Yet, our detractors have, in the person of one of their eminent men, a striking example of captivity willingly borne for religion’s sake. Marcus Aurelius Regulus, a Roman general, was held in captivity by the Carthaginians. As they preferred to have their own men liberated from Roman bondage rather than to hold Romans in their prisons, they despatched to Rome no less a man than Regulus, accompanied by their own legates to negotiate the exchange. At the same time, they bound him under oath to return to Carthage, in case he failed to accomplish what they proposed. Regulus set out on his mission, but, on reaching Rome, he persuaded the Senate not to accede, urging his view that the exchange of prisoners would not be to the advantage of the Roman republic. Having made his plea, he did not have to be compelled to return to the enemy. Of his own accord, Regulus kept the word he had sworn and returned to Carthage.
There, Rome’s enemies slew him, after subjecting him to fiendish torture. They packed him into a tight wooden box, spiked with sharp nails on all sides, so that he could not lean in any direction without being pierced. The agony of pain, together with privation of sleep, snuffed out his life. Deservedly, indeed, may one extol a courage that proved itself greater than such a frightful ordeal. He had sworn by those gods to return—the gods the banning of whose worship, if you believe the cavilers, brought this terrible disaster upon mankind. Yet, if those gods who were honored that they might make life prosperous here below willed or permitted a horrible fate to overtake one who scrupulously kept his oath, imagine what more frightful infliction they would, if angered, bring down upon the head of a perjured man.
Why do I not confirm my argument with a double proof? Regulus, no doubt, worshiped the gods so sincerely that to keep his oath inviolate he was absolutely resolved not to remain in his own country nor to betake himself anywhere except back into the hands of his bitterest enemies. On the one hand, if he regarded this obligation to the gods as profitable for his life on earth, which had so tragic an end, he was surely deluded. For, his example shows that the gods are utterly useless to secure temporal felicity for their worshipers. Devoted as Regulus was to their worship, he was, notwithstanding, led into captivity, and for being unwilling to violate the oath he swore to them he was slain by being put through the agony of a newly-devised instrument of torture that for devilry has no precedent in the memory of man.
If, on the other hand, the worship of the gods bestows felicity as a reward in the life to come, why do the calumniators of Christian civilization affirm that disaster came upon Rome because she ceased to honor her deities? Honor them as devotedly as she might, could she have tasted the waters of bitterness to the extent that Regulus did? To deny this, one would have to be so incredibly blind as to fly in the face of the plain truth and to contend that the entire city could not taste misery if she worshiped the gods, but that one man could, or, in other words, that the power of their gods is more adapted to preserve a multitude than to preserve individuals. Yet, do not individuals make up the multitude? If they retort that, by reason of his strength of spirit, Marcus Regulus could have found happiness even in his captivity and amid those frightful torments, then I say to them: Go and look rather for the true strength of spirit that can bring happiness to the city also.
The happiness of a city and the happiness of individual men spring from the same source, since a city is nothing else than a multitude of men in harmonious association. I do not, therefore, discuss what kind of virtue inspired Regulus. It suffices, for the moment, that in view of his magnificent gesture the pagans are compelled to admit that the gods are honored not for material advantages or goods which are external and incidental to man. Regulus preferred to forego all such things rather than to offend the gods by whom he swore. But what are we to do with people who boast of having such a fellow citizen, but dread to have a whole city of like quality? If they have no such dread, then let them avow that the very evil which befell Regulus might befall the city also, though it honor the gods no less conscientiously than he did. What is more, let them cease heaping calumny on the Christian era.
But, since this discussion started on the subject of Christian captives, let those who are impudent and stupid enough to mock the most consoling of all religions reflect on the example of Regulus and hold their peace. For, if it was no discredit to the gods that a most devoted servant of theirs who was faithful to his oath lost his native land and, in captivity among enemies, suffered a cruel and lingering death by a new-fangled instrument of torture, then there is far less cause to slander the profession of Christianity by reason of the imprisonment of its holy followers. For, while these martyrs looked forward with certain faith to a heavenly home, they still knew that they were but pilgrims even in their own country.
Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII