The City of God: Book 1: Chapter Six

Chapter 6

There is no need to speak of other warring nations who never gave quarter to the victims they found in the temples of the gods. Let us take a look at the Romans themselves. Let us recall to mind and consider the Romans, whose chief boast it was ‘to be merciful to the conquered and beat the haughty down,’ and who were more ready to forgive than avenge a suffered wrong. Among the innumerable notable cities they captured and destroyed in order to extend their sway, where do we read that they passed over the temples in order to give a chance of escape to those who took refuge there. Is it possible that they were magnanimous enough to do so, but that the chroniclers have made no mention of such facts? Is it likely that their historians, who were on the lookout for anything deserving of praise, would pass over what they considered admirable examples of mercy?

That eminent Roman, Marcus Marcellus, who captured the magnificent city of Syracuse is reported to have wept over the prospect of its destruction and to have shed his own tears for it before he shed the blood of its inhabitants. He respected the chastity of its women, and, before surrounding the city he issued an ordinance forbidding an attack on the body of any free person. Yet, in keeping with the custom of war, the city was laid waste, and we nowhere read that the general, for all his clemency and concern for chastity, enjoined that those who fled to a temple should enjoy immunity. No chronicler would have failed to mention this, since both the general’s weeping and his decree against carnal license were duly recorded.

Fabius, the conqueror of Tarentum, is praised for refraining from carrying off the statues of the gods. When his secretary asked him what was to be done with the many sacred images that had been captured, he spiced his mercy with a touch of malice. He inquired what kind of statues they were. On being told that many of them were not only large in size but also armed, he retorted: ‘Let the Tarentines keep their ill-tempered gods!’ If the Roman historians could mention the tears and chivalrous mercy of Marcellus and the laughing malice and mock restraint of Fabius, how could they have forgotten to mention the fact that if those generals had spared anyone in honor of some god or other, by forbidding slaughter or the taking of prisoners in temples?

Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII

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