Among the thousands of items on display in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, it is easy to miss a small rectangular ivory plaque in a glass case in a gallery near the entrance hall. Carved as a relief, on its surface is a woman dressed as a respectable matron of ancient Greece, wearing a chiton, a long full tunic, covered by a mantle. An ivy garland is entwined in her hair. She is absorbed in some form of religious ritual—scattering incense over a fire set on a square altar— while on the other side of the altar a small girl holds out to her a small vase and a bowl filled with figs. An oak tree shadows them both.
An art historian would recognize the plaque as one leaf of a diptych, a double panel whose leaves fold together. In the ancient world diptychs were a means of communication, and originally they were made of wood with a wax surface set inside each panel. Messages would be inscribed on the wax, the two panels folded and sealed and sent off, secure, by messenger. By the late fourth century A.D. a diptych had acquired a more formal status as the format in which a major official, a consul, for instance, would announce his appointment to office to his friends. A surviving diptych of A.D. 406, in ivory, which had replaced wood as the favoured material, shows one Probus celebrating his appointment as consul in Rome. He is portrayed on one panel, and his emperor, Honorius, is on the other so that the recipients of the diptych could appreciate the glory of Probus’ achievement and the favour he enjoyed within the imperial hierarchy.
Luckily, the other side of the Victoria and Albert panel survives, if in fragments, in the Musée de Cluny in Paris. 1 The Musée de Cluny panel also shows a priestess, although she is much less formally dressed than her sister in London, with one breast overflowing from her chiton and her mantle gathered round her hips. She is turning towards a small circular sacrificial altar on which a fire is burning and is shadowed by a pine tree from which hang a pair of cymbals (now damaged). In each hand she bears a flaming torch held downwards.
Clearly this diptych is not an official announcement. Something more private is being expressed, and fortunately the diptych provides its own clues. Each of the panels has a single word set below the top border: the London panel is inscribed SYMMACHORUM, “of the Symmachi,” and the Parisian NICOMACHO[RU]M, of the Nicomachi.” The Nicomachi and Symmachi were two of the leading Roman senatorial families in the late fourth century, and both heads of the families in these years, Virius Nicomachus (c. 340–94) and Quintus Aurelius Symmachus (340–402), enjoyed distinguished careers. The families were closely connected. Nicomachus’ son married the daughter of Symmachus in the early 390s, and in 400 Symmachus’ son married Nicomachus’ granddaughter.2 Many scholars have seen the diptych to be an announcement of one of these marriages. Yet the details of the reliefs do not suggest any celebration; in fact, the opposite—two lowered torches are traditionally a symbol of mourning or sorrow and are usually found in funerary contexts.
One of these contexts is the myth of Cybele and her lover Attis. The cult of Cybele, the mother goddess, had originated in Anatolia but had long been celebrated in both Greece and Rome. The myth tells of the castration and death of Attis followed by Cybele’s desperate search for him; Cybele carries downturned torches on her quest, which will eventually end with his rebirth. A pine tree also figures in the myth. It was a symbol of Attis, and one was carried in procession each March to the temple of Cybele in Rome during Cybele’s festival.3 Cymbals hanging from a branch have also been found accompanying a representation of a high priest of Cybele from Ostia, the port of Rome. In 394, when Nicomachus was consul, he is known to have revived the festival, and so perhaps a specific connection between him and the iconography of “his” panel lies here.4
Reversed torches are found too in another context and in another part of the Roman empire, in the mysteries of Persephone, wife of Hades and goddess of the underworld, held annually at Eleusis near Athens. According to the myth, Persephone was compelled to spend part of the year in the underworld with her husband but was allowed to rejoin her mother, Demeter, each spring. Coins survive from about 80 B.C. showing Persephone bearing downturned torches, and the goddess is portrayed with similar torches on two altars, probably from the A.D. 380s, from Athens (now in the National Archaeological Museum there). Persephone, usually known as Kore in the Roman world, has also been found with her torches on an ossuary or child’s stone coffin in Rome. It is believed that downturned torches were used in the preliminary ritual of purification before the initiation rites of the Eleusinian mysteries proper.5 The altar on the Symmachi panel is typical of those found in rural areas, and an oak tree is often added to make a background in similar scenes. The sacrifice shown seems to be associated with the cult of Dionysus. Priestesses of Dionysus wore an ivy garland similar to the one carved on the panel, and it is known that children were given a role within Dionysiac ceremonies. There is, however, yet another allusion. A coin from the reign of Hadrian dated to A.D. 138 shows the traditional Roman virtue of pietas, normally associated with loyalty, comradeship and justice, both in public and private life, personified as a priestess standing by an altar with her right hand raised and the left carrying incense, a similar pose to that on the panel. A temple to Pietas as a goddess had been built in Rome as early as 191 B.C.6
The diptych thus includes several references to myths and images from the traditional “pagan” religions of the Greco-Roman world, and it shows the continuing spiritual vitality of the pagan tradition even late in the fourth century. It is remarkable how many sources are drawn on in these two images—Anatolian, Greek and Roman—while the reliefs echo the restrained style of Athenian gravestones of the fifth century B.C. What more can the diptych tell about the lives of two traditional and still pagan Roman families within the closing years of the fourth century A.D.?
Rome itself, though largely intact (it was sacked for the first time by the Goths in 410), was by now marginal to the government of the empire, whose administrative and strategic centres had, as we have seen, moved towards the northern and eastern borders. Despite this the senatorial families of the city had maintained their prestige and wealth, and many, though not all, had clung to the old gods of the empire as Christianity flourished. By the late fourth century there was increasing pressure from church and emperor to convert, which meant, of course, as Paul had preached, the rejection of all pagan symbols, including statues of the gods. As has already been mentioned, these were the years in which Paul’s influence was particularly powerful, as the building of the basilica of S. Paulo Fuori le Mura on the outskirts of Rome in the 380s shows. It was in this context that the Altar of Victory had been removed from the Senate house. A delegation of senators sent to Milan in 382 had been refused admission to the emperor after Ambrose persuaded Gratian not to receive it. When Gratian died in 383 and was succeeded by the boy emperor Valentinian II, the senators tried again, and it was Symmachus himself, now prefect of the city, who wrote an eloquent and powerful letter to Valentinian. It was not just the removal of the altar that he deplored but the denigration of all that it symbolized, the diverse spiritual world of paganism and the freedom of thought it allowed. “What does it matter,” he wrote, “by which wisdom each of us arrives at the truth? It is not possible that only one road leads to so sublime a mystery.” Ambrose saw the letter and replied, “What you are ignorant of, we know from the word of God. And what you try to infer, we have established as truth from the very wisdom of God.” Again, Ambrose prevailed and Valentinian refused Symmachus’ request.7
This is one of the pivotal moments of our story. There could be no clearer expression of two wisdoms, one that of the Greek speculative tradition in which there are many ways to the truth, the other that of the Christian tradition in which wisdom rests with God alone. They represent totally different ways of approaching and interpreting the world, here directly in conflict. It is true that Symmachus gained a minor victory when Theodosius, the emperor of the east, visited Rome in 389 to woo the senatorial aristocracy and appointed him as consul for the year 391. Yet Theodosius did not permit the return of the Altar of Victory, and, in the 390s, under the influence of Ambrose, he passed the first comprehensive laws banning pagan worship.
There was to be one last defence of the old traditions. Valentinian, officially emperor in the western half of the empire, died in 392, and in his place an associate of Symmachus, Eugenius, a professor of rhetoric, was proclaimed emperor of the west. Eugenius was a flexible man, nominally a Christian, but tolerant of polytheism and ready to support its survival. The Victory Altar was triumphantly returned to the Senate house. This success, however, was short lived. Theodosius had earmarked the western empire for his own son, Honorius, and he marched westwards against the usurper. Symmachus did not join Eugenius’ army, but Nicomachus did. As the two armies met at the river Frigidus (which flows into the north end of the Adriatic) in September 394, Eugenius set up a statue of Jupiter, the father of the gods, overlooking the battlefield, and his men went into battle behind statues of Hercules, the god/hero who for centuries had been adopted as a symbol of strength by Greek and Roman kings and commanders. In the heat of the battle a violent wind, the notorious bora, brought havoc to Eugenius’ army, which was destroyed by Theodosius. Even though this was essentially a power struggle between imperial rivals, the storm was widely interpreted as a mark of the favour of the Christian God, and the battle came to be seen to mark the “triumph” of Christianity. It was after this defeat that Nicomachus committed suicide. His friend Symmachus died in 402.
So how does the diptych fit into the story? It is possible that it refers to the death of either Symmachus or Nicomachus, but it would be strange for the death of one of the two to have inspired a diptych in which both families are given equal treatment. There was, however, another notable death in these years that both families may have wished to commemorate, that of the prominent senator Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, who died in late 384. Praetextatus was typical of the pagans of his time in that he was linked to many different cults. His tomb in Rome has an inscription that describes him as priest and initiate to the Roman cult of Vesta, the Eleusinian mysteries in Greece, the cult of Hecate at Aegina (in the Aegean), the worship of the Egyptian god Serapis and the cults of Mithras, Cybele and Sol (the Sun), all from the east. He is known to have been initiated into the Eleusinian mysteries when he was proconsul in Greece between 362 and 364, and this may provide a link to the downturned torches of Persephone, although, like Nicomachus, he was also involved with Cybele. He was renowned for his knowledge of the gods. An account of one of his “discourses” survives:
As Praetextatus ended his discourse [on the nature of the gods], the company regarded him in wide-eyed wonder and amazement. Then one of the guests began to praise his memory, another his learning, and all his knowledge of the observances of religion; for he alone, they declared, knew the secrets of the nature of the godhead, he alone had the intelligence to apprehend the divine and the ability to expound it.8
It is obvious, from Symmachus’ letters, that he considered Praetextatus’ death to be a devastating blow to the cause of paganism. The dead senator, Symmachus wrote to the emperors, was “the champion of every good thing, of old fashioned integrity”; his death had been such a shock to the people of Rome that many had stayed away from the theatres in mourning. Symmachus himself had been overwhelmed with grief. So it is possible that the diptych, composed to show the range of Praetextatus’ spiritual allegiances, was sent out in later 384 or after to the sympathetic noble families of Rome not only to commemorate the dead senator but also to proclaim the survival of pagan cults. An allusion to pietas was particularly appropriate for a Roman senator, and there may have been good reason for it being highlighted here. The Christian ascetic and scholar Jerome, who was in Rome in these years, had written, in a highly publicized letter to a young girl, Julia Eustochium, in 384, just a few months before Praetextatus’ death, that pietas in the home, in the sense of her loyalties to her father, should take second place to her own desires to preserve her virginity by not marrying.9 This assault on traditional family values might (but we can only speculate) explain why Symmachus defiantly incorporated an image of pietas into “his” side of the diptych. The vituperative Jerome is also on record as saying that Praetextatus’ zeal for his pagan religious duties was such that he had certainly gone straight to hell on his death. 10
By the fifth century Christianity was dominant in Rome. Almost all the old families of Rome had converted and massive new churches were now built within the city walls—S. Maria Maggiore, completed in the 430s, and S. Sabina, 422–32, remain from this period. Their builders were the bishops of Rome and wealthy individuals who now had no fear of disturbing the ancient gods or their aristocratic supporters. The old temples, which, archaeological evidence suggests, were being restored as late as the 380s, were left to decay or were converted into churches. Jerome could now write, from Bethlehem, where he lived his last years, “The gilded Capitol falls into disrepair; dust and cobwebs cover all Rome’s temples. The city shakes on its foundations, and a stream of people hurries, past half-fallen shrines, to the tombs of the martyrs.”11 The transition from the old wisdom to the new was irreversible. One final message from the oracle at Delphi runs:
Go tell the king
Apollo’s lovely hall
Is fallen to the ground. No longer has the god
His house, his bay-leaf oracle, his singing stream.
The waters that spoke are stilled.12