The Roman philosopher Cicero was the Plato and Aristotle of Rome. He was the foremost orator of his day and an important political philosopher who was cherished among Christians (and Augustine). Augustine even credits the writings of Cicero to helping him believe in God in Confessions. However, the warm remarks he gives to Cicero in Confessions and in his other writings are not contained in City of God. Rather, Augustine takes up the challenge to criticize his Roman mentor and colleague whom he had a life-long relationship with.
Was Rome’s Greatness Because of Moral Virtue?
To start, it is important to know that Augustine is not criticizing Cicero’s philosophical disposition and his beliefs in the abstract sense. Augustine strongly concurs with Cicero that individual virtue, justice, and traditional morality are integral to the health of any society. Rather, he criticizes Cicero’s substance and especially Cicero’s inability to realize that the lofty substances he proclaimed never existed. Furthermore, in a fitting display of irony, Augustine also leans heavily on Cicero not to reject Cicero, but to utilize Cicero as his voice against Christianity’s critics—believing that an esteemed and venerated Roman author like Cicero who condemned the licentious immorality of the Romans would be heard more openly to non-Christian Romans than Augustine would be on account of his professed Christianity.
Therefore, Augustine’s criticism of Cicero and other Roman philosophers was because Augustine found them contradicting themselves and to show the callous and hollow Roman critics that their most esteemed writers and thinkers can be used against them. For example, Cicero believed the Roman Republic to be just, virtuous, and united in a sense of right and right. Yet, in his same writings, he laments the immorality, lack of virtue, and deprivation of justice in Rome as the cause for its instability and coming collapse in civil war. What gives? Augustine believes that the Roman philosophers, as lofty and ideal they were (and right in their ideals), they deceived themselves in believing in an imaginary Rome that never really existed. As such, Augustine’s criticism of Cicero (in particular) is addressing Cicero’s claim that morality and virtue is what made Rome great—at least in the past, though now, in the present of Cicero’s time (before Augustine’s time), the moral degeneracy of the Romans had led to a republic in name only.[i]
Augustine concurs with the litany of ancient Roman writers and philosophers that moral virtue is necessary for the health of any republic.[ii] Yet, despite the agreement among the philosophers of the importance of moral fortitude and virtue the Roman gods didn’t seem to care.[iii] If morality was so important and truth so important why did the Romans worship gods that were immoral and tricksters? The gods, Augustine argues from the Roman myths, did not care about human morality and did nothing to avenge the most egregious of moral affronts.
The Rape of the Sabine women? The gods did nothing. The fratricide of Remus by Romulus? The gods did nothing; they neither stopped Romulus nor avenged Remus. Junius Brutus’ murder of his own sons? The gods rewarded him with the throne of Rome after he deposed Lucius Tarquinius Superbus. Though a “patriot” for overthrowing the monarchy and establishing the republic, Brutus was hardly a moral character who killed many of his own personal rivals (including his sons as already mentioned). Moreover, most of the old Roman kings die in a brutal and grizzly manner.[iv]
Despite such affronts to morality, virtue, and justice, Cicero affirms justice as the cornerstone of all political life. The Roman Republic, far from resembling a virtuous and just polity, was more like a band of brigands and thieves.[v] A kingdom or republic without justice is nothing more than a petty criminal gang. And a criminal gangland Rome was with consuls deposed, murdered, and political rivalry leading to civil war between the patricians and plebeians and finally exhausting itself in a new tyranny with the ascent of Caesarism.
Furthermore, Rome did not reward the virtuous. Scipio, perhaps the most virtuous of the Roman politicians and generals from the republican era, was a pious devotee of the Roman gods. Most importantly, he was the savior of Rome and Italy—the conqueror of Carthage who secured for Rome its future against her greatest rival. And how was Scipio repaid for his dedicated service to Rome, his saving of his beloved country, his life and piety reflective of the greatest patriot—the man whom was the ideal Roman by every account of idealized Roman patriotism and piety?—he was exiled by his political rivals![vi] Scipio, the most moral and upstanding Roman, died alone in a small villa despite his life of service to his country. So much for caring about virtue and patriotic service. Cicero may have been virtuous, but he too, like Scipio, died an outcast and enemy of Rome and was put to death for standing up for the republic which existed only in his mind and not in reality.
Here is an important thing to remember about Augustine, as alluded to be Ernest Fortin: Augustine agreed wholeheartedly with the ideals of patriotism, filial piety, moral character and virtue—in other words, he saw himself as the ideal Roman. He thought that Christians, if they embodied the fulness of their faith, would make ideal Romans too. Augustine wanted Romans to be more Roman and to see Christians not as the enemies of Roman ideals but the true reflective imitators of Roman ideals; those ideals held up by luminaries like Cicero. Rome was, in Augustine’s ironic outlook, not Roman enough. Moreover, if Romans wanted to be good and true Romans, they would see Christianity as the medium by which their hopes would be fulfilled.[vii]
However, Augustine is forced to conclude from his knowledge of Roman history that moral virtue was not the cause of Rome’s greatness, that moral virtue was something Romans cared little about despite speaking so highly of it, and that Rome was never “united under a common sense of right and wrong” as Cicero believed in his great political tract The Republic. Instead, as Augustine acknowledges—somewhat painfully—the virtuous republic eulogized by Scipio through Cicero’s pen never existed.[viii] Justice could not be found in Rome because Rome’s ruler was not Christ, in whom, and only in whom, true justice is dispensed and found. Rome’s ruler was the empty self, the vacuous heart, the will to domination, power, and glory through domination and power.
What was the Cause of Rome’s “Greatness” if not the Gods or Moral Virtue?
Instead of the gods or moral virtue being the cause of Rome’s greatness, Augustine goes to great lengths to highlight how Rome’s empire was forged through the lust for domination (libido dominandi). Rome’s lust for greatness via control is what the city of man is all about. The city of man cannot share in glory, cannot share the wealth of the world, and cannot share the abundance of the world to others. Rather, the city of man relentlessly seeks domination and believes (wrongly) that domination will bring the security and happiness that men, by nature, seek.
Augustine is remembered as one of the foremost philosophers of the human condition. His outlook over the world and life is remembered as being a tragic or pessimistic account of man—though this is somewhat oversimplified and misleading. As a proponent of human nature, Augustine affirmed that man was a rational animal who sought to live by his nature (Truth) which moved him toward want of peace and happiness. However, because of the reality of the Fall of Man for Augustine—which we shall explore in the second half of this examination of The City of God—man’s disordered nature leads him to seek peace and happiness through the lust for domination. Rome, and man, is fallen; the city of man is wounded.
This basic anthropology is something all readers need to know when coming to understand Augustine’s answer to “what made Great.” And on the topic, Rome wasn’t all that great from Augustine’s perspective. Rome was a wounded city, a wounded society, a wounded people calling for peace, justice, and happiness, but never attaining the peace, justice, and happiness that it sought (as should be clear just from reading Book III).
What made Rome “great”? It was nothing short of man’s fallen nature, the libido dominandi, which Rome had embodied in fullness. It was, as previously mentioned, the will to domination, power, and glory which made Rome “great.”
In examining the history of Numa, the king who succeeded Romulus in Roman mythological-history and credited with the establishment of the important religious functions of ancient Rome, Augustine concludes that it was not Numa’s piety to the gods (and thus the gods) which was responsible for Rome’s greatness but Rome’s domineering ethos. Augustine does praise Numa’s reign of relative peace as this is what all humans seek,[ix] but reminds pagan Romans that the gods and their rites were not yet established until Numa established them in a period of peace that existed prior to their establishment. The irony being that after Numa established the Roman pantheon the period of preceding peace and prosperity ended, and Rome descended into continuous wars.
Rome’s march to “greatness” begins with the conquest of the Latins by Aeneas who slays Turnus and conquers his people. After Numa, Rome’s peaceful establishment (forged by war according to the Aeneid) ends when Rome goes to war with the Albans. Great misery falls upon both people, but the Albans are eventually conquered, the first city-state to fall to Rome’s eventual rise to empire. This is ironic, as Augustine states, because the Albans entrusted their protection to the same gods as Rome; they were brothers and sisters from Troy who settled beyond Rome after Aeneas’ death and worshipped the same gods and inherited the same tradition and yet a symbolic fratricide occurred between the two cities. “Alba, the kingdom of Alcanius 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.”[x] (Once again we see Augustine’s pluralism on full display in between the lines; he laments the conquest and destruction of a particular people and their absorption into a new homogeneity represented by Rome.)
After Rome’s war with Alba cements Rome’s central domination Rome encounters the Etruscans and falls under Etruscan domination until the Etruscan kings are overthrown in bloodshed (the episode of the Rape of Lucretia recounted in Book I). There Augustine lamented that Lucretia committed suicide for having done nothing wrong but fall under the predatory lusts of one of Tarquin’s sons. The Romans celebrated her suicide as a reflection of Roman virtue and purity; having been defiled she was no longer an object of affection to Roman men so she killed herself. Her rape and suicide led to the downfall of the Etruscan kingship and Rome eventually conquers the Etruscans adding to their dominion.
Then comes the titanic struggle with Carthage. The Punic Wars, which Augustine also examined from the perspective of whether the gods were to be credited for Rome’s victory, was won because of Rome’s lust for domination. In the battle between two civilizations, two empires, and two peoples who could not coexist with each other, the exhaustion of this struggle was Rome’s near annihilation. Though the Romans eventually emerged victorious they were badly bloodied and suffered numerous tragedies. Her heroes from the war (like Scipio) were exiled and died alone. But the conquest of Carthage brought about the transformation of Rome from a modest Latin city-state (among other Latin city-states) to the dominate power of the Mediterranean. It was not the gods but Rome’s lust for conquest and glory through war which brought about her “greatness” and power.
Invariably, Augustine concludes the obvious: Rome’s empire was because of centuries of war, her lust for domination, and her craven soul deprived of its true wants (peace and happiness). This is ironic, in the traditional sense of the word, because Rome’s “greatness” comes through everything she despises: war rather than peace, immorality rather than moral virtue, and fratricide rather than filial piety. Christianity, by contrast, is the supreme religion for the Roman heart—for it is Christianity that seeks peace instead of war, moral virtue and inner transformation rather than immoral lusts, and filial piety rather than fratricide and filicide. From the perspective of Augustinian irony, Rome’s greatness was consummated by becoming everything the Romans claimed to deplore. Rome’s greatness was through the lust to dominate. God, moreover, granted the Romans what they wanted—earthly success, at the expense of their souls.[xi]
[i] Cicero, Republic, 5.1
[ii] Augustine, City of God, 2.3.
[iv] Ibid., 3.15.
[v] Ibid., 4.4.
[vi] Ibid., 3.21.
[vii] Ibid., 2.29.
[viii] Ibid., 19.21
[ix] Ibid. 3.9; 19.12.
[x] Ibid., 3.14.
[xi] Ibid., 5.21.