The Dispute Between Symmachus and Amrbose over the 'Altar of Victory' in the Senate House (circa late 4th C)

[Please note: this is a work in progress]

A selection from the Prefect Symmachus' Memorial (speech) addressed to the Christian Emperor Valentinian calling for the restoration of the pagan 'Altar of Victory' in the Senate House, and Archbishop Ambrose' responce (first, in a letter he wrote to the Emperor and also a speech he gave to the Senate).

The Altar was established by Octavian (later Augustus) in 29 BC to commemorate the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra at the Battle of Actium, and depicted the goddess Victory bearing a laurel wreath. This Alter stood in the hall where the Senate met in the Forum Romanum. Starting with Emperor Constantine, the Alter became an object of contention between the Christian and pagan Romans. Constantinus, Constantines son, removed the Pagan idol from the assembly hall of the Senate, though it was soon restored, only to be removed again. The last Emperor to restore the altar had been Julian, the last Pagan Emperor, who also wrote a polemic 'against the Galileans' (see here for a selection from this tract), before it was removed again by the Christian Emperor Gratian, who also consecrated Ambrose-- against his will, as legend has it--  Bishop of Milan. Symmachus was born of a noble pagan family, a celebrated orator, Governor and Prefect of the City of Rome.

The ruins of the Roman Forum.

The statue of Victory depicted on a coin minted under Augustus,
matching its description by Prudentius

Carved ivory leaf from a diptych depicting Symmachus's Apotheosis (click HERE for link to British Museum)

Early mosaic of Ambrose (believed by some to be a portrait made while he was still alive).

The following secondary source is from here:
"The ruin of Paganism, in the age of Theodosius, is perhaps the only example of the total extirpation of any ancient and popular superstition; and may therefore deserve to be considered, as a singular event in the history of the human mind."
Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (XXVIII)
When Constantius II (the second son of Constantine I) visited Rome in AD 357, the Altar of Victory was ordered removed from the Senate House. Although returned by his successor Julian, it again was removed by Gratian in AD 382, this time at the instigation of Ambrose, bishop of Milan, who also persuaded the emperor to withdraw state subsidies, and prohibit the legacies and revenues that maintained many of the pagan cults, including endowment of the Vestal Virgins and the college of pontiffs. The title of pontifex maximus, which had signified authority over state religion since the time of Julius Caesar, was renounced as well.
These measures were protested by the pagan aristocracy, who feared that the loss of official recognition would threaten the legitimacy and efficacy of the cults themselves. But a deputation of senators led by Symmachus, the leading orator of his day, was refused even an audience with the emperor. After Gratian's death, there was another petition, and in AD 384 the question again was put to his successor Valentinian II.
Hearing of this attempt to restore the Altar, Ambrose sent a letter to the young emperor, asking to see the petition and threatening censure and sacrilege if favorably received by Valentinian.
"Salvation will not be assured unless each one truly worships the true God, that is, the God of the Christians...Since you have truly shown your faith in God, most Christian Emperor, I am amazed that your zeal for the faith, and our protection and devotion, have inspired hope in some that you are now obligated to erect altars to the gods of the pagans and to furnish funds for the upkeep of profane sacrifices...If today some pagan emperor—God forbid!—should erect an altar to idols and compel Christians to hold their meetings there, to attend the sacrifices, so that the breath and nostrils of Christians would be filled with the ashes from the altar, cinders from the sacrifice, and smoke from the the wood...the Christian, compelled to come into the Senate, would on these conditions regard it as persecution....Now that you are Emperor, will Christians be forced to take their oath on an altar?...A decree like this cannot be enforced without sacrilege. I beg you not to make such a decree, nor pass a law, nor sign a decree of this sort."
Epistle XVII
Again representing his pagan colleagues in the Senate, Symmachus, who had assumed the prefecture of Rome that year, made an eloquent plea that the Altar be returned and revenues restored to the priesthood, arguing that the fortune of Rome depended on maintaining its ancient customs and religious institutions.
"Man's reason moves entirely in the dark; his knowledge of divine influences can be drawn from no better source than from the recollection and the evidences of good fortune received from them. If long passage of time lends validity to religious observances, we ought to keep faith with so many centuries, we ought to follow our forefathers who followed their forefathers and were blessed in so doing. Let us imagine that Rome herself stands in your presence and pleads with you thus, 'Best of emperors, fathers of your country, respect my length of years won for me by the dutiful observance of rite, let me continue to practise my ancient ceremonies, for I do not regret them. Let me live in my own way, for I am free. This worship of mine brought the whole world under the rule of my laws, these sacred rites drove back Hannibal from my walls and the Senones [Gauls] from the Capitol'....And so we ask for peace for the gods of our fathers, for the gods of our native land. It is reasonable that whatever each of us worships is really to be considered one and the same. We gaze up at the same stars, the sky covers us all, the same universe compasses us. What does it matter what practical system we adopt in our search for the truth? Not by one avenue only can we arrive at so tremendous a secret."
Relatio III
Having read the petition, Ambrose wrote to refute each point that had been made.
"And why should I say anything of the Senones, whose entrance into the inmost Capitol the remnant of the Romans could not have prevented, had not a goose by its frightened cackling betrayed them? See what sort of protectors the Roman temples have. Where was Jupiter at that time? Was he speaking in the goose? But why should I deny that their sacred rites fought for the Romans? For Hannibal also worshipped the same gods. Let them choose then which they will. If these sacred rites conquered in the Romans, then they were overcome in the Carthaginians; if they triumphed in the Carthaginians, they certainly did not benefit the Romans. Let, then, that invidious complaint of the Roman people come to an end. Rome has given no such charge. She speaks with other words. 'Why do you daily stain me with the useless blood of the harmless herd? Trophies of victory depend not on the entrails of the flocks, but on the strength of those who fight....Was there then no Altar of Victory? I mourn over my downfall, my old age is tinged with that shameful bloodshed. I do not blush to be converted with the whole world in my old age.'"
Epistle XVIII
The Altar was not restored; indeed, measures against pagans became more repressive. Ambrose also exerted extraordinary dominance over Theodosius I (AD 379-395), to whom he threatened excommunication for having ordered the massacre of thousands in the circus at Thessalonica [in his purge of the pagan temples]. The chastened emperor presented himself, bareheaded and in sackcloth at the cathedral in Milan [see early 17th century painting inside the Cathedral]. The next year, in AD 391, he issued the first in a series of edicts that prohibited all pagan cult worship and effectively made Christianity the official religion in the empire. They are preserved in the Codex Theodosianus, a codification of legislative enactments (constitutiones) from the time of Constantine, issued by Theodosius II in AD 438. Divided into titles and arranged chronologically, it is comprised of sixteen books, the last of which deals with pagans, sacrifices, and temples.
"No person shall pollute himself with sacrificial animals; no person shall slaughter an innocent victim; no person shall approach the shrines, shall wander through the temples, or revere the images formed by mortal labor, lest he become guilty by divine and human laws" (CTh. XVI.10.10).
Following bloody riots in Alexandria, the Temple of Serapis was destroyed by a Christian mob. As Prudentius confessed a decade or so later: "I love a temple of the heart, not one of marble."

There was no official proscription of paganism, however, until AD 392, when, in a long decree, Theodosius forbade, not only the offering of blood sacrifice, but all forms of pagan worship, including private religious rites. No sacrifice in any place or any city was permitted. Privately, no wine or incense was to be offered, no votive candles or burning lamps, no suspended wreaths, either to one's genius (the tutelary spirit of a person or place) or to the Lars and Penates (the household gods). A burnt offering or the divining of entrails became a treasonable offense, while one who practiced more humble pagan rites, such as the veneration of a statue or even tying a ribbon around a tree, was threatened with the loss of property (CTh. XVI.10.12).
And yet, aspects of the old religion did survive.

"it must ingenuously be confessed, that the ministers of the Catholic church imitated the profane model, which they were impatient to destroy. The most respectable bishops had persuaded themselves, that the ignorant rustics would more cheerfully renounce the superstitions of Paganism, if they found some resemblance, some compensation, in the bosom of Christianity. The religion of Constantine achieved, in less than a century, the final conquest of the Roman empire: but the victors themselves were insensibly subdued by the arts of their vanquished rivals." (Gibbons, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire).

The following is from Montesquieu's Considerations of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline (1757):

In a letter to the emperors concerning the alter of Victory, a prefect named Symmachus' said: "What can better lead us to konwledge of the gods, than the experience of our past prosperity? We ought to be faithful to so many centuries, and follow our fathers who so successfully followed theirs. Imagine that Rome is talking to you, saying: Great princes, fathers of your country, respect my years, during which I have always observed the ceremonies of my ancestors. This religion has subjected the world to my laws; by it Hannibal was repulsed from my walls, and the gauls from the Capitol."
Three celebrated authors responded to Symmachus. Orosius composed his history to prove that there had always been as great evils in the world as those the pagans bemoaned. Salvian wrote a book maintiaining that the disorders of the pagans had attracted the ravages of the barbarians ['The Government of God.']. And Saint Augustine showed that the city of heaven was different from the earthly city ['The City of God'].

See here for a selection from Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter XXVIII, Final Destruction of Paganism. Introduction of the Worship of Saints and Relics among the Christians.)

Excerpts from Symmachus' speech:

"We gaze up at the same stars; the sky covers us all; the same universe encompasses us. Does it matter what practical system we adopt in our search for the Truth? The heart of so great a mystery cannot be reached by following one road only."


Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, responded to Symmachus' petition with the following letter addressed to the Emperor:
Ambrose, Bishop, to the most blessed Prince and most Christian Emperor Valentinian.

I.  As all men who live under the Roman sway engage in military service under you, the Emperors and Princes of the world, so too do you yourselves owe service to Almighty God and our holy faith. For salvation is not sure unless everyone worship in truth the true God, that is the God of the Christians, under Whose sway are all things; for He alone is the true God, Who is to be worshipped from the bottom of the heart; for "the gods of the heathen," as Scripture says, "are devils,"

2. Now everyone is a soldier of this true God, and he who receives and worships Him in his inmost spirit, does not bring to His service dissimulation, or pretence, but earnest faith and devotion. And if, in fine, he does not attain to this, at least he ought not to give any countenance to the worship of idols and to profane ceremonies. For no one deceives God, to whom all things, even the hidden things of the heart, are manifest.

3. Since, then, most Christian Emperor, there is due from you to the true God both faith and zeal, care and devotion for the faith, I wonder how the hope has risen up to some, that you would feel it a duty to restore by your command altars to the gods of the heathen, and furnish the funds requisite for profane sacrifices; for whatsoever has long been claimed by either the imperial or the city treasury you will seem to give rather from your own funds, than to be restoring what is theirs.

4. And they [i.e., Pagans] are complaining of their losses, who never spared our blood, who destroyed the very buildings of the churches. And they petition you to grant them privileges, who by the last Julian law denied us the common right of speaking and teaching, and those privileges whereby Christians also have often been deceived; for by those privileges they endeavoured to ensnare some, partly through inadvertence, partly in order to escape the burden of public requirements; and, because all are not found to be brave, even under Christian princes, many have lapsed.

5. Had these things not been abolished I could prove that they ought to be done away by your authority; but since they have been forbidden and prohibited by many princes throughout nearly the whole world, and were abolished at Rome by Gratian of august memory, the brother of your Clemency, in consideration of the true faith, and rendered void by a rescript; do not, I pray you, either pluck up what has been established in accordance with the faith, nor rescind your brother's precepts.  In civil matters if he established anything, no one thinks that it ought to be treated lightly, while a precept about religion is trodden under foot.

6. Let no one take advantage of your youth; if he be a heathen who demands this, it is not right that he should bind your mind with the bonds of his own superstition; but by his zeal he ought to teach and admonish you how to be zealous for the true faith, since he defends vain things with all the passion of truth. I myself advise you to defer to the merits of illustrious men, but undoubtedly God must be preferred to all.

7. If we have to consult concerning military affairs, the opinion of a man experienced in warfare should be waited for, and his counsel be followed; when the question concerns religion, think upon God. No one is injured because God is set before him. He keeps his own opinion. You do not compel a man against his will to worship what he dislikes. Let the same liberty be given to you, O Emperor, and let every one bear it with patience, if he cannot extort from the Emperor what he would take it ill if the Emperor desired to extort from him. A shuffling spirit is displeasing to the heathen themselves, for everyone ought freely to defend and maintain the faith and purpose of his own mind.

8. But if any, Christians in name, think that any such decree should be made, let not bare words mislead your mind, let not empty words deceive you. Whoever advises this, and whoever decrees it, sacrifices. But that one should sacrifice is more tolerable than that all should fall. Here the whole Senate of Christians is in danger.

9. If to-day any heathen Emperor should build an altar, which God forbid, to idols, and should compel Christians to come together thither, in order to be amongst those who were sacrificing, so that the smoke and ashes from the altar, the sparks from the sacrilege, the smoke from the burning might choke the breath and throats of the faithful; and should give judgment in that court where members were compelled to vote after swearing at the altar of an idol (for they explain that an altar is so placed for this purpose, that every assembly should deliberate under its sanction, as they suppose, though the Senate is now made up with a majority of Christians), a Christian who was compelled with a choice such as this to come to the Senate, would consider it to be persecution, which often happens, for they are compelled to come together even by violence. Are these Christians, when you are Emperor, compelled to swear at a heathen altar? What is an oath, but a confession of the divine power of Him Whom you invoke as watcher over your good faith? When you are Emperor, this is sought and demanded. that you should command an altar to be built, and the cost of profane sacrifices to be granted.

10. But this cannot be decreed without sacrilege, wherefore I implore you not to decree or order it, nor to subscribe to any decrees of that sort. I, as a priest of Christ, call upon your faith, all of us bishops would have joined in calling upon you, were not the report so sudden and incredible, that any such thing had been either suggested in your council, or petitioned for by the Senate. But far be it from the Senate to have petitioned this, a few heathen are making use of the common name.  For, nearly two years ago, when the same attempt was being made, holy Damasus, Bishop of the Roman Church, elected by the judgment of God, sent to me a memorial, which the Christian senators in great numbers put forth, protesting that they had given no such authority, that they did not agree with such requests of the heathen, nor give consent to them, and they declared publicly and privately that they would not come to the Senate, if any such thing were decreed. Is it agreeable to the dignity of your, that is Christian, times, that Christian senators should be deprived of their dignity, in order that effect should be given to the profane will of the heathen? This memorial I sent to your Clemency's brother, and from it it was plain that the Senate had made no order about the expenses of superstition.

11. But perhaps it may be said, why were they not before present in the Senate when those petitions were made? By not being present they sufficiently say what they wish, they said enough in what they said to the Emperor. And do we wonder if those persons deprive private persons at Rome of the liberty of resisting, who are unwilling that you should be free not to command what you do not approve, or to maintain your own opinion?

12. And so, remembering the legation lately entrusted to me, I call again upon your faith. I call upon your own feelings not to determine to answer according to this petition of the heathen, nor to attach to an answer of such a sort the sacrilege of your subscription. Refer to the father of your Piety, the Emperor Theodosius, whom you have been wont to consult in almost all matters of greater importance. Nothing is greater than religion, nothing more exalted than faith.

13. If it were a civil cause the right of reply would be reserved for the opposing party; it is a religious cause, and I the bishop make a claim. Let a copy of the memorial which has been sent be given me, that I may answer more fully, and then let your Clemency's father be consulted on the whole subject, and vouchsafe an answer. Certainly if anything else is decreed, we bishops cannot contentedly suffer it and take no notice; you indeed may come to the church, but will find either no priest there, or one who will resist you.

14. What will you answer a priest who says to you, "The church does not seek your gifts, because you have adorned the heathen temples with gifts. The Altar of Christ rejects your gifts, because you have made an altar for idols, for the voice is yours, the hand is yours, the subscription is yours, the deed is yours. The Lord Jesus refuses and rejects your service, because you have served idols, for He said to you: `Ye cannot serve two masters.'  The Virgins consecrated to God have no privileges from you, and do the Vestal Virgins claim them? Why do you ask for the priests of God, to whom you have preferred the profane petitions of the heathen? We cannot take up a share of the errors of others."

15. What will you answer to these words? That you who have fallen are but a boy? Every age is perfect in Christ, every age is full of God. No childhood is allowed in faith, for even children have confessed Christ against their persecutors with fearless mouth.

16. What will you answer your brother? Will he not say to you, "I did not feel that I was overcome, because I left you as Emperor; I did not grieve at dying, because I had you as my heir; I did not mourn at leaving my imperial command, because I believed that my commands, especially those concerning divine religion, would endure through all ages. I had set up these memorials of piety and virtue, I offered up these spoils gained from the world, these trophies of victory over the devil, these I offered up as gained from the enemy of all, and in them is eternal victory. What more could my enemy take away from me? You have abrogated my decrees, which so far he who took up arms against me did not do. Now do I receive a more terrible wound in that my decrees are condemned by my brother. My better part is endangered by you, that was but the death of my body, this of my reputation. Now is my power annulled, and what is harder, annulled by my own family, and that is annulled, which even my enemies spoke well of in me. If you consented of your own free will, you have condemned the faith which was mine; if you yielded unwillingly, you have betrayed your own. So, too, which is more serious, I am in danger in your person.

16. What will you answer your father also? who with greater grief will address you, saying, "You judged very ill of me, my son, when you supposed that I could have connived at the heathen. No one ever told me that there was an altar in the Roman Senate House, I never believed such wickedness as that the heathen sacrificed in the common assembly of Christians and heathen, that is to say that the Gentiles should insult the Christians who were present, and that Christians should be compelled against their will to be present at the sacrifices. Many and various crimes were committed whilst I was Emperor. I punished such as were detected; if any one then escaped notice, ought one to say that I approved of that of which no one informed me? You have judged very ill of me, if a foreign superstition and not my own faith preserved the empire."

17. Wherefore, O Emperor, since you see that if you decree anything of that kind, injury will be done, first to God, and then to your father and brother, I implore you to do that which you know will be profitable to your salvation before God.

Ambrose then gave the following speech in the Senate [incomplete]:

The illustrious Prefect of the city has in his Memorial set forth three propositions which he considers of force: that Rome, as he says, asks for her rites again, that pay be given to her priests and Vestal Virgins, and that a general famine followed upon the refusal of the priests' stipends. 4. In his first proposition Rome complains with sad and tearful words, asking, as he says, for the restoration of the rites of her ancient ceremonies. These sacred rites, he says, repulsed Hannibal from the walls, and the Senones from the Capitol.
Let... that invidious complaint of the Roman people come to an end. Rome has given no such charge. She speaks with other words. "Why do you daily stain me with the useless blood of the harmless herd? Trophies of victory depend not on the entrails of the flocks, but on the strength of those who fight.                    [...]             it perchance a new thing for the barbarians to cross their boundaries? Were they, too, Christians in whose wretched and unprecedented cases, the one, a captive Emperor, and, under the other, the captive world made manifest that their rites which promised victory were false. Was there then [when Rome was conquered] no Altar of Victory? I mourn over my downfall, my old age is tinged with that shameful bloodshed. I do not blush to be converted with the whole world in my old age. It is undoubtedly true that no age is too late to learn. Let that old age blush which cannot amend itself. Not the old age of years is worthy of praise but that of character. There is no shame in passing to better things. This alone was common to me with the barbarians, that of old I knew not God. Your sacrifice is a rite of being sprinkled with the blood of beasts. Why do you seek the voice of God in dead animals? Come and learn on earth the heavenly warfare; we live here, but our warfare is there. Let God Himself, Who made me, teach me the mystery of heaven, not man, who knew not himself. Whom rather than God should I believe concerning God? How can I believe you, who confess that you know not what you worship? By one road, says he, one cannot attain to so great a secret. What you know not, that we know by the voice of God. And what you seek by fancies, we have found out from the very Wisdom and Truth of God. Your ways, therefore, do not agree with ours. You implore peace for your gods from the Emperors, we ask for peace for the Emperors themselves from Christ. You worship the works of your own hands, we think it an offence that anything which can be made should be esteemed God. God wills not that He should be worshipped in stones. And, in fine, your philosophers themselves have ridiculed these things.