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: 3.17–3.31.
3.17. This chapter catalogs a number of disasters that occurred roughly in the first 250 years of the Roman Republic (509–264BC). Augustine begins by quoting Sallust who is the earliest Roman historian with surviving works. Sallust was part of Julius Caesar’s populares faction during the civil wars (40s BC) at the end of the Republic.
Augustine notes that he has neither the style nor leisure of the Roman historians. I detect a note of wistfulness here. Often when the Romans talked about “leisure” they meant a time in which one could devote oneself to academic or intellectual endeavors. Upon his conversion to Christianity, Augustine attempted to retire to a life of Christian leisure, but it didn’t work out. He got pressed into the clergy. I wonder if he thinks he could have gotten more writing done, if he hadn’t had to spend so much time looking after his congregation.
Almost all the catastrophes that Augustine catalogs here can be found in Livy’s history. (Livy was closely associated with the household of Augustus.)
When discussing these disasters, Augustine seems to echo Elijah on Mt. Carmel. He keeps asking why the gods didn’t come to help.
3.18–19. Augustine takes a look at one of the turning points in Rome’s history, the Punic Wars, and asks where Rome’s gods were during this conflict. The Punic Wars were Rome’s wars against the city of Carthage on the coast of North Africa.
The First Punic War (264–241 BC). By 264, the Roman alliance had incorporated almost the entire Italian peninsula, but Roman armies had not adventured outside Italy. Carthage was a great sea power that held a number of territories around the western Mediterranean. Carthage wanted to expand its influence on the island of Sicily, but one of the cities on the island asks Rome for an alliance. Rome gets drawn into Sicilian affairs and war begins between Rome and Carthage. The war is long and drawn out, partly because Rome had to build a navy and learn to fight at sea. Rome won the conflict through persistence rather than brilliant tactics. Persistence was always Rome’s chief military virtue. At the end of the war, Rome established itself as a naval power and incorporated the entire island of Sicily into its system.
The Second Punic War (218–201 BC). Also known as the Hannibalic War, the Second Punic War was a true disaster. Hannibal was the Carthaginian general stationed in Spain. The historian Polybius attributes the cause of the war to Hannibal’s hatred of Rome. Hannibal provoked war with Rome and marched his army from Spain, through the Alps, down into Italy. His march into Italy is most remembered for his bring war elephants through the Alps. Hannibal was unstoppable in the early years of the war. He inflicted heavy causalities on the Roman legions at Trebia in 218. In 217 he annihilated the Roman legions in a large-scale ambush at Trasimene. And in 216 he gave the Roman army the most disastrous day in its history when he utterly destroyed a much larger Roman force at Cannae. With Hannibal wandering around Italy unchecked, the city of Rome panicked. As Augustine notes, the Roman tried to find warm bodies for the legions wherever they could, and they tried a variety of new rituals and laws in an attempt to get the gods to help them.
3.20. Saguntum was a Roman ally in eastern Spain. The Carthaginians dominated much of Spain, but according to their treaty with Rome, they were to leave Saguntum alone and expand no farther than the Ebro River. Hannibal’s destruction of Saguntum marks the beginning of the Second Punic War. Augustine asks why the gods didn’t save Rome’s ally, and since they didn’t, should the Romans credit the gods for saving the city of Rome itself during the war?
3.21. Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, 236–183 BC. This Scipio was Rome’s deliverer in the Second Punic War. While Hannibal ran unchecked through Italy, Scipio took command of Roman forces in Spain and achieved much success. After his victories in Spain, Scipio convinced a reluctant Senate to allow him to attack Carthage directly. Scipio landed his veteran Roman legions in North Africa around 204 BC. The Carthaginian Senate panicked and recalled Hannibal to defend the city. Scipio defeated Hannibal at the Battle of Zama on the plains outside Carthage in 202 BC. Considering the war’s devastation, Scipio dealt rather mildly with the defeated city. He returned to Rome a hero and took the name “Africanus.” In later years, he continually had to defend himself and his family from political opponents. Disgusted with Rome’s political machinations he went into a self-imposed exile.
Augustine calls the Lex Voconia, a law, which forbid a woman from being an heir, inequitable. (See? Augustine is not a misogynist.)
“… the second Scipio …” Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemillianus was the adopted grand-son of Scipio Africanus. Scipio Aemillianus razed the city of Carthage in 146 BC during the Third Punic War. This really wasn’t much of a war. It was more of an excuse by Rome to finally settle its hundred-year grudge with Carthage. Augustine continually marks the destruction of Carthage as the point when Rome began its decline. It might be helpful to keep in mind that Augustine was North African and had spent a good deal of time in Carthage. Even though Carthage was a thoroughly Roman city by his day, Augustine still might have felt a bit of North African nationalism.
3.22. Augustine claims that the gods should have warned the Romans that Mithridates would massacre Roman citizens in Asia Minor. Mithridates was the king of Pontus and was Rome’s most dangerous foreign enemy of the first century BC.
Mithridates desired to increase his influence in Asia Minor and was concerned about the growth of Roman power in the area. In 88 BC, he orchestrated an attack on all Roman settlers in Anatolia. This attack sparked Rome’s First Mithridatic War.
Sulla campaigned against Mithridates from 88 to 84 BC. This was the command that the Senate had tried to transfer to Marius, triggering Sulla’s march on Rome. Sulla concluded a peace with Mithridates instead of defeating him because Sulla worried that his political enemies were getting the upper hand back in Rome.
The Second Mithridatic War started in 83 BC because the Roman commander in Asia Minor feared that Mithridates might be preparing for another invasion of the area. Neither side’s position changed as a result of this minor war.
The Third Mithridatic War began in 73 BC when Mithridates attempted to prevent Rome from annexing Bithynia. In his will the last king of Bithynia had left his kingdom to the Roman Republic. Mithridates is eventually defeated by Pompey in 65 BC. He fled across the Black Sea and dies in 63 BC. He was probably assassinated, but he may have committed suicide.
3.23. Social War, 90–88 BC: Many of Rome’s allied cities in Italy attempted to leave the Roman system and set up an alternate system of alliances. Servile War, 73–71 BC: Rome experience a number of slave uprisings, but Augustine probably has Spartacus’s slave rebellion in mind in this passage. Civil Wars, 49–30 BC: Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon sparked a series of civil wars that ended with Octavian’s (Augustus’s) defeat of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. (Civil war actually began as early as 88 BC with the conflict between Marius and Sulla.) The first century BC was rough.
3.24. After Rome’s successes in its foreign wars of the late third and early second century, wealth poured into Rome, but economic inequality worsened. Extended tours of duty hurt the small farmers who made up the backbone of the Roman legions. Many farmers went into debt and eventually fell below the property qualification for service in the Roman army. Roman senators bought up the land of the indebted farmers and consolidated them into plantations worked by slaves acquired in the wars.
Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus attempted to alleviate this inequality through land reform. Tiberius Gracchus became tribune of the plebs in 133 BC and proposed that public land be divided up and given to people in order to restore the small-farmer class of Romans. This would have the added benefit of increasing the number of Romans eligible to serve in the army. The Senate blocked his land reform. Senators rented most of that public land from the state and worked it with slave labor. Its loss would significantly hurt their incomes. Tiberius was killed in a riot after attempting to run for a second term as tribune. His brother Gaius became tribune ten years later promoting the same kinds of reforms. Gaius started a riot in the city of Rome, and the Senate had him killed. This event, in which the “senate” and the “people” of Rome can’t come to terms on economic inequality, is seen as a turning point hastening the Republic’s decline.
3.25. Augustine asks why the Romans didn’t have a temple to the goddess Discord. He admits that he’s being absurd, but he thinks traditional Roman religion is absurd. He alludes to the stories concerning Paris and Helen of Troy. A feast took place in heaven, but the gods decided not to invite Discord. She crashed the party and threw a golden apple among the guests. The apple was supposed to be for the most beautiful goddess. Three goddesses reached for it—Juno, Minerva, and Venus. Jupiter would not judge which deserved it, so he gave that task to Paris of Troy. Venus promised to give Paris the love of the most beautiful woman in the world if he chose her. He does, and Venus helps him kidnap Helen. Helen’s kidnapping eventually led to the destruction of Troy, which the Romans considered to be their ancestral city. Augustine’s point is that failing to honor Discord resulted in the destruction of Troy, so why didn’t the Romans learn from this lesson and build her a temple in Rome? A temple to Discord might have done more good than a temple to Concord.
3.26–28. The temple of Concord did nothing to preserve Rome’s security. Rome actually got less secure after its construction.
Chapters 27 and 28 catalog the atrocities associated with the civil war between Marius and Sulla. We’ve already talked about Marius and Sulla at the end of book two. A quick recap: Sulla marched on Rome to regain his position from Marius. Sulla went to war against Mithridates. Marius and his party took advantage of Sulla’s absence to punish Sulla’s party. Sulla returned and killed a lot of people. Sulla’s bloodthirsty behavior upon his return earned him his bad reputation.
3.29. The sack of Rome by the Gauls in 390 BC was one of those “never again” moments for the Romans. The Romans lost a battle against a marauding Gallic force, which left the city defenseless. The Gauls entered the city and looted it, but the Romans managed to defend the Capitoline Hill. According to the legend, the Romans agreed to pay the Gallic leader Brennus 1000 lbs of gold if he’d leave. The Romans argued that the Gallic weights for measuring the gold were heavier than standard. Brennus threw his sword on the weights to make them even heavier and said, “Woe to the vanquished” (vae victis). The Romans told this story to remind themselves. They would not suffer defeat again.
No enemy army sacked Rome during the 800 years between the Gallic sack in 390 BC and the Gothic sack in AD 410. Augustine reminds his reader that the civil wars were probably worse than either of these since no place of safety could be found. No refuge on the Capitoline; no refuge in the churches.
In some ways it is curious that Augustine puts so much emphasis on the civil war between Marius and Sulla. Julius Caesar’s civil wars and those after his assassination were much more disruptive to the Roman system. I can think of a few reasons why Augustine might be more or less ignoring the Caesarian wars. First, Marius and Sulla set the precedent, so their conflict can be seen as representative of all the civil wars. Second, none of his readers would like Marius and Sulla, while the Julio-Claudians would be much more difficult targets since some people still revered them. Third, Marius and Sulla’s conflict was fought more in the city of Rome, while later civil wars would be waged mostly in the provinces.
3.30–31. Augustine sums up the main point of book three. Rome experienced numerous disasters, both natural and man-made, during the years preceding Christianity. If these things had happened in the Christian era, critics would have blamed them on Christianity. Since they didn’t blame these disasters on the pagan gods, it is inappropriate to blame them on Christ now.