Document: Letter 18
Date: 384
Addressee: Valentinian II
English Translation: FC 26.37-51
Summary of Contents: Answer to the Memorial of Symmachus

The illustrious prefect of the city, Symmachus, has made an appeal to your Clemency that te altar which was removed from the Senate ouse in the city of Rome be restored to its place. You, O Emperor, still young in age, a new recruit without experience, but a veteran in faith, did not approve the appeal of the pagans. The very moment I learned this I presented a request in which, although I stated what seemed necessary to suggest, I asked that I be given a copy of the appeal.

Not doubtful, therefore, regarding your faith, but foreseeing the care that is necessary, and being confident of a kindly consideration, I am answering the demands of the appeal with this discourse, making this one request that you will not expect eloquence of speech but the force of facts. For, as holy Scripture teaches, the tongue of the wise and studious man is golden, decked with glittering words and shining with the gleam of eloquence, as though some rich hue, capturing the eyes of the mind by the comeliness of its appearance, dazzling in its beauty. But this gold, if you examine it carefully, though outwardly precious, within is a base metal. Ponder well, I beg you, and examine the sect of the pagans. They sound weighty and grand; they support what is incapable of being true; they talk of God, but they adore a statue.

The distinguished prefect of the city has brought forth in his appeal three points which he considers of weight; namely, that (according to him) Rome is asking again for her ancient rites, that the priests and Vestal virgins should be given their stipends, and since these stipends have been refused to the priests there has been general famine.

According to the first proposal, as he says, Rome is shedding tears with sad and mournful complaints, asking again for her ancient ceremonies. The sacred objects, he says, drove Hannibal from the city and the Senones from the Capitol But at the same time as the power of the sacred objects is proclaimed, their weakness is betrayed. Hannibal reviled the sacred objects of the Romans for a long time, and while the gods warred against themselves the conqueror reached the city’s walls. Why did they allow themselves to be besieged when the weapons of their gods did battle for them?

Why should I make mention of the Senones, whom, when they penetrated the innermost recesses of the Capitol, the Roman forces could not have withstood had not a goose (with its frightened cackling) betrayed them. See what sort of protectors guard the Roman temples. Where was Jupiter at that time? Was he making a statement through a goose?

Why do I refuse to admit that their sacred objects warred in behalf of the Romans? Hannibal, too, worshiped the same gods. Let them choose whichever they wish. If these sacred objects conquered in the Romans, then they were overcome in the Carthaginians. If they triumphed in the Carthaginians, they certainly did not help the Romans.

Let us have no more grudging complaint from the people of Rome. Rome has authorized no such complaints. She addresses them with the words: “Why do you stain me each day with the useless blood of the harmless herd? Trophies of victory depend not on entrails of sheep but on the strength of warriors. I subdued the world by other skills. Camillus was a soldier of mine who slew those who had captured the Tarpeian rock and brought back the standards which had been taken from the Capitol. Valor laid low those whom religion had not reached. What shall I say of Attilius, who bestowed the service of his death? Africanus found his triumphs not amid the altars of the Capitol but among the ranks of Hannibal. Why do you give me these examples of ancient heroes? I despise the ceremonies of the Neroes. Why mention emperors of two months’ duration? And the downfall of kings coupled with their rising? Or is it something new, perhaps, for the barbarians to have overrun their territory? In those wretched and strange cases when an emperor was held captive, and then a world held captive under an emperor, was it the Christians who revealed the fact that the ceremonies which promised victory were falsified? Was there then no altar of Victory? I lament my downfall. My old age is accompanied by shame over that disgraceful bloodshed. But I am not ashamed to be converted in my old age along with the whole world. Surely it is true that no age is too late to learn. Let that old age feel shame which cannot rectify itself. It is not the old age of years which is entitled to praise, but that of character. There is no disgrace in going on to better things. This alone I had in common with the barbarians, that I did not know God before. Your sacrifice consists in the rite of being sprinkled with the blood of beasts. Why do you look for God’s words in dead animals? Come and learn of the heavenly warfare which goes on on earth. We live here, but we war there. Let God Himself, who established the mystery of heaven, teach me about it, not man who does not know himself. Whom more than God shall I believe concerning God? How can I believe you who admit that you do not know what you worship?’

So great a secret, it is said, cannot be reached by one road. We [Christians] know on God’s word what you do not know. And what you know by conjecture we have discovered from the very wisdom and truth of God. Your ways do not agree with ours. You ask peace for your gods from the emperors; we beg peace for our emperors from Christ. You adore the works of your hands; we consider it wrong to think that anything which can be made is God. God does not wish to be worshiped in stones. Even your philosophers have ridiculed these ideas, But if you say that Christ is not God because you do not believe that He died (for you do not realize that that was a death of the body not of the divinity, which has brought it about that no believer will die), why is this so senseless to you who worship with insult and disparage with honor, thinking that your god is a piece of wood? O worship most insulting! You do not believe that Christ could have died. O honorable stubborness!

But, says he, the ancient altars should be restored to the images, the ornaments to the shrines. Let these demands be made by one who shares their superstition. A Christian emperor knows how to honor the altar of Christ alone. Why do they force pious hands and faithful lips to do service to their sacrilege? Let the voice of our emperor utter the name of Christ and call on Him only whom he is conscious of, for “the heart of the king is in the hand of God.” Has any heathen emperor raised an altar to Christ? While they demand the restoration of all things which used to be, they show by their own example what great reverence Christian emperors should give to the religion which they follow, since the heathens offered everything to their superstitions.

We had our beginning long ago, and now they are following those whom they excluded. We glory in [shedding] our blood; they are disturbed by the spending of money. We think these acts take the place of victory; they reckon them a loss. Never did they confer more upon us than when they ordered Christians scourged and outlawed and put to death. Religion made a reward out of that which unbelief thought was a punishment. See these magnanimous individuals! We have increased through our losses, through want, through punishment. They do not believe that their ceremonies can continue unless donations continue.

Let the Vestal virgins, he says, keep their privileged state. Let men say this who are not able to believe what virginity can do without reward. Let them derive encouragement from gainful means, having no confidence in virtue. How many virgins get the rewards promised to them? About seven Vestal virgins are accepted. Lo! that is the whole number of those attracted by fillets and chaplets for the head, or purple-dyed robes, the pomp of a litter surrounded by a group of attendants, the greatest privileges, great gains, and a set period of virginity.

Let them raise the eye of the mind and of the body and see a nation of modesty, a people of purity, an assembly of virginity. Fillets are not the adornment of the head but a veil in common use, ennobled by chastity. The finery of beauty is not sought after, it is relinquished. There are none of those purple insignia, no charming luxuries, but rather the practice of fasts, no privileges, no gains. All are such, in fine, that you would think enjoyment restrained while duties are performed. But while they perform their duty, enjoyment grows apace. Chastity mounts by its own sacrifices. That is not virginity which is bought for a price and not kept through a desire for the virtue. That is not purity which is paid for with money at an auction and only for a time. Chastity’s chief victory is to conquer the desire for wealth because eagerness for gain is a temptation to modesty. Let us grant that bountiful provisions should be given to virgins. What amounts will overflow upon Christians! What treasury will supply such riches? Or if they think that only Vestals should be given grants, are they not ashamed that they claimed the whole for themselves under heathen emperors and do not think that under Christian princes we should have a like share?

They complain also that public support is not being duly granted to their priests and ministers. What a storm of words has sounded on this point! On the other hand, under recent laws we were denied even the Inheritance of private property, and no one is complaining. We do not think that is an injury because we do not grieve over losses. If a priest seeks the privilege of declining the municipal burden, he has to give up the paternal and ancestral ownership of all his property. If the heathens suffered this, how would they urge their complaint, if the priest had to buy free time for the exercise of his ministry by the loss of his patrimony, and purchase the power of exercising his public ministry at the expense of all his private means! In addition, alleging his vigils for the common safety, he must console himself with the reward of domestic poverty, because he has not sold his service but has obtained a favor.

Compare the cases. You wish to excuse a decurion when it is not permitted the Church to excuse a priest. Wills are made out in favor of the ministers of the temples; no ordinary person is excluded, no one of the lowest condition, no one openly shameless; only the clergy are denied the common privilege, and they are the ones who offer common prayer for all men and render a common service. They may have no legacy even from venerable widows, no gifts. And where no fault of character can be found a fine is imposed upon one’s official capacity. A bequest made by a Christian widow to the priests of the temple is valid, but what is left to the ministers of God is invalid. I have described this not to complain but so that they will know of what I do not complain, for I prefer that we be poorer in money than in grace:

They answer that what has been given or left to the Church has not been touched. Let them say also who it is that has taken away gifts from the temples, for that is what has been done to the Christians. If this had happened to heathens, the wrong would be rather a reprisal than an injury. Is it only now that justice is being demanded and a claim being made for fairness? Where was that feeling when they despoiled all Christians of their property, grudged them the very breath of life, and finally forbade them the privilege of burial, a privilege denied to none of the dead anywhere? The sea gave back those whom the heathens had thrown into it. This is the victory of faith, that they now reap the deeds of their ancestors. But, alas! What sense is there in seeking the favors of those whose actions were not approved by them?

No one, however, has refused gifts to the shrines or legacies to the soothsayers; only their land has been taken away because they did not use in a religious way what they claimed as a right of religion. Why did they not make use of our practice if they are using us as an example? The Church owns nothing except her faith. It furnishes her with returns, it furnishes her with increase. The property of the Church is the support of the poor. Let them take account of how many captives the temples have brought back, what food they have provided for the poor, to what exiles they have furnished the means of a livelihood. Their lands have been taken away, not their rights.

See, they say, a sad condition atoned for a public famine avenged what had taken place and that which served only the advantage of priests began being advantageous to all. For this reason, they say, the bark was stripped from the woods and carried off and the fainting men drank with their lips the unsavory sap. Therefore, changing Chaonian wine for the acorn, going back again to the food of cattle and to the nourishment of wretched provisions, they shook the oaks and satisfied their dire hunger in the woods. Surely, these are strange events in earth, which never happened before when the heathen superstition was fervent throughout the world! In fact, when before did the crops mock the prayers of the greedy farmer with empty stalks, or the blade of corn sought in the furrows deceive the hopes of the rustic crew?

And how is it that the Greeks considered their oaks oracles, except that they thought that the sustenance of their sylvan food is the gift of religion? Such they believe to be the gifts of their gods. What people except heathens have worshiped the trees of Dodona when they paid honor to the sorry food of the woods? Is it not likely that their gods in anger inflicted on them as a punishment what they, when they were appeased, used to give them as a gift? What fairness would there be of grudging the food denied to a few priests if they would deny it to everybody, for the vengeance would be more unbearable than the injury? There is no real reason for bringing such suffering on a world to accomplish one man’s downfall as that the full-grown hope of the year should suddenly perish while the stalks were green.

And, surely, it has been many years since the rights of temples were taken away throughout the world. Has it just now entered the mind of the heathen gods to avenge the wrong? Did the Nile fail to overflow in its accustomed course to avenge the losses of the priests of the city while it did not avenge its own?

Suppose that they think that the wrongs done to their gods were avenged last year, why have they been unnoticed this year? The country people no longer tear up roots and feed upon them, nor look for refreshment from the berries of the woods, nor pluck their food from thorns, but, taking joy in their prosperous labors and even marveling at their harvest themselves, they have sated their hunger with the full enjoyment of their wishes. The earth gave us her fruit with interest.

Who, then, is such a stranger to men’s affairs as to be astonished at the alternation of the seasons of the year? Yet we know that last year several provinces had an abundance of produce. What shall I say of the Gauls who were richer than usual? They sold the grain of Pannonia which they did not sow, and Rhaetia Secunda incurred hostility owing to her fertility, for she who was ordinarily safe in her scarcity made herself an enemy by her fertility. The fruits of autumn fed Liguria and the Venetias. Last year had no drought because of sacrilege; in fact, it flourished with the fruits of faith. Let them try to deny that the vineyards abounded with immense produce. We have received a harvest with interest and we also possess the benefit of a more abundant vintage. The last and most important point remains, O Emperors, whether you ought to reinstate those helps which have profited you, for our opponent says: “Let them defend you and be worshiped by us! This, most faithful Princes, is what we cannot tolerate, that they taunt us saying that they supplicate their gods in your name and without your command commit a great sacrilege. For they interpret your suppression of feelings as consent. Let them have their guardians to themselves; let these, if they can, protect their devotees. For, if they cannot help those who worship them, how can they help you who do not worship them?

But, he says, we must keep the rites of our ancestors. What of the fact that everything has made progress later to a better condition? The world itself, which at first was composed of elements in a void, in a soft mass, hardened or was clouded with the confusion of a shapeless piece of work, did it not later receive the forms of things by which it appears beautiful when the distinction between sky, sea, and earth became set? The lands shaking off their misty shadows wondered at the sun. The day does not shine at first, but as time proceeds it is bright with an increase of light and grows warm with an increase of heat.

The moon herself, by which the appearance of the Church is mirrored in the sayings of the Prophets, when first rising waxes to her monthly age, but is hidden in night’s shadows. Gradually filling up her horns, finishing them in the region of the sun, she glows with the brightness of clear shining.

Formerly, the earth did not know how to be worked for her fruits. Later, when the careful farmer began to rule the fields and to clothe the shapeless soil with vines, she put away her wild dispositions, being softened by domestic cultivation.

The first part of the year itself, stripped of growing things which have tinged our fields with a likeness to itself, spring-like with flowers which will fall, grows up later on to full fruits.

We, too, the uninstructed ages, have an infancy of reasoning, but, changing over the years, we lay aside the rudiments of our faculties.

Let me say that all things should have remained in their first beginnings; the earth shrouded in darkness now displeases us because it has been illumined by the rays of the sun. And how much more pleasing is it for the shadows of the mind to have vanished than those of the body, and for the ray of faith to have shone rather than that of the sun. So, then, the primeval age of the world has changed just as the age of all things and in the same way the venerable old age of hoary faith may change. Let those whom this disturbs find fault with the harvest for its abundance in the late season; let them find fault with the vintage for coming at the fall of the year; let them find fault with the olive for being the last of fruits.

So, then, our harvest is the faith of souls; the grace of the Church is the vintage of merits which has flourished in the saints since the beginning of the world, but in the last age it has spread among the nations in order that all may know that the faith of Christ has not crept upon unlettered minds (for there is no crown of victory without an adversary), but, the opinion having been rejected which prevailed before, that which was true has rightly been preferred.

If the old ceremonies gave pleasure, why did Rome also take up foreign ones? I will make no mention of the ground hidden by costly buildings and the shepherds’ huts glittering with ill-suited gold. Why? In order that I may refer to the very matter of which they complain. Why have they eagerly taken statues from captured cities, and conquered gods, and foreign rites of alien superstition? Whence comes the precedent for Cybele to wash her chariot in the stream of the counterfeiting Alma? Whence come the Phrygian seers and the deities of unjust Carthage ever hateful to the Romans? Whence is she whom the Africans worship as Coelestis, the Persians as Mithra, and most people as Venus, according to a diversity of names, but not a variety of deity? They believed that Victory was a goddess, yet it is a gift, not a power; it is granted and it does not rule; it is the result of the legions, not of the power of religion. Is that goddess great whom a number of soldiers claim or the outcome of battle gives?

They ask to have her altar erected in the Senate House of the city of Rome, the very place where most of those who meet are Christians. There are altars in every temple and an altar even in the Temple of Victories. Since they take pleasure in numbers, they offer their sacrifices everywhere. Is it not an insult to the faith to insist upon a sacrifice on this one altar? Must we tolerate a heathen offering of sacrifice in the presence of a Christian? Let them imbibe, he says, although they are unwilling, let them imbibe the smoke with their eyes, the music with their ears, the cinders with their throats, the incense with their nostrils. And let the dust raised from our hearths cover their faces although they detest it. Are not the baths and colonnades and streets filled with enough statues for them? Will there not be a common privilege in that common meeting place? The dutiful portion of the Senate will be bound by the voices of those who call upon the gods, by the oaths of those who swear by them. If they refuse, they will appear to utter a lie; if they consent, to acknowledge what is sacrilegious.

Where, he says, shall we swear fealty to our laws and decrees? Does your mind, which is contained in the laws, gain assent and bind to faithfulness by the rites of heathens? Not only is the faith of those present attacked but also of those absent, and, what is more, O Emperors, your faith is attacked, for you compel if you command. Constantius of august memory, although he had not yet been admitted to the sacred mysteries, felt he would be polluted if he saw the altar. He ordered it to be removed; he did not order it to be replaced. That removal has the authority of an act; the replacing of it has not the authority of a command.

Let no one flatter himself over his absence. He is more present when he joins himself to the thoughts of others than if he gives assent before their eyes. It is more important to be drawn together by the mind than to be united with the body. The Senate has you as its presidents to convene its assembly. It meets in your behalf; it gives its conscience to you, not to the gods of the heathens. It prefers you to its children, but not to its faith. This is the affection you should seek; this is a love greater than power, provided the faith which preserves the power be safe,

Perhaps it may cause concern to some that, if this be so, a most faithful emperor has been forsaken, as if the reward of merits were to be thought of in terms of the passing value of those present. What wise man does not know that human affairs have been arranged in a kind of round and circuit, that they do not enjoy the same success, but that their state varies and they undergo changes?

Whom have the Roman temples sent forth more prosperous than Gnaeus Pompey? Yet, when he had circled the earth with three triumphs, after suffering defeat in battle, a fugitive from war, and an exile within the boundaries of his own empire, he fell by the hand of a eunuch of Ganopus.

What king have the lands of all the East produced more noble than Cyrus of the Persians? He, too, after conquering extremely powerful princes who opposed him, and keeping the conquered as prisoners, was overthrown and perished by the weapons of a woman. And that king who had treated even the vanquished with honor had his head cut off and placed in a vessel full of blood, while he was bidden to be sated with the plaything of a woman’s power. The mode of his own life was not repaid with similar conduct on the part of others, but far otherwise.

And whom do we find more devoted to sacrifice than Hamilcar, the leader of the Carthaginians? Although all during the battle he stood between the fighting ranks and offered sacrifice, when he saw that his side was conquered he threw himself Into the very fires which he was feeding, so that he might extinguish with his own body the fires which he knew were of no avail.

What shall I say of Julian? When he foolishly trusted the responses of the soothsayers, he destroyed his own means of retreat. Therefore, in similar cases there is not a similar offense, for our promises have not deceived anyone.

I have answered those who provoked me as though I had not been provoked, for my object was to refute the appeal, not to expose superstition. But let their very appeal, O Emperor, make you more cautious. After saying that of former princes, the earlier ones practiced the cult of their fathers, and the later ones did not abolish them, it was claimed in addition that if the religious practice of older princes did not set a pattern, the act of overlooking them on the part of the later ones did. This showed plainly what you owe to your faith, that you should not follow the pattern of heathen rites, and to your affection, that you should not set aside the decrees of your brother. If in their own behalf only they have praised the permission of those princes who, although they were Christians, did not abolish the heathen decrees, how much more ought you to defer to your brotherly affection, so that you who must overlook some things, even though you do not approve them, should not abrogate your brother’s decrees; you should maintain what you judge to be in agreement with your own faith and the bond of brotherhood.

Translation from FC 26.37-51, adapted by SMT

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