Only a man who prefers to imitate that sort of god rather than, with God’s grace, to reject their company will fail to see, from facts like these, how those sinister spirits try to cast a kind of glamor of divine authority on wicked acts. They were actually seen, on a plain in Campania, fighting a pitched battle among themselves, shortly before the citizen armies were locked in a bloody encounter in the same place. At first, deafening noises rent the air; soon after, many people reported how for several days they had seen two columns in battle, and, when the battle was over, they found as many footprints, like those of men and horses, as might be expected from so great an engagement.
Now, one point of the story—if the gods really fought against gods—is that civil wars among men cannot be condemned. Another is that such gods must be either malicious or miserable. If, on the other hand, the fight was a mere sham, it had no purpose but to make the Romans believe that, when they broke out in civil strife, they did no wrong, since the gods had given the example. The civil wars had already begun, heralded by sundry battles and unspeakably savage massacres. Already, a tragic episode had struck horror into many. A soldier, while stripping the spoils off a slain foe, saw that the body was that of his own brother. With a curse against fratricidal wars, he turned the sword upon himself and fell by his brother’s side.
To the end that men might not feel the horror of such abominations, but that their lust for criminal wars might be kindled to greater frenzy, the malignant spirits, whom the Romans took for gods and thought worthy of honor and worship, willed to appear before men as fighting with one another. Thus, with the spectacle of battling gods before them, Romans would not be deterred by love of country from initiating similar conflicts, but would rather see human villainy condoned by the example of the gods. It was the same cunning which the unclean devils used when they demanded stage plays to be performed in their honor, in which, as I have pointed out, the scandals of the gods were exhibited before men’s eyes, both in the musical pantomimes and in dramatizations of fables. Whether the spectator believed that the gods really did such things or not, he nevertheless knew that the gods were immensely pleased to have their villainies performed and that, therefore, he could do likewise without qualm.
Lest any man think that whenever the poets tell of the fighting gods they are penning rebukes rather than encomiums, the gods themselves, in order to deceive men, set the seal of approval on their songs. They did so not only by having their battles portrayed by the actors on the stage, but by doing their own fighting in open field before men’s eyes.
We have felt bound to say this because their own authors had frankly declared and written that, because of the depraved morals of the Roman citizens, the republic had gone to pieces, leaving no trace of its old self, long before the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. This disaster they refuse to blame on their gods, but they blame on our Christ the passing ills to which men never yield in life or death. While our Christ constantly inculcates lofty precepts to uphold good morals and to denounce evil ones, the gods issued no such precepts to the people who worshiped them and did nothing to save the republic from doom. On the contrary, by their example they gave, in a sense, wicked approval to the corruption of those morals, and thus did everything to destroy the republic.
There is no one, I hope, who will dare any longer to assert that the republic fell into ruin because the gods ‘departed and left the temples and the altars bare,’ on the ground that, being friends of virtue, they were repelled by the vices of men. For, by the fact that no end of auspices, auguries, and divinations revealed them as boasting of their foresight and as abettors of war, they stand convicted of having remained where they were. If they had really departed, the Romans in their civil wars would have been led merely by their passions and would have been less savage than they were under the spur of the demons’ instigations.
This being the case, one question needs answering. Openly and without concealment, the bestial indecencies, crimes, and misdeeds of the gods were paraded before the people to be seen and to be taken as patterns of life. This was done at the instance of the gods themselves, who threatened the penalty of their wrath if those spectacles were not consecrated to their honor, at regular intervals, with all pomp and circumstance. By the pleasure they take in such abominations, the demons prove themselves to be unclean spirits. By the revelation of their vices and infamous actions, they avow themselves to be the inciters of scandalous and unclean living. It was they who solicited from the brazen actor class the formal representation of these depravities real or imaginary, and forced it upon decent people. How, then, can anyone think, in face of all this, that these devils impart certain precepts of good morals to a chosen coterie of saints, so to speak, in their holy of holies and in the secret recesses of their temples?
If this is true, there is all the more reason to recognize and unmask the malice of these unclean spirits. So powerful is the attraction of the virtue of purity that practically every human being is pleased to hear it praised, and no one is so sunk in depravity as to have lost all sense of decency. Hence, unless the malignity of the demons somewhere ‘transformeth itself into an angel of light,’ as we read in our Scripture, it cannot carry out its business of deception.
So it happens that, in public, impious impurity shouts into people’s ears with noisy din, while in private, hidden chastity is scarcely heard of even by a few. For depravity there is notoriety; for decency, only concealment. Decency goes into hiding; indecency goes on parade. Evil action summons a mob; a good discourse scarcely finds a handful of listeners. It is as though virtue were matter for shame, and vice for boasting. Such is the perversion in the temples of the demons, in those haunts of deceit. The esoteric instructions are to ensnare the decent few; the public worship is to keep the immoral majority from reform.
I do not know when or where the elect of the goddess Caelestis ever heard any maxims of chastity. This I do know. Before the temple gates where I saw her idol standing, the mob poured in from all sides, each one finding room wherever he could elbow himself in. I was all eyes and ears for the plays that were being enacted. My morbid gaze shifted from one side to the other, now falling on a procession of strumpets, now on the virgin goddess, now on the humble supplications being addressed to her, now on the foul antics being enacted before her face. I saw no modest actors, no actions that had a touch of shame. Every honor was done to obscenity. Everyone knew what gratified the whim of the virgin goddess, and an exhibition was put on in the temple that gave even experienced matrons something to take home. Some women turned in shame from the filthy gestures of the actors, learning the artistry of vice only by furtive glances.
They felt abashed before men to gaze openly on the impure motions, yet they did not dare, with a pure heart, to reprobate the rites of the goddess they worshiped. In the temple those obscenities were openly taught which, at home, are done only in the dark. The only wonder for a decent-minded man—if there were any—was that there should be any remorse when men practice those indecencies which the gods were so eager to have acted on the open stage as a part of religion and, in fact, become angry when they are not performed.
What other spirit inflames minds with a secret itch to commit adulteries, and gloats over them when commited, except one who finds delight in such celebrations? Such a spirit it is which sets up diabolical idols in the temples, and in the plays loves the images of vices; which whispers words of righteousness in secret in order to deceive the virtuous few, while in the open multiplies incitements to depravity in order to drag to itself the mass of wicked men.
Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII