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BOOK III

1. The adversities that are the only dread of the wicked; the world always suffered them although it worshipped the gods

I THINK I have now said enough about the evils which affect the character and the mind. We need to be especially on our guard against those, and I have said that the false gods had no concern to help their worshipping people to avoid being overwhelmed by their weight – rather they tried to increase this oppression as much as possible.

It is clear to me that I must now treat of those ills which are the only disasters which our adversaries dread; such things as famine, disease, war, spoliation, captivity, massacre and the like, which we have already mentioned in the first book. The only things which evil men count as evil are those which do not make men evil; and they are not ashamed that when surrounded by the ‘good things’ which they approve, they themselves are evil, who approve those ‘goods’; and they are more disgusted by a bad house than by a bad life, as if man’s highest good was to have all his possessions good – except himself.

Now those gods of theirs, when they received their unstinted adoration, never averted from them the only evils they dreaded. At different periods and in different places, before the coming of our Redeemer, the human race was oppressed by innumerable disasters, often of incredible gravity. And at that time did the world worship any other gods than those? Except, that is, for one people, the Hebrews, and some few outside that nation, wherever, by the inscrutable and most just decision of God, men were found worthy of divine grace. However, to keep my account within reasonable bounds, I will say nothing of the grievous disasters inflicted on other nations all over the world. I shall confine myself to what concerns Rome and its Empire, that is, to the city itself and its allied and subject countries, and the disasters they suffered before the coming of Christ, at a time when they formed as it were part of the body of the Roman republic.

2. Had the gods, worshipped alike by Greeks and Romans, any reason for allowing the destruction of Ilium?

To begin with, why was Troy (or Ilium), the source of the Roman people, conquered, captured and destroyed by the Greeks, when it possessed and worshipped the same gods as the Greeks? I have touched on this point in my first book, 1 but I must not pass it over or suppress it. ‘Priam’, they say, ‘paid the penalty for the perjury of Laomedon, his father.’ 2 It is true, then, that Apollo and Neptune were Laomedon’s hired labourers? 3 For the tale is that he broke his sworn promise to pay their wages. I am astonished that Apollo, entitled ‘The Foreseer’, should have worked so hard on the job, in ignorance that Laomedon was going to back out of his undertaking. Apart from that, it was odd that his uncle Neptune, Jupiter’s brother, the Lord of the sea, should not have known what was going to happen. For Homer, a poet who is said to have lived before the foundation of Rome, ascribes to Neptune a notable prophecy 4 about the line of Aeneas, whose descendants founded Rome. Homer tells how Neptune carried off Aeneas in a cloud, to save him from death at the hands of Achilles though (as he admits in Virgil’s poem) he himself

Was fain to batter down the ramparts

Reared by his hands, of faithless, perjured Troy.5

Thus those great gods, Apollo and Neptune, did not know that Laomedon would refuse to pay. They built the walls of Troy and received neither gratuity nor gratitude. It is up to them to decide whether it is not more risky to believe in such gods than to let them down! Homer himself did not find it easy to credit this tale, since he represents Neptune as fighting against the Trojans while Apollo supports them, whereas, the story goes, they were both wronged by that breach of contract.

If our opponents believe the stories, they should blush to worship such divinities as those; if they disbelieve them, then they should not put forward the Trojan perjury as an explanation, or be astonished

that the gods punished Trojan bad faith, while approving Roman perjury. For how is it that Catiline’s conspiracy found in that great and corrupt city such an abundant supply of men ‘who supported life by their tongues and their strong right arms, by perjury and bloodshed’?6 Perjury, and nothing else, was the offence of the senators who were so often bribed to give their votes, or their verdicts in cases tried before their assemblies. For in the utter corruption of morality, the reason why the traditional custom of the oath was kept up was not to stop men from crime by religious fear, but to add perjury to those other misdemeanours.

3. The gods could not have been offended at the adultery of Paris; according to the stories, adultery was common amongst the gods

There is then no reason why the gods who are said to have maintained that empire,7 should be represented as angry with the perjured Trojans when, as it turned out, they were conquered by the Greeks. It was not that (as some urge in their defence8) they were so incensed at the adultery of Paris as to abandon Troy; it is their general practice to be suggesters and counsellors of crime, not its avengers. ‘The city of Rome’, says Sallust, ‘was first founded and inhabited, according to tradition, by Trojan refugees who were wandering with no fixed abode under the leadership of Aeneas.’9 If the gods judged the adultery of Paris as deserving vengeance, then the Romans deserved to be punished more, or at least equally, seeing that Aeneas’s mother was an adulteress. How was it then that in the case of Paris the gods hated the sin, but did not hate it in the case of their colleague Venus (not to mention others), when she sinned with Anchises and gave birth to Aeneas? Was it because Menelaus was indignant, but Vulcan complaisant? The gods, we are to suppose, are not jealous of their wives; so they are even content to share them with human beings!

Perhaps I may be thought to be laughing at those fables, and not treating so weighty a matter with proper seriousness. All right, then, let us stop believing that Aeneas was son of Venus. Very good; and, by the same token, Romulus was not the son of Mars. Why make one concession and not the other? Is it allowed for gods to have intercourse with women, but forbidden for men to mate with goddesses? This would be a harsh or rather an incredible condition, if Mars was permitted by the law of Venus a licence in love forbidden to Venus under her own law. But both stories are guaranteed by the authority of Roman tradition; and in modern times Caesar was as convinced that Venus was his ancestress as Romulus was certain that Mars was his father.

4. Varro’s opinion, that the fiction of divine descent has its uses

Someone will ask, ‘Do you yourself believe those tales?’ No, I certainly do not believe them; and Varro, the most learned of the Romans,10 almost admits their falsity, though timidly and diffidently. But he asserts that it is an advantage to communities that brave men should believe themselves to be sons of gods, even if it is not true. By this means the spirit of man, in the confidence of presumed divine descent, may be bolder in undertaking mighty enterprises, and more energetic in action, and so achieve greater success by reason of that sense of security. I have reproduced Varro’s opinion in my own words, as faithfully as I can; and you notice what a wide field it offers to falsehood. This may help us to realize that many more ostensibly religious rites may have been invented in cases where lies about the gods were thought to bring advantage to the citizens.

5. That the gods punished the adultery of Paris is improbable, since they did not punish that crime in the case of Romulus’ mother

Let us leave undecided the question whether Venus could have given birth to Aeneas after a liaison with Anchises, or Mars have become father to Romulus after an amour with Numitor’s daughter. For a somewhat similar question arises from our Scriptures, where the question is whether the delinquent angels actually had intercourse with the daughters of men11 and produced the giants – the men of great stature and strength, who filled the earth at that period. For the present, our discussion must be confined to this dilemma. If the often-read stories about the mother of Aeneas and the father of Romulus are true, how can the gods object to men’s adulteries, which they tolerate among themselves with equanimity? If they are untrue, even then the gods cannot be outraged by human adultery, seeing that they delight in false stories about their own. There is the further point that if the story about Mars is not credited and in consequence the tale about Venus is disbelieved, then the mother of Romulus cannot be defended by the plea that her liaison was with a god. Now Rhea was a priestess of Vesta, and for that reason the gods were more bound to avenge that sacrilegious sin on the Romans than they were to punish the Trojans for the adultery of Paris. For in antiquity when Vestal priestesses were caught in sexual offences the Romans used to bury them alive; as for adulterous women, they did indeed condemn them to some punishment, but they did not put them to death. For their vengeance for the profanation of their supposed divine sanctuaries was so much more severe than that for the pollution of the human marriage-bed.

6. The gods did not avenge the fratricide of Romulus

Yet another point: if those divinities were so indignant at men’s sins, that they abandoned Troy and handed it over to fire and the sword in outrage at the action of Paris, then Romulus’ murder of his brother should have stirred them more against the Romans than the fooling of a husband moved them against the Trojans. Fratricide in a community just coming into being should have troubled them more than adultery in an established kingdom. It is not relevant to our present argument whether the crime was committed at Romulus’ bidding, or by his own hands. The latter possibility many brazenly deny, many honourably doubt, many sorrowfully refuse to admit. We need not waste time in minute examination of the question, carefully weighing the evidence of all the historians. One thing is agreed; the brother of Romulus was murdered, and not by enemies or strangers. Whether Romulus perpetrated or ordered this crime, he was much more the chief man of the Romans than Paris was of the Trojans. Why then did the ravisher of another’s wife call down the wrath of gods upon the Trojans, while the murder of a brother attracted their protection for the Romans?12

On the other hand, if Romulus had no part either in the committing or the ordering of the crime, it certainly should have been avenged, and therefore the whole community was guilty, because the whole community took no heed of it. And that was worse than fratricide; it was patricide. The pair were joint-founders, and the one who was put away by this crime was deprived of his right to be a ruler. There is, in my judgement, no way of showing why Troy deserved so ill that the gods abandoned her to destruction or why Rome deserved so well that the gods dwelt in her to promote her increase – unless perhaps the conquered gods escaped from Troy and took refuge with the Romans, to delude them in the same way? More likely they stayed behind to deceive in their usual manner those who afterwards settled in that country, while in Rome they practised those same techniques of deception on an even larger scale, and thus rejoiced in winning greater honours.

7. The destruction of Troy by Fimbria, general of Marius

However that may be, what crime had poor Ilium committed that, when the civil wars were raging, she should be destroyed by Fimbria,13 the lowest scoundrel of the Marian party, with greater savagery and ruthlessness than she had suffered from the Greeks? For on that earlier occasion many escaped from Troy, and many were taken captive and at least preserved their lives, though in slavery. Whereas Fimbria first issued an edict that no one should be spared, and then set fire to the city and reduced the whole of it to ashes, with all its inhabitants. And Ilium won this treatment not from the Greeks whom she had provoked by her wrong-doing, but from the Romans, whom she had propagated as a result of her first disaster. While the gods whom she shared with Rome gave her no help to repel this calamity – or rather, to tell the truth, had not the power to help. Are we to say that, at this time also,

The shrines and altars were left deserted

By all the gods.14

the gods by whose favour the city had stood when rebuilt after its burning and destruction by the Greeks?

If they had withdrawn, I look into the cause; and the more merit I find in the case for the townspeople, the lower the value I place on the case for the gods. For the townsfolk had shut their gates against Fimbria, so that they might keep the city intact for Sulla. It was Fimbria’s anger at this that made him set fire to the city, or rather to extinguish it utterly. Up to that time Sulla had been the leader of the better of the warring factions, and so far he had been striving to restore the commonwealth by force of arms. Those good beginnings had not yet led to their disastrous consequences. So what better course could the citizens of Troy have taken, what course more honourable, more loyal, more worthy of their Roman parenthood, than to preserve their city for the better of the Roman sides and to shut their gates against the murderer of the Roman commonwealth?

But let the defenders of the gods observe how this action turned into disaster for them. The gods may have deserted the adulterers and abandoned Ilium to the flames of the Greeks, so that a purer Rome might be born from its ashes. Why did they afterwards desert that same city, so closely related to the Romans, which was not in revolt against Rome, her illustrious daughter, but was keeping unswerving and loyal faith with the party which had more justice on its side? Why did the gods abandon that city to destruction, not by Greek heroes but by the most despicable villain in Rome? Or if the gods disapproved of the cause of the party of Sulla (for those unfortunate people closed their gates to preserve the city for that side) why did they promise and foretell such good fortune for that same Sulla? Are they not here revealed as flatterers of the lucky, rather than defenders of the unfortunate?

Not even at this time was it true that Ilium was overthrown because the gods deserted her. The demons, always on the watch for a chance to deceive, did as much as they could. For when all the images were overthrown and burnt, in the destruction of the town itself, only the image of Minerva, writes Livy,15 is said to have still stood unharmed when her temple fell in total ruin. This happened, not so that these lines could be quoted in praise of the gods:

Gods of our fathers, whose divine protection

Shelters great Troy,16

but to prevent the quotation of these words in their defence:

The shrines and altars now were left deserted

By all the gods.17

For what was granted to those gods was not the ability to prove their power, but to give evidence of their presence.

8. Should Rome have been entrusted to the gods of Troy?

Was it really prudent to entrust the defence of Rome to the gods of Ilium, after the lesson provided by the fate of Troy itself? Perhaps I may be told that when Ilium fell to the assault of Fimbria the gods had long been settled as residents of Rome? How is it then that Minerva’s image still stood? Then again, if the gods were at Rome when Fimbria destroyed Ilium, perhaps they were at Ilium when the Gauls took Rome and burned it? But so quick is their hearing and so swift their speed that they returned in a hurry at the goose’s cry, so that at least they could protect the Capitol hill, which remained in Roman hands. But they received the warning to return too late to defend the rest of the city.

9. Is the peace of Numa’s reign to be credited to the gods?

It is believed that the gods assisted Numa Pompilius, who succeeded Romulus, so that he enjoyed peace for the whole of his reign and shut the gates of Janus, which are by custom kept open in time of war. I suppose he earned this good fortune by the institution of many religious rites among the Romans.

It would be right to congratulate this person on that long period of tranquillity if he had been wise enough to employ it in salutary activities and to abandon his mischievous superstition for the quest of the true God in the spirit of true godliness. In reality, it was not those gods who granted him this tranquillity; but they would perhaps have deceived him less if they had found him less at leisure. For the less occupied they found him, the more they occupied his thoughts. Varro reveals the kind of activities he engaged in, and the techniques by which he tried to bring the gods into alliance with himself and with his city. We shall discuss this more fully in another place, if the Lord so wills. Our present topic is simply the benefits conferred by the gods.

Peace is a great benefit, but it is a benefit bestowed by the true God, often, like the sun, the rain, and other supports of life, bestowed upon the ungrateful and the worthless. But if the gods bestowed this great benefit on Rome or on Pompilius, why did they never grant it to the Roman Empire afterwards, even in its praiseworthy periods? Were the sacred rites more valuable when they were being established than when, after their establishment, they were still performed? And yet, in Numa’s time these rites were not in existence. Numa brought them into the Roman religion, and so they began to exist. When they existed they were carefully preserved for the good of the community. How is it then that forty-three years (some authorities say thirty-nine) passed in that long peace of Numa’s reign, while afterwards, when the rites had been established and the gods themselves, whose presence had been solicited by those rites, were now the protectors and guardians of the city, not more than one year18 has been recorded, in all that time from the foundation of the city to the reign of Augustus, in which the Romans were able to close the Gates of War. And that was recorded as a notable miracle!

10. Rome could have been secure and tranquil, pursuing the aims of Numa. Was it desirable that Rome’s dominion should be increased by the mad pursuit of war?

Are our opponents going to reply that the Roman Empire could not have been increased so far and wide, and Roman glory could not have spread, except by continual wars, following one upon another? What a satisfying explanation! Why must an empire be deprived of peace, in order that it may be great? In regard to men’s bodies it is surely better to be of moderate size, and to be healthy, than to reach the immense stature of a giant at the cost of unending disorders – not to rest when that stature is reached, but to be troubled with greater disorders with the increasing size of the limbs. Would any evil have resulted, would not, in fact, the result have been wholly good, if that first era had persisted? Here is Sallust’s brief description of those times:

At the beginning of history the name of kings was given to the first wielders of power. Those kings differed in their inclinations: some exercised their mental powers, others their physical abilities. At that time men’s life was lived without greed, and each man was content with what he had.

Was it necessary that, for the aggrandizement of empire, we should have the process deplored by Virgil, when he says,

By slow degrees, as agesucceeded age

life lost its beauty, and its worth declined,

As war’s fierce madness and the lust for gain

Possessed men’s hearts.19

Now obviously the Romans had a just excuse for undertaking and carrying on those great wars. When they were subjected to unprovoked attacks by their enemies, they were forced to resist not by lust for glory in men’s eyes but by the necessity to defend their life and liberty. We grant that; for, as Sallust says,

As soon as their power advanced, thanks to their laws, their moral standards, and the increase of their territory, and they were observed to be very flourishing and very powerful, then, as generally happens in human history, prosperity gave rise to envy. Neighbouring kings and people therefore made trial of them in war: only a few of their friends came to their help: the rest, paralysed with fear, kept well out of danger. But the Romans, alert both in peace and war, acted with energy, made their preparations, gave mutual encouragement, advanced to meet the enemy, and with their arms defended their liberty, their country, their parents. Then, when they had by their courage dispersed those perils, they brought help to their friends, and won friendship rather by rendering services than by receiving them.

That Rome grew great by such conduct was nothing to be ashamed of. But what was the cause of that long period of peace in Numa’s reign? Was Rome being assailed by hostile attacks from her malignant enemies, when Numa came to the throne? Or was nothing of this kind happening, so that a long continuance of peace was possible? If Rome was at the time being harassed by invasions, and did not rush to oppose them by force of arms, the policy by which her foes were pacified without being defeated in battle or over-awed by any warlike initiative should have been Rome’s perpetual policy; and then she would have reigned in unbroken peace and the gates of Janus would have remained closed.

If that was not possible for her it means that Rome enjoyed peace not for so long as her gods wished, but for so long as the neighbouring peoples wished, who surrounded her on all sides, and granted peace to Rome when they did not provoke her by attacking. Unless, perhaps, such gods will have the effrontery to offer for sale to men something that depends on other men’s choice or refusal! The concern of their natural malignity is indeed to work on the evil dispositions of men, as far as scope is given them, by means of fear or of encouragement. But if they could always achieve their purpose, and were never thwarted by a more secret and superior power working against their designs, then peace and victory in war would always be under their control, though the immediate cause of them almost always rests with the passions of human beings. Yet these things generally happen against the will of the gods, as is witnessed not only by legends (which are full of lies and give scarcely any information or hint of the truth) but by the actual history of Rome.

11. The tears of Apollo’s statue at Cumae, a portent of disaster for the Greeks

This, and nothing else, was the reason why the famous Apollo of Cumae, as was reported, wept for four days on end,20 during the war against the Achaeans and King Aristonicus.21 The soothsayers were terrified by this portent and considered that the statue should be hurled in the sea. But the elders of Cumae intervened and related that a similar portent had been displayed in the samework of art during the wars with Antiochus and Perseus.22 And they asserted that because that war had gone in Rome’s favour a decree of the senate had ordered the dispatch of gifts to that Apollo of theirs. Then reputedly more accomplished soothsayers were summoned, and they gave their opinion that the weeping of Apollo was of good augury for the Romans, because Cumae was a Greek colony and the tears of Apollo signified grief and disaster for the country from which he had been brought, namely Greece itself. Soon afterwards came the news of the defeat and capture of Antiochus, a defeat which Apollo did not want and which caused him grief, as he showed by the tears shed by his image of stone.

The descriptions of the behaviour of the demons given by poets in their verses, though legendary, are not utterly incongruous; they have a semblance of truth. Thus in Virgil, Diana mourns Camilla, and Hercules weeps for Pallas as he goes to his death.23 Hence it may be that when Numa Pompilius was enjoying abundance of peace, without knowing or discovering to whom he owed it, he may have asked himself, in that time of tranquillity, to which gods he should entrust the safety of the Roman realm. The idea that the true, omnipotent and supreme God was concerned for the affairs of earth perhaps never entered his head; and he recalled that the Trojan gods which Aeneas had brought had not been able to preserve for long either the Trojan kingdom, or the kingdom of Lavinium founded by Aeneas himself. So he decided that other gods must be provided, to be attached to the earlier gods, who had passed over to Rome with Romulus or who were going to pass over later, after the fall of Alba, and that they should act as protectors of those refugees, or as assistants to those weaklings.

12. The many gods added to Nutma’s establishment; but to no profit

For all that, Rome disdained to content herself with the many religious institutions established by Pompilius. She had not as yet the chief temple of Jupiter; it was King Tarquin who constructed the Capitol.24 Aesculapius came from Epidaurus25 to solicit custom in Rome, so as to practise his profession there and to enhance his reputation by ranking as the most accomplished physician in the world’s most famous city. The Mother of the Gods came from Pessinus,26 wherever that may be; it was improper that she should be still living in some obscure retreat when her son was already presiding over the Capitoline hill. But then, if she really is the Mother of all the Gods, she not only followed some of her sons to Rome, but preceded others who were to follow her! I am truly astonished that she should have given birth to Cynocephalus, who came from Egypt so long afterwards! Whether she was the mother of the goddess Febris27 I leave to her great-grandson Aesculapius to decide! But, whatever her birth, I do not imagine that those immigrant gods will have the insolence to despise, as low-born, a citizen goddess of Rome! Under the protection of all these gods – an innumerable multitude, indigenous and foreign, celestial and terrestrial, gods of the underworld and gods of the sea, of the springs and of the rivers, gods, according to Varro, ‘certain and uncertain’,28 and, in all classes, gods distinguished, like animals, as male and female – under the protection of all these Rome should not have been troubled and afflicted by all those immense and terrible disasters, of which I shall mention only a few.

Rome had collected for her protection far too many gods, summoning them, as it were, at a given signal by the immense volume of smoke of the sacrifices. By establishing for them a supply of temples, altars, sacrifices and priests she was bound to offend the true supreme God, to whom alone those honours are rightly due. She had greater happiness when she lived with a smaller number. But it seemed that she needed a larger supply when she grew greater, as a larger ship needs a larger crew. I suppose she felt no confidence that those few gods, under whom she had enjoyed a better life (though storing up for herself a worse future), would suffice to support her increasing grandeur.

To begin with, even under the kings, except for the reign of Numa Pompilius, of whom I have already spoken, there was all the misery occasioned by the bitterness of rivalry – the rivalry which caused the murder of the brother of Romulus!

13. How the Romans obtained their first rights of marriages

How was it that neither Juno, who, with her husband Jupiter,

Fostered the Romans, Lords of all the earth,

The people of the toga,29

nor Venus herself was able to help the sons of Aeneas to win for themselves the rights of marriage in descent and proper form? The lack of wives issued in dire calamity. The Romans abducted their brides by means of a ruse, and soon were forced to fight with their fathers-in-law. So the unfortunate women, before they had been reconciled to their husbands after the outrage, received a dowry in their fathers’ blood. True, the Romans were victorious in this encounter with their neighbours. But how much suffering, on both sides, how many deaths of such near relations and neighbours, paid the price of victory! (It was on account of one father-in-law, Caesar, and his one son-in-law, Pompey, that, on the death of Pompey’s wife, Caesar’s daughter,30 Lucan was prompted by deep and justified grief to cry

Civil war, spreading to Emathia’s plains,

And crime which claims the specious name of right,

These form my song.31)

So the Romans were victorious, and with their hands stained with the fathers’ blood they forced their embraces on the luckless daughters. The wives dared not weep for slaughtered fathers, for fear of offending victorious husbands; and while the fight was going on they did not know for whom they should offer their prayers.

It was not Venus, but Bellona, who gave the Romans marriages of this kind. Or it may be that Allecto,32 that fury from hell, was allowed greater scope against them than when she had been aroused against Aeneas at Juno’s entreaty – in spite of the fact that Juno by now was on their side. Andromache was more happy in her captivity than those Roman brides at their wedding. It is true that she suffered the embraces of Pyrrhus as his slave; but Pyrrhus afterwards did not kill any of the Trojans, whereas the Romans killed in battle the fathers of those whom they had embraced in the marriage-chamber. Andromache could only bewail the death of her dear ones; she no longer had to fear it, when she submitted to the conqueror. The Sabine women, linked as they were to the combatants, dreaded their fathers’ death when their husbands left home, and mourned it when they returned, nor could they give free rein either to fear or grief. Either they suffered the torture of loyal grief at the death of their fellow-countrymen, their fathers and brothers, or they brutally rejoiced in the victory of their husbands. Furthermore, in the changes and chances of war some of them lost their husbands to the swords of their parents, some lost parents and husbands to the swords of either side.

It was no ordinary crisis that faced the Romans; they had to endure a siege, and protect themselves by closing the gates of the city. Those gates were opened by a trick: the enemy were admitted within the walls, and a battle of inhuman ferocity was joined in the forum between sons-in-law and fathers-in-law. The ravishers were actually being overcome; many of them fled to their own houses, thus sullying their previous victories, shameful and lamentable though they had been. At this point Romulus, losing all faith in the courage of his followers, called upon Jupiter to arrest the flight; and it was on this occasion that Jupiter was given the title of Stator33 (the ‘Stayer’). There would have been no end to the scene of horror, had not the ravished brides rushed out, tearing their hair, and, throwing themselves at their parents’ feet, assuaged their righteous indignation not by victorious arms but by dutiful supplication. After that, Romulus was constrained to accept Titus Tatius, the Sabine king, as a partner in the Roman kingship, though he had refused to accept his own brother as a colleague. But how could he have put up with him for any length of time, if he could not tolerate his own brother? Hence when Tatius had been killed, Romulus held the kingship alone, so that he might become a greater god.

Strange marriage-rites, strange causes of war, strange conditions of fraternity, of affinity, of alliance, and of divinity! In short, what a strange sort of life in a city under the protection of so many gods! You see how much of importance could be said on this topic, were it not that my attention must now be directed to further questions, and that I hasten to engage in discussion on other subjects.

14. The impiety of the war against Alba; the victory gained by lust for dominion

What happened after Numa, in the succeeding reigns? The Albans were provoked to war, with great disaster to the Romans, as well as to Alba. No doubt they had come to undervalue the long peace of Numa’s reign. There was wholesale massacre of Roman and Alban armies, and a shrinkage of both populations. Alba, the creation of Ascanius, son of Aeneas, more truly Rome’s mother than Troy, was provoked to war by Tullus Hostilius, and in the ensuing conflict she inflicted and suffered heavy blows until most men were weary of a struggle which caused equal loss to both sides. Then they decided to settle the issue of the war by a combat between triplet brothers from either side. From the Roman side the three Horath came out to battle, from the Alban side, the three Curiatii. Two of the Horatii were defeated and slain by the Curiatii, who in their turn were wiped out by the surviving Horatius. So Rome emerged as victor in that final combat – but at such disastrous cost, since only one out of six returned home. And who suffered the loss, who felt the grief, on the two sides? Who but the race of Aeneas, the descendants of Ascanius, the offspring of Venus, the grandsons of Jupiter? For here also was a case of ‘civil’ war spreading to something even worse,34 when a daughter-state fought with her mother.

And there was a fearful horror to crown this battle between triplets. The two peoples had been friendly, seeing that they were both neighbours and relations; thus the sister of the Horath had been betrothed to one of the Curiath. When she noticed that her victorious brother was carrying the spoils taken from her betrothed, she burst into tears; and for that, he killed her. In my view this one woman had more human feeling than the whole population of Rome. She grieved for the man to whom she kept her plighted troth; maybe she also grieved for the brother who had slain the man to whom he had promised his sister. It seems to me that she was not to be blamed for her tears.

In Virgil, the ‘pious Aeneas’ laments over an enemy whom he destroyed by his own hand,35 and he is to be praised for mourning. Did not Marcellus mourn with tears for the city of Syracuse,36 when he recalled that all its pride and glory had recently fallen into sudden ruin at his hands, a thought which led him to contemplate the common condition of humanity? Surely we may demand from human feeling that it should not be thought a crime in a woman if she weeps for a betrothed whom her brother has slain, when men are praised for weeping over enemies whom they themselves have vanquished? Yet at the very time when that woman was weeping for her lover’s death at the hand of her brother, Rome was rejoicing that after fighting against her mother-city with so much slaughter, she had conquered at the price of so much shedding of kindred blood, on each side.

What use is it to give as an excuse the splendid titles of ‘honour’ and ‘victory’? Take away the screens of such senseless notions and let the crimes be seen, weighed, and judged in all their nakedness. Let the case against Alba be put, just as the crime of adultery was alleged against Troy. There is no parallel, no comparison between them. The only purpose of Tullus was

To stir to battle his inactive folk

And armies long with triumph unacquainted.37

So through that misguided design the monstrous crime of a war between allies and within families was perpetrated. Sallust glances in passing at this false step. After his brief and complimentary account of the primitive period when ‘men passed their lives without lust for gain, and everyone was content with what he had’, he goes on to say, ‘But after Cyrus in Asia and in Greece the Spartans and Athenians had begun to subdue cities and nations, to regard the lust for domination as an adequate cause for war, to think that the highest glory lay in the widest empire…’38 and so on, in the same strain; the passage quoted suffices for my purpose. This ‘lust for domination’ brings great evils to vex and exhaust the whole human race. Rome was conquered by this lust when she triumphed over the conquest of Alba, and to the popular acclaim of her crime she gave the name of ‘glory’, since ‘the sinner’, as the Bible says, ‘is praised in the desires of his soul, and the man whose deeds are wicked is congratulated’.39

Let us strip off the deceptive veils, remove the whitewash of illusion and subject the facts to a strict inspection. Let no one tell me, ‘A, or B, is a great man: he fought C, or D, and beat him.’ Gladiators fight and win; and that brutality gets its reward of applause. But to my thinking it would be better to be punished for any kind of cowardice than to gain the glory of that kind of fighting. Yet if two gladiators came out to fight in the arena, and they turned out to be father and son, who could endure such a spectacle? Who would not have the match cancelled? How then could there be any glory in an armed combat between a mother-city and her daughter? Did it make any difference that the contest was not in an arena, but that a wider field of battle was filled with the bothes, not of two gladiators, but of the many slain of two peoples, that the struggle was not ringed by an amphitheatre, but presented as a blasphemous spectacle before the eyes of the whole world, the living and all posterity, as far as the report of these events extends.

However, the gods who are the patrons of the Roman empire and of such contests as these, put up with the violence involved in their chosen amusements, like spectators in the amphitheatre, until the sister of the Horath was slain by her brother’s sword, to make up three on that side to balance the three Curiatii, so that victorious Rome should have as many dead as conquered Alba. Then came the destruction of Alba, as the fruit of victory; Alba, the third place where the Trojan divinities had taken up their abode, after Ilium, destroyed by the Greeks, and Lavinium, where Aeneas had established his realm of foreign refugees. But it may be that, in their usual manner, the gods had already emigrated, and that was why Alba was destroyed? Yes, they had departed, to be sure, and

The shrines and altars now were left deserted

By all the gods through whom this realm once stood.40

No doubt about it, here we have the third departure, so that a fourth city, Rome, might be entrusted to their providential care. They were disgusted with Alba, where Amulius had ascended the throne after expelling his brother; but they approved of Rome, where Romulus had killed his brother to take the kingship. But, it will be said, before the destruction of Alba, the population was transferred to Rome so that the two communities could be fused into one. Very good; let that be granted! It remains true that Alba, the kingdom of Ascanius and the third abode of the Trojan gods, was overthrown by her daughter-city. And the making of one people out of two by the remnants that survived the war was the pitiable coagulation of all the blood which had already been poured out by both sides. There is no need for me to recall in detail the renewal, over and over again, under the other kings, of wars which seemed to have been ended by those victories, wars which, time after time, reached a stop after colossal slaughter, and then, after treaties of peace, started again and again, between fathers-in-law and sons-in-law, their children and their posterity. A striking sign of this disastrous state of things was the fact that none of those kings closed the Gates of War.41 That shows that none of them reigned in peace, though they were under the protection of all those gods.

15. The lives and deaths of the kings of Rome

And speaking of those kings, what kind of ends did they have? Take Romulus. The fulsome legend of his reception into heaven can look after itself! So can the tales of those Roman authors who allege that he was torn to pieces by the senators42 because of his brutality, and that someone by the name of Julius Proculus was suborned to say that Romulus had appeared to him and sent a command by him to the Roman people that he should be worshipped among the divinities; by this means, they say, the people, who had begun to swell in revolt against the senate, were restrained and subdued. There followed an eclipse of the sun, attributed to the merits of Romulus by the ignorant multitude, who did not know that this was the result of the invariable laws of the sun’s course. But surely the inference should have been (assuming this phenomenon to be a mark of the sun’s grief) that Romulus had been murdered, and that the withdrawal of the light of day pointed to that crime: which did in fact happen when the Lord was crucified43 through the impious brutality of the Jews. For this obscuration of the sun did not happen in the regular course of the heavenly bothes; this is shown by the fact that it was the Jewish Passover at the time, since that feast occurs annually at the full moon, while an eclipse only happens when the moon has waned.

Cicero clearly gives us to understand that the reception of Romulus among the gods is a supposition rather than a fact, when in his work On the Commonwealth he puts a eulogy of Romulus into the mouth of Scipio, in the course of which he says,

It was a great achievement of Romulus that when he disappeared suddenly during an eclipse of the sun, it was supposed that he had been given a promotion in the ranks of the gods; and that is a belief which no mortal has ever succeeded in arousing except by an extraordinary reputation for exceptional qualities.44

When he says that Romulus ‘suddenly disappeared’ we are surely meant to understand either ‘through the violence of the storm’, or ‘because he was secretly murdered’, for other writers add a sudden storm to the eclipse of the sun, and that no doubt gave a chance for the crime, if it did not itself carry off Romulus.

In the same work45 Cicero also mentions Tullus Hostilius, the third Roman king, who was himself killed by lightning; he says that in his case this death did not lead to belief in his reception among the gods, and that the reason probably was that what had been proved (or rather, generally accepted) as true of Romulus was something which the Romans did not wish to cheapen by making commonplace, and this would happen if they were ready to attribute it to another person. Cicero makes the same admission quite unmistakably in his invectives against Catiline: ‘Romulus, the founder of this city, we have elevated to the ranks of the immortal gods in our affectionate tribute to his greatness’,46 thereby showing the story not to be true but a tale which was given the widest currency out of the affection inspired by the services rendered by his great qualities. In the dialogue Hortenstus,47 when discoursing on regular eclipses of the sun, Cicero says, ‘… to effect darkness, like that produced at the death of Romulus, which took place during an eclipse’. Here, at least, he was not at all afraid to speak of a human death, since he was engaged in a discussion rather than a eulogy.

The other kings of Rome, apart from Numa Pompilius and Ancus Martius, who died of illness, met frightful ends. Tullus Hostilius, conqueror and destroyer of Alba was, as I said, reduced to ashes by a thunderbolt, with the whole of his house. Tarquinius Priscus was eliminated by the sons of his predecessor. Servius Tullius was foully murdered by his son-in-law Tarquinius Superbus, who succeeded to the throne. Nor did the gods leave ‘all the shrines and altars deserted’48 on the perpetration of this abominable murder of the best of the Roman kings, though they are said to have been so upset by the adultery of Paris that they abandoned Troy, and left it to be sacked and burned to the ground by the Greeks. Far from it! Tarquin killed his father-in-law and then succeeded him. This abominable parricide gained the throne by murdering his father-in-law, and went on to find glory in many wars and victories, and to construct the Capitol out of the spoils. And the gods did not depart. They remained to watch all this in person, and to endure the sight of Jupiter, their king, presiding and reigning over them in that loftiest of the temples, which was the work of the parricide. It was not that he was still guiltless, when he built the Capitol, and was driven from Rome later for his guilty deeds; he came to his reign, during which he built the Capitol, by the perpetration of a crime of singular horror.

The guilt of the rape of Lucretia, for which the Romans deposed him from the kingship and banished him from the walls of the city, was not his, but his son’s, and the crime was committed not only without his knowledge, but in his absence. He was at the time attacking Ardea, engaged in a war on behalf of the Roman people. We do not know what he would have done, if his son’s outrage had been brought to his notice. Yet without waiting to find out for certain what his judgement would be, the Roman people removed him from power, recalled the army, which was ordered to desert him, shut the gates, and refused him entrance on his return. Tarquin had before this provoked the neighbouring countries to major wars which wore down the strength of Rome; now he was deserted by those on whose assistance he relied, and therefore he was not strong enough to regain his throne. And so, it is said, he lived a quiet life as a private citizen for fourteen years, in Tusculum, a town near Rome, and there grew old along with his wife. Thus he died by an end more desirable, we may think, than that of his father-in-law, who as the story goes, was foully murdered, with the full knowledge of his daughter. In spite of all this the Romans gave this Tarquin the title not of ‘Cruel’ or ‘Criminal’ but ‘Proud’ – perhaps because their own kind of pride could not bear his royal displays of disdain. They thought so lightly of his murder of his father-in-law, the best of their kings, that they made him king – and I wonder whether it was not a worse crime in them to give such a reward for such a crime.

Yet the gods had not ‘deserted the shrines and altars’,49 unless someone is going to defend those gods by claiming that they stayed in Rome simply to be able to punish the Romans, rather than to help them with their favours, by seducing them with hollow victories and exhausting them with terrible wars.

Such was the life of the Romans under the kings, in the praiseworthy period of the commonwealth down to the expulsion of the kings, a period of about 243 years. All those victories, won at the price of so much blood and such heavy calamities, had scarcely extended the Roman dominion to twenty miles from the city – an area which would not stand a moment’s comparison with that of any Gaetulian city of the present day!

16. The disasters that marked the beginning of the consulship

Let us next consider the period which, according to Sallust,50 saw the reign of equity and just moderation, which lasted until the threat from Tarquin and the pressure of war with Etruria disappeared. So long as the Etruscans seconded the efforts of Tarquin to return to his kingdom, Rome was shaken by a formidable war. For that reason Sallust maintains that the justice and moderation shown in the government of the commonwealth was due to the pressure of foes and not to the persuasion of justice. And in that all too short period what a year of tragedy that was which saw the expulsion of the royal power and the election of consuls! Indeed, the consuls did not complete their year of office. For Junius Brutus deposed his colleague Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus from office and expelled him from Rome; and soon afterwards Brutus himself fell in battle, after inflicting wound for wound upon his enemy. He had earlier put to death his own sons and his wife’s brothers, because he had discovered their conspiracy to restore Tarquin; an act which Virgil records with praise, though he follows it immediately with a shudder of compassion. He says first,

His sons, conspiring to an armed revolt,

He punished, in fair liberty’s defence.51

But a little later he cries out,

O most unhappy, howsoe’er the future

Speak of his deed!

That is, however much future generations commend and extol the deed, the man who kills his sons is unhappy. And Virgil adds, as some consolation for his unhappiness,

Love of his country, and the boundless passion

For high renown, these swayed his grim resolve.

Now Brutus slew his children; and then he could not survive the exchange of blows with Tarquin’s son, but in fact was survived by Tarquin himself. Thus it seems that in him the innocence of his colleague Collatinus was vindicated. For Collatinus was a worthy citizen, and yet after the expulsion of Tarquin he suffered the same fate as that tyrant. Now it is said that Brutus was related to Tarquin; but Collatinus was ruined by a resemblance in his name – one of his names was Tarquinius. Then he should have been compelled to change his name, not his country; in fact he might simply have dropped the name, and have been known as Lucius Collatinus. The sole effect of his keeping something which he might have discarded without loss, was that one of the first consuls was ordered to be deprived of office, and the community was robbed of a worthy citizen. Is this also a glory for Junius Brutus – this detestable injustice, from which the commonwealth gained no advantage? Was it ‘love of his country, and immense ambition for high renown’ that led him to commit this crime? The fact remains that when Tarquinius the tyrant had been expelled, Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, the husband of Lucretia, was elected consul, with Brutus. How right the people were to take account of a man’s character, not his name! How disloyal Brutus was in this new position of chief responsibility, in depriving his colleague of office and country, when he could have deprived him merely of his name, if that gave offence!

Those wrongs were committed, and those unhappy events took place, during that period of ‘equity and just restraint in the government of the commonwealth’. Besides this, Lucretius, the substitute for Brutus in the consulship, was carried off by illness before the end of the year. And so Publius Valerius, successor to Collatinus, and Marcus Horatius, brought in to fill the place of the departed Lucretius, completed that year of mourning and misery, the year which saw five consuls, and the year when the Roman commonwealth solemnly inaugurated the consulship, the new office of authority.

17. Continued disasters in the early republic. No assistance given by the gods

When the fear was a little abated – not because the fighting had ceased, but because the pressure of war was somewhat diminished – and when that epoch ‘when the commonwealth was governed with equity, justice and moderation’52 came to an end, then followed a period which Sallust thus briefly delineates:

After that, 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 plebsand other rights. The Second Punic War brought an end to the strife and rivalry between the two parties.53

I need not waste my own time, or my reader’s, on this. Sallust has given a brief sketch of the miseries of the republic in that long period, in all the years down to the Second Punic War,54 troubled by incessant wars abroad, and at home by continued civil strife and disharmony. Even Rome’s victories did not bring the substantial joys of happiness, but only the empty consolations of misery, specious allurements to tempt restless spirits to submit to more and more hardships, all of them unproductive.

I hope that no sensible Roman patriots will be incensed at me for speaking like this. And yet I know that this admonitory appeal is needless, since it is quite certain that they should be the last people to be indignant at such a statement. For I am speaking no more harshly or emphatically than Roman authors (though I have not their style – nor their leisure – at my command). And yet these Romans have taken great pains to master the works of those authorities; and they compel their children to take the same pains. I wonder if those who are indignant would have borne with me, if I had repeated the remarks of Sallust? For he says,

A great many disturbances, insurrections and, in the end, civil wars broke out. A small body of powerful men, whose influence had won them a large following, aimed at domination under the honourable name of “champions of the patricians” or “defenders of the plebs”. Men were not entitled good or bad citizens in regard to their services to the commonwealth, in this general corruption; but any man was classed as a good citizen, in proportion as his resources increased his power to hurt, and in so far as he championed the existing state of things.55

Now those historians judged it a part of honourable freedom not to keep silence about the evils of their country, which in many places they have been constrained to praise in terms of the highest eulogy, since they have not another City which is a truer one than theirs, one whose citizens are to be chosen for eternity. What then ought we to do? For since our hope is in God, and is therefore a better hope, and more assured, our liberty of speech should be all the greater, when our opponents hold Christ to blame for these present ills, which may turn the minds of the weaker and more foolish away from that City in which alone there can be a life of eternal happiness. And nothing that we say against their gods is more shocking than the repeated statements of those Roman authors, whom they read and approve. Indeed, we have taken all our material from those authors. We would of ourselves be quite incapable of such an account, or of telling the whole tale.

The Romans thought they ought to worship their gods, to ensure the insignificant and deceptive happiness of this world. But where were the gods when the Romans, whose worship they canvassed with their cunning lies, were vexed by such calamities? Where were they, when the consul Valerius was slain in defending the Capitol, which had been set on fire by exiles and slaves?56 It was easier for him to bring help to Jupiter’s temple, than for that great mob of divinities to come to his aid, with that ‘Most High and Mighty’ king of theirs, whose temple Valerius had saved. Where were they when the city, exhausted by the horrors of incessant civil broils, was awaiting, in a brief interval of tranquillity, the return of envoys sent to Athens to borrow their laws,57 and was then devastated by a severe famine and pestilence? Where were they, again, when the people, in the distress of famine, created a ‘prefect of the corn supply’? Where were they when Spurius Maelius, because he distributed free corn to the hungry people as the famine increased in severity, was accused of aiming at kingship and was slain by Quintus Servilius, master of the horse, at the instance of the said prefect and at the command of the senile dictator Lucius Quintus,58 amid a disturbance in the city of unexampled magnitude and danger? Where were they, when a fearful plague had broken out, and because the gods were of no avail the people, in the extremity of distress, decided to perform the novelty of lectistemia,59 something they had never done before? Couches (lecti) were furnished (sternebantur) in honour of the gods, and hence the sacred – or, rather, sacrilegious – ceremony got its name. Where were they, when the Roman army had for ten years fought without success and without intermission at Veii,60 had suffered a succession of disasters only relieved by the intervention of Furius Camillus – a man later condemned by his ungrateful city? Where were they, when the Gauls captured Rome,61 sacked it, burned it, and filled it with bodies of the slain? Where were they, when the great plague claimed such a host of victims, amongst them that same Furius Camillus,62 who had defended his ungrateful republic against Veii, and later rescued it from the Gauls? This pestilence was the occasion of the introduction of stage-shows,63 another novel infection, attacking not the bodies of the Romans but, far more disastrously, their characters.

Where were they, when another dangerous plague broke out, started, it was believed, by poisons spread by Roman matrons, of whom an incredibly large number were revealed to be in a moral condition more dangerous than any plague?64 Or when both consuls were trapped by the Samnites at the Caudine Forks and compelled to make a deal with the enemy that dealt dishonour, whereby six hundred Roman knights were given as hostages, and the rest of the army laid down their arms, were stripped of armour and clothing, and were sent under the enemies’ yoke, clad only in a single garment?65 Or when many in the army were killed by lightning, at a time when the general population was suffering hardships of another outbreak of pestilence?66 Or when, in yet another intolerable outbreak, Rome was obliged to summon the aid of Aesculapius from Epidaurus,67 as a divine physician, because, one may suppose, Jupiter, king of all the gods, so long established on the Capitol, had not learnt the art of medicine? He had been kept too busy, no doubt, by those amours for which he had abundant leisure in his youth! Or when a league of enemies was formed, of Lucanians, Bruttians, Samnites, Etruscans, Senones, and Gauls, and a massacre of Roman envoys was followed by an overwhelming defeat of the Roman army, with the loss of the praetor, seven tribunes, and thirteen thousand soldiers.68 Or when, after a long period of serious disturbances in the city, the plebs finally withdrew to the Janiculum, in a secession which was in effect an act of war, thus producing a situation so disastrous and menacing that it led to the creation of a dictator, a step only taken in times of extreme peril.69 This dictator, Hortensius, brought the plebeians back; but he died before the end of his term of office, a thing which had never happened to any previous dictator and which was a graver reproach to the gods, since Aesculapius was by now in attendance!

At this period the frequency of widespread wars and the consequent shortage of soldiers led to the enlistment of ‘proletarians’. They had been given that name because, being too poor to bear arms, they had leisure to beget offspring (proles). Pyrrhus, king of Greece, a warrior of immense renown, took the field against Rome, at the invitation of Tarentum; and when he consulted Apollo about the outcome of his enterprise, the god had the wit to give a reply so ambiguous as to ensure his divine reputation in either event. What he said was, ‘I tell you, Pyrrhus, you the Romans can vanquish.’70 And so whether Pyrrhus was beaten by the Romans, or the Romans by Pyrrhus, the prophet could await either event with equanimity! And what fearful disasters befell both armies in that war. Pyrrhus, however, showed his superiority, and would have been able to extol Apollo as a divine soothsayer, from his point of view, had there not been another battle71 shortly afterwards from which the Romans emerged victorious.

In the midst of all the carnage of this fighting, a serious epidemic broke out, affecting women, who died in pregnancy before reaching the full time for childbirth. I conceive that on this occasion Aesculapius excused himself on the ground that he claimed to be a chief physician, not a midwife! The cattle also died from the same disease, so much so that it was thought that the animal species would be wiped out.

Besides all this there was that unforgettable winter of such incredible and monstrous severity that the snow remained piled up in the forum to a terrifying height for fourteen days, and the Tiber was frozen over. If that had happened in modern times what a great deal our opponents would have had to say about it! And think of that Great Plague! Think of how long it raged, and how many victims it claimed! When it went into a second year, with increasing violence, they consulted the Sybilline Books, since Aesculapius’ attendance was of no avail. Now in the case of oracles of that kind, as Cicero remarks in his work On Divination,72 it is to the interpreters that credence is given – and they make doubtful conjectures, according to their ability or inclination. On this occasion it was said that the cause of the epidemic was that a great number of sacred buildings had been seized by private persons, and remained in their possession. And so, for this time, Aesculapius was absolved of the serious accusation of incompetence or laziness. But how was it that those temples had been seized by a number of people, without opposition, unless it was that supplications had been made to that crowd of gods for so long, and all in vain, and that in consequence those places had been abandoned by worshippers, and left unused, so they could be taken over, without giving offence, in order that they might at least serve mundane purposes? At that time they were recovered and refurbished, in the hope of allaying the epidemic. But if they were not later on neglected as before, and once again taken into private possession without its being remarked, then Varro certainly should not be credited with massive erudition, since in treating of ‘Sacred Edifices’73he records that many of them had been forgotten. But at the time, even if the plague was not eradicated, at least a plausible excuse for the gods was provided.

18. The crushing disasters of the Punic Wars; the gods offer no protection

In the course of the Punic Wars, when the victory remained long in doubt and hung in the balance as the two empires clashed, and two powerful peoples were engaged in massive and costly attacks on each other, how many smaller kingdoms were wiped out! How many spacious and famous towns were razed, how many communities suffered disaster or utter ruin! How many wide regions and countries endured widespread devastation! How frequent were the interchanges of defeat and victory! What loss of life occurred among both the combatants and the civil population! What a huge total of ships was lost, either destroyed in sea-battles or sunk by storm or various kinds of bad weather! If I were to attempt to recall and relate those calamities, I should turn into just another chronicler.

It was at this time that Rome, in a panic of terror, had recourse to futile and ridiculous remedies. On the authority of the Sibylline Books the Secular Games were renewed.74 This celebration had been instituted during the preceding century, but had been forgotten and omitted in more fortunate times, so that it had passed out of use. The pontiffs also restored the games consecrated to the infernal deities, which had likewise been abolished during the preceding happier years. No doubt when those games were restored the infernal gods were delighted to join in the celebrations, at a time when they were enriched with such a supply of dying men. For there were certainly splendid games being put on for the demons, and lavish banquets provided for the infernal gods by wretched men in their crazy wars and bloody hatreds, and in the tragic victories on either side. Surely the most heartbreaking episode in the First Punic War was when the Romans were so heavily defeated that Regulus75 himself (whom I have mentioned in my first and second books) was taken prisoner. He was a man of unmistakable greatness, who had conquered and subdued the Carthaginians at an earlier time. And he would have brought this First Punic War to a successful end if he had not, through excessive ambition for praise and glory, sought to impose on the exhausted Carthaginians conditions too harsh for them to endure. If the utterly unexpected capture of this great man, his undeserved servitude, his complete fidelity to his oath and his most cruel death – if all these did not make those gods blush, then it is true that they are made of air, and have no blood in their veins!

Moreover, there was no lack of fearful calamities within the city’s walls, during this same period. Almost all the lower parts of Rome were submerged in an unprecedented flooding of the River Tiber,76 some buildings being knocked down by rushing torrents of water, other collapsing after a long soaking in the stagnant flood. This horror was followed by an even more disastrous fire which swept down on all the lofty buildings round the forum and did not spare the temple of Vesta, with which it had such close connection, for there the Virgins – not so much honoured by the task as condemned to it – had continually bestowed upon fire a kind of eternal life by carefully renewing the wood as it burned away on the hearth. On this occasion the fire was not merely living in their temple; it was raging. Appalled by this flaring up the Virgins could not rescue from the fire that fateful Sacred Symbol.77 which had already brought ruin on three cities78 which had possessed it. And so the pontiff Metellus rushed in, without a thought for his own safety, and snatched it from the flames, being himself half burnt to death in the act.79 The fire did not recognize the sacred object, or rather there was no divine power there; if there had been, it would not have made its escape. Thus a human being could give more effective help to Vesta’s sacred emblems than those holy objects could afford to him. Now, if they could not preserve themselves from the fire, what help could they give against that flood and that conflagration? The event clearly revealed their utter impotence.

We Christians would not bring the same objections against such sacred objects, if it was said that they were appointed not for the preservation of temporal goods but to point to goods that are eternal, and therefore though those physical and visible things are fated to perish, their disappearing entails no impairment of the things which were the purpose of their appointment. They can be replaced, to fulfil the same purpose. But as it is, they think, in their astonishing blindness, that by those perishable sacred objects their earthly life and the temporal felicity of their city can be preserved imperishably. Then, when it is proved that the preservation of those objects has not in fact protected men’s lives from the onset of extinction or of unhappiness, they are ashamed to change a belief which they are unable to defend.

19. The afflictions of the Second Punic War; both sides exhausted

It would take too long to recall the disasters suffered in the Second Punic War by two peoples engaged in battle over such a wide area. Even the historians who set out to sing the praises of the Roman Empire, rather than to recount Rome’s wars, have to admit that the victory resembled a defeat.80Starting from Spain, Hannibal crossed the Pyrenees, dashed across Gaul, and thrust his way through the Alps. In the course of this long circuit he increased his resources by ravaging and subduing all the countryside as he passed, before rushing through the passes of Italy like a mountain torrent. And what bloody battles were waged then! How often the Romans were defeated! How many towns defected to the enemy, how many were captured and sacked! How frightful the battles were; and how often Rome’s disasters enhanced Hannibal’s glory! And what am I to say about the dreadful catastrophe at Cannae, where Hannibal, for all his savagery, was sated by such wholesale slaughter of his bitterest enemies and, it is said, ordered that quarter should be given? From that battle Hannibal sent to Carthage three pecks of gold rings,81 so that the people should realize that so many of the Roman nobility had fallen in that fight that it was easier to estimate the casualties by the peck than to count them. And from this evidence the carnage of the rest of the army – a crowd of slain who lay there without golden rings, more numerous because of lower rank – can be estimated by conjecture, not recorded in statistics. Such a shortage of soldiers followed that Rome gave impunity to convicted criminals and enlisted them, and granted freedom to slaves, and thus got together an army – for one cannot call them reinforcements. But it was no army to be proud of! And then these slaves – no, let us not insult them, those freedmen – who were to fight for the Roman republic, were in need of arms. The temples were ransacked, as if the Romans were saying to their gods, ‘Give up the arms which you have possessed this long time to no purpose. It may be that our slaves may be able to make good use of them, when you divinities of ours have not been able to turn them to account.’ Then there was not enough in the public treasury to pay the army, and private resources were called upon to support public expenses, so much so that individuals offered anything they had, their rings, their lockets,82 the pitiable emblems of rank, and even the senators had no gold left for their own use, still less the members of the other orders, or mere members of the tribes. Who would be able to bear with our opponents, if they were forced into this kind of extremity in these times? As it is, we find them almost insupportable when more money is given to actors in payment for superfluous pleasure than was at that time collected to pay the legions for the defence of the very existence of Rome.

20. The destruction of the Saguntines. They perished because of loyal friendship to Rome: but the Roman gods gave them no help

But in the midst of all the horrors of the Second Punic War nothing was more lamentable, nothing more deserving an outcry of compassion than the destruction of Saguntum.83 This Spanish city, a firm friend of the Roman people, was overthrown for keeping faith with Rome. For when Hannibal broke his treaty with Rome and was seeking occasion to provoke Rome to war, he began by laying fierce siege to Saguntum. When the news reached Rome, envoys were sent to Hannibal to induce him to abandon the siege. When they were scorned, they proceeded to Carthage, lodged a complaint about the breach of treaty, and returned to Rome without achieving the object of their mission. During those delays, that unfortunate city – a flourishing community, a cherished ornament of its country and a cherished ally of Rome – was exterminated by the Carthaginians, in eight or nine months. Even to read of its end fills one with horror, to say nothing of describing it in writing. Nevertheless, I will give a brief account of it, seeing that it is very relevant to my argument. At first the community was wasted by famine, it is even said that many of them ate the dead bodies of their dear ones. Then, when they were completely exhausted, the Saguntines, intending at all costs to avoid falling captive into the hands of Hannibal, erected a huge pyre in a public place, set it on fire and, in mutual slaughter, committed themselves and their fellows to the flames.

They might surely have done something about this, those contemptible gluttons of gods, who lick their lips at the fat of the sacrifices and deceive men by the murk of their lying prophesies. They might have done something to help that city, that firm friend of the Roman people; they might have refused to allow it to perish because it kept faith.

For certainly they presided as mediators when Saguntum was linked with the Roman republic by a treaty of alliance. It was just because that city faithfully kept the compact into which it had entered by a decision taken under the presidency of the gods – a compact to which it had pledged faith and bound itself by oath – that it was besieged, overwhelmed, and annihilated by a conqueror who broke his faith. If it was those gods who later struck terror into Hannibal by storm and lightning, when he was close to the walls of Rome, and drove him far away, they might have done something of the sort on this earlier occasion. I make bold to say, indeed, that it would have been more honourable in them to have raged with their storms on behalf of those friends of theirs who were imperilling themselves rather than breaking faith, and who were then without any assistance, rather than on behalf of the Romans, who were only fighting for themselves, and who had great resources for their conflict with Hannibal.

If the gods had been the defenders of the happiness and glory of Rome they would have shielded Rome from the heavy guilt of the catastrophe that befell Saguntum. As it is, what folly to believe that Rome did not perish beneath a conquering Hannibal because of the protection of gods who had no power to save Saguntum from perishing as a reward for its friendship with Rome! If the people of Saguntum had been Christians, and had suffered any such calamity for the faith of the gospel, it would not have destroyed itself by sword and fire; but it would have suffered destruction for the gospel faith, and it would have suffered in the hope based on its faith in Christ, the hope not of a reward of a brief space of time, but of an endless eternity. We are told that the reason for the worship of those gods, the reason why their worship is demanded, is to safeguard men’s felicity in respect of things perishable and impermanent. What reply will the defenders and excusers of those gods give to us in the case of the annihilation of Saguntum? They can only repeat the reply they gave concerning the destruction of Regulus. There is, to be sure, the difference that he was a single man, while Saguntum was a whole community. Still, in both cases, the cause of extinction was keeping pledged faith. It was because of this that Regulus wished to return to the enemy, and Saguntum refused to cross over to the enemy’s side.

Are we to infer that keeping faith provokes the anger of the gods? Or is it that not only individuals, but entire communities can perish, even when they enjoy the favours of the gods? Let our opponents make their choice! If the gods are enraged by the keeping of faith, let them seek the worship of perjurers. Whereas if men and communities can perish, with frightful suffering, even when the gods favour them, then their worship brings no fruit of temporal happiness. Therefore those who ascribe their misfortunes to the discontinuance of sacrifice must forgo their indignation. For they could have their gods still present with them, they could even have them looking with favour on them; and yet they might not merely have their present sorry plight to grumble at, but might, after indescribable sufferings, suffer the utter destruction which in time past befell Regulus and the people of Saguntum.

21. Rome’s ingratitude to Scipio, its moral standard in its ‘best period’

The period between the Second Punic War and the last (to pass over many details, with a view to keeping within the limits of my projected task) was a time, according to Sallust, of sound morality and of a great measure of concord in Rome.84 But that period of morality and concord witnessed the accusation of the great Scipio. He was the saviour of Rome and Italy, he won the highest renown and admiration for bringing the Second Punic War to a successful end – that war fraught with so much horror, ruin, and peril – and he conquered Hannibal and brought Carthage to its knees. We have accounts of his dedicating his life to the gods in early manhood, and of his upbringing in the temples.85 Yet because of the accusations of his enemies he had to leave Rome, and thus deprived of his country, which he had restored to safety and freedom by his courage, he spent the rest of his life in the town of Linternum, where he ended his days. And after his glorious triumph he felt no homesickness for Rome, in fact it is said that he gave orders that even after his death no funeral service should be held for him in his ungrateful native city.86

Later on, Gnaeus Manlius, the proconsul, celebrated a triumph over the Gallo-Greeks;87 and the result of this victory was the first invasion of Rome by Asiatic luxury, which was more deadly than any human enemy. It was then, we are told, that the first bronze-plated beds and expensive coverlets made their appearance; and female lutanists were introduced into banquets, as were other ingredients of licence and debauchery.

But it is my intention to deal with evils which men endure and revolt against, not with the evils they delight in creating. And so the facts I mention about Scipio, his departure, under pressure from his enemies, and his death, far from the country he had saved – are the facts that are relevant to my argument. My point is that the Roman divinities, when Scipio had defended their temples from Hannibal, did not defend him in return – though the only reason for their worship is to secure that kind of temporal blessing. Since Sallust speaks of that period as a time of high moral standards, I have thought it right to make this point about Asiatic luxury so that Sallust may be understood to have made this judgement only in comparison with other epochs, when morality deteriorated in times of grave disturbances in society. In that very period, between the Second and Third Punic Wars, the law called the Lex Voconia88 was passed, forbidding the appointment of a woman, even an only daughter, as heir. I cannot quote, or even imagine, a more inequitable law. All the same, this whole inter-war period was a time of less intolerable misfortune. The army suffered only the exhaustion of foreign wars, and it had the consolations of victory; while at home there were none of the savage disturbances which marked other periods. But in the last Punic War Rome’s imperial rival was completely eliminated by a single sweep made by the second Scipio,89 who won the surname Africanus by this achievement; and after that the Roman commonwealth sank under a load of accumulated disasters. Those calamities mounted in consequence of the moral corruption brought on by a state of prosperity and security, and it can be shown that the swift overthrow of Carthage, which led to this state of affairs, did more harm than her long hostility.

The next period of Roman history takes us down to Caesar Augustus. It is clear that Augustus wrested from the Romans a liberty which was no longer glorious, even in their own estimation, but productive of strife and tragedy, and by now unmistakably listless and enfeebled; he brought everything under the arbitrary rule of a monarch, and by so doing he is regarded as having restored to health and strength a commonwealth prostrated by a kind of chronic sickness. I pass over the repeated military disasters of the whole of this period, which were due to a variety of causes. I will not dwell on the treaty with Numantia, an agreement blotted with the marks of Rome’s terrible humiliation.90 The Romans ascribe this ignominy to the fact that the sacred chickens had flown out of their cage, a sinister augury for the consul Mancinus! During all those years, in which that tiny community had inflicted heavy losses on the besieging Roman army and had even begun to strike terror into the Roman republic itself, we are doubtless to suppose that other generals had taken over command of the attack with different auspices!

22. Mithtridates’ massacre of Romans in Asia

As I said, I will not dwell on this. But I could not possibly keep silence about the massacre carried out in one day on the orders of Mithridates, king of Asia – the killing of all the Romans in that country.91 There were an immense number of Romans engaged on business in Asia. What a pitiable sight was presented! Wherever any Roman was found, in the country, on the road, in the town, in his house, in the street, in the forum, in the temple, in bed, or at a dinner-party, he was killed without warning and without pity. The dying groaned; the spectators wept, and so perhaps did the butchers. It was a cruel compulsion, that hosts should be forced not only to behold, but even to perpetrate, such unspeakable murders in their own houses, and to remove from their faces the expressions of courteous and kind civility and pass to the achievement, in time of peace, of the purpose of an enemy; when there was an exchange of deadly blows, the assailant being smitten in his soul, as his victim was smitten in his body!

Had all those victims failed to heed the auguries? Had they no domestic or public gods worth consulting, before they set out from their homes on that journey from which there was to be no return? If so, then our opponents have no call to complain of these present times in this regard; the Romans have long despised such nonsense. While if they did consult them, then let them tell me what help they were, at a time when no laws, or at least no human laws, restricted their activities, and no one was concerned to stop them.

23. The period of internal disasters, proceeded by the prodigy of madness in domestic animals

Let me now recall, in the briefest compass possible, the misfortunes which were the more grievous because they brought misery inside the commonwealth; civil (or rather uncivil) discords, were no longer mere disturbances but actual wars within cities, in which so much blood was shed, in which the passions of the factions did not confine their rage to disputes in the assemblies, or to the shouting of insulting slogans, but burst into armed conflict. The Social Wars, the Servile Wars, the Civil Wars – how much Roman blood they shed, what wide devastation and depopulation they caused in Italy! For before the allies of Latium rose against Rome92 all the animals which had been tamed to serve men’s needs – dogs, horses, asses, oxen and all the other cattle which were under men’s domination – suddenly turned wild, forgot the gentleness of domesticity, left their quarters and roamed at large, shunning the approach not only of strangers, but even of their owners; they threatened danger, and even death, to any who risked closing in on them to round them up.93 If this was a portent, it was a portent of terrible calamity; if not, it was itself calamity enough! If this had happened in our times we should have had to endure from our adversaries a rage more savage than the fury of those animals.

24. Civil disorders, aroused by the Gracchan disturbances

The Civil Wars were ushered in by the disturbances of the Gracchi, aroused by the agrarian laws. The Gracchi wished to distribute to the people the lands which the nobles wrongly possessed. But the eradication of a long-standing injustice was a hazard of the greatest peril; in fact, as it turned out, it was fraught with utter ruin. Think of all the deaths which followed the murder of the elder Gracchus and those which attended the assassination of his brother, not long afterwards! For men, high-born and lowly alike, were put to death not by legal action, not by the due exercise of authority, but in the fighting of armed mobs. After the killing of the younger Gracchus we are told that three thousand men were put to death by Lucius Opimius, the consul, who held an inquiry to deal with the remaining supporters of the Gracchi. He had previously raised armed forces against Gracchus inside the city and overwhelmed him and his supporters. Gracchus was killed, and the consul achieved an immense slaughter of Roman citizens. We can infer what colossal casualties may have been caused by the conflict of those armed mobs, when so many deaths resulted from the ostensibly regular processes of a judicial inquiry. The assassin of Gracchus himself sold the victim’s head to the consul for its weight in gold, in accordance with an agreed offer made before the massacre – a massacre in which the ex-consul Marcus Pulvius was also murdered with his children.94

25. The temple of Concord, on the site of riot and massacre

There was, to be sure, a neat idea behind the senate’s decree which ordered the erection of a temple of Concord95 on the very spot where this tragic uprising happened. This ensured that the evidence of the Gracchan battle should strike the eyes and jog the memories of orators as they addressed the people. Yet it was surely nothing but a mockery of the gods, to build a temple to a goddess whose presence in the city should have prevented the community from falling into ruin, torn to pieces by internal strife. But perhaps Concord deserved to be shut up in that temple, as if in a prison, for the crime of having deserted the hearts of the citizens?

If the Romans wished for something appropriate to the events, why did they not rather construct a temple of Discord? Is there any reason why Discord should not be a goddess, as well as Concord? Then we should have a goddess of evil, and a goddess of good, according to Labeo’s distinction,96 which seems to have been suggested to him just by noticing that there was a temple set up at Rome to Febris (Fever),97 as well as to Salus (Health). On that principle there should be a temple of Discord, as well as of Concord. It was hazardous for the Romans to decide to live under the wrath of a goddess of evil and not to recall that the fall of Troy had, as its first cause, the resentment of that goddess. She had not been invited with the other goddesses, and therefore devised the contention between the three goddesses by introducing the golden apple. Hence arose the quarrel of the divinities, the victory of Venus, the rape of Helen, and the annihilation of Troy. Therefore, if it be true that she set the city in turmoil with those great uprisings, in resentment at not being thought worthy of a temple among the gods in Rome, how much more violent may have been her wrath at seeing a shrine set up for her opponent on the very site of the slaughter – the site, that is, of her own achievement.

When we ridicule these absurdities, those learned philosophers are choked with rage. And yet the worshippers of gods of good and gods of evil cannot extricate themselves from this problem about Concord and Discord. Did they neglect the worship of those goddesses, and prefer to worship Febris and Bellona, for whom they built shrines in antiquity? Or is it that they did worship them also, but Concord abandoned them, and so Discord in her savagery led them on to the Civil Wars?

26. The various wars that followed the erection of the temple of Concord

However that may be, the Romans decided that the temple of Concord, that powerful obstacle to civil tumult, that witness to the massacre and the punishment of the Gracchi, should be set up to meet the eyes of orators as they addressed the people. The advantages that ensued are indicated by the even unhappier events that followed. From that time onwards the popular speakers used every effort, not to avoid following the example of the Gracchi, but to exceed their designs. The tribune of the plebs, Lucius Saturninus, the praetor, Gains Servilius,98 and, long afterwards,99 Marcus Drusus,100 all three of these by their revolutionary activities brought on frightful massacres to begin with, and eventually caused the conflagration of the Social Wars, which brought terrible distress to Italy and reduced her to an astonishing condition of devastation and depopulation. There followed the Servile War and the Civil Wars.101

Think of all the battles fought, all the blood poured out, so that almost all the nations of Italy, by whose help the Roman Empire wielded that overwhelming power, should be subjugated as if they were barbarous savages. The Servile War was started by a mere handful of gladiators, less than seventy, in fact, and think of the huge number finally involved, and the bitterness and ferocity of their struggle; remember the Roman generals defeated by that multitude, the cities and districts devastated – and the manner of the devastation. The adequate description of it has baffled the powers of the historians. And this was not the only Servile War. Before this the bands of slaves had depopulated the province of Macedonia; later they devastated Sicily and the maritime coast. Who could find words to match the gravity of the events – words adequate to express the horrors of their acts of brigandage at the beginning, and their wars of piracy later?102

27. The civil war of Marius and Sulla

Marius had his hands already stained with the blood of his countrymen when, after the massacre of many of the opposing factions, he was conquered and left the city in flight. The city had but the smallest breathing-space. Then (to use Cicero’s words)

Cinna, with Marius, later got the upper hand: and then with the assassination of the most eminent citizens the lamps of the city were put out. After that, Sulla took vengeance for this ruthless victory, and I need not even mention the cost of this vengeance: the grievous determination of the citizen-body, the fearful disaster to the commonwealth.103

Lucan also speaks of this revenge of Sulla, a greater calamity than if the crimes it punished had been left unpunished. He says:

                       The remedy

Surpassed all bounds, and followed on too far

In chase of the disease. The guilty perished.

Ah, yes – but only guilty men survived.104

In the war of Marius and Sulla, quite apart from those who fell outside the city on the battlefield, the streets, the squares, forums, theatres, and temples in Rome itself were packed with corpses. It was, in fact, difficult to decide whether the victors inflicted more deaths before victory, to ensure it, or after victory, as a result of it. After the victory of Marius, when he returned from exile (to pass over the general massacre) the head of the consul Octavius was exposed on the rostrum; the Caesars were butchered by Fimbria in their homes; the two Crassi, father and son, were slaughtered before each other’s eyes; Baebius and Numitorius were dragged by a hook and disembowelled, Catulus escaped his enemies’ clutches by drinking poison: Merula, the flamen of Jupiter, cut his veins and offered to Jupiter a libation of his own blood. And those whose salutation Marius refused to acknowledge by offering his right hand were immediately struck down before the conquerer’s eyes.105

28. The nature of Sulla’s victory, which avenged the savagery of Marius

The subsequent victory of Sulla106 no doubt avenged this cruelty; but after terrible bloodshed, which was the price of victory. The war was ended, but its hatreds were still very much alive; and the victory issued in a more ruthless peace. The original massacre and the later carnage of the elder Marius were followed by the even heavier slaughter carried out by his son and by Carbo,107 who belonged to the same faction. The imminent approach of Sulla had made them despair not only of victory but of their mere survival and they had indulged in unrestricted massacres of their own. Besides the widespread general bloodshed, the senate was besieged, and the senators were brought from their senate house, like criminals from prison, to be executed by the sword. The pontifex, Mucius Scaevola,108 threw his arms round the altar of Vesta, whose temple was regarded by the Romans as the most sacred sanctuary; but he was murdered there, and his blood all but extinguished that sacred flame which was kept alight by the ceaseless tendance of the Vestal Virgins. Then Sulla entered Rome as victor. In a villa belonging to the state he had slaughtered seven thousand men (it was peace, not war, that was raging then); the men had surrendered, and were of course unarmed, which saved the trouble of fighting – a mere command did the business. In the city any Sullan supporter struck down anyone as he pleased and the consequent murders were beyond all calculation, until it was suggested to Sulla that some people should be allowed to live so that the conquerors should have subjects to command.

As soon as a check was imposed on this general licence of assassination, which was spreading its fury on all sides, that notorious register of two thousand names of men from the two honourable orders of the knights and the senators, who were consigned to death and proscription, was published amid great applause. There was general grief at the number of the victims; it was some consolation that the number was not infinite. The sorrow at the multitude of the condemned was counterbalanced by the joyful feeling that the rest had nothing to fear. And yet in the case of some of those who were condemned to the die exquisite torture of their deaths won a sigh of pity even from hearts in which security had stifled all compassion. One man was torn to pieces, not with a weapon, but by the bare hands of his murderers; men treated a living human being with less humanity than animals use in dismembering a dead thing thrown to them. Another had his eyes gouged out, and his limbs cut off one by one, and was condemned to a lingering life, or rather to a lingering death, in this hideous torment. Famous cities were put up to auction as if they were country houses; one whole community was butchered by order, just as a single criminal might be brought out for execution. And all this took place in the peace which followed the war; it was not done to hasten the achievement of victory, but to ensure that the achievement should not be underrated. Peace and War had a competition in cruelty; and Peace won the prize. For the men whom War cut down were bearing arms; Peace slaughtered the defenceless. The law of War was that the smitten should have the chance of smiting in return; the aim of Peace was to make sure not that the survivor should live, but that he should be killed without the chance of offering resistance.

29. A comparison between the Gothic invasion, and the disasters of the Gallic invasion and of the Civil Wars

Have foreign nations ever displayed a fury, or barbarians shown a savagery, to match the cruelty of this victory over fellow-countrymen? What was the foulest and most horrible spectacle ever seen in Rome? The invasion of the Gauls,109 long ago? The recent invasion of the Goths?110 Or the ferocity vented on those who were parts of their own body, by Marius, by Sulla and by other men of renown, the leading lights of their factions? The Gauls butchered the senators or as many of them as they could find in all the rest of the city, apart from the Capitol – the citadel which alone was defended by some means or other. But they did allow those who had taken refuge on that hill to buy their lives for gold – lives which they could have taken by the slow process of a siege, even though they were not able to do so by the swift stroke of the sword. The Goths, on the other hand, spared so many of the senators that the real surprise is that they wiped out any of them.

Sulla provides a contrast to these. While Marius was still alive Sulla took up his position as conqueror on that same Capitol which had been preserved from the Gauls, to issue decrees for massacre: and when Marius had slipped away in flight – to return with greater savagery, and a fiercer lust for blood – Sulla, in the Capitol, and by a resolution of the senate, deprived a large number of Romans of their lives and properties. Then, after Sulla’s departure, there was nothing sacred, nothing that should be spared, in the judgement of the Marian faction; for when Mucius – a citizen, a senator and a pontiff – clung in his miserable plight to the altar on which, it was averred, the destiny of Rome rested, they did not spare him. Finally (to pass over countless other deaths) the last of Sulla’s proscription lists contrived the slaughter of more senators than the Gauls had been able to despoil.

30. The sequence of disastrous wars preceding the coming of Christ

How can our opponents have the effrontery, the audacity, the impudence, the imbecility (or rather the insanity) to refuse to blame their gods for those catastrophes, while they hold Christ responsible for the disasters of modern times? The brutal Civil Wars, more bitter, on the admission of their own authors, than any wars against foreign enemies – those Civil Wars which, in the general judgement, brought on the republic not merely calamity but utter destruction – broke out long before the coming of Christ. A causal chain of criminal enormities carried the process on from the Marian and Sullan wars to the wars of Sertorius111 and Catiline112 (the former was one of Sulla’s proscribed, the latter, one of his protégés), on to the war of Lepidus and Catulus113 (one of whom wished to annul the acts of Sulla, the other to preserve them), on to the wars of Pompey and Caesar (Pompey had been a partisan of Sulla, whose power he equalled, and even surpassed; Caesar found Pompey’s power insufferable – because he himself did not wield it – but after the defeat and death of Pompey he transcended it); and then we come to another Caesar, afterwards called Augustus. And it was in the reign of Augustus that Christ was born.

Augustus himself carried on many wars, against many enemies, during which many eminent men perished – among them Cicero, the eloquent expert on the art of government. It is true that Pompey’s conqueror, Gaius Caesar, showed clemency in the exercise of power after his victory in civil war; granting his opponents their lives and allowing them to retain their rank and dignity. But certain high-born senators conspired against him on the grounds that he was ambitious for royal power, and, posing as defenders of republican liberty, they assassinated him in the actual senate-house. After this a man of very different moral character, soiled and corrupted by all kinds of vices, seemed to be aspiring to Caesar’s power. This was Antony, and Cicero vigorously opposed his efforts, again in defence of the so-called ‘liberty’ of the country. Then appeared on the scene another Caesar, a young man of exceptional gifts, the adopted son of Gaius Caesar. He, as I have said, was afterwards called Augustus. This young Caesar received the support of Cicero, who wanted to foster his power in opposition to Antony, hoping that, when Antony’s domination had been broken down and overthrown, his hero would restore the ‘liberty of the republic’. In this he showed himself quite blind and unforeseeing; for that same young man, whose position and power Cicero supported, handed over his supporter to Antony’s murdering hands as a kind of condition for a pact of reconciliation and brought beneath his own sway that ‘liberty of the republic’ for which Cicero had been shouting so loudly.

31. These disasters occurred when the pagan gods were still worshipped. It is sheer effrontery to ascribe the present troubles to Christ, because of the prohibition of pagan cults

Our opponents should accuse their gods of causing all those evils, instead of being so ungrateful to our Lord Christ for all his benefits. It is certain that when those disasters were happening, ‘the altars’ of the divine powers ‘were glowing with Arabian incense, and fragrant with fresh garlands’,114the priesthoods were in high esteem, the shrines resplendent; sacrifices and games were going on, and prophetic frenzies in the temples, at a time when so much citizen blood was being shed on all sides, even among the very altars of the gods. Cicero did not choose a temple as his refuge; Mucius115had done that – to no purpose. But the Romans in modern times have taken refuge in places most particularly dedicated to Christ, or else the barbarians themselves have taken them there to preserve their lives.116 All the less reason for their slanders against this Christian era.

One thing I am sure of, and anyone whose judgement is not warped by partisan prejudice will have no difficulty in recognizing the same fact. And the fact is this: to omit the many points I have already made, and the many instances which, I have decided, would take too long to relate, if the human race had received the Christian teaching before the Punic Wars, and then all that devastation, which exhausted Europe and Africa, had followed, none of those whose insults we now have to endure would have failed to attribute those calamities to the Christian religion. Their outcries would have been much more insupportable if (to speak of matters affecting the Romans especially) the reception and propagation of the Christian religion had preceded the invasion of the Gauls, the Tiber floods, the devastation of the fires, or the Civil Wars, the worst catastrophe of all. If the other calamities – calamities so incredible as to be classed as prodigies – had happened in the Christian era, our opponents would certainly charge the Christians with the sole responsibility. I say nothing of manifestations which were more remarkable than harmful; talking oxen, unborn infants shouting words while still in the womb, flying serpents, women turning into men, hens into cocks and so on, which are recounted not in books of fables but in historical works, and which, whether true or false, produce astonishment rather than ruin among mankind.

But when it rains earth, or chalk, or stones (and I mean real stones, not hailstones), then certainly there is a possibility of serious damage. We read in the historians that the fires of Etna ran down from the top of the mountain to the nearest shore and the sea reached such a boiling heat that the rocks were burnt and the pitch was melted in the ships. An astonishing, an incredible phenomenon, but certainly capable of causing no slight damage – if it happened. It is recorded that on another occasion a volcanic eruption of the same kind enveloped Sicily in such an enormous quantity of ash that the buildings of the city of Catana were crushed in ruins beneath the weight. And the Romans, moved by this disaster, remitted Catana’s tribute for that year117 as an expression of sympathy. There is a written account of a portentous swarm of locusts in Africa,118 after it had become a Roman province. It is said that after devouring all the crops and the leaves of the trees they plunged into the sea in a cloud of incalculable immensity; this host of dead insects was cast up on the sea-shores and so polluted the air that a plague of great violence broke out, which caused the death, it is said, of eighty thousand men in the kingdom of Masinissa119 alone, and many more than that in the districts nearest to the sea. At Utica at that time, we are assured, only ten thousand of the thirty thousands inhabitants survived.

The kind of folly which we have to suffer, and to which we are forced to reply, would certainly blame each and all of those calamities on the Christian religion, if they had witnessed them in the Christian era. And yet, as it is, they do not attribute the blame to their gods; in fact they demand the restoration of the worship of those gods, to escape the lighter afflictions of these days, although the worshippers in days of old were not spared those heavier catastrophes.

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