To justify these low comedies, it is alleged that the tales told of the gods are not true, but only fictitious inventions. That itself is even more reprehensible, when you consider the reverence due to religion. If you realize how great is the demons’ malice, what more cunning and clever trick to deceive could be imagined? When an insult is flung into the face of a good and capable ruler, is it not all the more unworthy for being far from truth and foreign to his way of life? What penalty, then, is severe enough when such dastardly and monstrous insults are offered to a god?
But, the evil spirits whom the pagans accept as gods are content to have ascribed to themselves even villainies which they have not committed, so long as by encouraging such impostures they can entangle men’s minds in a mesh of confusion, and drag them to their destined fate together with themselves. This they do when the depravities have been committed by men whom they rejoice to see taken for gods—for they rejoice over all human errors—and the demons get themselves adored by endless wicked frauds. They work the same deception when men have not really committed the villainies in question. The deceivers are glad to have them imputed to the gods, so that men may find ample and suitable warrant from heaven for perpetrating foul and criminal deeds on earth.
Hence, when the Greeks realized that they had that sort of divinities to serve, they deemed it altogether inadvisable, in view of all the vices which were represented on the stage as exploits of the gods, to protect themselves from the lampoons of the poets. Either they wished to be on a par with gods in this matter, or they feared that by seeking a fairer reputation than the gods enjoyed, and thus giving themselves the advantage, they would provoke the gods to wrath.
Consistently enough, the Greeks regarded even the actors who presented those fables on the stage as worthy of high public honor. It is related in the De re publica that Aeschines, the great Atheian orator, became a statesman after he had played tragedies in his youth, and that another tragic actor, Aristodemus, was sent on frequent embassies to King Philip of Macedon, to negotiate matters of great import for peace and war. In view of the fact that such arts and plays found favor with their gods, it was not thought proper to think of the actors as disreputable persons.
The Greeks conceived the matter perversely enough, but quite in keeping with the character of their gods. They shrank from any measures to protect their people from the barbs of poets and actors, since the divinities themselves were not against being burlesqued by the clowns. Hence, they preferred, not to despise, but rather to respect the actors who mimicked the escapades which their gods found amusing.
By what reasoning could the Greeks honor priests by whose hands sacrifices were offered to the gods, yet hold in low esteem actors by whose pantomiming that pleasure was given which the gods demanded in homage and—as they let it be known—would angrily resent if withheld? For example, Labeo, a reputed expert in matters of this kind, distinguishes good and evil spirits by their respective cults, maintaining that evil gods are appeased by bloody sacrifices and doleful supplications, and good ones by cheerful and pleasant ceremonies, such as plays, banquets, and the so-called ‘feasts of the gods.’
With God’s help, I may discuss this in more detail later on. My only point, for the moment, is whether honor is offered to all the gods indiscriminately as though they were all good (although, in fact, they were all wicked, since they are unclean spirits), or whether, as Labeo thinks, the honors should be distributed with discrimination, some for the good, some for the bad. At all events, the Greeks have done well to honor both the priests, who offer the sacrifices, and the actors who perform the plays. Thus, they do obvious injustice to none of their gods—if the plays please them all. What is less improper, they honor only those they regard as good—if the plays please only them.
The Romans, on the contrary, as Scipio Africanus rejoiced to recall in that memorable disputation, De re publica, refused to have their lives and good name made the target of the poets’ gibes, even threatening with capital punishment any one who dared to produce that kind of verse. They did this out of a sense of self-respect, but, surely, with contempt and irreverence for their gods. For, when the Roman people realized that these divinities took the poets’ jests and gibes not only with patience, but even with pleasure, they regarded such scurrilities as unworthy of themselves, but not of the gods, and so protected themselves by law, while the gods were left open to attack even in solemn ceremonies.
How, then, Scipio, do you approve when Roman poets are denied freedom to slander a single Roman citizen, while you see that they have spared none of your gods? Does the good repute of your Senate mean more to you than that of the Capitol? Is Rome by itself more to you than the whole of heaven, that poets are forbidden by law to libel your fellow-citizens while, unhindered by any Senator, censor, prince or pontifex, they spew such foul abuse into the face of your gods? Was it, then, wrong for Plautus or Naevius to slander Publius and Gnaeus Scipio, or for Caecilius to slander M. Cato, and right for Terence to excite the passions of youth by flaunting the misconduct of great and mighty Jove?
Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII