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: 2.19–29.
2.19. At the end of this chapter, Augustine says that Christians might be called to live under an utterly corrupt government. To modern readers this might not sound too controversial, but Augustine is actually challenging the thinking of some of early fifth-century Christians.
After Constantine became the sole emperor of the Roman Empire in 324, Eusebius, the church historian, wrote about how Rome had entered into a Christian golden age. These expectations continued among many Christians throughout the fourth century. During his reign, Emperor Theodosius (d. 395) essentially made Christianity the official state religion of Rome through a series of laws.
Many Christians during Augustine’s time argued that Rome had become a Christian Empire. Though Augustine appreciates some of the Christian influences that had worked their way into the state, he is not as optimistic as others. Christians still might be called to live under an utterly corrupt government.
2.20. Augustine describes the kind of place that he thinks most Romans wish they lived in. It resembles the Hollywood interpretation of ancient Rome.
He mentions Sardanapalus, the Assyrian king. There was actually no king by this name. Sardanapalus, whose name is probably a corruption of Ashurbanipal, was a Greek legend describing the debauchery of eastern kings. His story probably conflates and exaggerates stories about many Assyrian rulers.
2.21. Augustine discusses Cicero’s De re publica. Cicero wrote the book about ten years before his death in 43 BC. The book takes the form of a philosophical dialogue—the genre that Plato made famous hundreds of years before.
Augustine seems to expect his reader not to have actually read the work, so he does a pretty thorough job explaining what’s going on. Cicero was a Stoic thinker, and he had a great deal of concern for the well being of the community.
Augustine finds Cicero’s critique of the late Republic helpful, but he believes that Cicero has idealized the early Republic as a golden age of justice. The golden age of justice is still yet to come in Christ’s city.
2.22. Augustine continues his discussion of the days leading to the end of the Republic.
The Gracchi. Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus were two brothers who attempted to help poor Romans through land redistribution. Their actions caused constitutional crises in Rome towards the end of the second century BC.
Marius, Cinna, and Carbo. These Roman statesmen/generals led the civil war against Sulla in the 80s BC. Marius was the most esteemed. He’s also credited with making changes to the Roman army which would cause the legions to become loyal to their general rather than to Rome itself.
Augustine resists the temptation to dwell on material calamity. He reiterates that the decline of morality is the true disaster.
2.23–24. Marius was a Roman general who died in 86 BC. About twenty years before he died he made sweeping reforms. Probably the most significant reform he made was to abandon the property qualification for participation in the Roman army.
Before Marius, a Roman soldier had to own a minimum amount of property. The property qualification ensured that the soldier had a stake in the state. However, after the foreign wars with Carthage and the Hellenistic kingdoms, income disparity had become a serious problem in Rome. Rome began running low on men who met the property qualification, which left the state vulnerable. Marius did away with the property qualification and started paying his soldiers a living wage. Essentially the soldiers began to view Marius as the source of their livelihood rather than Rome itself. Marius promoted the populares political faction, the faction that claimed to be “for the people.”
Marius gained immense popularity in Rome for his victories in Africa, and Gaul.
A protégé of Marius, Sulla later became his chief rival. Like Marius, Sulla created an army loyal to himself, but unlike Marius, Sulla supported the optimates faction, the party of the “best men.”
Sulla had been promised a lucrative command in the East against Mithridates, the king of Pontus. While away from Rome in 88 BC, Sulla learned that his political enemies had managed to have his command transferred to Marius. Sulla refused to accept this disruption to his plans, and he marched his army into the city of Rome to force the government to restore his command.
This march on Rome was unprecedented. It was against the law for a commander to bring his troops into the city without permission. Almost all of his officers resigned in protest. None of his soldiers did. They were afraid that if Sulla lost his command that they would not profit from the eastern expedition.
Marius fled from Sulla and died of old age in 86 BC.
Sulla achieved victory in the East and returned to Rome to recreate its institutions to support the optimates. After his death in 78 BC, Rome abandoned many of his reforms.
2.25. In the previous section, Augustine mentioned the conflict between Marius and Sulla, and in this section he explains that traditional Roman religion supported civil war. Augustine can’t seem to decided if real demonic forces promoted civil war or if men used traditional religion as self-justification. It amounts to the same thing either way.
Civil Wars plagued the late Roman Republic. Around 90 BC, some of Rome’s allied cities in Italy turned on her. During the 80s, Sulla fought Marius and other enemies. The 70s and 60s saw more unrest. Caesar’s truly devastating civil war began in 49 BC and lasted until 45. After his assassination in 44, the civil war resumed. First Caesar’s supporters had to destroy his assassins. Then Caesar’s supporters turned on each other. The wars finally ended in 30 BC because Octavian, who would go on to become Augustus, was the last strongman standing. These decades of civil war shattered the morale of the Roman people.
2.26. Augustine talks about secret rites of the pagan religion. Mystery religions became quite popular during the Roman Empire. These religions promised more spiritual guidance than typical Greco-Roman polytheism, but one had to be inducted into the mysteries before one could receive enlightenment. These groups were fairly exclusive, and it was often expensive to gain membership. Augustine complains that if they really have truth, then these gods shouldn’t keep it secret.
Augustine describes a festival to the Heavenly Virgin. It’s likely that he’s describing a celebration that he attended as a young man in Carthage. It sounds as though this goddess might be the product of some syncretism between Roman and Phoenician goddesses. The Romans were quite comfortable with syncretism.
Augustine contrasts the bawdiness of the mime with the earnestness of prayer. The inconsistency should alert worshipers that this is not true religion. Notice that one of his specific complaints against the mime is the presence of women on stage. Augustine was not the only bishop who was scandalized by actresses.
He reiterates his point that this kind of immoral worship is motivated by the Devil in an attempt to deceive the nations.
2.27–28. Augustine summarizes his argument that traditional Greco-Roman religion hurts morality, and he offers Christianity as a suitable replacement.
2.29. We see a little of Augustine’s Roman nationalism on display here. He really does admire the gravitas (serious-mindedness) of traditional Roman society. He believes that Christianity fulfills and perfects the good qualities that Romans already possessed through common grace.
Marcus Atilius Regulus. Augustine talked in book one about how Regulus preferred to return to Carthaginian imprisonment and suffer torture and death than break his vows.
Gaius Mucius Scaevola. Roman hero who might or might not have existed. Livy says that Scaevola attempted to assassinate an enemy king. When he was captured he thrust his own hand in the fire to show the king how tough Romans were. The king is impressed and asked for peace.
Scipios. This family had many illustrious members who performed many great deeds for Rome. The most famous is Scipio Africanus, who defeated Hannibal in the Second Punic War.
Gaius Fabricius. Around 280 Rome fought with Pyrrhus of Epirus over some cities in southern Italy. Fabricius negotiated the truce. Plutarch claims that Fabricius was poor, but honest. He impressed Pyrrhus with his refusal of a bribe and managed to secure favorable terms.
“… have won this country for us by their blood.” Here we see Augustine calling upon his own liberal education. He quotes Virgil as he attempts to convince non-believers of Christianity’s superiority. It’s reminiscent of Paul on Mars Hill quoting the poets.
“Juno did not grudge the Trojans…” In Virgil’s Aeneid, the goddess Juno tries to keep the Trojan refugees from arriving in Italy and founding Rome. Augustine tells the Romans that their demon gods are attempting to keep them out of Heaven, just like Juno tried to keep them out of Italy.