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Hallo again to all.

The life of our communion has given us cause to think about Christianity in places where it is no longer a dominant social force and how faith intersects with politics. Because of our training and personal predilections, this in turn called to mind a situation in the ancient world where the matter was reversed.ivory diptych, possibly of Symmachus himself (By QuartierLatin1968 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

During the later Roman Empire, as Christianity had risen to ascendancy with Constantine and his later successors, traditional Roman religion's adherents found themselves fighting a rearguard battle to preserve what they regarded as their traditional rights. One of the culminating moments in this political conflict came when Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, the urban prefect of Rome, petitioned the emperor Valentinian II (one of the quartet of emperors who ruled the empire at the time). The issue at hand was the Altar of Victory in the Senate House. Above and beyond the abstract concept of victory, it was also an altar to the goddess who embodied those virtues—therefore a potent symbol of what Christians labeled 'pagan' religion.

Gratian, one of Valentinian II's predecessors, had removed it in AD 382 as had Constantius II a few decades prior. (It had been restored in between those two by the emperor Julian, who rejected Christianity.) Symmachus was an aristocrat from an old patrician family, the gens Aurelia. He had fulfilled the expected course of offices, pursued the sort of illustrious career his ancestors would have thought both his due and duty, and now had a moment of influence to hold out for his ancestral religion. No Roman of his station and pedigree could have refused.

It was a heavy lift. Gratian had been hostile to traditional Roman religious practices and a firm supporter of Christianity. Although the young Valentian II might have been more persuadable, the imperial court was seated in Milan and therefore also easily influenced by its bishop, Ambrose.

Symmachus as the urban prefect in 384 used his position to write a report to the emperor—a relatio—beseeching him to restore the Altar of Victory. Recent military turmoils, and the traditional belief that such events indicated the gods were displeased, gave him a rhetorical opening. In his letter, Symmachus has the city of Rome speak, asking for her sacred rites, which had driven Hannibal and Gauls alike from the city, to be restored. Then he falls back on rhetoric that will sound oddly familiar to modern ears:

We ask peace for our ancestral gods, for the native gods of our land. It is just to suppose that whatever we all worship is one. We gaze on the same stars, the heavens are common to all, the same earth envelops us. What does it matter by which judgment each one seeks to know truth? It is not possible to come to so great a mystery through a single path. However, these are the arguments of those at leisure. We do not offer rhetorical disputes, but our entreaties.*

A compelling argument, and one that seems entirely in keeping with the modern West, where we struggle imperfectly with the dignity of so many different peoples with different beliefs.

St. Ambrose of Milan (mosaic)Bishop Ambrose, who wrote a petition in response that won the day, had none of it. He had risen to an episcopate that, according to tradition, he did not want—baptized, priested, and consecrated in a single day. Rome, in Ambrose's response, decries the gore of sacrifices and reminds Valentinius of all the failures that the pagan emperors of Rome had faced. Ambrose then attempts to silence Symmachus' plea for toleration with a ringing endorsement of Christian faith:

He says that it is not possible to come to so great a mystery through a single path. What you do not know, we know through the voice of God. And what you seek with faint notions, we have personal knowledge of from the very wisdom, and truth, of God. Your customs are not in agreement with ours. You entreat peace for your gods from the emperors, whereas we seek peace for the emperors themselves from Christ.†

So much for toleration. Still, we find ourselves hearing such arguments surrounding issues in our world today. The church, and our own Anglican Communion, have found themselves on both the winning and losing sides of such 'religion-as-politics' debates many times—sometimes both winners and losers at the same time. Whether it is the diocese of Sydney making a political donation in the Australian debate on marriage, or Cranmer finding himself on both sides of an English monarch's favor, these ancient arguments remind us of one thing: nihil sub sole novum.

See you again next week, when we will see what old things have been made new again.

Our Signatures

All of us at Anglicans Online

15 October 2017
* Relat. 3.10; translations are our own, but note here a fuller translation of both letters.

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