In 410AD King Alaric and his Visigoths sacked Rome. This wasn’t supposed to happen. The mere thought of barbarians conquering the most powerful nation on earth was inconceivable. The Empire that had ruled the world had been defeated and the wealth of the city was decimated. Shock and horror was soon followed by pointed accusations. Despite the Edict of Thessalonica in 380AD that had endorsed Nicene Christianity as the state religion Rome was still largely divided into pagan and Christian groups. The pagans began to circulate rumors that Christians were culpable for the decimation of Rome, they had caused Rome to turn her back on her true pagan gods. In particular, Zosimus, a Roman historian, claimed that “Christianity, through its abandonment of the ancient traditional rites, had weakened the Empire's political virtues, and that the poor decisions of the Imperial government that led to the sack were due to the lack of the gods' care.” 1
When Marcellinus, a Roman Christian official in North Africa, wrote Augustine a letter asking his opinion about the charges being made against Christianity, Augustine enthusiastically took up his pen. He was to spend the next thirteen years writing his response, which would become the City of God, in which his goal would be to absolve Christianity for the fall of Rome.
I’ve been having stress dreams about how to tackle this book. How can one give a summation of a book that covers literally everything? Philip Schaff’s translation is 728 pages in length, not the longest book I’ve read, but Augustine is… more complicated. His side bar discussions are epic rabbit trails including a discussion on the aesthetics of male nipples and the longevity of peacock meat. He delves into the history of the world and the origin of evil, speculates on how animals dispersed after the flood, and argues with Plato, Varro, Origen, Tertullian and so many others.
Augustine could have used an editor. Maybe that’s sacrilegious to say, but I’m in good company. Possidius, Augustine’s close friend and biographer, complained that Augustine wrote so much “that scarcely any student would be able to read and know them all,” 2 and Isidore of Seville cautioned that anyone claiming to have read all of his works was a liar. 3 (Granted, this last claim has more to do with their accessibility during the Middle Ages than the enormity of the corpus…but still…kind of the same thing.)
For the last year I have spent a lot of time reading through some of the satirists of the first century, like Horace, Persius, Petronius and Juvenal. They were the clarion call for a society careening off the rails; a society where men became gods and dictated morality, while they themselves debauched with impunity. In many ways, four hundred years later, even after Rome has become christianized, Augustine’s claims have a similar ring to them.
Augustine’s first ten chapters examine the claim of Zosimus with a critical eye: What has paganism contributed to the health and moral fabric of Rome? He begins his attack with the pagan literary hero Homer. If the gods can protect cities, why did they allow Troy to burn? If it was to punish Paris for his adultery, what about the fratricide of Romulus? Instead of being punished for murdering his brother the gods illogically became his guardian. As Augustine picks his way through Homer finding moral failings of the gods and showcasing their lack of omniscience, he argues in Book III.2:
“Gods, then, so great as Apollo and Neptune, in ignorance of the cheat that was to defraud them of their wages, built the wall of Troy for nothing but thanks from a thankless people. There may be some doubt as to whether it is not a worse crime to believe such persons to be gods, than to cheat such gods.”
Augustine is critical of Rome’s origin story. The mother of Romulus and Remus was a vestal virgin named Sylvia. How could the gods allow the sacrilege of her impregnation? Granted…she was walking through the sacred grove dedicated to Mars…what was Mars supposed to do? Not rape her?
This reminds me of Nero and the rape of the vestal virgin Rubia, which demonstrates Augustine’s point: Far from exemplifying honor and virtue, these pagan gods promote piracy and take what they will with impunity. If they reflect the powerful, reveling in their glory and taking what they desire as their due, what are mere mortals to emulate? And more dangerously- what about men who fashion themselves as gods? There is no such thing as chastity and virtue in the pagan god code of honor, and we’ve seen where this has lead Caligula, Nero and Domitian.
In the Confessions Augustine cautioned that allowing Terence to be read would likely corrupt school boys: While Jupiter pours himself through the skylight into Danaë’s lap, the youth thinks: “Well, a poor fellow like me can’t do that, but I have imitated him in the other thing and what fun it was!” (Confessions 1.16:26) The scene not only serves to work up the lusts of a dissolute youth, but it also fosters a dangerous conception of masculinity. Are these their role models? Are these same gods that are transforming themselves into bulls and swans and having their way with unsuspecting maidens even capable of morality?
Next, Augustine goes into the disasters of the history of Rome with apparent relish. (III.18: “The Disasters Suffered by the Romans in the Punic Wars, Which Were Not Mitigated by the Protection of the Gods”, III.20: “Of the Destruction of the Saguntines, Who Received No Help from the Roman Gods, Though Perishing on Account of Their Fidelity to Rome,” etc.) You can almost see the fifty-nine year old Augustine, hunched over his writing desk, the psalms plastered to his stucco walls, enthusiastically writing each failure of the pagan gods.
And then Augustine sharpens his attack. The decline of morality in Rome can not entirely be blamed on the pagan gods, but rather the humans that worship them and the cesspool of debauchery that has come to constitute pagan ritual worship. This worship called for an emulation of lust and avarice rather than virtue.
In Book VII Augustine delves into the obscene worship rituals in honor of Bacchus and his coterie. Brides are outraged by the “god” Priupus [VII.24], and men are castrated in honor of the Great Mother [VII.25-26]. In VII.34-35 Augustine talks about the discovery of the sacred writings of the legendary second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius. Numa is credited with the creation of Rome’s most important political and religious institutions, (as well as the creation of a twelve month calendar.) One fateful day, his writings are discovered by a farmer in Janiculum, and the senate deemed these rites to be so dangerous that they demanded the book to be burned. 4
We’ve heard a description of worship getting out of hand in the satires of Persius, what Kirk Freundenburg referred to as “Nero’s Orgasmatron.”4 Persius argues that the citizens of Rome have prostituted themselves on the altar of Nero, hoping for scraps of the enormous wealth that has washed into the city after each foreign conquest. They have lost their moral plumb line and are willing to put up with obscenity if it comes with a seven course meal. It seems obvious that it wasn’t “through the abandonment of the ancient traditional rites” that the Empire’s virtue has become weakened, but rather because of them.
Varro has a solution. Since Homer and Hesiod say such awkward things about the gods, and put the gods in such a negative light, there must be different types of revelation that fall into different categories of theology: mythical, physical and political. The mythic is within the purview of the poets, the physical: the philosopher, and the political: ordinary citizens. Sounds simple enough.
“In the first of these theologies are found many fictions unworthy of the dignity and nature of immortal beings. For in this kind of theology one divinity [Minerva] was born from another’s head, a second [Bacchus] from a thigh, a third [Pegasus] from drops of blood; some gods [e.g.Mercury] were thieves, others [e.g. Jupiter] adulterers, and still others [Apollo] slaves of men, and in general deeds are attributed to gods which are not merely human but abnormal.”
Varro then delineates where the appropriate worship and knowledge of each theology takes place: “The first kind of theology is suitable for the theater; the second, for the world; the third, for the city.” [VI.5] Augustine finds this logic confusing. Isn’t the city part of the world? And aren’t theaters usually in cities? At the end of Varro’s forty-one books instead of a systematic theology, Augustine finds systematic confusion. At the end human learning “however broad and deep, is of no avail.” [VI.6] And he argues that Varro’s final product is “so close in the fellowship of falsehood as to delight the demons whose only battle is with teaching of truth.” [VI.6]
The problem with this tripartite system is that the theater is one of the few egalitarian spaces. Maybe the upper echelons of society get better seats, but all classes and genders were allowed to participate, and here in this space the spectators become active participants in a type of formative theology. The narrative always emphasizes the logic and might of imperial power. In the mock battles of the circus the emperor, cloaked in divine authority, chooses who lives and who dies.
Some theologians argued that for the persecuted Christian glory and honor were still within their grasp despite the details of their death. Tertullian discussed the spectacle of Christian martyrdom in An Address to the Martyrs and concluded that even for the mutilated bodies of the murdered Christians glory was still available, won from the trial of a gruesome public death. But Augustine would disagree. The quest for glory leads to self love, which further leads to the love of power and dominion, and all of this leads to pride.
“Two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord. For the one seeks glory from men; but the greatest glory of the other is God, the witness of conscience. The one lifts up its head in its own glory; the other says to its God: “Thou art my glory, and the lifter up of mine head””
For the Christian our example is the “self emptying humility of the cross.” 6 There was nothing glorious in Christ’s death. There was nothing glorious in the humiliation of the cross, but for the Christian that is not the end of the story. What was glorious was His conquering of sin and death and His resurrection.
“Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
For the Christian, everything is done for the glory of God. All spectacles are for His name and His honor:
“When raised to Him, our heart becomes his altar; His only Son is the priest who wins us for his favor…We burn the sweetest incense in His sight when we are aflame with holy piety and love. As the best gift we consecrate and surrender to Him our very selves which He has given us.’
While the gratuitous sex and murder has become a stumbling block for the “theology of the theater,” Christ’s humility has become the stumbling block for the philosophers. They are repulsed by his humanity. Why would God leave the sanctity of heaven to debase himself as a man, why would he humble himself by taking on the form of a servant? The philosophers trust in themselves and their ability to intellectually pursue virtue. Augustine is unimpressed:
“You drive men, therefore, into the most palpable error. And yet you are not ashamed of doing so much harm, though you call yourself a lover of virtue and wisdom. Had you been true and faithful in this profession, you would have recognized Christ, the virtue of God and the wisdom of God, and would not, in pride and vain science, have revolted from His wholesome humanity…But He fulfills what the holy prophets truly predict regarding Him: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and bring to nought the prudence of the prudent.”
For Rome, moral depravity didn't begin in 313AD with the Edict of Milan or in 380AD with the Edict of Thessalonica; it didn’t begin with Romulus and Remus or Numa, rather it was the foundation the city was built on; it is the foundation all human cities are built on. Augustine brings up another fratricide: the story of Cain and Abel. While Romulus and Remus represent a city divided against itself, the story of Cain and Abel represent the enmity between the two cities: the city of man and the City of God. Cain’s battle wasn’t with his brother, it was against his envious heart.
“The root of the trouble was that diabolical envy which moves evil men to hate those who are good for no other reason than that they are good…the fact is that in everyone ‘the flesh lusts against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh.”
This war between spirit and flesh is ultimately the battle of the two cities. The earthly city is preoccupied with a longing of ‘belonging’ here in this world and the other is “City of longings for God.” [XV.21] And the victory won’t be shed by our blood and what we contribute to the fight, but by what has already been accomplished by our mediator and king: the God-Man Jesus Christ.
Both cities occupy the same temporal place, one is symbolically called Jerusalem, or vision of peace, and the other Babylon or Babel which represents confusion. The battle field is not a physical place but rather the hearts and minds of men, and it exists beyond tribes and countries. Here, in this world both Christians and pagans will suffer tribulation:
“For, in the same fire, gold gleams and straw smokes; under the same flail the stalk is crushed and the grain threshed; the lees are not mistaken for oil because they have issued from the same press. So, too, the tide of trouble will test, purify, and improve the good, but beat, crush and wash away the wicked. So it is that, under the weight of the same affliction, the wicked deny and blaspheme God, and the good pray to Him and praise Him. The difference is not what people suffer but in the way they suffer. The same shaking that makes fetid water stink makes perfume issue a more pleasant odor.”
The next 500 pages serve as a warning for everyone to recognize the active battle between these two cities: the city of the flesh and the city of the spirit. Augustine believes that the real calamity isn’t the destruction of a city but rather the destruction of a heart saturated in moral depravity.
Ultimately this book is a call to action for Augustine’s fellow Christians. A call to emulate the humility and compassion of our savior. A call to emulate his life and death, dying to self that He might be glorified. Thanks to the grace of God through Jesus, the trials and tribulations of the Christian are not meaningless but serve to draw them closer to God. The world is a living system of entropy. It will fail, it will be destroyed. The hope isn’t that the Christian will not suffer, but rather that she will bear her sufferings with a “stout heart, and with a fortitude that find its strength in faith.” [XXII.22] The goal isn’t to survive well in this life, but to wait with hope and expectation for the next.
1. Mitchell, Stephen. A History of the Later Roman Empire, AD 284–641. Blackwell Publishing, 2007. page 27.
3. PL 83.1109
4. This article offers a different option, arguing that it wasn’t the danger of evil or moral corruption the senate found to be scandalizing, but rather Numa’s apparent Hellenism.
5. Freudenburg, Kirk. Satires of Rome: Threatening poses from Lucilius to Juvenal. Cambridge University Press, 2001.
6. Wetzel, James, editor. Augustine’s City of God: A Critical Guide. Jennifer Herdt “The theater of the virtues: Augustine’s critique of pagan mimesis”, Cambridge University Press, 2012.