Bear in mind that, in recounting these things, I am still dealing with those ignorant dupes who gave birth and popular currency to the saying: ‘If there is a drought, blame the Christians.’ As for those among them who have received a liberal education and appreciate the value of history, they can very easily inform themselves. In order to arouse popular hatred against us, they pretend ignorance and strive to instill into people’s minds the common notion that the misfortunes which afflict the human race are due to the expansion of Christianity and to the eclipse of the pagan gods by the bright glory of its reputation and renown.
Let them, therefore, recall with me the calamities which so often and in so many ways set back the prosperity of Rome, and remember, too, that all this happened long before Christ came in the flesh, long before His Name shone before men with that glory which they vainly begrudge Him. In the face of those disasters, let them defend their gods if they can, remembering that they were worshiped precisely to prevent the evils recorded. Yet, if any of those evils befall them now, we Christians must bear the blame. Why, then, did the gods permit the misfortunes I shall mention to fall on their devotees before the promulgation of Christ’s teaching provoked their wrath and proscribed their sacrifices?
In the first place, why were the gods so negligent as to allow the morals of their worshipers to sink to so low a depth? The true God leaves those who do not worship Him to their own devices, but why did not those gods (whose worship, so thankless men complain, is forbidden) lay down moral precepts that would help their devotees to lead a decent life? They should have had as much concern for their worshipers’ conduct as these had for their cult. But, some one will reply, each man is bad by his own will. No one ever denied this! Nevertheless, it was incumbent on protecting deities, not to conceal from their worshipers the laws of a good life, but to proclaim such laws from the housetops. It was for them to seek out and call sinners to task through the medium of prophets whose duty it was to threaten evil-doers with the punishment awaiting them, and to hold out the promise of reward for virtuous living.
Whoever heard such a thing proclaimed, fearlessly and authoritatively, in the temples of the gods? I myself, in my younger days, used to frequent the sacrilegious stage plays and comedies. I used to watch the demoniacal fanatics and listen to the choruses, and take delight in the obscene shows in honor of their gods and goddesses, of the virgin Caelestis and the Berecynthian Cybele, mother of the gods. Before the latter’s couch on the day of her solemn bathing, ribald refrains were publicly sung about her by lewd actors that were unfit for the ear of the mother of the gods, and of the mother of any Senator or decent man—so unspeakably bestial, in fact, that even the mothers of the players themselves would have been ashamed to listen. For, there is in human modesty an inborn respect for parents which wickedness itself cannot efface.
Surely, the comedians themselves would have blushed to rehearse at home before their mothers the obscene words and actions which they uttered and performed in public before the mother of the gods and in the presence of a vast assemblage of both sexes. If curiosity could entice such numbers to come, a shocked sense of decency surely should have hurried them home. If these enormities are religious service, what can sacrilege be? If that bathing is purification, what is pollution? And these were called dishes, or ‘courses,’ as though a banquet were being celebrated at which the unclean demons were regaled with their favorite tidbits. If any one does not realize what kind of spirits find pleasure in such obscenities, then he is either unaware that there are unclean spirits wearing the deceptive masks of gods, or else he is leading the sort of life that prefers the demons, rather than the true God, as gracious masters and angry foes.
To evaluate my judgment on this matter, I shall appeal to men who loathe, not to those who seek pleasure in, these depraved customs. I appeal to Scipio Nasica, who was formally elected by the Senate as the best citizen, and in whose hands the idol of the demon Cybele was received and carried into the city. He would tell us whether he would wish his mother to have deserved so well of the State as to have divine honors decreed to her such as the Greeks and Romans and other peoples are known to have decreed to certain mortals whose good services to them they highly valued, and whom they believed to have attained immortality and to have been received into the ranks of the gods. We may be sure that Scipio could not but wish such good fortune to his mother, if at all attainable.
Moreover, if I were further to ask Scipio whether he would be pleased to see those vile indecencies given in honor of his mother, would he not cry out in protest that he would sooner see his mother in her grave than have her live to hear with pleasure those outrageous things? God forbid that a Senator of the Roman people, who forbade the erection of theatres in the city of a virile nation, should bear to have his mother worshiped as a goddess with pantomime rites such as she or any honorable woman would blush to see or hear. How could he be brought to believe that that admirable woman’s sense of modesty could be so distorted by divinity that she would suffer her devotees to invoke her with rites so ribald and coarse. Indeed, if she heard such filthy banter hurled at any one, her kinsmen, husband, and children would be thoroughly ashamed if she did not shut her eyes and leave the room.
It was such a mother of the gods as even the vilest human being would be ashamed to own as his own mother, who, in her attempt to captivate the hearts of the Romans, sought after the best man. It was not, indeed, to make him a good man by her counsel and help, but to deceive him by fraud—like the one of whom it is written: ‘The woman catcheth the precious soul of a man.’ The aim of this deception was that the high-minded spirit, inflated by seemingly divine testimony, and esteeming himself in reality the best, would strive no more for that true piety and religion without which any genius, however laudable, evaporates in pride and comes to nothing. How else but with deceptive purpose would that goddess seek the best man, since she desires such bawdiness in her worship as decent men shrink from even in their cups?
Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII