If Scipio were still alive, he might possibly reply: ‘Who were we to put a penalty on observance which the divinities themselves invested with religious character? It was they who introduced the Roman custom of having dedicated and performed in their honor theatrical exhibitions which glorify improprieties in word and deed.’ Surely, it was more logical to realize that those gods could not be true gods, worthy of divine honors given by the State. Surely, decency and propriety absolutely forbade that honor be rendered to gods who demanded stage exhibits that are insulting to Romans. How, then, I ask, did anyone come to think of worshiping, instead of abominating, those evil spirits of deceit who demanded that their depravities be exhibited in public worship?
Moreover, though the Roman people were so sunk in superstition as to honor divinities whom they saw craving to have their lewdness paraded in religious pageantry, they still had enough regard for dignity and decency not to exalt, like the Greeks, the actors of such farces. On the contrary, as Scipio tells us in Cicero’s De re publica, ‘As long as the Romans despised dramatic art and everything connected with the stage, that type of men forfeited the respect of other citizens and had their names struck off the roll of their tribe with the brand of infamy.’
That is admirable good sense, for which the Roman people must be given credit, but I could wish that it were consistent with itself, and carried into action. For, it was right for any Roman citizen who chose the theatrical profession not only to be kept out of posts of honor, but also to be excluded from his own tribe by the censor’s stigma. That was a spirit jealous of the country’s good name and genuinely Roman!
But, in the name of consistency, let someone explain to me why actors are debarred from all public dignities, while the plays they perform on the stage are made part of divine worship! For a long time, in their more virtuous days, the Romans knew nothing of stage masquers. If these had been sought to satisfy men’s lust, they would have crept in as the result of corruption of men’s morals. But, it was the gods who demanded the mummeries. How, then, can one cast out the mummer through whom the deity is worshiped? How can the performer of that theatrical indecency be stigmatized if the god who demands it is adored?
In this controversy, let the Greeks and the Romans fight out the issue. On the one side, the Greeks think they are right in showing regard for actors because they worship the gods who demand stage plays. On the other, the Romans will not suffer actors to be a blot even on their low-born tribe, and much less on the senatorial order. In this debate, the whole question is brought to the point by the following argument. The Greeks submit as a major premise: ‘If gods of that sort are to be worshiped, then, surely, men of that sort are to be honored.’ The Romans add the minor: ‘But men of that sort are in no way to be honored.’ The Christian draws the conclusion: ‘Therefore, such gods are in no way to be worshiped.’
The next question we may ask is: Why are not the poets who fabricate such fables and who by the Law of the Twelve Tables were forbidden to blacken any citizen’s good name—why are they not put in the same disreputable class as the actors, since they, too, bespatter the gods with infamous jibes? How is a man justified who denounces the impersonators of the god-defaming caricature of the poets, and yet who commends their authors? Perhaps the palm should be given to the Greek Plato. In conceiving the constitution of the ideal State, he thought it proper to exclude from the city the poets, as enemies of the truth. He would tolerate no insults to the gods, nor permit the minds of the people to be mislead and perverted by fictions.
Now, compare Plato, a mere man, permitting no poets in the city to impose upon the people, with the gods, who are divine, itching to be honored with pantomimes. Even though he could not convince them in argument, Plato urged the frivolous and dissolute Greeks to abstain even from writing such indecencies. The gods, on the other hand, compelled even grave and respectable Romans to perform them. Nor were they content merely with their being staged; they had them dedicated and consecrated to themselves and solemnly celebrated. To whom, then, should the city award divine honors with greater propriety? To Plato, who strove to debar those unspeakable obscenities, or to the demons who gloated in deluding the men whom Plato failed to convince of the truth?
Labeo was of the opinion that Plato should have been numbered among the demi-gods, as were Hercules and Romulus. He ranked the demigods above the heroes, counting both as divinities. But, I do not hesitate to place the man he calls a demigod not only above the heroes, but above the gods themselves. For, there is a certain kinship between the laws of the Romans and the dialogues of Plato, in so far as he reprobates all the fabrications of poets, while the Romans deny to poets at least the right to calumniate people. Plato forbids poets to live within the precincts of a city; the Romans exclude at least the impersonators of poetical fictions from the citizen community, and would, no doubt, drive them out altogether did they dare oppose the gods, who are responsible for the plays.
In view of all this, how was it possible for the Roman people to hope to receive from the gods any laws calculated to produce good morals or reform evil ones? The gods are beaten and put to shame by the laws of Rome. The gods demand plays in their honor; the Romans exclude the players from all public honors. The gods order slanders on gods to be paraded in poetical farces; the Romans punish the impudent poets if they slander men. Meanwhile, that demigod Plato not only rebuked the shamelessness of the gods, but also pointed out what the Romans should do if they would be true to their character. This he did when he permitted no poets within a well-ordered state, on the ground that they were willful liars or too inclined to set before poor mortals the shabby doings of the deities as models to imitate.
On our part, we Christians regard Plato neither as a god nor a demigod, nor do we place him on a level with any of God’s holy angels, or with a prophet of truth or apostle, or with any martyr of Christ or simple Christian. The reason for this statement will, God willing, be given in due course. But, as long as you yourselves will have him as demigod, our opinion is that he should be set above Romulus or Hercules, for no historian or poet ever affirmed or imagined that Plato slew his brother or committed a grievous crime; assuredly, above Priapus or the dog-headed Anubis or the goddess Fever, divinities whom the Romans partly adopted from foreign cults and partly made their own.
How, then, could such divinities enact good laws and ordinances either to ward off such widespread mental and moral corruption or to eradicate it once it had taken root? This the more so, since they did their utmost to sow the seeds and nurture vice by their desire to have those depravities presented to the people on the public stage as the real or supposed exploits of the gods, thus kindling, thus giving, as it were, divine warrant to the rebellion of the basest human impulses. Cicero was a voice crying in the desert when he exclaimed, thinking of the poets: ‘When they have won the plaudits and approbation of the people as if it were the verdict of an eminent judge, what darkness invades their mind, what fears beset it, what passions inflame it?’
Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII