Augustine Project: Week Five

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: 3.1–3.16.

In book three, Augustine analyses Rome’s legendary and actual history, attempting to undermine any confidence that the traditional gods benefited the city.

3.1. Augustine decides to give up discussing defective morality. He begins a discussion about physical calamities because that’s the only thing his opponents really care about.

3.2–3. Augustine starts picking apart the myths of Roman religion. These gods do not save their worshipers from calamity, and they do not act consistently.

3.4. Marcus Terentius Varro, 116–27 BC. Varro was a Roman scholar to whom Augustine will refer many times in the course of City of God. Varro wrote at least seventy-four works, some of them quite long. Very little of his writings survive.

3.5–6. Augustine asks why did the traditional gods punished Troy and allowed it to fall but did not punish Rome at its founding, in spite of Roman crimes.

In the semi-legendary city of Alba Longa, Amulius stole the throne from his brother Numitor. Amulius killed all Numitor’s male heirs and forced Numitor’s daughter, Rhea, to become a Vestal Virgin. Vestal Virgins were priestesses of great significance who took a vow of chastity. Rhea gave birth to Romulus and Remus while she was a priestess because, as the legend says, Mars impregnated her. Augustine asks why her adultery was not punished while the adultery of Paris and Helen resulted in Troy’s destruction. Augustine correctly notes that Vestal Virgins who broke their vows had been buried alive before. The Romans took this kind of thing seriously.

The twins grew up, avenged their grandfather, and then founded their own city of Rome. But they couldn’t agree who would be the king or which hill they would first build on. Livy provides two versions of what happened next. The two brothers each received omens that each interpreted as being favorable to his own position. Their factions fell to fighting, and Remus was killed. Augustine says Livy is trying to get Romulus off the hook for his brother’s death. The more popular story is that Remus jumped over the wall that Romulus had built around his settlement. Romulus took it as an insult and killed his brother in anger.

Augustine believes that it doesn’t matter which story one believes, a great crime was committed at Rome’s very founding. Based on meritorious conduct, Rome seems less worthy than Troy. Why did the gods abandon Troy and bless Rome?

3.7. Augustine talks about the fate of Troy during the civil war between the Marian and Sullan factions (see note on 2.23–24). He claims that at this point in the struggle Sulla was the lesser of the two evils. I am frankly a bit surprised by this assessment, but it rhetorically helps Augustine’s argument.

At the end of this chapter, Augustine uses Livy to dismiss Virgil’s assertion that the gods had abandoned Troy. Augustine says they were present, just ineffective.

3.8. These gods were not reliable protectors. He notes that they were of little help when Gauls sacked Rome in 390 BC.

3.9. Numa Pompilius was supposedly Rome’s second king. This legendary figure is supposed to have been a very pious man who established Roman religious cults and some political institutions. It’s helpful to think of the contrast between the heroic yet violent Romulus and the wise and pious Numa. In these stories, we see Rome trying to account for its society’s various traits.

The Gates of War were the gates to the temple of Janus. These gates remained open as long as Rome was involved in a military conflict somewhere. According to the legend they were closed in Numa’s reign (c. 700 BC). The king after Numa opened the gates and went to war. Legend has it that they remained open for a long time. The gates were closed in 235 BC between the First and Second Punic Wars. They would not be closed again until Octavian (Augustus) ended the civil wars around 30 BC. One can view Octavian’s closing of the gates as part of his public relations campaign.

3.10. Augustine notes the irrationality of mankind’s preference for big states. I’ve noticed in teaching that students admire empires much more than well-governed small states.

3.11. Augustine seems to get a little confused here because the war with the Achaean League (146 BC) and the war with Aristonicus of Pergamum (129 BC) were two separate wars. I don’t really know during which war the statue was supposed to have cried.

According to Augustine the statue had previously cried during the war with Antiochus III (Roman-Syrian War, 190 BC) and Perseus of Macedon (Third Macedonian War, 170 BC). Since Rome won these wars, Apollo’s tears were taken as a good omen. Augustine’s point is that the gods are powerless to help you even if they wanted to.

3.12. Augustine discusses the proliferation of gods and goddesses in the city of Rome, suggesting that the more gods Rome acquired the worse off they became. This section is full of Augustinian snark.

3.13. Augustine returns to the theme of the Rape of the Sabine Women (see note on 2.17). He asks why Juno or Venus couldn’t find wives for the first Romans. Why did they have to kidnap their wives and start a war?

Augustine contrasts the plight of the Sabine women with that of Andromache. In Greco-Roman mythology Andromache was the wife of Hector the Trojan hero. After the death of her husband at the hands of Achilles and the destruction of her city by the Greeks, Achilles’ son, Pyrrhus, made her a his concubine. This is a pretty tough situation, but Augustine thinks it’s easier for her because at least she didn’t have to watch Pyrrhus kill any of her people after being taken by him, which is what the Sabine women had to watch.

3.14. Augustine discusses the legendary war with Alba Longa that took place during the reign of Rome’s third king. These events can be found in Livy. Augustine finds this war to be a lamentable tragedy.

The Romans were conquered by a lust of conquest. Augustine claims that the Roman ideals of glory and honor were actually vices. The very things that the Romans were proud of, Augustine thinks they ought to have been ashamed of.

He portrays the traditional gods as abandoning city after city, moving on to the newest conqueror.

3.15. Augustine finds the kings of Rome to be problematic. Most are not just or praiseworthy, but according to tradition the gods did not abandon them for their crimes. For more information on the legends of the kings of Rome, see the first book of Livy.

He is correct in his brief digression on eclipses, full moons, and Jewish Passover.

Catiline. Catiline was a Roman senator who attempted to overthrow the Republic’s government in the 60s BC. Cicero exposed his plot. Cicero’s speeches on the subject were so powerful that this comparatively minor disturbance has gotten much attention.

3.16. In book one, Augustine discussed Lucretia’s rape and the establishment of the Republic. Lucius Junius Brutus and Lucretius’s husband, Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, drove out the king and became the first consuls of the Republic. Brutus and the people of Rome, however, force Collatinus to resign because he bears the same name as the former king. Ironically, Brutus was a nearer relation to the former king than Collatinus. Augustine finds Collatinus’s forced resignation unfair since Collatinus had suffered more from the old regime than anyone else. Livy describes the formation of the consulate at the beginning of book two of his work.

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