If no heed be paid to the one who declared the Roman state a ‘sink of iniquity,’ and if my opponents, content if it can but endure, are not moved by the shame and ignominy of utter degeneration that floods it, let them note that it has not merely become the ‘sink of iniquity’ described by Sallust, but that, as Cicero maintains, it had long since perished and no longer endured as a state. Cicero lets that same Scipio who had destroyed Carthage voice his opinion of the state at a time when men felt a presentiment that it would soon be brought low by the rottenness which Sallust describes. Cicero’s comments belong to that dramatic time of the murder of Tiberias Gracchus, who, as Sallust writes, stirred up dangerous revolts. His death is mentioned in the same work of Cicero.
Scipio, then, had said: ‘In playing the lute, or the flute, or even in vocal music, the different notes should be kept in harmony. If they are changed into discord, the trained ear cannot endure it. That agreeable harmony, however, is produced by the modulation of tones that are very dissimilar. In like manner, as in music, out of the highest and the lowest classes, and of those that lie between, by a reasonable control, the State is fashioned into a concordant whole by the consent of very diverse elements. What musicians call harmony in music, in the State is known as concord, the closest and strongest bond of security in any commonwealth, and which can in no way exist without justice.’
Then, further on, after he had discussed more fully how much the State has to gain from justice and how much to lose from the lack of it, Philus, one of the participants in the discussion, took up the discourse and earnestly begged that the question be treated more thoroughly and that more be said about justice, especially as the common opinion was that the State could not be governed without justice. Scipio also agreed that the question must be thrashed out and elucidated. His answer was that nothing had as yet been said about the State that could serve as a basis for further discussion until two facts were established: first of all, the falsity of the view that the State can not be governed without injustice, and, secondly, the solidity of the truth that it can not be governed without absolute justice.
The consideration of that question was put off to the following day, and in the third Book the matter is introduced amid a clash of opinions. Philus himself championed the stand of those who held that the State could not be governed without injustice being done, after he had solemnly disclaimed any share in such opinion. With earnestness, he advocated the case of injustice against justice, and by specious arguments and illustrations he strove to prove that injustice was an advantage to the State, while justice served no useful purpose. Then Laelius, in his turn, and at the instance of the whole company, undertook to vindicate the claims of justice. With all the emphasis he could command, he declared that the State could have no greater enemy than injustice, and that no commonwealth could either be governed or endure if justice did not dominate.
After the pros and cons of this question had been examined, Scipio again took up the broken threads of the discussion, and, going back to his definition of the republic, he endorsed in a few words the stand that ‘the commonwealth is the weal of the people.’ He defines the people as ‘not any mass gathering, but a multitude bound together by a mutual recognition of rights and a mutual cooperation for the common good.’ He then proceeds to point out the advantage of defining terms when engaged in a discussion, and from principles accurately stated he concludes that you have a true commonwealth, that is, the weal of the people, when it is rightly and justly administered either by one monarch, or by a few men of rank, or by all the people.
But, if the prince is unjust, or a tyrant (to use the Greek word), or if the aristocrats are unjust (in which case their group is merely a faction), or if the people themselves are unjust (and must be called, for lack of a better word, a tyrant also), then the commonwealth is not merely bad, as it was described in the discussion of the previous day, but is no commonwealth at all. The reason for that is that there is no longer the welfare of the people, once a tyrant or a faction seizes it; nor would the people, if unjust, be any longer a people, because they would not then be regarded as a multitude bound together by a common recognition of rights, and a mutual cooperation for the common good, as the standard definition of a people demands.
When, therefore, the Roman republic was such as Sallust describes it, it was not only ‘very wicked and corrupt’—‘a sink of iniquity,’ as he puts it—it was no republic at all, if measured by the criterion established by its ablest representatives when they met to debate the nature of a republic.
Tullius himself, at the beginning of his fifth book, quotes the verse of the poet Ennius declaring: ‘The Roman state rests on the men and the morals of old,’ and in his own words, not those of Scipio or any other, remarks: ‘That line for its conciseness and truth sounds to me like the utterance of an oracle. For, had not the state been blessed with a wholesome body of citizens, and had not those men stood at the head, neither men nor morals could have availed to found or so long maintain a republic of such might to rule so far and wide and so justly. Indeed, long before our time, it was the custom of the land to appoint distinguished men who held fast to the ancient traditions and the institutions of our forefathers. Our own generation inherited the republic, an exquisite masterpiece, indeed, though faded with age; but it failed to restore its original colors. Worse, alas; it did not even move a finger to preserve as much as its form, or its barest outlines.
What is there left of the ancient virtue which the illustrious poet Ennius declared was the mainstay of the Roman state? We are aware only that it has been so utterly cast to the winds that morals are not merely unobserved, but are positively ignored. What can we say of the men? Precisely for want of men the good old customs have been lost, and for so great an evil not only are we responsible but we should face judgment, like culprits fearing the penalty of death. By our own vices, not by chance, we have lost the republic, though we retain the name.’
All this, Cicero avowed many years after the death of Africanus, one of the disputants in the Republic, and before the coming of Christ. If such reproaches were expressed or entertained after the triumphant advance of the Christian religion, there is not a pagan who would not think of charging them to the Christians. Why, then, did their gods not save from disaster that republic which, long before Christ appeared in the flesh, Cicero mournfully deplores as lost?
Let its panegyrists really take a look at the republic in the day of those ancient men and customs. Let them ask whether true justice flourished and inspired morality or was merely a colored painting of justice, as Cicero himself unwittingly suggests while meaning to praise it.
We shall consider this later, God willing. In its proper place, I shall endeavor to show that that ancient creation was never a true republic, because in it true justice was never practiced. I shall base my position on Cicero’s own definitions, in the light of which he briefly determined, through the mouth of Scipio, what was a republic and what was a people. There are many confirmatory opinions expressed in that discussion both by himself and by the interlocutors he introduced.
However, according to some definitions that are nearer the truth, it was a commonwealth of a sort, and it was better governed by the earlier Romans than by those who came later. But, true justice is not to be found save in that commonwealth, if we may so call it, whose Founder and Ruler is Jesus Christ—for, no one can deny that this is the weal of the people. This name, with its varied meanings, is perhaps not quite in tune with our language, but this at least is certain: True justice reigns in that state of which Holy Scripture says: ‘Glorious things are said of thee, O City of God.’
But, concerning the subject under discussion, however deserving of praise they say the republic once was or still is, the fact remains that by the testimony of their most well-informed writers it had, long before Christ’s coming, become a sink of iniquity. Never a true republic, it had fallen through the foulness of its morals. Surely, to prevent this fall, it was a duty of its divine guardians to prescribe for their worshipers a way of life and a code of morals. This people honored them with temples, priests, and sacrifices of every sort, with count-of grandiose festival plays. In all this, the devils looked only less rites and solemn celebrations, and with an endless round after their own interest. They cared nothing for the kind of life the people led. In fact, they actively abetted evil living so long as the people, in slavish fear, performed all those rites in their honor.
If the gods did prescribe such a moral code, bring it out; produce it; let us know what laws divinely given to the Roman citizens were violated by the Gracchi when a whirlwind of disorder followed their revolts. What laws did Marius and his lieutenants Cinna and Carbo disregard when they plunged into a civil war, begun with wicked intention, carried on with barbarity, and ended with savagery? What laws did Sulla flout? He was a man whose whole life, morals, and actions as described by Sallust and other historians make one shudder. Was not, in fact, the republic of old already fallen?
In view of such public morals, who will dare to adduce, in defense of the gods, the familiar phrase of Virgil: ‘The gods, by whom this empire stood, left all the temples and the altars bare.’ If that be so, they have no reason to blame the Christian religion, as though their injured gods, on that account, foresook them. As a matter of fact, their forebears, in their rough way, drove from the altars of the city a whole mob of lesser gods, like so many flies. Yet, where was this mob of divinities at the crisis when, long before the old morals were corrupted, Rome was captured and set in flames by the Gauls? Were they, perhaps, on the scene, but asleep? For, on that occasion, almost the entire city fell into the power of the enemy. The Capitoline Hill alone escaped, and it too, would have been seized had not the geese, at least, kept watch while the gods slumbered.
It was because of this that Rome, stooping to the superstition of the Egyptians and their adoration of beasts and birds, adopted the custom of solemnizing the feast of the goose. But, this is only in passing. I do not as yet intend to discuss these accidental evils which came in the wake of hostile invasion or of other misfortunes and afflict the body rather than the soul. At the moment, I am concerned with the immorality, as first seeping in little by little, then like a torrent making a ruin of the republic—though its roofs and walls stood intact. This was so complete that great writers did not hesitate to declare that the state had perished. The gods might have departed with some right and ‘left the temples and altars bare’ in order to ruin the state, if the citizens had made sport of any code of morality and justice which the gods had given them. But, tell me, what sort of gods are those who refused to live with a people that worshiped them, after they had failed to teach their worshipers to give up a life of scandal for one of decency?
Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII