Just think of the kind of gods to whose protection the Romans were content to entrust their city! No more pathetic illusion could be imagined. Yet, the pagans are angry with us because we speak so frankly of their divinities. However, they feel no anger against their own writers. They even pay them a fee to teach such nonsense and think such teachers worthy of public salary and honors. Take Virgil. Children must read this greatest and best of all poets in order to impress their tender minds so deeply that he may never be easily forgotten, much as the well-known words of Horace suggest:
The liquors that new vessel first contains
Behind them leave a taste that long remains.
Now, in Virgil, Juno is pictured as the foe of the Trojans and as saying, while she goads Aeolus, King of the Winds, against them:
The nation that I hate in peace sails by,
With Troy and Troy’s fallen gods to Italy.
Did they act wisely in placing Rome’s immunity from defeat in the hands of such vanquished deities? Even assuming that Juno spoke these words in a fit of feminine anger, not knowing what she said, does not Aeneas himself, so often styled ‘the pious,’ relate how
Panthus, a priest of Phoebus and the Tower,
Rushed with his nephew and the conquered gods
And, frantic, sought for shelter at my door.
Does he not admit that the very gods, whom he declares ‘conquered’ are entrusted to his protection rather than he to theirs, when he is given the charge, ‘To thee doth Troy commend her gods, her all’? If, then, Virgil describes such gods as vanquished, and, because vanquished, needing a man’s help even to escape, surely it is folly to believe that it was wise to entrust Rome to the safe-keeping of such divinities, and to believe that Rome could never be destroyed unless it lost its gods. In fact, to worship fallen gods as patrons and defenders is more like having poor odds than good gods. It is much more sensible to believe, not so much that Rome would have been saved from destruction had not the gods perished, but rather that the gods would have perished long ago had not Rome made every effort to save them.
For, who does not see, if only he stops to consider, how futile it is to presume that Rome could not be conquered when protected by conquered custodians and that the reason it fell was that it lost its tutelary deities? Surely, the only possible reason why Rome should fall was that it wanted vincible protectors. Hence, when all these things were written and sung about the fallen gods, it was not because the poets took pleasure in lying, but because truth compelled intelligent men to avow them. However, this matter will be more fitly and more fully treated in subsequent chapters. Here I shall do my best to wind up in few words what I began to say about men’s ingratitude.
These men, I say, hold Christ responsible for the evils which they deservedly suffer for their wicked lives. They have not the slightest appreciation of the fact, that, when they deserved to be punished, they were spared for Christ’s sake. On the contrary, with impious perversity and bitterness, they attack His Name with those very tongues which falsely invoked that Name to save them. The very tongues which, like cowards, they held in check in the sacred places when safe, protected and unharmed by the enemy for Christ’s sake, they now use to hurl malicious curses against Him.
Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII