I shall now desist and let Sallust testify. He was speaking in praise of the Romans when he uttered those words which prompted the present discussion: ‘By nature more than by laws, justice and morality flourished among the Romans.’ He had in mind the time following the expulsion of the kings, when the state saw a brief interval of extraordinary prosperity. Yet, the same writer, in the very first words of the first book of his History, avows that, even when the government of the country passed from the hands of the kings to those of the consuls, it was not long before the unjust dealings of those in power caused the plebeians to break with the patricians. The city was divided by other factions, too.
He recalled that between the second and the last Carthaginian wars the Roman people lived in the best moral conditions and the greatest harmony. But, he also added that that happy state was not due to a love of justice but to the fear of a precarius peace as long as Carthage stood. It was to hold corruption in check and to preserve good morals that the famous Nasica opposed the destruction of Carthage. He wanted vice restrained by fear.
The same Sallust immediately adds: ‘But dissension, avarice, and ambition, and all the rest of the vices that prosperity commonly engenders, multiplied beyond bounds once Carthage fell.’ He wanted us to understand that even before that event vices sprang up and spread. Then, he adds the reasons for his statement: ‘The wrongs done by the powerful, the consequent break of the people with the aristocrats, and the other domestic dissensions had happened from the beginning. It was only after the expulsion of the kings, while fear of Tarquin prevailed, and the war with the Etruscans continued, that justice and reasonableness reigned.’ You can see that the measure of equity and good order which marked even the brief space after the banning and expulsion of the kings must be ascribed to fear, as Sallust said—fear of the war which King Tarquin, after he was dragged from the throne and driven out of the city, waged against the Romans, with the help of the Etruscans.
Note well the statement he adds: ‘Then the patricians began to treat the people like slaves, to dispose of life and limb as arrogantly as the kings had done, to drive them from their fields and, by excluding all others from participation, to monopolize the government. But, oppressed by these outrages, and especially by usury, while they had at the same time to bear the burden of taxes for incessant wars and of military service as well, the people rose up in arms, and entrenched themselves on the Sacred Mount and the Aventine. Thus, they then secured for themselves tribunes and other rights. It was only the Second Punic War that put an end to the dissensions and struggles between the two classes.’
You see, then, what kind of people the Romans were, even during the short space of time following the banishment of the kings, the people of whom it was said that ‘by nature more than by laws, justice and morality flourished among them.’
Moreover, if such were the times when the Roman state was supposed to be at its fairest and best, what is one to think and say of the subsequent period, after the destruction of Carthage? Then, to use the words of the same historian, ‘transformed little by little from the fairest and best, it became the worst and the most immoral.’ In his History you may read how succinctly Sallust recalls and describes these times, and also gives the proof of the horrible degeneracy of morals which prosperous times engendered, and which eventually produced a brood of civil wars. ‘From that time on,’ he says, ‘the morals of our forebears declined, not little by little as before, but rushing headlong like a torrent. The younger generation sank so deep into immorality and avarice that it can justly be said that they were born neither to possess property nor to leave in peace those who did.’ Sallust had much more to say about the vices of Sulla and of the foul state of the republic in other respects. Other writers say the same, though not with the same mastery of description. I am sure you can see, as anyone with eyes open must, into what morass of immorality the republic was sunk before the coming of our Heavenly King.
All these deplorable things were done, not only before Christ in the flesh began to teach, but even before He was born of the Virgin. This mass of depravity belongs to pagan times. The evils, somewhat mitigated before the fall of Carthage, reached the depths of abomination after that event. It was the pagan gods whose sinister cunning planted in men’s minds the seeds which produced so evil a harvest. Yet, our critics dare not impute this to their gods. By what strange logic, then, do the pagans charge the present troubles to Christ, whose life-giving doctrine forbids the worship of false and deceiving gods and whose divine will abominates and condemns the vicious and criminal actions of men? He weans His children away from all this wickedness in a rotting and tottering world, in order to establish an eternal City that will be really glorious—not by vain praise, but in very truth.
Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VI