In 382 the Roman emperor Gratian made a pretty extreme decision which would offend a sizable portion of the Roman populace. He removed the altar of Victory from the Roman senate. Moved by the preaching of St. Ambrose of Milan, he risked losing the favor of pagans by going with the signs of the times. Of course, in those times the new, hip, cool thing was Christianity. The traditional thing was Roman paganism. Nevertheless, Gratian stuck it to the 4th century trads pretty hard with what he did.
The trads in those days were similar to the trads now. They were humble in numbers, they often felt hopeless, as though they were losing their people to the zeitgeist, and many of them just wanted to be left alone to worship as they pleased. They decided to politely complain and appealed to Gratian, himself a pagan at the time with sympathies for Christians. Gratian graciously insisted the two sides have a debate. The new kids on the block, the Roman Christians, picked Ambrose of Milan to fight the tired old followers of the traditional Roman Cult: the trads. The Christians were freshly turned from victimized group to bona fide Roman religion complete with roman places of worship and a recent wave of senators becoming Christian (albeit, some of whom were opportunist types).Their opposition, the pagans, were becoming a sad bunch of deplorables, gripping piously to what was left of their dying religion. The Roman pagans had a few supported long-held institutions of theirs left in Roman society. One of these was a liturgy of sorts: the senators would burn incense to the goddess Victory at her altar before their assembly. But that too was about to be taken from them. Who then would they choose to debate the great Ambrose, of whom they knew Gratian was particularly fond?
They picked Symmachus. A well-loved, respectful, pious pagan who did not hate Christianity. Many Christians, in fact, loved Symmachus and he loved them too. He studied and was close friends with Ausonius, a Christian rhetorician from Gaul (France), and people knew he could easily win the admiration of Christians everywhere. Heck, he and Ambrose knew each other, being from upper class Roman society and both being old men, Symmacchus was the perfect pagan to make a “come on, man!”-type argument to Gratian for keeping the Altar of Victory on the Capitoline hill. Of course, his argument would also be very eloquent, which was a mark of the time, a time with a lot more reason than perhaps our own, but I digress.
Symmachus vs. Ambrose
How did it go? Well, Symmachus’ arguments were awesome. They were perfect. He did not disrespect the Christian people with ad hominem attacks, even though people knew many baptized Christians were the worst sort of hypocritical opportunists. He did not criticize the Christian liturgy, which was so odd and reminiscent of that of the Judeans, whom the Romans were keen on insulting. He didn’t even insist the roman cult is the true religion of Rome, an argument which could have easily been made especially by riding the coattails of the recent 1000-year anniversary of Rome’s founding and appealing to patriotism to Rome, something even Ambrose took very seriously. What then would be the crux of Symmachus argument? Symmachus slyly appealed to how Rome is an empire which tolerates peoples’ traditions. Yes, he appealed to the tolerance of Rome. And he insisted the pagans who love their cult be left alone to engage in their traditions. Text is taken from Letter XVIII Reply of St. Ambrose to the Memorial of Symmachus
Rome is calling to us and saying: Respect the great age which the holy rites have helped me reach. Let me use the ancestral ceremonies; I have no change of heart in regard to them. Let me live in my own way; I am no slave. This worship has made the world subject to my laws. These sacred rites drove Hannibal from my walls, the Senones from my Capitol. Have I been saved to be insulted at my age? I shall make provisions for the institutions they think they must now set up; yet attempts to reform an institution of long standing come too late and are insulting. We are asking that the gods of our fathers, the gods of our country be left unmolested. All religions should be regarded as one. They all seek truth and there is no one road to so vast a secret.
How can you argue with that? He’s right of course. It was the Roman gods who helped Rome conquer the lands surrounding the mediterranean. And all religions seek truth and should therefore be respected. Right? And even if he’s wrong, he’s an old man for victory’s sake! Let him have his traditions in peace.
If the gods were fighting against Hannibal, how explain his numerous victories? With the gods against him, he reached the very walls of Rome and besieged the city. As for the Senones, they would have captured the Capitol, if a goose had not by its terrified cackling betrayed their presence. Where was Jupiter? In the goose? Hannibal worshiped the same gods as the Romans. You cannot have it both ways. Whoever won, the pagan gods were defeated. Rome does not address us in the words of Symmachus. Rather she says: Why stain me daily with the useless blood of harmless victims? Victory depends not on the entrails of animals but on the strength of the soldiers.
…Africanus gained his victory facing the battle lines of Hannibal, not facing the altars of the Capitol. One pagan emperor in captivity and the whole world in captivity in another’s reign have shown that the ceremonies which promised victory proved a deception. Was there not an altar of Victory then?
…I am not ashamed to be converted, along with the whole world, at my age. It is indeed true that no age is too late to learn… It is no shame to change to a better course …Why do you seek the words of God
in dead animals? …Let God himself who made me teach me the mystery of heaven, not man who does not know himself. Whom should I believe rather than God in things concerning God?
And the winner is: Ambrose of Milan. Even though the Church loves Rome and adopted everything great about her, the Church can never tolerate the worship of demons.
To my fellow Trads: at some point or another we have thought of our category: Traditional Catholics, and worried that it betrays us. Do we love our faith because it is our tradition? Or do we love our Tradition because we love Truth! Ambrose argues with Symmacchus’ salvation in mind, and we should do the same. This is not a matter of Tradition vs. Modernism. This is a matter, just like it has always been, against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness. Remember that Ambrose fought Arianism, a plague within the Church while he fought paganism, forces from outside the Church. His strategy was the same. Be holy, preach the truth in love.