1. The limit to be imposed on discussion of objections
IF only the weak understanding of the ordinary man did not stubbornly resist the plain evidence of logic and truth! If only it would, in its feeble condition, submit itself to the restorative medicine of sound teaching, until divine assistance, procured by devout faith, effected a cure! In that case, men of sound judgement and adequate powers of exposition would not need to engage in lengthy discussions in order to refute mistakes and fanciful conjectures. But as things are, the intelligent are infected by a gross mental disorder which makes them defend the irrational workings of their minds as if they were logic and truth itself, even when the evidence has been put before them as plainly as is humanly possible. Either they are too blind to see what is put before their face, or they are too perversely obstinate to admit what they see. The result is that we are forced very often to give an extended exposition of the obvious, as if we were not presenting it for people to look at, but for them to touch and handle with their eyes shut.
And yet, will we ever come to an end of discussion and talk if we think we must always reply to replies? For replies come from those who either cannot understand what is said to them, or are so stubborn and contentious that they refuse to give in even if they do understand. In fact, as the Bible says, ‘Their conversation is unrighteousness, and they are indefatigable in folly.’1 You can see how infinitely laborious and fruitless it would be to try to refute every objection they offer, when they have resolved never to think before they speak provided that somehow or other they contradict our arguments.
For this reason, my dear son Marcellinus, I hope that you and others, for whose benefit, in the love of Christ, I freely devote this labour of mine, will not be the kind of critics who always look for a reply when any opposition is raised to what is said in this book. I trust they will not be like the ‘silly women’, of whom the Apostle speaks, ‘who are always being instructed, and never arrive at knowledge of the truth’.2
2. Summary of matters treated in Book I
I began in the first book to treat of the City of God, which is the subject of the whole of this work which, with God’s help, I have taken in hand. And the first duty that presented itself was to reply to those who hold the Christian religion responsible for the wars with which the whole world is now tormented, and in particular for the recent sack of Rome by the barbarians.3 They ascribe this to the Christian prohibition of the offering of abominable sacrifices to demons, whereas they ought instead to be grateful to Christ because in his honour the established usage of war was suspended – the barbarians made available to fugitives consecrated places of vast capacity, and in many cases they respected the status of servants of Christ (whether genuine or assumed in fear) so that they held it to be unlawful to exercise on them the customary rights of war.
This question then arose: why did these divine blessings extend also to the godless and the ungrateful? And why did the hardships inflicted by the enemy fall alike on godless and godly? This question has a wide extension, for many people are continually troubled by the fact that the everyday gifts of God, as also the disasters of humanity, happen to those of good and those of evil life without distinction. The task I have set myself obliged me to attempt a solution, and this has caused some delay. In particular, I have been concerned to administer consolation to women of holy and devout chastity who have felt the pangs of shame at their treatment by the enemy, although they have not lost their resolute purity. I have urged them not to be ashamed of being alive, since they have no possible reason for being ashamed of having sinned.
Then I addressed some words to those who assail Christians in their distress with heartless insolence, and especially those who attack chaste and holy women in their humiliation and shame. Those are the most debased and cynical of mankind, utterly degenerate sons of those very Romans whose many famous exploits are praised and celebrated in history – they are in fact the sworn enemies of the glory of their ancestors. Rome was founded and extended by the labours of those men of old; their descendants made Rome more hideous while it stood than when it fell. For in the ruin of the city it was stone and timber which fell to the ground; but in the lives of those Romans we saw the collapse not of material but of moral defences, not of material but of spiritual grandeur. The lust that burned in their hearts was more deadly than the flame which consumed their dwellings.
With this I brought my first book to an end. My purpose now is to proceed to treat of the disasters which Rome has suffered since its foundation, whether at home or in the subject provinces, disasters which they would blame on the Christian religion, if at that time the teaching of the Gospel had rung out with its sweeping condemnation of their false and deceiving gods.
3. A study of history will show what calamities befell the Romans when they worshipped the pagan gods before Christianity displaced them
You must bear in mind that in mentioning these facts I am still dealing with the ignorant, the people whose stupidity has given rise to the popular proverb, ‘No rain! It’s all the fault of the Christians.’4 The well-educated5 who are fond of history are readily acquainted with these facts, but they wish to inflame the hatred of the illiterate mobs against us, and so they pretend not to know the facts, and do their best to support the vulgar notion that the disasters which are bound to fall on humanity during a given period and over a given area are to be laid at the door of Christianity, which, in opposition to their gods, is being extended everywhere with immense prestige and unexampled popularity.
So let us help them to recall the many and various disasters which overwhelmed the Roman State before Christ’s incarnation – before his name became known to the nations, and received that honour which arouses their ineffectual envy. And in the face of these facts let them defend their gods if they can, assuming that the gods are worshipped in order that the worshippers may escape such calamities. For if they suffer anything of this kind now, they contend that we are to be held responsible. Why then did the gods allow the catastrophes which I am going to mention to fall upon their worshippers, before the proclamation of Christ’s name offended them and before Christ’s name put a stop to their sacrifices?
4. Pagan gods had no moral teaching for their worshippers; in fact pagan rites were full of obscenities
In the first place, why did these gods refuse to take the trouble to prevent the degeneration of morality? For the true God had a right to neglect those who did not worship him, but as for those gods of theirs – the prohibition of whose worship these utterly ungrateful men complain of – why did they give their worshippers no laws to help them to a good way of life? It would certainly have been fitting for the gods to be concerned about the conduct of those who concern themselves with their worship.
‘But’, it will be replied, ‘a man’s wickedness depends on his own free will.’ Who would deny this? Nevertheless, it was the responsibility of the gods, as counsellors, not to conceal the instructions for a good life from the people who worshipped them. They should have presented and proclaimed them plainly; they should have confronted and convicted sinners by their prophets, threatening punishments to evildoers and promising rewards to those of upright life. Yet the temples of these gods never rang with any such clearly and emphatically uttered exhortations.
When I was a young man I used to go to sacrilegious shows and entertainments. I watched the antics of madmen; I listened to singing boys; I thoroughly enjoyed the most degrading spectacles put on in honour of gods and goddesses – in honour of the Heavenly Virgin, and of Berecynthia, mother of all.6 On the yearly festival of Berecynthia’s purification the lowest kind of actors sang, in front of her litter, songs unfit for the ears of even the mother of one of those mountebanks, to say nothing of the mother of any decent citizen, or of a senator; while as for the Mother of the Gods – ! For there is something in the natural respect that we have towards our parents that the extreme of infamy cannot wholly destroy; and certainly those very mountebanks would be ashamed to give a rehearsal performance in their homes, before their mothers, of those disgusting verbal and acted obscenities. Yet they performed them in the presence of the Mother of the Gods before an immense authence of spectators of both sexes. If those spectators were enticed by curiosity to gather in profusion, they ought at least to have dispersed in confusion at the insults to their modesty.
If these were sacred rites, what is meant by sacrilege? If this is purification, what is meant by pollution? And the name of the ceremony is ‘the fercvla’,7 which might suggest the giving of a dinnerparty where the unclean demons could enjoy a feast to their liking. Who could fail to realize what kind of spirits they are which could enjoy such obscenities? Only a man who refused to recognize even the existence of any unclean spirits who deceive men under the title of gods, or one whose life was such that he hoped for the favour and feared the anger of such gods, rather than that of the true God.
5. The obscenities performed in the worship of the ‘Mother of the Gods’
The last people I should choose to decide on this matter are those who are more eager to revel in the obscene practices of this depraved cult than to resist them. I should prefer the decision of Scipio Nasica,8 the very man whom the Senate chose as their best man, whose hands received this devil’s image and brought it to Rome. Let him tell us whether he would wish his mother to have deserved so well of her country that she should be accorded divine honours. For it is well known that the Greeks and the Romans, and other peoples, have decreed such honours to those whose public services they valued highly, and that such people were believed to have been made immortal and to have been received among the number of the gods.9 No doubt he would desire such felicity for his mother, if it were possible. But let me go on to ask him whether he would like such disgusting rites as these to be included among the divine honours paid to her? Would he not cry out that he would prefer his mother to be dead, and beyond all experience, than that she should live as a goddess, to take pleasure in hearing such celebrations? It is unthinkable that a senator of Rome, of such high principles that he forbade the erection of a theatre in a city of heroes, should want his mother to be honoured as a goddess by such propitiatory rites as would have scandalized her as a Roman matron. He would surely have thought it quite impossible for a respectable woman to have her modesty so corrupted by the assumption of divinity that her worshippers should call upon her with ritual invocations of this sort. These invocations contained expressions of such a kind that had they been hurled at any antagonist in a quarrel, during her life on earth, then if she had not stopped her ears and withdrawn from the company, her friends, her husband and her children would have blushed for her. In fact the ‘Mother of the Gods’ was such a character as even the worst of men would be ashamed to have for his mother. And when she came to take possession of the minds of the Romans she looked for the best man of the country, not so as to support him by counsel and help, but to cheat and deceive him, like the woman of whom the Bible says, ‘she ensnares the precious souls of men’.10 Her purpose was that a mind of great endowments should be puffed up by this supposedly divine testimony and should think itself truly exceptional, and therefore should cease to follow true religion and piety – without which every national ability, however remarkable, disappears in the ruin which follows on pride. And thus that goddess could seek the support of the best of men only by trickery, seeing that she requires in her worship the kind of behaviour which decent men shrink from even in their convivial moments.
6. The pagan gods never sanctioned a doctrine of right living
This is the reason why those divinities have no concern for the morals of the cities and peoples by whom they were worshipped. Rather they allowed the most terrible and abominable evils to have free play, to the utmost detriment, not of lands and vines, not of houses and property, not even of the body, which is the servant of the mind, but of the mind itself, the actual ruler of the flesh. They allowed this; they did not use their awful power to prevent it. Or if they did try to stop it, let us have the evidence. And we do not want to hear general assertions about whispers breathed into the ears of a chosen few, and handed down by a secret religious tradition,11 teaching integrity and purity of life. Let the pagans show, or even mention, places consecrated for such gatherings where what happens is not the performance of spectacles marked by lewd utterances and gestures on the part of the actors, with a free rein to every kind of depravity – not the celebration of The Flight of the Kings12 (which is really the flight of all decency and morality) – but where the assembled people can hear the commands of the gods about the need to restrain avarice, to curb ambition, to put a check on lust, and where wretched men may learn the lesson that Persius teaches in a voice of sharp reproach:
Ye wretches, learn
What we men are, and for what life were born;
Find out your station in the race of life,
And how to turn your corners. Learn the limit
To be placed on wealth; and learn how much to pray for;
The good that can be done with the crude coin;
How much to give to country, and to friends:
Find out the role that God would have you play,
The part assigned you, in the scheme of things.13
Let us be told in what places those divine precepts are regularly proclaimed in the hearing of the people assembled for worship. We on our part can point to churches set up for this very purpose, wherever the Christian religion is spread.
7. The conclusions of philosophers are ineffective as they lack divine authority. Man is easily corrupted; and the gods’ examples influence him more than the argument of man
But perhaps they will quote the schools of philosophers and their discussions? In the first place, these activities belong to Greece, not to Rome; and even if they belong to Rome – because Greece became a Roman province14 – they are not the commandments of the gods, but the findings of men who were gifted with most acute intelligence and who endeavoured, by the use of reason, to discover the secrets of the physical universe, to find out what ends were to be pursued and what avoided in the sphere of human behaviour, and, in the rules of reasoning, what valid inferences could be drawn, what conclusions did not follow and what contradictions were entailed.
Some of them certainly established important points, in so far as they had divine assistance, while they went astray in so far as they were hindered by human weakness, especially when divine providence rightly opposed their presumption, in order to show, by contrast, the way of piety, which starts from humility and ascends to the heights. This is a matter we shall have occasion to discuss later in greater detail, if that is the will of the true God, our Lord. However, if the philosophers had reached any conclusion which could be a sufficient guide to the good life and to the attainment of ultimate felicity, it would be such men who would more rightly be accorded divine honours. How much better and more honourable would it be to have a temple to Plato where his books were read, rather than to have temples to demons where Galli15 are mutilated, eunuchs are consecrated, madmen gash themselves, and every other kind of cruelty or perversion – pervertedly cruel or cruelly perverted – is regularly practised in the rites of such gods as these. How much better it would be to have the laws of the gods publicly recited and to train the younger generation in ways of righteousness than to waste empty praises on the laws and institutions of antiquity! For the worshippers of such gods direct their attention not to the teachings of Plato or the thoughts of Cato, but rather to the activities of Jupiter, so that they are whirled along by lust ‘imbued’, in the phrase of Persius, ‘with seething venom’.16 Thus in Terence’s play, the immortal youth looks at a painting on the wall representing
The tale of Jupiter and the golden shower
Sent down upon the lap of Danae,17
and this suggests an authoritative precedent for his own shameful conduct, so that he can boast that he is following a god’s example:
And what a god to follow! He that shakes
The vaults of heaven with thunder. And should I,
A lowly mortal, shrink to do the like?
Nay, thus I did, and with a right good will!18
8. The theatrical shows, where the gods are not offended, but propitiated, by the representation of their depravities
Now it may be objected that these things are not taught in the rites of the gods, but in the fables of the poets. I should not like to say that the mystic ceremonies are more beastly than the theatrical performances; but I do say that those shows, in which the fictions of the poets hold sway, were introduced by the Romans into the worship of their gods, not through ignorant following of the poet’s teaching, but because the gods themselves sternly commanded, indeed almost extorted, the production of such shows, demanding that they should be consecrated in their honour. History will bear this out against any who deny it; and I touched on the subject summarily in my first book.19 For theatrical shows were first instituted at Rome by authority of the pontiffs at a time when a plague was raging. And therefore any man will surely think that in the way he lives his life he ought to follow the examples set by what is acted in plays instituted by divine authority, rather than by what is written in laws laid down by mere human wisdom. If the poets have falsely represented Jupiter as an adulterer, then the gods, chaste as they are, ought surely to have avenged themselves in anger upon mankind for introducing such abominable fictions into their shows, not for failing to present them.
There are more acceptable dramatic compositions, namely comedies and tragethes – poetical fictions designed for production in public shows. Their subject matter is often immoral, as far as action goes; but, unlike many other compositions, they are at least free from verbal obscenities, and the older generation compel the young to read and learn them as part of what is called ‘a liberal education for gentlemen’.
9. What the ancient Romans felt about the need to restrain poetic licence. The Greeks imposed no restriction
We know what was the opinion of the older Romans on this point from the evidence of Cicero in his work On the Commonwealth, where Scipio argues that ‘were it not for the licence of established custom, comedies would never have been able to display their depravities in the theatres’.20 The Greeks of an earlier age certainly maintained a consistency in their reprehensible attitude, for among them the comic writer was granted the legal privilege of saying what ever he liked about whomsoever he pleased, mentioning his victim by name. And so, as Africanus says in the same work,
Was anyone immune from the attacks, the persecutions of comedy? Was anyone spared? Oh, I agree; the irresponsible demagogues were lashed; people like Cleon, Cleophon, and Hyperbolus,21 unpatriotic trouble-makers. Yes, that would be tolerable; although it would be better for such citizens to be reprimanded by a censor, not by a poet. But that Pericles should be abused in lines uttered on the stage, when he had led his country with supreme authority for so many years, both in war and peace; that was as inappropriate as it would have been for our own Plautus or Naevius to have chosen to malign Publius and Gnaeus Scipio, or Caecilius to libel Marcus Cato.22
Then a little later,
Our Twelve Tables,23 in contrast, though there were very few cases in which they imposed the death-penalty, decided to include among those few the crime of writing or publishing verses derogatory to anyone’s reputation, or defamatory of his moral character. A very sound provision, for we should submit our lives to the judgment of magistrates and to investigation according to the laws, and not expose them to the poet’s native wit. And we should not listen to attacks on individuals except on condition that they have the right to reply and judicial defence.
I have thought it best to quote these extracts from the fourth book of Cicero’s On the Commonwealth,24 word for word (save for certain omissions and transpositions, made to assist comprehension), for they are very relevant to the point which I shall do my utmost to establish. After some further discussion, Cicero concludes this topic by demonstrating that the ancient Romans refused to allow any living man to be either praised or maligned on the stage. Whereas, as I have said, the Greeks were more consistent, if less decent, in the licence they permitted. In their opinion their gods allowed and enjoyed the lampooning on the public stage not only of men but of gods themselves, whether the depravities related and acted in the theatres were the inventions of poets or genuine facts. (If only the worshippers had found them only good enough for a laugh, and not also worthy of imitation!) For it would, they thought, have been too presumptuous to show tenderness for the reputation of statesmen and citizens when the divine powers demanded no such consideration.
10. The malicious design of the demons in allowing the enactment of their real or supposed misdeeds
It is urged in defence that those stories to the god’s discredit were not true, but lying inventions. But that is all the more detestable, if you are concerned for the interests of true religion; while if you view it from the side of the Devil’s malie, what cleverer subtlety could be used to deceive mankind? For when a libel is issued against a worthy and patriotic statesman, is it not the more reprehensible the further removed it is from truth and the more inappropriate to his actual conduct? And therefore what punishment is sufficient when such criminal and unparalleled injury is offered to a god? Yet the malignant devils, which those people regard as gods, are willing that stories of enormities which they have not committed should be told about them, provided that by means of those ideas they can as it were ensnare men and drag them in their own company to their predestined punishment. It may be that in fact such enormities have been committed by men whom those devils delighted to see reckoned as gods; for they rejoice in the errors of mankind, and to further such errors put themselves forward to be worshipped by a thousand tricks designed to ruin and deceive. Or it may be that no men may truly be charged with such crimes; but the deceitful spirits are glad to allow them to be fictitiously ascribed to divinities, so that men may suppose they have sufficient authority, as it were by heaven-sent revelation, for the perpetration of abominable crimes.
The Greeks thought of themselves as the servants of such divinities; and so they thought that they should claim for themselves no special consideration from the poets among all the calumnies of the stage, either because they were eager to be likened to their gods in this way, or because they feared to provoke the gods to anger by demanding for themselves a more honourable reputation and in this way putting themselves above the divinities.
11. Actors in Greece were admitted to political office on the
ground that those who please the gods may not justly be
rejected by men
It is another mark of consistency in the Greeks that they regarded even the actors of those stories as worthy of considerable honour in the commonwealth. For example, it is related in the same book On the Commonwealth25 that Aeschines26 of Athens, a notable orator, attained success in politics, after having acted in tragedies in his youth, and that another tragic actor, Aristodemus,27 was often sent by the Athenians as their representative to Philip of Macedon on most important matters of peace and war. For since they regarded those accomplishments and those theatrical shows as acceptable even to their gods, they thought it would be inappropriate to class the actors among outlaws and vagabonds.
Such was the practice of the Greeks. No doubt it was most improper, but it was certainly quite consonant with the character of their gods. They did not venture to exempt the behaviour of their citizens from the lash of the tongues of poets and actors, since they gave official approval to the aspersions on the behaviour of the gods, with the gods’ delighted approval. And because they conceived these theatrical presentations to be welcome to the gods who were their masters, they reckoned that the men who acted in the plays, far from being despised, should be advanced to high honour in the community. For what possible reason could there be for honouring the priests on the ground that through them they offered acceptable sacrifices to the gods, while regarding actors as deserving censure? Seeing that it was through these actors that a pleasure and an honour was presented to the gods, who demanded it, and who would be angry if it were not offered – as they had been informed by a warning from the gods themselves.
Moreover, Labeo,28 who has the reputation of being the greatest authority on the subject, distinguishes the good divinities from the bad by the difference between the worship given them, the bad being propitiated, he alleges, by ‘murders’ and ‘mournful supplications’, the good by ‘joyful and merry observances’, such as ‘plays, feasts and “Banquets of the Gods” ’.29 With God’s help, we shall discuss the nature of all such ceremonies in greater detail later. To keep to our present point, it may be that all these honours are to be rendered to all gods indiscriminately, on the assumption that they are all good gods (for the existence of evil gods is an improper idea, although to be sure all those ‘gods’ are evil, being unclean spirits); or perhaps there should be a hard and fast distinction according to the notion of Labeo, and different observances should be kept for different divinities. However this may be, the Greeks showed very good sense in paying honour both to the priests who ministered at the sacrifices and the actors who performed in the plays – to avoid either insulting all their gods, if they all take pleasure in plays, or (which would be more reprehensible) insulting those whom they regard as good, if it is only they who are addicted to such performances.
12. The Romans granted poets licence to slander the gods, but not to libel men
But the Romans, as Scipio boasts in the discussion On the Commonwealth, refused to allow character and reputation to be exposed to the calumnies and libels of poets and imposed the death penalty on anyone who dared to compose verse of this kind. This was an honourable decision as far as they themselves were concerned; but it was arrogant and irreligious in respect to their gods. For though they knew that the gods showed patience, and even pleasure, at being torn to shreds by the reproaches and defamations of the poets, they considered it more unseemly for themselves to submit to such outrages; and they even protected themselves from them by legal sanctions, while introducing those indignities into the solemn ceremonies of divine worship.
Now, Scipio, do you really praise the denial to the Roman poets of the licence to heap insults upon any Roman citizen, when you observe that these poets showed no consideration for your gods? Do you think that the reputation of your senate house is to be more highly valued than that of the Capitol, and the fair name of the single city of Rome more than that of the whole of heaven, so that poets are prevented by law from employing the tongue of slander against your citizens, while they may without a qualm hurl the greatest calumnies at your gods, without let or hindrance from senator, censor, emperor or pontiff? It would have been reprehensible, I take it, for Plautus or Naevius to insult Publius and Gnaeus Scipio, or for Caecilius to slander Marcus Castor;30 but it was quite proper for your friend Terence to excite the base passions of young men by portraying the misdemeanours of Jupiter Most High?31
13. The Romans ought to have realized that gods who demanded obscene shows in their worship deserved no divine honours
It may be that, if he were living, Scipio would answer, ‘How could we refuse to grant impunity to performances which the gods themselves wished to be held sacred? Since it was they who introduced into the Roman way of life those theatrical shows where such things are performed in speech and action; and they commanded them to be dedicated and presented among the honours paid to them.’
How is it that the inference has not rather been drawn that they themselves are not real gods, and are not in the least worthy to be accorded divine honours by the community? If we assume that it would be utterly wrong and unfitting for them to be worshipped if they demanded the performance of plays containing abuse of Roman citizens, how on earth have they been reckoned worthy of worship when they have demanded, among the honours paid them, the public presentation of their enormities? How can they be regarded as anything but abominable evil spirits, eager to deceive mankind?
Furthermore, although the Romans were at this time so much under the sway of baneful superstition that they worshipped gods whom they thought of as wishing to have theatrical obscenities devoted to their honour, they still had enough concern for their own dignity and modesty to refrain from honouring the actors of such fables in the manner of the Greeks. In fact, as Scipio says, in Cicero’s book, ‘They had such a low opinion of the theatre and of the acting profession that they decided not only to debar actors from normal political life, but even to remove their names from the tribal lists through the intervention of the censors.’ 32
Surely this was an eminently sensible decision, to be put to the credit of the Romans. But how I wish Roman good sense had consistently followed its own precedent! How right they were to refuse any chance of political life to any Roman citizen who chose a theatrical career, and besides this to disqualify him by the censor’s ban from keeping his place in his tribe. Here was the genuine Roman spirit, the spirit of a community jealous for its honour. But I want an answer to this question: How can it be consistent to deprive theatrical performers of any political standing, and at the same time to admit theatrical performances as an ingredient in divine worship? Roman virtue for a long time had no acquaintance with the art of the theatre. 33 If they had cultivated that art to gratify men’s search for pleasure, its introduction would have undermined morality. It was the gods who demanded those exhibitions; how then can the actor be rejected, when he is the agent of a god’s worship? Can one have the face to censure those who enact a stage obscenity, when those who exact them are adored?
The Greeks and Romans are thus engaged in a dispute. The Greeks think themselves right to honour actors, because they worship gods who demand theatrical productions; the Romans do not allow stage-players to dishonour a plebeian tribe, to say nothing of the senate house. In this argument the conclusion is reached by the following line of reasoning. The Greek proposition is: ‘If such gods are to be worshipped, it follows that such men are to be honoured.’ The Romans put in the minor premise: ‘But such men are in no way to be honoured.’ The Christians draw the conclusion: ‘Therefore such gods are in no way to be worshipped.’
14. Plato excluded poets from his well-regulated state; which proves him superior to the gods who chose to be honoured by theatrical shows
We pass to another question. The poets who compose such fables are forbidden by the law of the Twelve Tables to injure the reputation of citizens, yet they hurl such foul insults against the gods. Why are they not considered as dishonourable as the players? On what principle is it right for the actors of poetical fictions, derogatory to the gods, to be outlawed, while the authors are honoured? Perhaps the award of victory should rather be given to Plato, the Greek; for when he was sketching his rational ideal of a perfect commonwealth, he laid it down that poets should be banished from his city as the enemies of truth.34 He was indignant at the outrages offered to the gods, and at the same time he was concerned to prevent the infection and corruption of the minds of the citizens by such fictions.
Now contrast the humanity of Plato, who would banish poets from his city to prevent their misleading the citizens, with the divinity of the gods who demand stage plays in their honour. Though Plato did not persuade the Greeks by his argument to stop even the writing of such fictions, he still urged this course on that frivolous and irresponsible people, whereas the gods by their commands extorted the actual performance of them from the reserved and conscientious Romans. And they did not merely desire such plays to be acted, but to be dedicated and consecrated to them, and solemnly presented in their worship. Well then, who would more justly be accorded divine honours by the community – Plato, who forbade such monstrous obscenities, or the devils who delighted in the delusion of men who would not be persuaded by Plato’s truth? Labeo 35 considered that Plato should be reckoned among demi-gods such as Hercules and Romulus. He puts demi-gods above heroes, though he ranks both among divinities. For my part, I have no hesitation about classing Plato, whom Labeo reckons a demi-god, above the gods themselves, to say nothing of heroes.
Now the Roman laws approximate to the arguments of Plato, since he condemns all poetical inventions, while ‘the Romans at least deprive poets of licence to slander. Plato banished poets from residence in the city; the Romans at least banish them from any share in civic rights, and if they dared attack the gods (who demanded the performances) they would remove them altogether. Thus the Romans cannot possibly receive or expect from their gods any laws for the establishment of morality or the correction of immorality, since by their own laws they reprove and correct the gods.
The gods insist on stage plays in their honour; the Romans disqualify stage-players from all honour. The gods command the presentation of insults to the gods in the fictions of poets; the Romans restrain the impudence of poets from offering insults to men. Plato, the ‘demi-god’, opposed the impurity of such gods, and he also showed what ought to be achieved by the Roman character, by completely forbidding poets to live in a well-ordered community, whether they published falsehoods at their own whim, or set before men, for their imitation, the most disgraceful actions of the gods.
We Christians hold Plato to be neither god nor demi-god; we do not even compare him to any holy angel of the Most High God, or to any truthful prophet, or apostle, or to one of Christ’s martyrs, or any Christian man. The reason for this attitude will be explained, with God’s help, in its proper place. However, since the pagans wish him to be considered a demi-god, or judge him to be superior, if not to Romulus or Hercules (although no historian or poet has recorded, or invented, a story of Plato killing his brother, or committing any crime), yet certainly to Priapus or any Cynocephalus or (to end the list) any Febris 36 – divinities some of whom the Romans received as foreign importations, some of whom they consecrated for themselves.
How then could such gods as those prevent, by their commands and laws, the corruption of character and conduct which threatened from outside, or effect a cure of corruption already implanted, since those gods were anxious that such behaviour should be made familiar to people through theatrical displays, whether as their own acts, or as resembling their acts. The result was automatically to kindle the most depraved desires in human hearts by giving them a kind of divine authority. And it was useless for Cicero to cry out against this, when he says, on the subject of poets, ‘When these poets are greeted with noisy acclaim from the public, as if it were the praise of a great and wise master, what darkness these poets bring on, what fears they engender, what evil passions they inflame!’37
15. The Romans established certain gods for flattery, not for any good reason
Now is there any reason for choosing those false gods? Is it not rather cringing flattery? For they have not regarded Plato as deserving a simple shrine, though they repute him a demi-god, and though he laboured with all those arguments to prevent the corruption of men’s morals by those perverted thoughts which are particularly to be guarded against, and when they put Romulus before many of the gods, although even he is attested as a demi-god – not a full divinity – by their more secret doctrine. For they even appointed a flamen for him, a type of priest so pre-eminent in Rome’s religious rites that they had only three of these, distinguished by the wearing of a special mitre, appointed for three divinities, the Flamen Dialis of Jupiter, the Flamen Martialis of Mars, and the Flamen Quirinalis of Romulus. ‘Quirinalis’ was so called because Romulus was named Quirinus 38 after he had been, as they said, received into heaven through the devotion of his citizens. In this way Romulus was honoured above Neptune and Pluto, the brothers of Jupiter, and even above Saturn, their father, in that the Romans assigned to him, as a mark of greatness, the priesthood which they had created for Jupiter; and they assigned it also to Mars as his reputed father, it may be, for his sake.
16. If the gods had been concerned for righteousness, the Romans ought to have received moral instruction from them, instead of borrowing laws
If the Romans could have received from their gods the rules of right living, they would not have borrowed the laws of Solon from the Athenians, as they did some years after the founding of the city. 39 However, they did not keep them just as they received them, but tried to make them better and remove their flaws. Although Lycurgus pretended that he had laid down laws for the Spartans at the prompting of Apollo, 40 the Romans sensibly refused to believe it and did not take over any laws from Sparta. Numa Pompilius, who succeeded Romulus on the throne, is said to have instituted some laws, though they were quite inadequate for the government of the community, and he also founded many religious ceremonies. Yet it is not related that he received these laws from heaven.
Thus though corrupt thoughts, corrupt lives and corrupt conduct are so dangerous that their most learned men assert that countries come to ruin through them, even when the cities still stand, nevertheless, their gods were not in the least concerned to protect their worshippers from such disasters. In fact, as we have argued, they were most concerned to promote this corruption.
17. The Rape of the Sabines and other iniquities that were prevalent in the Roman society even in times that are highly praised
Perhaps the reason why the gods did not impose laws upon the Romans was that, as Sallust says, ‘Justice and morality prevailed among them by nature as much as by laws.’41 I imagine that the Rape of the Sabines arose from this ‘justice and morality’. What could be ‘juster’, or more ‘moral’, than to take other men’s daughters, not by receiving them from their parents, but by luring them with a fraudulent invitation to a show, and then by carrying them off by force, in a scramble. Even if the Sabines were unfair to refuse to give their daughters on request it was surely much more unfair to take them by force after this refusal. It would have been more just to have waged war against a people that refused a request for marriage with its daughters on the part of close neighbours, than against those who asked for the restoration of daughters who had been carried off. So it would have been better if Mars had helped his son in a fight to avenge the insulting refusal of marriage, and if Romulus had thus come by the women he wished for. It might have been in accordance with some sort of law of war, had the victor justly won the women who had been unjustly refused him; it was contrary to every law of peace that he seized those who had been denied him and then waged unjust war with their indignant parents.
The outcome of this was certainly all to the good, since although the Circensian Games continued as a memorial of that shady trick, the precedent of the unpleasant business was not approved in that city and empire. And the Romans, while ready to make the mistake of consecrating Romulus as a god after that iniquitous performance, refused to allow it to be imitated either by law or custom. Another result of that ‘justice and morality’ was that after the expulsion of King Tarquin, whose son had violently ravished Lucretia, the consul Junius Brutus compelled Lucretia’s husband, his colleague, Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, to abdicate from office, and refused him leave to reside in the city. Though Collatinus was a good and innocent man, he was so treated just because he bore the name of Tarquin and was related to the offender; and Brutus did this with the favour and support of the people, from whom Collatinus, like Brutus himself, had received the consulship.
Another result was the treatment of Marcus Camillus. Camillus was the outstanding character of his time; he conquered the Venientines with the greatest ease, and captured their prosperous city – and that was after a ten years war42 in which the most dangerous enemies of Rome had inflicted a series of heavy defeats on her, reducing the people to a state of terrified doubt about their prospects of survival. And after this Camillus was brought to trial because of the envy of those who disparaged his qualities and through the arrogance of the tribunes of the plebs; and so, feeling the ingratitude of the community which he had liberated, and convinced of his coming condemnation, Camillus went into voluntary exile, later to become once more the champion of his ungrateful country, this time against the Gauls.
I am sick of recalling the many acts of revolting injustice which have disturbed the city’s history; the powerful classes did their best to subjugate the lower orders, and the lower orders resisted – the leaders of each side motivated more by ambition for victory than by any ideas of equity and morality.
18. The Roman character as portrayed by Solltist under the pressure of fear, and in the relaxation of security
I will therefore impose a restraint on myself, and employ the evidence of Sallust himself, whose praise of the Romans gave rise to this discussion. ‘Justice and morality,’ he says, ‘prevailed among them by nature as much as by law.’ 43 He was commending the period after the expulsion of the kings, a period of enormous expansion in an incredibly short space of time. In spite of this, he also admits, at the very beginning of the first book of his History, that even at the time when the government had passed from kings to consuls, after a short interval the injustices of the powerful classes led to a separation between plebs and patres, 44 and to other disputes in the city. He records the high standard of morality and the degree of concord which marked the history of Rome between the Second Punic War and the last, 45 but he ascribes as the reason for this desirable state of things not the love of justice, but the fear that peace was unreliable while Carthage still stood; and that was why Nasica resisted the annihilation of Carthage, so that wickedness should be restrained by fear, immorality checked, and the high standard of conduct preserved. And Sallust goes on to add,‘But after the destruction of Carthage there came the highest pitch of discord, greed, ambition, and all the evils which generally spring up in times of prosperity.’ 46 We infer from this that those evils generally spring up and increase even before such times. Hence he continues with the reason for his statement,
For the injustices of the powerful classes leading to separation between plebs and patres and other disputes, were found in the city right from the beginning: and the rule of equity, justice and restraint after the expulsion, that is, the ejection, of the kings lasted only as long as the threat from Tarquin and the critical war with the Etruscans continued.
Thus you observe that Sallust alleges fear to have been responsible for that brief period of ‘the rule of equity, justice and moderation which followed the expulsion, that is the ejection, of the kings’. These Romans were frightened by the war which Tarquin, in alliance with Etruria, waged against them, after he had been driven from his throne and from his city. Notice how Sallust proceeds: ‘After that’, he says,
the patricians reduced the plebeians to the condition of slavery; they disposed of the lives and persons of the plebs in the manner of kings; they drove men from their lands; and with the rest of the people disenfranchized, they alone wielded supreme power. Oppressed by such harsh treatment, and especially by the load of debt, the plebeians, after enduring the simultaneous burden of tribute and military service in continual wars, at length armed themselves, and took up a position on the Mons Sacer and the Aventine; thus they gained for themselves the tribunes of the plebs and other rights. The Second Punic War brought an end to the strife and rivalry between the two parties. 47
Here is a picture of the condition of the Romans in so short a time after the expulsion of the kings. And yet Sallust says, ‘Justice and morality prevailed amongst them by nature as much as by law.’
Furthermore, if this is what that period was like, when the Roman state is reported to have been at the height of excellence, what do we suppose is to be said or thought of the period following? For, to quote the words of the same historian, ‘the state of the country gradually changed, from the height of excellence to the depth of depravity’. 48 This is the period, as Sallust relates, following the destruction of Carthage. In Sallust’s history we can read a brief record and description of these times – how the moral deterioration, which set in during times of prosperity, continued until the Civil Wars. ‘And from that time,’ he says, ‘the degradation of traditional morality ceased to be a gradual decline and became a torrential downhill rush. The young were so corrupted by luxury and greed that it was justly observed that a generation had arisen which could neither keep its own property or allow others to keep theirs.’ 49 Sallust proceeds to dwell on the vices of Sulla, and comments on other depravities in the community. Other writers agree with him on this subject, though they are far inferior to him in style.
You see, I am sure, and anyone who pays attention cannot fail to observe, that Rome had sunk into a morass of moral degradation before the coming of our Heavenly King. For all this happened not only before Christ had begun to teach in the flesh, but even before he had been born of a virgin. Now the Romans do not dare to blame their gods for all the moral evils of these periods, either the venial sins of earlier times or the horrid and intolerable enormities that followed the fall of Carthage, though it was these gods who with malignant cunning implanted in human minds ideas which blossomed into such wickedness. Why then do they blame Christ for the present evils, when Christ by his saving doctrine forbids the worship of false and deceitful gods? Christ with divine authority denounces and condemns the offences of men, and their perverted lusts, and he gradually withdraws his family from all parts of a world which is failing and declining through those evils, so that he may establish a city whose titles of ‘eternal’ and ‘glorious’ are not given by meaningless flattery but by the judgement of truth.
19. The corruption of the Roman commonwealth before Christ abolished the worship of the gods
There you see the Roman republic changing from the height of excellence to the depths of depravity. And this is no novel assertion of my own; I am indebted for it to Roman authorities, who far preceded the coming of Christ. After the destruction of Carthage, and before Christ’s coming, ‘the degradation of traditional morality ceased to be a gradual decline and became a torrential downhill rush.’ I challenge these Romans to quote injunctions against luxury and greed, given by their gods to the Roman people. Would that they had merely refrained from counselling chastity and restraint, without demanding from the people acts of depravity and shame, by means of which to establish a pernicious authority through a false claim to divine power! I challenge them then to read our Scriptures, and to find, in the Prophets, in the holy Gospel, in the Acts of the Apostles, and in the Epistles, those uniquely impressive warnings against greed and self-indulgence, given everywhere to the people assembled to hear them, in a tone resembling not the chatter of philosophical debates, but the thunder of oracles from the clouds of God. Yet they do not blame their gods for the self-indulgence, the greed and the savage immorality which, before Christ’s coming, brought the republic to those ‘depths of depravity’. They scold the Christian religion for all the humiliations inflicted in those later times on their sophisticated self-esteem. Yet if the teachings of Christianity on justice and morality had been listened to and practised by ‘kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all judges of the world, youths and maidens, old and young together’, 50 those of every age capable of reason, male and female, and even the tax-collectors and soldiers addressed by John the Baptist 51 – if all those had listened, the Roman commonwealth would now enrich all this present world with its own happiness, and would ascend to the heights of eternal life to reign in felicity. But some listened, while others rejected, and the majority found the blandishments of sin more congenial than the salutary harshness of virtue; and so Christ’s servants, whether they are kings, or princes, or judges, or soldiers, or provincials, whether rich or poor, freemen or slaves, men or women, are bidden, if need be, to endure the wickedness of an utterly corrupt state, and by that endurance to win for themselves a place of glory in that holy and majestic assembly, as we call it, of the angels, in the Heavenly Commonwealth, whose law is the will of God.
20. The kind of felicity the opponents of Christianity wish to enjoy, and the morality by which they wish to live
But the worshippers and lovers of those gods, whom they delighted to imitate in their criminal wickedness, are unconcerned about the utter corruption of their country. ‘So long as it lasts,’ they say, ‘so long as it enjoys material prosperity, and the glory of victorious war, or, better, the security of peace, why should we worry? What concerns us is that we should get richer all the time, to have enough for extravagant spending every day, enough to keep our inferiors in their place. It is all right if the poor serve the rich, so as to get enough to eat and to enjoy a lazy life under their patronage; while the rich make use of the poor to ensure a crowd of hangers-on to minister to their pride; if the people applaud those who supply them with pleasures rather than those who offer salutary advice; if no one imposes disagreeable duties, or forbids perverted delights; if kings are interested not in the morality but the docility of their subjects; if provinces are under rulers who are regarded not as directors of conduct but as controllers of material things and providers of material satisfactions, and are treated with servile fear instead of sincere respect. The laws should punish offences against another’s property, not offences against a man’s own personal character. No one should be brought to trial except for an offence, or threat of offence, against another’s property, house, or person; but anyone should be free to do as he likes about his own, or with his own, or with others, if they consent. There should be a plentiful supply of public prostitutes, for the benefit of all those who prefer them, and especially for those who cannot keep private mistresses. It is a good thing to have imposing houses luxuriously furnished, where lavish banquets can be held, where people can, if they like, spend night and day in debauchery, and eat and drink till they are sick: to have the din of dancing everywhere, and theatres full of fevered shouts of degenerate pleasure and of every kind of cruel and degraded indulgence. Anyone who disapproves of this kind of happiness should rank as a public enemy: anyone who attempts to change it or get rid of it should be hustled out of hearing by the freedom-loving majority: he should be kicked out, and removed from the land of the living. We should reckon the true gods to be those who see that the people get this happiness and then preserve it for them. Then let them be worshipped as they wish, let them demand what shows they like, so that they can enjoy them with their devotees or, at least, receive them from their worshippers. All the gods have to do is to ensure that there is no threat to this happiness from enemies, or plagues, or any other disasters’.
All this would suggest to a sensible man the palace of Sardanapalus rather than Imperial Rome! Sardanapalus was the king so devoted to sensuality that he had it inscribed on his tomb that his only possessions in death were the pleasures he had gulped down in indulgence during his life. 52 If these Romans had a king like that, who let them indulge in such pursuits and never opposed them by any restraint on their practices, they would be more ready to consecrate a temple and flamen to him than the ancient Romans were to accord such honours to Romulus.
21. Cicero’s judgement on the Roman commonwealth
If our opponents scorn the historian’s judgement that the Roman state has sunk ‘to the depths of depravity’, if they are not troubled about the disgusting infection of crime and immorality which rages in it, so long as that state continues to stand, then let them listen not to Sallust’s description of its degradation, but to Cicero’s argument that it has now utterly perished, that the republic is completely extinct.
Cicero represents Scipio, the annihilator of Carthage, as discussing the state of the country, when it was felt that it was doomed to perish through the corruption described in Sallust. This discussion is placed at the time when one of the Gracchi had been killed, an occasion from which Sallust dates the beginnings of the serious civil disturbances (Sallust records his death in this work). Now Scipio said, at the end of the second book,
In the case of music for strings or wind, and in vocal music, there is a certain harmony to be kept between the different parts, and if this is altered or disorganized the cultivated ear finds it intolerable; and the united efforts of dissimilar voices are blended into harmony by the exercise of restraint In the same way a community of different classes, high, low and middle, unites, like the varying sounds of music, to form a harmony of very different parts through the exercise of rational restraint; and what is called harmony in music answers to concord in a community, and it is the best and closest bond of security in a country. And this cannot possibly exist without justice. 53
Then after a more extended treatment of the point, describing the great advantage of justice to a community and the great loss occasioned by its absence, another of those present at the discussion, named Fhilus, puts in a plea for a more detailed treatment of the subject of justice because it was at that time popularly supposed that some injustice was inevitable in the government of any country. Scipio agrees that this question needed investigation and explanation. He admits in reply that, in his opinion, what they have already said about the commonwealth gives them no basis for proceeding further, unless they establish the falsity of the statement that injustice is inevitable in government, and, further, the truth of the assertion that complete justice is the supreme essential for government. 54
The discussion of the question is then deferred to the next day, and in the third book the topic is thrashed out with the fiercest arguments. Philus undertakes to defend the position that government entails injustice, covering himself by disclaiming this as his own opinion. And he contends energetically for injustice against justice, asserting its superior utility for the country, and striving to prove his point by plausible arguments and illustrations. Then Laelius, by general request, undertakes the defence of justice, and asserts with all possible emphasis that nothing is so inimical to a community as injustice, and that a country cannot be governed, and cannot continue in being, without a high degree of justice.
When this question has, in the general opinion, been dealt with sufficiently, Scipio returns to the interrupted discussion. He starts by repeating and supporting his brief definition of a commonwealth, that it is ‘the weal of the community’, and he defines ‘the community’ as meaning not any and every association of the population, but ‘an association united by a common sense of right and a community of interest’. 55 He goes on to point out the advantage of definition in argument; and from these definitions of his he derives the proposition that a commonwealth (i.e. ‘the weal of the community’) only exists where there is a sound and just government, whether power rests with a monarch or with a few aristocrats, or with the people as a whole. But when the king is unjust (a ‘tyrant’, as he calls him, in the Greek manner), or the nobles are unjust (he calls such a combination a factio – a caucus) or the people are unjust (and for this he finds no accepted term, unless he should call it a collective tyranny), then, he holds, the commonwealth is not corrupt, as had been argued on the previous day, but, by a logical deduction from the definition, it ceases to exist at all – for there can be no ‘weal of the community’, if it is unjust, since it is not ‘associated by a common sense of right and a community of interest’, which was the definition of a community.
Thus when the Roman commonwealth reached the condition described by Sallust it was not by now ‘in the depth of depravity’, in Sallust’s phrase; it had simply ceased to exist, according to the reasoning produced by the discussion of the commonwealth which engaged the leading statesmen of this time. Similarly, Cicero himself at the beginning of the fifth book speaks in his own person, and not in the person of Scipio or anyone else, when he quotes the line of Ennius:
Ancient morality and the men of old
Fixed firm the Roman state.56
and he continues,
This verse, both by its brevity and its truth seems to me like the utterance of some oracle. For the great leaders could not have founded, or could not have so long maintained such a great state with such a vast stretch of empire, had there not been that morality in the community; nor could the morality have done so, without the leadership of such men. Thus, before our own period, the traditional moral code produced outstanding men, and these excellent men preserved the code and the practices of their forebears. Whereas our age has received the commonwealth like a magnificent picture which has almost faded away with age, and it has not only omitted to restore it with the original colours; it has not even taken trouble to preserve what one may call the general shape and the bare outlines. For what remains of that ancient morality which, according to the poet, supported the Roman state? We see that it has passed out of use into oblivion, so that far from being cultivated, it does not even enter our minds. And what about the men? The morality has passed away through lack of the men: and we are bound to be called to account for this disaster, and even, one may say, to defend ourselves on a capital charge. For we retain the name of a commonwealth, but we have lost the reality long ago: and this was not through any misfortune, but through our own misdemeanours.
Such was Cicero’s admission, long after the death of Africanus, whom he represents as engaging in the discussion On the Commonwealth, but still some time before the coming of Christ. If those sentiments had been expressed when Christianity was spreading and gaining ground, would not all those Romans have decided that Christians were to be blamed for this state of things? If so, why did their gods show no concern to prevent the ruin and loss of that commonwealth whose loss Cicero so piteously bemoans long before Christ came in the flesh? Those who praise the state of Rome in the time of ‘ancient morality and the men of old’ should ask themselves whether real justice flourished in that city, or whether, it may be, it was not even then a living reality in men’s behaviour, but merely a fancy picture. This, in fact, is what Cicero unconsciously admits, even when he is commending it.
But, God willing, we will look into this later on. For I intend, in the appropriate place, to examine the definitions of Cicero himself in which, through the mouth of Scipio he laid down in brief what constitutes a ‘commonwealth’ and what constitutes a ‘community’, together with the witness of many other statements in that discussion, either of his own or of his characters; and I shall do my best to demonstrate that that commonwealth never existed, because there never was real justice in the community.57 Now it certainly was a commonwealth to some degree, according to more plausible definitions; and it was better ruled by the Romans of antiquity than by their later successors. But true justice is found only in that commonwealth whose founder and ruler is Christ; if we agree to call it a commonwealth, seeing that we cannot deny that it is the ‘weal of the community’. However, if this title, so commonly used elsewhere with a different sense, may be too remote from our usual way of speaking, we may say that at least there is true justice in that City of which the holy Scripture says, ‘Glorious things are said about you, City of God.’ 58
22. The Roman gods were not concerned to prevent the destruction of the commonwealth through moral corruption
But with regard to our present topic, however praiseworthy the pagans may say that commonwealth had been, or is, still, according to their most learned writers, it had sunk ‘to the depths of degradation’ long before the coming of Christ. Indeed it had perished and ceased to be because of utter moral depravity. To prevent it from perishing its guardian gods ought, above all else, to have given to their worshipping people counsels for right living and behaviour, since that people worshipped them with all those temples, all those priests and all kinds of sacrifices, with such a multiplicity of varied rites, so many annual festivals and so many attendances at lavish spectacles. Whereas in fact the demons looked after only their own interests; they did not care how their worshippers lived, or rather they were content that they should live in corruption, provided that they supplied all their wants under the compulsion of fear.
Or if they did give such laws, let the laws be produced, displayed and read, which the gods gave to that city, but which the Gracchi ignored when they started those turmoils by their seditious acts, which Marius, Cinna, and Carbo ignored when they proceeded to civil wars, undertaken for most unjust causes, and waged with a cruelty surpassed only by the cruelty in which they ended – laws that were ignored finally by Sulla himself, the description of whose life, character, and actions by Sallust and other historians would make anyone shudder in horror. Would not anyone admit that the commonwealth had perished at that time?
Can it be that because of the moral state of citizens like these our opponents will pluck up courage to quote, as usual, this statement of Virgil, in defence of their gods and in reply to us:
The shrines and altars now were all deserted
By all the gods through whom this realm once stood?59
In the first place, suppose it true; then they have no reason to complain against Christianity, or for the assertion that the gods have deserted them in disgust at that religion, because it was the behaviour of their ancestors that drove away that multitude of tiny gods like flies from the altars. But where was all that flock of divinities when, long before the corruption of ancient morality, the Gauls took Rome and set it on fire? 60 Were they there, but asleep perhaps? On that occasion the whole of the city was reduced, and only the Capitol hill remained intact; and that would have been taken if the geese had not kept watch while the gods were sleeping. As a result Rome almost fell into the superstition of the Egyptians, who worship beasts and birds, for they celebrate a yearly Feast of the Goose. 61
But these are external disasters, affecting the body, not the mind, arising from enemy action or from some natural disaster, and I am not discussing these at the moment. I am now concerned with the poisoning of morals, which first decayed slowly and then suffered a headlong plunge. As a result such ruin came upon the commonwealth, even though buildings and walls stood unharmed, that their eminent writers have no hesitation in pronouncing the commonwealth lost. If it is true that the community had ignored the gods’ instructions about the good life and about justice, then the gods were justified in departing, so that when ‘the shrines and altars were all deserted’, the commonwealth was lost. But, I ask you, what kind of gods were they if they refused to live with the people who worshipped them, when they had not taught that people a better way of life than the corrupt way they were following?
23. The vicissitudes of history depend not on the favour or opposition of demons, but on the judgement of the true God
Then what are we to think of the apparent readiness of the gods to assist the gratification of men’s desires, and their obvious failure to help men to restrain them? Marius, for example, was a low-born upstart who ruthlessly caused civil wars, and ruthlessly waged them. Yet the gods helped him so effectively that he became consul seven times, and died as an old man, in his seventh consulship, so as to escape the hands of Sulla, who was soon to be victorious. If it is said that the gods did not help him to these achievements, then we have a significant admission that all this temporal felicity, which is what such men desire, can befall a man without the favour of the gods, and that men like Marius can be loaded with blessings and enjoy health and strength, riches and honours, renown and long life in spite of the anger of the gods – and also that men like Regulus can be tortured to death by captivity, slavery, want, sleeplessness and pain in spite of the favour of the gods. If they admit this, they immediately acknowledge that the gods give men no help, and that their worship is superfluous. For if the gods were eager for the people to learn all that is contrary to virtue of mind and integrity of life – whose rewards are to be hoped for after death – if they can do no harm to those they hate in regard to those transient and temporal goods, nor give any help to those whom they love, then why are they worshipped, why is their worship so earnestly insisted on? Why in these distressful and depressing times do men complain, as if the gods had taken offence and departed? And why is the Christian religion subjected to the vilest insults because of them? If the gods have power to help or to harm in these matters, why did they assist the villainous Marius and desert the exemplary Regulus? Is it not obvious that they themselves are unjust and worthless? If it is assumed that they should therefore be the more feared and worshipped, the assumption is false. For there is no evidence that Regulus worshipped less than Marius.
Nor must it be supposed that a life of wickedness should be chosen, on the assumption that the gods favoured Marius more than Regulus. For Metellus 62 was the most esteemed of the Romans; and he had five sons who became consuls, and was also happy in the enjoyment of this world’s goods. But Catiline was an utter villain; and he was sunk in poverty, and was finally struck down in the war his crimes had unleashed, knowing no happiness. And the truest and surest happiness is, in general, the rich endowment of the loyal worshippers of that God who alone can bestow it.
Thus, when that commonwealth was perishing through its moral depravity, the Roman gods took no action to direct or correct morals to prevent that ruin. In fact they assisted the process of depravation and corruption, to ensure the ruin. And let them not assume an air of probity and pretend that they withdrew in disgust at the wickedness of the citizens. They were certainly there; they are shown up and convicted for what they are; they could neither help by their advice nor conceal themselves by keeping silence. I skip the fact that Marius was commended by the compassionate men of Minturnae to the protection of the goddess Marica in her sacred grove, 63 so that she might give him all success, and that from a most desperate situation he returned unharmed to Rome, at the head of an army as ruthless as its commander. And those who wish may read in the historians how bloody and barbarous his victory was, and how much more inhuman than the triumph of a foreign foe.
I pass over that, as I say; and I do not ascribe the bloodstained good luck of Marius to Marica, whoever she was, but rather to the inscrutable providence of God whose purpose is to shut the mouths of our opponents and to free from error those who are not swayed by prejudice and who carefully observe the facts. For the fact is that even if the demons have some power in these matters, their power is limited to the extent allowed them by the inscrutable decision of the Omnipotent, whose purpose is that we should not set too much store by earthly felicity, which is often granted to such scoundrels as Marius, and yet should not regard it as an evil, since we observe that many devout and upright worshippers of the one true God are also richly blest, in spite of the demons. Nor should we suppose that those unclean spirits are to be propitiated or feared on account of those earthly goods or evils, because they, like bad men in the world, cannot do all they wish, but only as much as is allowed by the ordinance of him whose decisions no one can fully understand, and which no one has the right to criticize.
24. The acts of Sulla, in which the demons showed themselves his supporters
The state of things under Sulla was so appalling that the preceding period, which he was thought to have come to redress, seemed desirable by comparison. Yet according to Livy,64 when he first advanced his army to Rome againt Marius, the entrails at his sacrifice were so favourable that Fostumius the soothsayer was prepared to be kept in custody, on pain of death if Sulla did not succeed in his purpose with the help of the gods. Notice that the gods had not yet ‘deserted all their shrines and altars’ when they foretold the course of events without showing any concern for the moral improvement of Sulla. They promised him great good luck65 by their presages; but they did not try, by warning threats, to break down his wicked ambitions. Later, when he was at war with Mithridates in Asia, a messenger from Jupiter was sent him by Lucius Titius, promising him victory; and so it turned out. After that, when he was using every effort to return to Rome and avenge the injuries offered to himself and to his friends with the blood of fellow-citizens, another message from Jupiter was brought by a soldier of the Sixth Legion, saying that Jupiter had previously promised him victory over Mithridates, and now promised him the chance to regain control of the country from his enemies, at the price of much bloodshed. Sulla then asked in what shape the vision had appeared, and when the soldier described it, Sulla recalled that it was the same as that described by the bringer of the message about his victory over Mithridates. It might be asked why the gods were so careful to give Sulla news of this supposed good fortune when none of them cared to admonish Sulla and reform him, though he was on the point of doing such terrible harm by a monstrous civil war – which was not only to disgrace but utterly to destroy the commonwealth. What answer can be given to that question? It is of course quite clear that devils are intent on their own ends, as I have often said, as we are informed in holy Scripture, and as the facts themselves sufficiently show. Their purpose is to be reckoned and worshipped as gods, so that ceremonies may be offered in their honour which will associate the givers with the receivers in the same hopeless plight at the Judgement of God.
Then again, when Sulla reached Tarentum and sacrificed to Mars, he saw at the top of the calf’s liver a shape like a golden crown. On this occasion the soothsayer Postumius interpreted it as a sign of a notable victory and ordered that Sulla alone should eat that part of the entrails. Very soon afterwards the slave of a certain Lucius Pontius cried out in a prophetic rapture, ‘I bear a message from Bellona! Sulla, the victory is yours!’ He added that the Capitol would be set on fire. After saying this, he left the camp immediately, and returned next day in an even more excited state, and shouted that the Capitol had been set on fire, which had in fact happened; 66‘ and it was easy for a demon to foresee it and bring the news with the greatest speed.
Notice carefully – and this is most relevant to our case – to what kind of deities those men wish to be subject who blaspheme the Saviour who sets free the wills of the faithful from the domination of devils. The man cried out in prophetic frenzy, ‘Sulla, victory is yours!’ And to ensure belief that the cry was inspired by a divine spirit, he gave notice of an event which was soon to happen, and which did happen in a place far away from his mouthpiece of the spirit. Yet he did not cry out, ‘Sulla, refrain from crimes!’ and Sulla committed monstrous crimes there, after he had been shown the golden crown in the calf’s liver as an extraordinary sign of victory.
Now if just gods, and not impious devils, had been in the habit of granting such signs, they would surely rather have shown in the entrails the criminal acts which were to come, and which were to bring serious harm to Sulla himself. And that victory increased his glory less than it advanced his ambition to his own hurt; its effect was to remove all restraint from his appetite for conquest. Success turned his head, and his plunge into moral degradation wrought in his own character a more grievous havoc than any he inflicted on the persons of his enemies. This was the really lamentable and depressing prospect; but those gods did not foretell this by entrails or auguries or by anyone’s dream or prophecy. They had more to fear from his correction than from his defeat. In fact they took pains to see that the victor over his fellow-citizens should, in his moment of glory, be a captive conquered by unspeakable vices, and should thereby become more closely bound in slavery to their own demonic power.
25. The evil spirits encourage crime by giving it the authority of their supposedly divine example
Can anyone fail to see and understand (unless he is one of those who prefer to copy such gods than to be kept free from their society by the grace of God) what efforts these malignant spirits use, to give by their example a presumed divine authority to criminal acts? They were, indeed, seen joining battle among themselves, in a wide plain in Campania, shortly before the citizen armies fought their shameful battle in that very place. For first a terrible din was heard there, and before long many people reported that they had seen two armies fighting for several days. And when the fighting stopped men found what looked like the tracks of men and horses, such as could have been left on the ground as a result of that encounter. Thus a battle among divinities, if it really happened, gives excuse for civil wars between men – and one may notice the malice, or the misery, of gods like these. While if it was a mere pretence of a battle, the only purpose was to gloss over the crime of civil war by giving it a divine precedent. Civil war was already under way, and a number of loathsome battles had already been fought, with frightful bloodshed. Many had been touched by the tale of a soldier who stripped the spoils from one of the slain, and recognized his own brother, when the corpse was bare; moved to abhorrence of such civil strife, he killed himself on the spot, and fell on his brother’s lifeless body. 67 To mitigate the disgust caused by such tragedies, and to inflame the ardour for this abominable warfare, the malign devils (whom the Romans thought of as gods, and the proper objects of worship and veneration) decided to show themselves to men as fighting among themselves, so that the natural affection between citizens should not shrink to imitate such battles, but that the gods’ example might rather excuse the crimes of men.
With the same astuteness the evil spirits also commanded theatrical shows (I have already said a good deal about this68) to be dedicated and consecrated to them, in which the enormities of the gods were celebrated on the stage in song and in acted narrative. A man might believe or disbelieve the actual stories; but he could see that the gods were delighted to have such acts represented, and thus he would feel free to imitate them. And so, to prevent the idea that whenever the poets record fighting among the gods they are libelling them by inventing discreditable stories, the gods have themselves given confirmation to the poets’ songs, to deceive mankind, by displaying their battles before men’s eyes not only in stage-plays but even by enacting them in person on the field of battle.
I have been forced to say this because the Roman writers have no hesitation in saying that the Roman commonwealth had been ruined by moral degradation, and had in fact ceased to exist at all, long before the coming of our Lord Christ Jesus. They did not blame their own gods for this ruin; yet they blame our Lord for the transitory disasters, which cannot bring a good man to extinction, whether he lives or dies. Yet Christ’s teaching is full of instructions for the promotion of the highest morality and the reproof of wickedness, while those gods of theirs never took the trouble to impress such commands on their worshippers so as to save that commonwealth from utter ruin – in fact they were more concerned to ensure its ruin by corrupting morality through the baneful authority of their example. I do not suppose that anyone will after this have the face to assert that the commonwealth perished because those gods ‘then deserted all the shrines and altars’ 69 like friends of virtue, disgusted at the vices of men, since they used their efforts, by all those signs in the shape of entrails, auguries, and prophecies, to boast and commend themselves as foreseen of the future and as assistants in battle, and thus are proved to have been present. If they had absented themselves, the Romans’ own ambitions would have fired them with less ardour for civil war than did the prompting of the gods.
26. The moral instruction allegedly given in secret by demons to devotees, in contrast with the open depravity of their rites
This, then, is the state of affairs. On certain appointed festivals, scenes of shame, accompanied with cruelty, acts of dishonour and crime, attributed (whether truly or falsely) to the divine beings, were plainly and openly represented, consecrated and dedicated to those gods at their own request and under pain of their displeasure if omitted. These acts were presented before all men’s eyes for imitation, and put forward for them to gaze at. Those demons admit that they are unclean by delighting in such things. They avouch themselves as the promoters of lives of crime and indecency, by their crimes and misdemeanours, real or pretended, and by the public presentation of them which is demanded from the shameless, and extorted from the modest. How is it then that, as we are told, they give to a select few of their devotees, in their shrines, in secret chambers, some salutary moral instruction? If this is true, it must be observed as a proof of the subtler malignity of these baneful spirits. For such is the power of decency and chastity that it excites the admiration of human nature all but universally, for human nature is never so perverted in its degradation as to lose all feeling for what is honourable. That is why the malignity of these demons cannot fully succeed in its deception without sometimes, as we know from our Bible, ‘transforming itself into angels of light’. 70 And so, while in the streets the incessant clamour of indecent impiety rings in the ears of the public, behind closed doors the voice of pretended chastity is only just heard by the chosen few. Full publicity is given where shame would be appropriate; close secrecy is imposed where praise would be in order. Decency is veiled from sight; indecency is exposed to view. Scenes of evil attract packed audiences; good words scarcely find any listeners. It is as if purity should provoke a blush, and corruption give ground for pride. But where else should this happen but in devils’ temples, in the resorts of delusion? The object is, by the one device to ensure the capture of the honourable minority, and by the other to prevent the reformation of the corrupt majority.
I do not know where or when the devotees of the Heavenly Virgin71 heard any counsels of chastity. But we had a good view of her image standing in front of her temple; there were crowds converging from all directions, everyone taking the best position he could find, and we watched the acted shows with the closest interest. We divided our gaze between the procession of harlots on one side, and the virgin goddess on the other. I saw prayerful worship offered to her, and indecent performances enacted before her. I saw no sense of shame in the mimes, no trace of modesty in any actress – all the duly prescribed obscenities were punctiliously performed. It was well known what would please the maiden goddess; and the exhibitions would enable the matron to leave the temple for home enriched by her experiences. Some of the more modest women averted their eyes from the indecent postures of the actors, and yet by furtive glances they made themselves familiar with the techniques of vice. In the company of men they were ashamed to pluck up the courage to observe those indecorous gestures with open eyes, but they had still less courage to condemn, in the purity of their hearts, the rites offered to the deity they revered. There was teaching publicly presented at that temple which no one would have put into practice without at least first seeking out a secret room in his house: though a person of human decency (had any such been there) might have been vastly surprised that men should have any reserve in their human misconduct, when they learned of these enormities in a religious setting, and in the presence of gods who would be enraged if men neglected such exhibitions.
There is an evil spirit which drives men’s minds to wickedness by a secret compulsion, which goads men on to commit adultery and finds satisfaction when they do so; it is this same evil spirit which rejoices in such rites as these. He it is who erects the images of demons in the temples, who delights in the representation of immorality in those spectacles, and who whispers in secret the words of righteousness to deceive the few decent people, while in public he makes the incitements to corruption freely available, for by these he proposes to get into his clutches the countless multitudes of the depraved.
27. The obscene performances in propitiation of the gods had a disastrous effect on the moral standards of the republic
Cicero was a serious-minded man and by way of being a philosopher. When he was entering on the aedileship he shouted out, in the hearing of the whole citizen body, that among the other duties of his office it fell to him to propitiate Mother Flora 72 by the holding of games; and it was usual to measure the devotion of the celebration by the obscenities of the shows. In another context73 (when he had become consul) he says that in a time of extreme peril74 to the country, games were put on for ten days, and nothing was omitted which might help to propitiate the gods. As if it were not better to annoy such gods by restraint than to appease them by licentiousness, and to provoke their enmity by decency than to soothe them by such infamy. Whatever the inhuman brutality of the men on whose account the propitiation was offered, the harm they were likely to inflict could not have been more serious than that inflicted by the gods themselves in being propitiated by such disgusting enormities. To ward off the dreaded assaults of the enemy upon their bodies, men tried to win the gods’ favour by means which utterly overthrew virtue in their minds. For the gods would not drive off those who assailed the walls of Rome from outside unless they themselves first drove out all morality from within the city.
This form of propitiation of such gods as these – with all its lascivious impurity, its shameless, filthy corruption, and its actors whom the Romans, with a laudable, instinctive sense of honour, debarred from all political office and expelled from their tribes, marked as beneath contempt and condemned to outlawry – this disreputable propitiation of these gods, was abominable and detestable in the eyes of true religion. These scandalous and slanderous stories about the gods, those disgraceful actions attributed to them, infamous and outrageous if really committed, still more infamous and outrageous if invented, all those were presented to the eyes and ears of the public for the instruction of the whole community. Men observed that the divine beings take pleasure in such offences, and therefore believed that they should not only be displayed to the gods but also imitated by mankind. They reckoned nothing of that wholesome and decent teaching (whatever it was) which was dispensed (if at all) so secretly and to so few as to suggest a fear that it should become more known, not that it should fail to be practised.
28. The wholesomeness of the Christian religion
Men have been rescued, through the name of Christ, from the hellish yoke of those polluted powers and from a share in their condemnation; they have passed from the night of blasphemy and perdition into the daylight of salvation and true godliness. This fact evokes complaints and murmurs from the malicious and spiteful who are held tight in the close grip of that wicked fiend. They resent the streams of people who gather in the church in a modest assembly, where there is a decent separation of the sexes, where they can hear how they ought to live a good life on earth for a space, so that they may deserve hereafter to live a life of bliss for ever, and where the words of holy Scripture and of the teaching of righteousness are read aloud from a raised position 75 in the sight of all; those who observe the teaching hear it for their profit, and those who do not, for their condemnation. And though some come there to scoff at these instructions, all their insolence is either abandoned in a sudden change of heart, or at least suppressed by fear or shame. For nothing degrading or disreputable is set before them for contemplation or imitation; but there the commandments of the true God are made known, his marvellous works are related, thanks are offered for his gifts, and prayers are sent up for his favours.
29. An exhortation to the Romans to abandon the worship of the gods
All this should be the object of your chief desire, you people of Rome, with all your fine natural qualities, your descendants of men like Regulus, Scaevola, the Scipios, and Fabricius.76 Observe how different all this is from the degraded folly and the malignant imposture of the demons. The admirable and excellent qualities which nature has bestowed on you can only come to purity and perfection through true godliness; ungodliness will bring them to ruin and punishment. Choose now which course to follow, so that you may receive men’s praise without illusion, not for what you are in yourself but in the true God. In former times you had glory from the peoples, but, through the inscrutable decision of divine providence, the true religion was not there for you to choose. Awake! The day has come. You have already awakened in the persons of some of your people, in whose perfect virtue we Christians boast, and even in their sufferings for the true faith; they have wrestled everywhere against hostile powers, have conquered them by the courage of their deaths, and ‘have won this country for us by their blood’. 77
It is to this country that we invite you, and exhort you to add yourself to the number of our citizens. The refuge 78 we offer is the true remission of sins. Do not listen to those degenerate sons of yours who disparage Christ and the Christians, and criticize these times as an unhappy age, when the kind of period they would like is one which offers not a life of tranquility but security for their vicious pursuits. Such satisfactions have never been enough for you, even in respect of your earthly country. Now take possession of the Heavenly Country, for which you will have to endure but little hardship; and you will reign there in truth and for ever. There you will find no Vestal hearth, no Capitoline stone, 79 but the one true God, who
Fixes no bounds for you of space or time
But will bestow an empire without end. 80
You must not regret the loss of those false and deceitful gods; abandon them in contempt and spring out to genuine liberty. They are not gods, but malignant fiends, and your eternal felicity is their eternal punishment. It seems that Juno did not grudge the Trojans (from whom you derive by physical descent) their possession of the Roman citadel as much as those demons (whom up to now you have reckoned gods) grudge the human race their everlasting abode. You yourself, to a great degree, have passed judgement on such fiends, in that you have appeased them with games and decided to treat the performers in those shows as outlaws. Allow us to assert your freedom against those unclean spirits who imposed upon you, like a yoke on your neck, the duty of sanctifying and celebrating their own shame. You shut out the actors of those divine scandals from all political office; pray to the true God that he will shut out those gods who delight in their own scandals, shameful, if they are true, malicious, if they are false. You acted rightly when of your own accord you refused to allow actors and players a share in the rights of citizenship. Now become fully awake! It is impossible for the divine majesty to be propitiated by arts which cast a stain on human dignity. How can you think that gods who delight in such observances can be ranked among the holy powers of heaven, when you have decided that men who perform those ceremonies are not to be ranked as Roman citizens of any kind? The Heavenly City outshines Rome, beyond comparison. There, instead of victory, is truth; instead of high rank, holiness; instead of peace, felicity; instead of life, eternity. If you blushed to have such men as partners in your city, how could the Heavenly City admit such gods? Gods who are appeased through the performances of rogues have no right to be worshipped by honourable men. Let those gods be removed from your religion by a Christian purge, as those actors were removed from your honours by the censors’ ban.
As for material satisfactions (which are all that the wicked desire to enjoy) and material ills (which are all that they wish to avoid) those demons have not the power over these which they are thought to have – although if they had, we ought rather to despise those things than to worship the demons for their sake and, by worshipping them, to be unable to reach those blessings which they grudge us. Still, even in these things they have not the power ascribed to them by those who maintain that they should be worshipped for the sake of material benefits. This we shall see to be true in our discussion. So here we may bring this book to its close.