The City of God: Book 2: Chapters Twenty-Three and Twenty-Four

Chapter 23

The gods seem even to have lent their aid in satisfying the peoples’ base desires. At all events, it can be shown that they gave no aid in holding them in check. Did they not assist Marius, a political upstart of low birth and a bloodthirsty inciter and leader of civil war? He secured the consulship for seven terms and died in the fullness of life during his seventh consulship before he could fall into the hands of Sulla, who was about to emerge as victor. If the gods gave no help to Marius, that is significant. It points to the fact that a man, even without the favor of the gods, can achieve that large measure of earthly prosperity which men have so much at heart, and can be as powerful and happy as Marius was and enjoy health, strength, riches, honors, respect and long life, even though the gods are against him. On the other hand, it can happen that men like the noble Regulus suffer and die in captivity, slavery, destitution, sleeplessness, and pain, though the gods smile on him with favor.

If they grant this, then they flatly confess that the gods do them no good, and that to worship them is time lost. For, if those gods arranged things so that the people were taught principles directly opposed to the virtues of the soul and decency of life, for which men expect a reward after death, and if even as regards transitory and temporal blessings the gods have no power to hurt those they hate or benefit those they love, what is the sense of making such ado about their worship? Why should men utter any complaint in times of depression and gloom, as though the gods had withdrawn themselves under insult, and why, on their account, should anyone bespatter Christ’s religion with vile abuse?

If they have any power to do good or evil in these matters, why did they lend their aid to the scoundrel Marius and deny it to the noble Regulus? Is not this proof to anyone that they are the most unjust and wicked of beings? If any imagine that that is the more reason why they should be feared and worshiped, even there they are mistaken, for it is known that the noble Regulus honored them no less than Marius. It is also an error to fancy that, because the gods smiled on Marius more than they did on Regulus, a wicked life is therefore the best choice. For, there was Metellus, a man highly esteemed among the Romans. He had five sons who filled consular office, and, beyond that, he was blessed in temporal goods. In contrast, there was Catiline, an unspeakably wicked man, who lived in crushing poverty and who fell miserably in the civil war he had criminally let loose. And there is the truest and securest kind of happiness which is the lot only of the good who worship the true God, who alone has the power to bestow it.

Thus, when the old republic was dying from the corrosion of low morals, the gods did not move a finger to guide or correct those morals and thus save it from death. On the contrary, they contributed to the depravity and corruption, that it might more surely die. It is of no use for them to pose as virtuous and to pretend that they departed because they were repelled by the depravity of the citizens. They were on the spot; they are discovered and convicted. They could neither help by their counsels nor hide by their silence.

I need not recall how the sympathetic people of Minturnae implored their goddess Marica in her grove that Marius might succeed in everything; then, how he was rescued from a desperate situation and returned safe, and ferocious—at the head of a ferocious army and against Rome. How murderous, barbarous, and more savage than an enemy’s was his victory there may be read in the histories.

But, as I said, I need not recall this. In any case, I do not attribute the bloodstained success of Marius to some Marica or other, but to God’s secret providence. Providence uses such means to silence our enemies and save those unbelievers from their errors who are without prejudice and are wise enough to learn. For, though the demons have some power in these matters, they have only as much as the hidden will of Almighty God allows them. This is in order that we may not, in view of such deceptions, overestimate earthly success, which, as in the case of Marius, is as a rule bestowed also upon the wicked; again, that we may in other respects regard it as an evil thing, seeing that, despite the demons, many good and religious souls, devoted to the true God, have enjoyed it in large measure. Neither should we consider that the same unclean spirits should be appeased or feared, if only on account of these earthly goods or evils. For, neither wicked men on earth, nor the demons, can do all they desire, save in so far as is allowed by God’s ordinance, whose judgments no man can fully comprehend, or justly reprehend.

Chapter 24

As for Sulla himself, who brought his times so low that the preceding period, of which he posed as the champion or reformer, was by comparison more desirable, Titus Livy tells the following incident. It took place at the moment when Sulla first moved his army to march to Rome against Marius. At the sacrifice to the gods, the animal’s entrails showed such favorable omens that the augur Postumius offered to deliver himself to custody and lose his head if, with the help of the gods, Sulla failed to carry to a successful conclusion the plans he had in mind. Note that the gods had not yet ‘departed and left the temples and the altars bare’ when they were predicting the outcome of Sulla’s war, without giving a thought to the reform of the man himself. In prophecy, they promised him huge success, but there was not one word of warning to curb his insatiable greed.

Again, while he was waging war against Mithridates in Asia, Jupiter sent him, through Lucius Titus, the assurance that he would vanquish Mithridates, and so it happened. Later, while Sulla was planning to return to Rome—to avenge his own and his friends’ wrongs in a bloody civil war—Jupiter reminded him by a soldier of the sixth legion that he had prophesied his victory over Mithridates, and now promised him power to recover the republic from its enemies, even at the cost of blood. Sulla asked the soldier to describe the shape of the vision he had seen. When the soldier did so, Sulla remembered that it was the same as the one previously described by that Titus who brought the prediction that he would crush Mithridates.

Now, what answer can they give to this pertinent question: Why were the gods so solicitous to announce those successes as happy events, while not one of them bothered about warning Sulla to amend his ways? They knew that he was on the point of unloosing such a criminal civil war as would not merely drag the republic in the mud, but would reduce it to ruins. It is one more indication of what the demons are. As I have so often suggested, and as we know from Sacred Scripture, and as the facts themselves reveal, their business is to see that they are taken for gods and worshiped accordingly, that such honors be bestowed upon them as will make their worshipers accomplices in an evil cause, most damnable in God’s judgment.

On a later occasion, when Sulla reached Tarentum and there offered sacrifice, he beheld in the upper part of a calf’s liver the likeness of a golden crown. This the augur Postumius interpreted as presaging a brilliant victory, and bade him eat that part of the entrails all alone. A few minutes later, the slave of a certain Lucius Pontius prophesied in a loud voice: ‘Sulla, I bring you a message from Bellona: Victory is yours!’ Adding that the capitol would be burned down, he rushed out of the camp. The next day he was back, very excited, to announce that the capitol was already in ashes. And in ashes it was. It was an easy matter for an evil spirit both to foresee the event and to announce it so quickly.

But, mark well, for this is much to our purpose, what sort of gods those men choose for masters who blaspheme the Savior because He delivers the hearts of the faithful from the Devil’s domination. The man who played the prophet shouted: ‘Sulla, victory is yours!’ And, to make it credible that he spoke by divine inspiration, he announced a proximate event that soon occurred in a place far distant from the man through whom the spirit spoke. But, note, he did not cry: ‘Sulla, keep away from criminal acts’—of which as victor he perpetrated the most horrible. In the golden crown in the calf’s liver Sulla had seen the signal token of his victory. But, if gods who give such signs were good gods and not wicked demons, surely in those entrails they would have rather pointed out how abominable in themselves and how disastrous to Sulla himself were the evils that lay ahead.

That victory which enhanced his dignity brought disaster to his cupidity; for, casting moderation aside, he brought more ruin upon his moral character than upon the bodies of his enemies. This truly sad and lamentable outcome was not foretold to him by those gods, either by entrails or auguries, or by any dream or divination. They feared his reform more than they did his defeat. Their aim was to make the conqueror of the Roman people a slave to shameful vices, and thus to chain him more securely to the demons themselves.

Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII

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