36.4) assumes that Nicomachus Flavianus shares his views, quod si tu adesses, multum deorum sanitas promoveret.

[23] Matthews 1973, 192 n.111.

[24] Lanciani, Notizie degli Scavi 1883, 482 (referred by Degrassi 519 n.1) identified a statue found in the Atrium Vestae with the statue erected to Praetextatus. Degrassi 519 n.1 believed that Praetextatus’ statue was never placed in the Vestals’ house and that Coelia Concordia had it erected elsewhere at her own expense since Paulina would have mentioned if Praetextatus, as the first man in the Roman history, had received a statue in the Atrium Vestae.

[25] The statue of Coelia Concordia was found on the Esquiline hill in the sixteenth century but it is now lost. Seeck 1883, lxxxv; Merriman 14.

[26] Cracco Ruggini 1979b, 114; Polara 286-289.

[27] ILS 1264 = Ephem. Epigr. VIII 648 = CIMRM 206 = CCCA 469 = CLE 654.

[28] E.g. CIL VI 32051 of Vulcacius Rufinus: singulari auctoritatis splendore pollenti admirabilisque eloquentiae benibolenti(a)e felicitate glorioso cunctarumq(ue) dignitatum fastigia faborabili moderatione iustitiae supergresso; CIL VI 1772 of L. Turcius Secundus Asterius: eloquentia iustitia integritate auctoritate praestanti in omni denique virtute perfecto.

[29] E.g. CIL VI 1699 = ILS 2946 of Q. Aurelius Symmachus: orator disertissimus; CIL VI 1782 = ILS 2947 of Nicomachus Flavianus: historicus disertissimus; CIL VI 1708 of Caeionius Rufius Albinus: philosophus; ILS 8987 of Valerius Dalmatius: doctus; CIL V 3344 of Petronius Probus: disertissimus and eruditissimus; eloquentia e.g. in CIL VI 1772, CIL VI 32051.

[30] Neri 179-181; Näf 37-40; Kierdorf 59.

[31] ILS 1264 = Ephem. Epigr. VIII p.159, 648 = CIMRM 206 = CCCA 469 = CLE 654: Inter avos proavosque tuos sanctumque parentem / virtutem meritis et honoribus emicuisti, / ornamentum ingens generis magnique senatus, / sed raptus propere liquisti, sancte Kameni, / aeternos fletus obiens iuvenalibus annis. / Te dulcis coniunx lacrimis noctesque diesque / cum parvis deflet natis, solacia vitae / amisisse dolens casto viduata cubili. / Quae tamen extremum munus, solacia luctus, / omnibus obsequiis ornat decoratque sepulcrum. Iulianus Kamenius accumulated priesthoods of various pagan cults in the same way as Praetextatus. PLRE I, Iulianus 25, 474-475.

[32] CIL VI 537 = ILS 2944 = CLE 1530. PLRE I, Festus 12, 336-337.

[33] CIL VI 1756 = CLE 1347: Dives opum clarusque genus, praecelsus honore, / fascibus inlustris, consule dignus avo (part b, v.5-6).

[34] Cf. Amm. 27.11, quite a different characterization of Petronius Probus!


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