It is also a matter of common belief that the gods gave their aid to Numa Pompilius, Romulus’ successor. The result was that, during his entire reign, peace reigned with him, and the gates of the Temple of Janus, ordinarily open in time of war, were closed. The reason alleged is that the king established many sacred rites for the Romans. Certainly, that distinguished man deserves our congratulations for so long a peace. But, it is a pity that he failed to put it to good use, and that, instead of indulging in harmful experiment, he did not seek the true God in all sincerity. In truth, the gods did not bestow that peaceful interval, but perhaps they would not have made such a dupe of him, had they not found him so idle. The less busy they found him, the more busy they became. We learn from Varro how Numa schemed, and what tricks he used to associate such gods with him and with his kingdom. But, God willing, I shall discuss that in more detail in the proper place.
Since we are here dealing with their alleged favors of the gods, let it be granted that peace is indeed a great blessing. But, it is a blessing which, like sun and rain and other necessities of life, the true God bestows even on the ungrateful and the wicked. Now, if those gods conferred so priceless a blessing upon Rome under Pompilius, why did they never vouchsafe it to the Roman Empire even when most deserving of commendation? Were the sacrifices more effective when first introduced than when offered afterwards?
At first, they did not exist, and were therefore instituted; later, they did exist, and were preserved for the good they might do. But, how is one to explain the phenomenon that the forty-three, or, as some would have it, thirty-nine years of Numa’s reign enjoyed unbroken peace, while after that, in the long stretch of years from Rome’s beginnings to Augustus, only the single year after the First Punic War can be recorded—and that as an outstanding miracle—in which the Romans could shut the gates of the war temple. Note that the sacrifices had already been instituted, and the gods themselves had been installed, those gods whom the sacrifices invited to assume the supervision and protection of the commonwealth.
The pagans will probably reply that the Roman Empire could not have attained its vast extent and achieved a glory so great except by constant warfare. A fitting answer, indeed! To become great, must the Empire be in a turmoil? Is it not better for men’s bodies to be of moderate stature and be healthy than to be gigantic and chronically diseased? Having attained that size, they know no rest; the larger the limbs, the sharper the pangs that torment them. What would have been the harm, or, rather, would it not have been for the best, had those times endured to which Sallust refers? He says, ‘In the beginning, the kings (the first title by which rulers were known) varied in character. Some cultivated mental powers; others, physical strength. Yet, men lived their lives undisturbed by greed, each content with his own.’ In order to extend the Empire so widely, need that have happened which Virgil deprecates when he says: ‘Little by little a more wicked and degenerate age crept in, with the fury of war and greed for wealth.’
It will be urged that the Romans had an obviously just reason for all the wars that were declared and waged, since the enemy fell upon them with force, and not thirst for human glory but sheer necessity to protect their lives and liberty drove them to self-defense. Well, let that ‘obviously’ pass. This is what Sallust writes:
‘After the commonwealth of the Romans had, through good laws, morals, and increase of territory, achieved a measure of success and power, its wealth, as often happens among men, became the object of other people’s envy. Sure enough, neighboring kings and tribes began to attack the Romans. A few of their allies came to their aid; the rest, struck with fear, kept far from danger. But the Romans, both at home and in the army, diligently hastened preparations, encouraged one another, and marched against the enemy to protect their freedom, their country, and their king. Having warded off danger by their valor, they brought aid to their allies and friends, seeking to form friendships by conferring, rather than by receiving, benefits.’
By such intelligent industry did Rome develop its power.
But, while Numa reigned, was it the invasions and provocations to war by aggressors that brought about the long period of peace, or did that peace endure because there was no threat of attack? Even then, Rome was provoked to war, yet she did not counter-attack. By continuing to adopt this policy of conciliating enemies without crushing them in battle or striking fear into them by an armed attack, Rome might always have ruled in peace and have kept the gates of Janus forever closed. If this was impossible, then it follows that Rome enjoyed peace, not because the gods willed it, but merely so long as neighbors on the frontier willed not to goad her into war. Unless, of course, we suppose that gods of this type have gall enough to sell to a man something that lies in a third party’s power.
It is worth noting up to what point the wickedness of the demons is permitted to alarm or to sway wills that are wicked. For, if they always had such power, and there were no higher and more mysterious powers to counteract their plots, they could always control matters of peace as well as military victories, for such events are almost invariably shaped and carried into effect by human wills. That more often than not such events occur in spite of the wishes of the gods is a fact attested not only by the fables which, for all their lies, may hint at or symbolize an element of truth, but also by Roman history itself.
Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII