But, it will be objected, these indecencies are not presented in ceremonial worship, but only in the fables of the poets. I do not say that the mysteries are more shameful than the theatricals; but I do affirm, and history will give the lie to those who deny it, that those same plays for which the fancies of the poets supply the dominant elements were not introduced into their worship by the blind devotion of the Romans, but the divinities themselves strictly commanded, and to some extent, constrained their devotees to enact them in all solemnity and dedicate them to their honor. This I alluded to briefly in the first Book. For, it was when a plague was getting the upper hand that the stage plays were first introduced in Rome by the order of the pontifex.
In view of that, who would not deem himself justified in ordinary life in following the kind of conduct vividly exhibited to his eyes in the plays sanctioned by the gods, rather than the laws written down and promulgated by mere human judgment? If the poets misrepresented Jupiter as an adulterer, the chaste gods should have blazed with anger and vengeance that such a scandal was dramatized by men—not because it was being forgotten. These are only the less revolting among the plays, namely, the comedies and the tragedies. These are the dramatizations of poets’ fables, amply spotted with indecencies, to be sure, but not composed in the obscene language that befouls many others. Yet, mere boys are compelled by their elders to read and learn these as part of what is called a humane and liberal education.
What the ancient Romans thought on this subject we are told by Cicero in the books he wrote about the republic, where in one of the discussions Scipio declares: ‘The scandal-ridden comedies could never have found favor with the public unless the standards of the day allowed it.’ The Greeks of a former age, perverted though their taste was, were at least consistent in their license. For, even by law, comedy was free to make any allusion to anyone even by name. According to Scipio Africanus in the same work: ‘No one was free from attack or even persecution.’ No one was spared. Grant that some of the targets of its barbs were dishonorable demagogues and political agitators like Cleon, Cleophon, and Hyperbolus. That is tolerable—although citizens of that type are better black-marked by the censor than by the poet. But, to bespatter with foul verse and drag on the stage such men as Pericles, after he had led his country in war and peace for many years with great distinction, that was no more decent for a poet than if our Plautus or Naevius were to slander Publius and Gnaeus Scipio, or if Caecilius were to revile Marcus Cato.’
A little further on he continues: ‘On the contrary, among the very few offenses for which capital punishment was imposed, our Twelve Tables included that of publishing libelous and defamatory verse. That is admirable. For, our lives should not be subject to poets’ irresponsible wit, but to the judges of magistrates and to the orderly processes of law; and we should come to hear no accusation except on the condition that the accused is given the opportunity to reply and defend himself in court.’
I have thought fit to cite these passages from the fourth book of Cicero’s De re Publica word for word, except for a few omissions and slight transpositions to make the sense clearer. They are very relevant to the subject which I am trying to make as plain as I can. Cicero’s Africanus has other observations to add, and concludes this passage by pointing out that the old Romans viewed with disfavor both the flattering or abusing on the stage of any man still alive. But, as I said, the Greeks, who felt the impropriety of this, nevertheless allowed it for consistency’s sake, since they saw that their gods found the scurrilities in the dramatized fables acceptable and pleasing. This was so not only when these were directed against men, but even against the gods themselves, whether the plays were the fictions of poets or true relations of their depravities were enacted in the theatres.
It is a pity that their worshipers regarded them as a subject not merely for laughter, but also for imitation. It was arrogance to spare the reputation of the rulers of the state and of the citizens, when the divinities had so little regard for their own.
Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII