Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.11.17

Giovanni Alberto Cecconi, Commento storico al libro II dell'epistolario di Q. Aurelio Simmaco. Biblioteca di studi antichi 86.   Pisa:  Giardini, 2002.  Pp. 478.  ISBN 88-427-0317-6.  EUR 125.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Ralf Behrwald, Universität Bamberg (
Word count: 1227 words

[The editors apologize for the delay in publishing this review.]

The collection of historical commentaries on the works of Q. Aurelius Symmachus that started with two volumes from the pens of S. Roda and D. Vera in 1981, has lately gained in momentum. The most recent contribution by G.A. Cecconi follows upon the excellent commentary on Book III by A. Pelizzari published in 1998 (not reviewed in this journal) and fully attains the high standards that have made this Italian series published under the auspices of L. Cracco Ruggini such a valuable companion to the new edition prepared by J.-P. Callu. Cecconi's commentary includes the Latin text, mostly as established by Callu (Cecconi frequently comments on questions of textual criticism, but offers no critical edition), an Italian translation, introduction, and a detailed, almost line-by-line commentary.

It is topical in reviews of Symmachian editions or commentaries first to stress the ardour and industry with which the commentator has accomplished the dry and unrewarding task posed by those verbose but barren letters. C. however splendidly proves this locus communis to be wrong. Symmachus' second book, to be sure, lends itself to such a demonstration, for it collects the epistolary intercourse between Symmachus and Nicomachus Flavianus -- that other champion of Roman paganism, whose suicide after the failure at the Frigidus has served as such a convenient turning point in most modern historiography on late antique religious history. A careful analysis of their letters can contribute much to a better understanding of the anxieties and preoccupations of Rome's senatorial order between the Valentinian and the Theodosian Dynasty.

Cecconi's introduction (pp. 29-77) largely focuses on the personal relationship between the two protagonists, whose exchange lasted for 30 years. Cecconi stresses his conviction that the collection, prepared by Symmachus himself and later edited by his son, was subject to a circumspect selection that expunged any possibly offensive text at the end of Symmachus' life (pp. 29 sq.). To be sure, there had been self-censorship from the beginning (cf. Cecconi's remarks on the interception of letters, not only for political motives, in the commentary on pp. 177-180), but what was published by Symmachus and, after his death, by his son, went even beyond this in terms of carefully selecting the letters fit for publication.

Nevertheless, Cecconi in his introduction attempts to give a sketch of the personal relationship between the two senators, defining his work as (partly) "an investigation dedicated to the history of a friendship" (p. 43). This, of course, is highly problematic: apart from the complete absence of Flavianus' responses, which were never published, we are dealing with two public personae whose self-representation to a wider public was, of course, one of the main objectives in collecting and publishing these letters. By itself the selection of letters included in the collection (only briefly discussed by C. on pp. 31 sq.) poses insuperable problems to any attempt to reconstruct the personal relationship between the two protagonists, as, for instance, a comparison with the letters addressed to Praetextatus in the first book of the corpus might have demonstrated. C. himself is not unaware of these problems, and here as elsewhere in his book he proceeds with extreme caution. He arrives, however, at an optimistic view of the personal relationship between Symmachus and Flavianus, stating that ancient theory on friendship "in the second book (sc. of Symmachus' letters) becomes concrete practice" (p. 46).

The role of Nicomachus and Symmachus in the religious controversies of their times is amply discussed in the introduction. With his focus on individual traits, Cecconi downplays the role of Symmachus, Flavianus (and Praetextatus) as protagonists of different religious currents in late Roman paganism. These, he argues convincingly, were much less clear-cut than modern research has often described them, and 'traditional' Roman religion was closely interconnected with those 'oriental' cults of which Nicomachus has often been taken as an ardent follower (p. 54-58). On the contrary, C. stresses the impact of the antagonism between pagans and Christians; in this respect, he returns to the interpretative scheme of H. Bloch as against recent positions, for example that of Al. Cameron, attributing less importance to the religious antagonism between pagans and Christians.

But of course the proof of this book is in its commentary. In terms of extent, Cecconi has set a record in this series, with a commentary almost ten times the length of the text itself (30 pages of Latin against 290 pages of commentary, the introduction excluded). The immense wealth of information offered by Cecconi (at times amounting to 16 pages of commentary on one letter) touches upon practically every aspect of these texts. And this is a commentary that serves not merely as a pointer toward further bibliography, but as an excellent companion giving ample discussion of these letters' historical background. At times, the scope may even be exceedingly wide: thus, a commentary on the suburbanum latrocinium (robbery in the Roman suburbs, as Cecconi has it, or perhaps rather in Southern Italy, Italia suburbicaria) starts with a reference on robbery in Roman Cilicia (p. 208) -- proceeding, it must be added, with a very full collection of testimonia and literature on robbery in late antique Italy.

The riches of this commentary are usually well organised. Cecconi has chosen to comment on most phenomena as they appear in the letters, and at times this leads to a dispersal of information throughout the volume. Mostly, however, the bits and pieces can easily be assembled through the index.1 Thus, the disputed career of Flavianus is discussed under the guise of a digression inserted in the commentary (pp. 165-169); C. dates the quaestorship in 381 or 381/2, with the first praefecture immediately following and the second praefecture held under Eugenius and continued under Theodosius in 390-394. Wherever the date of a letter (a vexed problem in the Symmachian corpus) can be established, C. offers a detailed discussion; in 36 (out of 91) cases, the date is altered from the one given by Callu. Titles and addresses, regularly commented upon by C., perhaps might have been discussed more conveniently in a single place in the introduction.2 Only very rarely did the reviewer feel the abundance of information to be excessive.3

While the ancillary tasks of a commentary are excellently fulfilled, at some points C's discussion sets our understanding of the text on an entirely new basis. One example is letter 44, treating a judicial matter that involves court officials (palatini). This piece of evidence has been adduced to prove various, sometimes far-reaching conclusions both on concurring jurisdiction by high-ranking officials and on the relationship between court and senatorial administration. Cecconi, however, demonstrates that these officials, against whom a charge had been raised, were simply transferred to the tribunal of the city prefecture. This was perfectly in line with ordinary procedures, and in his letter Symmachus only informs Flavianus of this transfer.4

Only very rarely do the commentary's explanations fail to persuade,5 and on even fewer occasions has the remarkable learning of its author missed relevant information.6 If his rather sophisticated idiom at times makes it difficult to follow for any reader with only an average knowledge of Italian, this is more than compensated for by his immense erudition. This book will prove an excellent tool for future Symmachian studies, and one may confidently hope that it will prove auspicious for the volumes yet to come.


1.   However, the valuable commentary on the legationes in ep. 4 (pp. 151 sq) is not quoted in the discussion of ep. 52, also dealing with a projected embassy (pp. 321-326, esp. p. 325). It is not referred to in the index, either, and the same is true of C.'s discussion of the annona on p. 152.
2.   For instance, for the use of filius as a title of address, C. quotes modern bibliography on p. 187 (ep. 14), but the relevant testimonia are given on p. 195 (ep. 17).
3.   This definitely is the case on p. 154, where on the occasion of a description of a sea travel by Symmachus, C. adduces the fact that Symmachus' father (!) 43 years earlier (when the future rhetor can hardly have been born) had set up an altar with the depiction of a ship, which might reflect his own (the father's, that is) knowledge of ships. Similarly, on p. 163 the discussion of the expulsion of foreigners from Rome in 384 C. quite unexpectedly turns to the xenelasia in 5th (BC!) century Sparta.
4.   Again, Cecconi argues very cautiously. To the present reviewer, his interpretation is entirely convincing and might even be reinforced by interpreting praecepit exciri not as a prosecution directed by Flavianus, then governor of Sicily, in the neighbouring province of Bruttium (indeed, C.'s proposal that Symmachus, corrector of Bruttium, might have been absent at the time, is the weakest part of his argument). Instead, it might simply refer to Flavianus' request for Symmachus to have the palatini arrested and hand them over to his officer (cf. OLD s.v. praecipio no. 6).
5.   In his commentary on ep. 2.6 (p. 157), C. is reluctant to interpret the alii cursus of the corn fleet as deviations resulting from the political crisis after Gratian's death. However, the traditional interpretation is surely the correct one, as becomes clear from Symmachus' discussion of hominum remedia diu dissimulata (cf. p. 158). -- The forum mentioned by Symmachus in ep. 2.12 surely will be the forum Romanum; C. (though not ruling this solution out altogether) seems to prefer the forum of Trajan but cannot offer convincing arguments.
6.   The literature adduced by C. in his discussion of senatorial procedure ("funzioni e procedure del senato") in late antiquity (p. 159) is concerned with composition and role of the senate; the fundamental analysis of meeting procedures that C. fails to cite at this point is an article by A. Chastagnol in the 1984 colloquium on Symmachus (cited in C.'s bibliography). -- Misprints or slips are remarkably rare in so dense a book, but note that Arcadius was declared Augustus on the 19th of January, 383 (not the 16th, as given on p. 293). The article on Lucillus in RE XIII 2 (1927), quoted by C. on p. 146, was written by Georg, not Adolf Lippold.

Read Latest
Index for 2003
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:28:56, Friday, 03 April 2009