HIST 113: Religion and Empire
Essay #1: A Traditionalist and a Christian Debate the Religion of Rome
In your first essay, you will discuss the role of religion in the Roman Empire in light of a fourth- century debate between Christians and traditional adherents of the ancient religious rites.
Posted in U-Learn are two texts for you to read: the Memorial of Symmachus (the Prefect of the City of Rome) and a letter of St. Ambrose (Bishop of Milan) in response. These two texts were written in 384 to the Emperor Valentinian II in response to the removal of the Altar of Victory from the Senate House and the abolishment of public stipends for the priesthoods and Vestal Virgins in 382.
In your essay, you will summarize and explain the arguments made by Symmachus and Ambrose both for and against the restoration of the Altar of Victory and other rites of the Roman religion. Drawing on their letters, lecture material on the role of religion in the Roman Empire, and the other assigned readings from the first three weeks, explain (1) Symmachus’ defense of the traditional Roman religion and (2) Ambrose’s arguments against it. Why was it so important to Symmachus that the ancient rites be preserved? How does Ambrose respond? What do their letters reveal about the different approaches that Romans and Christians took in relating one religious tradition to another? What is the difference between Rome’s gods and Christianity’s God?
After defeating Antony at Actium in 31 B.C., Octavian erected a statue and Altar of Victory in the Senate House in Rome. For the next four centuries, senators would make their annual oath of loyalty to the Emperor at this statute; and every three years, on January 3, they would go before it to vow their wishes for the emperor’s well-being and continued prosperity and victory. Many senators also customarily offered a few grains of incense at the altar at the start of each Senate session.
In A.D. 357, the Emperor Constantius II (the son of Constantine) had the Altar of Victory removed, but it was
restored by Julian the Apostate in 360. The Emperor
Gratian had it removed again in 382. Symmachus
petitioned for its restoration in 384, and again in 389 and 392; but he was never successful.
When Gratian removed the Altar of Victory in 382, he also took several other steps to dismantle the traditional Roman state religion. He suspended public payment of stipends for the priests and Vestal Virgins, ended their tax exemptions, and confiscated some of the land that had belonged to the temples and priestly colleges.
The Vestal Virgins were the sole female priesthood in Rome. Serving Vesta, the goddess of the hearth, their ritual task was to maintain the undying fire of the goddess within her circular temple. This fire was considered vital to the safety and preservation of Rome; to let it die would bring disaster. There were always six Vestals, who served staggered terms of 30 years’ service, during which time they were required to maintain strict sexual purity. If a Vestal’s virginity was violated, she would be buried alive. They lived in a spacious house behind the temple.
Reconstruction of the Senate House interior, looking toward the Altar of Victory.
HIST 113: Religion and Empire
Guidelines for Preparing and Writing
You should devote a significant amount of time to preparing for this essay. Read through each of the texts multiple times. Make notes; think through the arguments that each of them makes. Consider how their perspectives compare and contrast or diverge. After you write a first draft, read through it both to proofread it and, more importantly, to revise it in order to organize your good ideas into a compelling essay. Your essay should be about 1000 to 1500 words in length.
Although you should have all of the texts in front of you as you write, you should also resist the temptation simply to copy down long quotes from them. When you do use quotes, you need to explain the quote—what is the author trying to say, and how does this relate to the overall argument?
Your goal is to interpret and analyze the arguments made by Symmachus and Ambrose and thus explore the relationship between traditional Roman religion and Christianity. That means both explaining what they say and evaluating why and how they say it, i.e. explaining their starting points, reasoning, and conclusions. The best essays will offer, in your own words, a thoughtful account of the state of religious cultures in late fourth-century Rome and the relationship between tradition and innovation in religion.
Finally, please have the integrity to do your own thinking for this essay. Instead of Googling to find what others have written, have the confidence to work through these questions for yourself.
Citation Practices: When you quote from the texts, cite them parenthetically by author and paragraph number, e.g. (Symmachus, para. 10) or (Ambrose, para. 8).