The sack of Rome prompted pagan critics of Christianity to charge that it was the adoption of Christianity which led to Rome’s upheaval and tragic sacking at the hands of Alaric. These critics charged that if Rome had stayed true to their old gods then those gods would have looked over Rome and sparred her from the misery and suffering that befell it at the hands of Alaric and the Visigoths. (It is important to remember that even though the Roman Empire officially declared Nicaean Christianity its State Religion under Emperor Theodosius I during the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 A.D., “paganism” was still the majority “religion” of the Roman Empire during Augustine’s time.)
Augustine, the scholar, historian, and literary critic, takes up this challenge straightforwardly by reminding pagan critics that Rome had fallen under tragedy many times before the adoption of Christianity. Rome was sacked by the Gauls in 390 B.C. as Augustine reminded his critics.[i] The Roman military suffered setbacks against its enemies with no help or vengeance from the Roman gods. Moreover, the Roman pantheon was the old Trojan pantheon of gods. And did the household gods of Troy save Troy or prevent its destruction from the hands of the Greeks? Augustine harshly reminds the pagan romantics that their gods were the defeated gods of Troy, the gods that failed to prevent the Gauls from sacking Rome in the fourth century B.C., and that their gods allowed the Roman Republic to fall into civil war and widespread bloodshed on a repeated basis.[ii]
Intertwined into Augustine’s response to Christianity’s pagan critics was the question of what was the cause of Rome’s greatness? The pagan critics charged that it was the Roman gods who were responsible for Rome’s greatness. Augustine examines this argument and thoroughly demolishes it. He shows, painstakingly so, that the Roman gods were hardly moral. While the pagan critics believed the gods were the cause of Rome’s greatness, Augustine’s beloved Roman philosophers—like Cicero—argued that it was the moral virtue of the Romans which was the cause of Rome’s greatness. Augustine wants to believe this but concludes that Rome was not moral and its most moral exemplars, like Scipio, were treated rather harshly precisely because of their moral virtue. In the end Augustine concluded that it was the lust for domination that provided Rome’s greatness. We shall now examine each of the three positions from Augustine’s point of view in more detail.
Were the Gods the Cause of Rome’s Greatness?
The early books of Augustine’s City of God goes into excruciating detail why the gods were not the cause of Rome’s greatness and why the pagans were foolish in thinking the gods would protect them. Augustine begins by recounting the founding of Rome (as told by Virgil) where the Trojan refugees were the founders of Rome. In their journey across the Mediterranean they brought with them the household gods of Troy. In Confessions, Augustine also recounts the numerous inconsistencies of the stories of the Roman gods. In particular, he singles out Jupiter for condemning immorality, yet he indulged in immorality on his own.[iii] So Augustine continues, in the City of God, his criticism of the pagan gods for their immorality and lack of moral virtue as being good models for humans to emulate or imitate.
Virgil and Cicero, two of Augustine’s foremost Roman influences and interlocutors (of sorts) praised Aeneas for his piety. “Pious” Aeneas, in his filial piety, brought with his father and people their household gods. To the Romans this was a major deal because, as Fustel de Coulanges highlighted magnificently in his magnum opus The Ancient City, religion was the founding organizational principle of ancient Athens and Rome. However, the argument of the pagan critics that the old gods would have protected Rome and were the cause of Rome’s greatness is the target of Augustine’s critique—not filial piety (something Catholicism strongly endorses as a fundamental necessity of life and society). There was no “secular” Rome as fantastically imagined by the likes of Edward Gibbon and his modern heirs like Catherine Nixey.
Augustine begins with the obvious. The gods of Troy whom are the gods of Rome did not protect Troy and allowed Troy to be burned to the ground. Should the Romans have haphazardly retained the worship of the gods who abandoned their forefathers in its most desperate hour? The old gods didn’t protect Troy so why would they protect Rome?
More to the point, Augustine then begins with a history lesson for the pagan Romans who have seemingly forgotten their own history in their rush to criticize Christianity. (Orosius, a student of Augustine’s, wrote the highly influential Historiae adversus paganos—History Against the Pagans—detailing the real history of Antiquity which the pagans had become ignorant of and reinforced the notion of Augustinian patriotism premised on love of homeland, moral virtue, and religion.) During Rome’s rise to power the Roman gods did nothing to prevent tragedy, war, exhaustion, famine, civil war, fratricide, and so on. The gods also allowed Rome to be sacked by the Gauls in 390 B.C. long before Christianity was ever practiced, and the old gods remained enthroned in the Roman pantheon with many more followers then than in Augustine’s time. Far from protecting Rome and Roman devotees, the Roman gods seemed to allow their devotees to be expendable casualties in countless wars against the Carthaginians (as Augustine recounts the numerous tragedies of the Punic Wars). Moreover, the pluralist that Augustine was laments on all the smaller kingdoms and historic towns and villages and their treasures were lost forever because of the war.[iv]
Did the Roman gods protect Marcus Regulus (the Roman general and consul who won a great victory over Carthage at the Battle of Cape Ecnomus) from capture and humiliation at the hands of his enemies? Did the Roman gods protect the many Roman towns and villages sacked and burned to the ground by Hannibal during his invasion of Italy? And how did the Romans react during this time of crisis? They conscripted an army of criminals and slaves to save themselves but short of arms the Romans committed sacrilege in ransacking their own temples for weapons and money to support the new army needed for its survival. In times of crisis the Roman gods never protected Rome and the Roman people never leaned on the gods for its survival. The Romans turned to themselves and their tenacity for their survival (and ultimately their greatness).
Beyond the tragedies of war with Carthage and Parthia, the Roman gods did nothing to prevent internal dissent, civil war, famine, and desolation from within. Consulship after consulship was marred by corruption, tyranny, and tragedy. Far from some “glory day” of the past, the past was quite dark, tyrannical, and bloody. Only those who have alienated minds and know little of history glorify a dark and bloody past as if nothing bad ever happened.
What happened to Rome after its glorious founding? It fell into tyranny under Tarquin and his sons. Filicide became a common occurrence in the early days of Rome when the Roman gods were worshipped and numerous games dedicated to them. Tyranny and bloodshed reigned everywhere.
Augustine makes a half-hearted appeal that Roman patriots would not be incensed at his writings.[v] For, as Augustine says, he is writing in the same manner as many of Rome’s own cherished historians and writers did. From Sallust, Livy, and Virgil, to Cicero and Lucan, a litany of Roman authors already reflected on the many tragedies and shortcomings of the Roman Republic, early empire, and the shallow “victories” that were very much like defeats considering the bloodshed and carnage unleashed in “victorious wars.”
As Augustine ends the third book, he remarks that it is the most ignorant of arguments to suggest that Rome’s greatness is attributable to the Roman gods. The Roman gods did nothing to stop the destruction of Troy when they were the patron gods worshipped by the Trojan ancestors of Rome. Moreover, once settled in Rome, these gods did nothing to prevent a myriad of disasters that befell Rome when they were enthroned in the pantheon and worshipped. For Augustine, the pagan critics of Christianity all share something in common: Not only are they ignorant of Christianity, they are ignorant of their own history!
While Augustine’s critique of the immorality of the gods came out most clearly in the third book, his criticism doesn’t end there. He continues, when it is relevant and suits him, to continue his critique of how anyone could have attained virtue by imitating the wicked gods of the pagan pantheon. “But whoever have pretended as to Jupiter’s rape of Ganymede, a very beautiful boy, that king Tantalus committed the crime, and the fable ascribed to Jupiter; or as to his impregnating Danae as a golden shower, that it means that the women’s virtue was corrupted by gold: whether these things were really done or only fabled in those days, or were really done by others and falsely ascribed to Jupiter, it is impossible to tell how much wickedness must have been taken for granted in men’s hearts that they should be thought able to listen to such lies with patience.”[vi]
There is also an overture in irony in Augustine’s criticism of the old gods of Rome. In discussing Cato, Cicero, and Scipio in the first half of book II, Augustine sees as the old guard of Roman statesmen and philosophers, in their struggle to prevent degeneracy through full worship of the gods and embrace of the degeneracy of the comics and other playwrights, this is when Rome was most virtuous (though lacking still in virtue as all fallen polities are). “This is the true Roman spirit, this is worthy of a state jealous of its reputation,” Augustine remarks[vii] Men like Cato the Elder, the Younger, Scipio, and Cicero were true Romans, Rome’s old virtue—to the extent that it had any—was not in being handed over to the gods but in being prevented by the nomos of earthly fortitude and the frail cardinal virtues, buttressing against the fall into the degeneracy which came in being handed over to the immoral gods. When that line of men died out, and Rome was completely handed over to their immoral gods, there was nothing left to stop the fall into total degeneracy. Thus, Augustine concludes, from the very rites, rituals, and mythopoetic theologies of Rome, the Roman gods were not the cause of greatness. Only the most shallow and ignorant of persons could believe, let alone assert, that.
[i] See City of God, 3.29
[ii] Book 3 details Augustine’s rebuttal to the “Roman gods” protected Rome and led to her greatness argument.
[iii] See Confessions, 1.16.
[iv] See City of God, 3.18.
[v] Ibid., 3.17.
[vi] Ibid., 18.13.
[vii] Ibid., 2.13.