Diptych Leaf of the Symmachi
Ivory 29.8 x 12.2 cm
The panel, once a diptych together with Diptych leaf of the Nicomachi at Musée de Cluny, has suffered damage to its ornamental borders, though the damage is minor in comparison to that of its companion.
The plaque represents a priestess before an altar, scattering incense over a small fire. She is accompanied by an attendant who holds a bowl of fruits and a kantharos. Both figures wear wreaths of ivy in their hair, a reference to Dionysos, while references to Zeus can be seen in the oak garland that decorates the altar and in the gnarled oak tree that fills the upper portion of the panel.
The alliance of the two families celebrated in the diptych is probably the marriage of the daughter of Q. Aurelius Symmachus to Nicomachus Flavianus, son of Virius Nicomachus Flavianus. This marriage is variously dated to 388, 392, or 394 AD. Another possible date is suggested by the marriage of Q. Fabius Memmius Symmachus, son of Q. Aurelius Symmachus, and a daughter or granddaughter of Virius Nicomachus Flavianus, which took place in 401. These marriages established legal ties between two Roman senatorial families closely associated through participation in the government of the empire and membership in Roman literary circles; individual members were known as historians, orators, rhetoricians, and editors of the texts of classical authors. Perhaps more important to the under-standing of the diptych are the leading roles the families played in the attempt to preserve and defend the pagan rites of the state religion in the face of an increasingly powerful Christian Church. The letters addressed by Q. Aurelius Symmachus as urban prefect to the emperor Theodosius in 384 are a most eloquent testimony of this struggle.
The panel of the Symmachi represents a synthetic statement of a pagan rite with visual references to two divinities within the same precinct. Closely associated with the patrons of the diptych and perhaps more in keeping with the imagery of the panel are the words of Symmachus: “…we ask for peace for the gods of our fathers, for the gods of our native land. It is reasonable that whatever each of us worships is really to be considered one and the same. Not by one avenue only can we arrive at so great a secret”.