THE REAL CIRCLE OF SYMMACHUS
“It was through their devotion to classical culture that the senatorial aristocracy made their most vital contribution to the life of the Later Roman Empire.” So J. A. McGeachy in his sober and careful study of Symmachus (1942), a verdict that was already traditional and has not been seriously challenged since: aristocrats were men of letters who delighted to spend their leisure in study, correcting and annotating manuscripts, listening to philosophers, writing poetry or history. Naturally, most of these aristocratic litterateurs were pagans; their paganism and their enthusiasm for classical culture lent each other mutual support.1
This is surely a most surprising claim. A cultural movement spearheaded by the aristocracy of Rome? The very idea of any substantial part of aristocratic society in any age devoting its leisure to scholarship will astonish anyone familiar with the private life of the animal down the millennia.2 Above all, aristocrats cut off (as Symmachus and his peers were) from their hereditary role as masters of the universe.3 European aristocrats in the early twentieth century divided their time between hunting and shooting on their estates and the cafés, casinos, and spas of Biarritz, Cannes, and Monte Carlo. In a wide-ranging study of early medieval aristocracies, Wickham has recently remarked that “this emphasis on a literary lifestyle is unusual among aristocracies.”4 Is it really credible that late Roman aristocrats turned to a life of literature and scholarship?
Lommatzsch, who practically invented the idea, was more aware of the paradox than those who have embellished it since.5 At no time during the long centuries of the Republic and early empire did the aristocracy of Rome either take much interest or achieve any distinction in literature or scholarship. All the household names come from outside this charmed circle: Ennius and Terence, Cicero and Catullus, Vergil and
1. McGeachy 1942, 153; for an emphatic statement, Chastagnol 1992, 336.
2. “Historians have not in the main been much impressed by standards of aristocratic learning. It may be that members of a hereditary elite are less likely than ambitious newcomers to gravitate to the forefront of intellectual enquiry,” Jonathan Powis, Aristocracy (Oxford 1984), 45.
3. Fourth-century aristocrats exercised considerable power in virtue of their extensive estates, and some continued to hold a restricted range of offices, but they no longer had any hereditary entitlement to the highest offices of state.
4. Wickham 2005, 153–258 at 158.
5. Lommatzsch 1904, 185.