Tullius, a man of importance though a poor philosopher, about to assume the edileship (magistrate), shouts into the citizens’ ears that among the duties of his office is that of appeasing the Mother Flora by a festival of plays—the piety of whose performance, I may add, is usually in proportion to their lewdness. In another place, speaking at a time when he was consul and the state was facing a most dangerous crisis, he informs us that these plays went on for ten days on end, and that nothing was left undone which was calculated to propitiate the gods. Thereby it is suggested that it was better to placate gods of that kind with debauchery than anger them with continence; to soothe them with unbounded lewdness than to enrage them with decency.
Enemies, with all their beastly ferocity, could not inflict more harm than gods inflicted by the unspeakable foulness they demanded as an appeasement for keeping the enemy at bay. In order to avert the menace to the body, the gods were placated by the defeat of virtue in the soul. They would make no defense against enemies storming men’s walls until they themselves had ruined men’s wills.
The performers of these propitiatory orgies, so wanton, impure, shameless, wicked, and foul, were disfranchised, ostracized, and branded with infamy by the admirable moral instinct of ancient Rome; yet the orgies themselves, so shameful, revolting, and repugnant to true religion, the seductive and slanderous fables about the gods, and their actions, whether villainously and foully committed or more villainously and foully feigned for the public to see and hear—all these the mass of citizens were taught to drink in. Seeing that they delighted the gods, the Romans believed that they should not only be performed in their honor, but also be imitated. At the same time, the people learned nothing of the supposed lessons in good morals imparted to the few and with such secrecy—if imparted at all. It was feared not so much that the lessons would be followed in practice as that they would become common knowledge.
People are wicked and thankless who grumble and complain against being delivered from the hellish yoke of these unclean powers, and from the penalty for keeping such company. People complain against being led out of the dark night of ruinous unbelief into the light of life-giving faith. Fast in the grip of the malign spirit, they grumble because other people stream into the church to render a pure worship to God, where, for modesty’s sake, men are on one side and women on the other. These other people hear how to live their brief span on earth virtuously and, after this life, to live happily forever. There, from an elevation within everyone’s view, are expounded the words of Holy Scripture and the doctrine of righteous living, and how those who put them into practice receive their reward, and those who refuse to do so listen to their damnation.
Though some may come to mock the precepts they hear, they will either experience an unexpected change of heart and lay aside their insolence or, out of sheer awe and shame, they will restrain it. In the place where the commandments of the true God are preached, His miracles related, His bounties praised, and His graces implored, no foul or scandalous deed will be set before them to look at and to imitate.
Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII