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Brown on the Myth of Rome and the Holy City

Peter Brown, characteristically lucid on the implications of the debate over the Altar of Victory and the state subsidies of the Vestal Virgins in the late fourth century:

Yet it is characteristic of western society that this wave of patriotism divided men’s loyalties, rather than uniting them. The most vocal patriots of the late fourth century were resolute pagans. Symmachus, for instance, treasured Rome as a Holy City. There the pagan rites that had ensured the success of the empire had survived up to 382 (when the emperor Gratian ‘disestablished’ the Vestal Virgins and removed the pagan altar from the Senate house). Later, Symmachus appealed frequently to the Christian emperors to continue the tacit Concordat by which Rome was tolerated as a privileged oasis of paganism–as a pagan Vatican. The Catholic bishops met these claims with bitter opposition: from Ambrose’s letters answering the appeal of Symmachus in 384, to Augustine’s gigantic City of God, begun in 413, the ‘myth of Rome’ stood trial in Christian circles. In this trial, Rome received only a conditional discharge. The majority of lay Christians were content to stand Symmachus on his head. Rome, they replied, was of course a Holy City, and the Roman empire enjoyed special divine protection: but this was because the bodies of the Apostles, Peter and Paul, rested on the Vatican Hill. The ideology of the late fourth-century popes, and the cult of St Peter in western Europe, owe much to conscious rivalry with pagan exp0nents of the myth of Rome. Symmachus, paradoxically, was an unwitting architect of the medieval papacy. (Peter Brown, The World of Late Antiquity, pp. 120-2)

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.