Augustine Project: Week Three

This post is part of an on-going series in which I and others systematically read through Augustine of Hippo’s City of God in 2014.

City of God 2.1–18.

2.1–3. Book two begins with Augustine wearily claiming that one could spend one’s whole life replying to replies. It’s time to move on. He gives a recap of book one, and then gives a preview of his next topic.

Rome suffered disasters before the coming of Christianity; therefore, the current calamity shouldn’t be blamed on Christianity either.

2.4. He starts in an interesting place. One might assume that he’d begin with war or natural disaster, but he begins with the decline of morality, which Augustine believes is a greater calamity than natural disaster since it affects the soul, not just the body. He claims that traditional Greco-Roman religion didn’t provide people with moral instruction. He’s more or less correct in this.

The rites of pagan religion served a civic function. If one participated in the festivals and offered the sacrifices, then one had religiously fulfilled his duty to the gods. A citizen could privately believe whatever he wanted about the gods. Some philosophers disbelieved in the gods, but continued to attend the festivals because it was their civic duty. One might be able to find a lesson in the myths concerning the gods, but these myths were contradictory and didn’t provide moral instruction like Christianity.

Augustine attacks the theater a great deal in book two. His complaint focuses on both the subject matter and the relationship that theater had with traditional Roman religion.

The Romans adopted Greek dramatic forms during the days of the Republic. Theatrical performance originally was part of worshiping the gods. To view the performance was to participate in the cult. By the time Augustine began City of God, this was no longer the case. The theater had been secularized, but Augustine focuses on its religious roots.

By Augustine’s day, the most popular dramatic form was the mime. The mime was a comic genre which featured both male and female actors. Unlike some other genres these actors did not wear masks. The mime depicted bawdy scenes that caricatured the gods. Many pagan intellectuals found the mime vulgar. Having women on stage saying lewd things was too scandalous. Augustine probably has the mime in mind during these passages, but his arguments would apply to all theater.

2.5. Augustine mentions Scipio Nasica bringing “the Mother of the Gods” to Rome. This goddess is also known as Cybele or the Great Mother. During the Second Punic War with Carthage (218–201 BC), Hannibal, the Carthaginian general, was wreaking havoc in Italy. Rome looked for a new god to save them, so the Romans imported Cybele, in the form of a sacred black stone, from Asia Minor around 204 BC. Cybele’s cult continued to grow in importance and influence throughout the end of the Republic and the beginning of the Empire.

When Augustine speaks of the worship of pagan gods, he envisions that actual demonic forces are behind them. The Romans were not merely mistaken in their worship. They were malevolently ensnared.

2.7. Pagan religion provided no moral compass, but Augustine admits that some of the philosophers taught morality. Any truth from the philosophers, however, Augustine attributes to divine assistance—common grace. Augustine will engage with the philosophers at length in book eight.

Even so, the moral teachings of the philosophers didn’t have an endorsement from the traditional religion. According to Augustine, traditional religion promotes self-mutilation, as in the case of Cybele, and adultery, as in the case of Jupiter.

2.8. At the end of chapter eight, Augustine seems to admit that the older Greek and Roman dramas are not as bad as the mime (see note on 2.4). He notes, that in order to be considered educated, you needed some familiarity with this canon. Augustine draws from his own liberal education often in his writings, but I wonder if there’s a hint of sarcasm in this line.

2.9. Augustine notes Roman inconsistency in that the mime allowed vulgar things to be said of the gods but Roman law forbade representations of living Romans on the stage because of the possibility of libel. The ancient Greeks had no such custom. Augustine is thinking of the plays of Aristophanes (d. 386 BC), the comedic playwright who lampooned all the most important men in Athens. Some scholars suggest that Aristophanes’ depiction of Socrates as a money-grubbing charlatan contributed to Socrates’ conviction and execution. Augustine’s point: why do the Romans care more about the reputations of men than the reputations of the gods?

2.10. As noted earlier, Augustine imagines that demonic activity motivates traditional Roman religion. These demons/gods promote the poets’ immoral tales in the hopes that their worshipers will imitate them.

2.11–13. Augustine continues his attack on both the theater and traditional religion.

He notes that the Greeks were more consistent than the Romans because they let actors participate in public life. This doesn’t mean that Augustine thinks the Greeks are better than the Romans, quite the opposite.

Rome had always had a complicated relationship with the theater. Most Romans believed that theater was one of the marks of civilization, and its lack was intolerable. At the same time, Romans tended to question whether or not theater communicated good Roman values.

In Greece, the theater and its actors were celebrated. In Rome, the theater was celebrated, but Roman society felt a bit ashamed about it. The Romans loved their spectacles—theater, chariot races, gladiatorial shows—but they disapproved of the participants. Roman society usually considered entertainers of all sorts to occupy the same social stratum as prostitutes, and the laws deprived them of their involvement in the state. An actor couldn’t be a good Roman.

The last section of 2.13 brings us to Augustine’s point. The Greeks are consistent, but in error. The Romans are correct about their shame concerning theater, but they are inconsistent in praising the gods that demand shows. The Christians are correct and consistent in their rejection of the theater and its gods. (Of course this is somewhat of an idealization since most Roman Christians actually loved attending the theater.)

2.14. Augustine points out that Plato wished to ban poets from the city. Plato was the most influential of the ancient philosophers. He was an Athenian, living during the decline of Athens in the fourth century BC. He hated Athenian democracy—it had killed his teacher, Socrates—and he wrote his Republic as an explanation of what good government would look like. One of the aspects of a well-ordered city—no poets. Everyone honored Plato. Augustine asks why no one heeded his advice.

In this section, Augustine mentions the Twelve Tables. The Twelve Tables were like the founding constitution of the Roman Republic. They were a list of laws first published around 450 BC.

We see typical Roman prejudice in this section as well. Augustine calls the Greeks a “frivolous and irresponsible people” and calls the Romans “reserved and conscientious.” For hundreds of years the Romans had characterized the Greeks as brilliant, but unruly and unable to govern themselves.

“Priapus, Cynocephalus, and Febris”—These are three of the least honorable gods that Romans recognized. Augustine says that Plato, a mere man, was much better than these characters.

2.15–16. Civics and religion were intertwined in the Greco-Roman world. Augustine talks about Romulus, the founder of Rome, becoming one of the most honored of the gods. Romulus might or might not have existed, but the Romans had a tradition of turning rulers into gods. Deification would be decreed through the political institutions. Politics defined religion in Rome.

Roman law was one of the things that the Romans were most proud of. Augustine attempts to keep the baby as he throws out the bathwater by claiming that Roman law was not rooted in pagan religion.

Augustine reproduces Livy’s claim that the Romans went to Athens in 454 to study its constitution when forming their own laws. Solon gave the Athenians the foundation for their government in 594 BC. He was reputed to be one of the wisest men in the world, and a number of fanciful stories were created about his life. Livy’s story about the Romans copying his laws isn’t true, but it’s understandable why Romans would want to be associated with the world’s most famous wise man.

Lycurgus was the legendary lawgiver of Sparta. Most Greek intellectuals actually admired the Spartan constitution as “good laws,” rather than the Athenian constitution. One legend stated that Lycurgus, who might or might not have existed, got his laws from the god Apollo. Augustine rejects this as a source for Roman law.

2.17–18. Augustine discusses the lack of morality and justice in pre-Christian Rome.

2.17. Augustine begins with the legendary founding of the city and the Rape of the Sabine Women. (One should note that what traditionally gets translated “rape” here is actually the Latin word for “kidnapping.”) His point is that from the city’s foundations there was injustice.

When Romulus supposedly founded the city in the eighth century BC, it was a city full of his buddies, but it had no women. After a few years they realized they needed wives so they went to the neighboring Sabines and asked for their daughters in marriage. The Sabines refused, so the Romans threw a party, invited the Sabines, and kidnapped their daughters when they showed up. The Roman men married the girls. War broke out when the fathers tried to get them back. The daughters stepped between their warring husbands and fathers and achieved reconciliation. This legend can be found in Livy.

Next he moves to the founding of the Republic in 509 BC. He claims that Junius Brutus treated Lucretia’s husband unjustly because of his name and relations.

He then mentions how Marcus Furius Camillus (d. 365) was treated unjustly. Augustine brings up Camillus, who was dictator five times, because the Romans honored him as a second founder of the city.

2.18. From 494 to 287 BC, Rome dealt with what historians call “the struggle of the orders.” Roman patricians were the aristocracy and controlled the institutions of government. The Roman plebeians (commoners) tried to protect themselves from patrician oppression and tried to gain more access to political power. This struggle saw the creation of the tribunes of the plebs, the passing of plebiscites, and the writing down of the Twelve Tables. Eventually the plebeians won for themselves equality.

Augustine mentions Sulla (d. 78 BC). No one liked Sulla. He was a Roman general who marched on the city of Rome and suspended the constitution. By the first century BC, the political struggle wasn’t between patricians and plebeians, a distinction based on birth, but the Roman state dealt with a struggle between optimates, the “best men,” and populares, those who favored the “people.” This distinction had more to do with political ideology and wealth than birth. Sulla supported the optimates.

In chapters 17 and 18, Augustine attempts to show that the Republic wasn’t a golden age of justice and morality.

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