The city of God

The City of God: Book 3: Chapters Eleven and Twelve

Chapter 11

It was because the god was helpless that, as the fables tell us, the statue of Apollo at Cumae shed tears for four days while the Romans were waging war against the Achaeans and King Aristonicus. Shocked by the prodigy, the soothsayers were about to fling the statue into the sea, when the elders of Cumae intervened. They related that the same mysterious phenomenon had been observed in the same statue when the Romans were at war with Antiochus and the Persians. They further affirmed that, because the Romans were victorious, gifts were sent to their Apollo by a senatorial decree.

The soothsayers, considered expert in these matters, were called on to explain. They answered that the reason why the tears shed by Apollo’s statue meant victory for the Romans was that Cumae was a colony of Greek origin, and that the weeping Apollo portended disaster and humiliation for the country whence he had come, Greece itself. Shortly thereafter, news came that King Aristonicus had been defeated and captured, a defeat which, of course, deeply displeased and grieved Apollo, as the tears of the marble image declared. Hence, the descriptions of the poets give us of the habits of the demons are not altogether fantastic, and, though fabulous in character, do contain something like the truth. Thus, we read in Virgil how Diana sorrowed over Camilla and how Hercules wept at the prospect of the slaying of Pallas.

So, perhaps, with Numa Pompilius himself. He enjoyed peace, but without knowing or caring who was the bestower of that gift. In his idle moments he began to consider to what gods he might entrust the security and kingdom of Rome. He did not think that the true, omnipotent, and supreme God concerned Himself about earthly affairs. On the other hand, he remembered that the Trojan gods which Aeneas had brought with him had proved powerless to preserve for any length of time either the realm of Troy or that of Lavinium, which Aeneas himself had founded. So, he thought best to provide other deities, whose duty it would be to stand by the older gods (some of whom had come to Rome with Romulus, and others had passed over after the destruction of Alba), either as guardians of deserters, or as assistants of weaklings.

Chapter 12

Rome was not content with the many rites and sacrifices established by Numa, for the great temple of Jupiter had not yet been erected. It was King Tarquin who built the Capitoline. Aesculapius of Epidaurus managed to get to Rome. He was a skilled physician, and he wanted to be in the celebrated city to practice his profession with greater renown. Then, the Mother of the gods migrated to Rome from some out-of-the-way place called Pessinus. For, of course, it was beneath her dignity to lurk in obscurity while her son was enthroned on the Capitoline. The Mother of all the gods followed some of her children to Rome, but she got there ahead of the others. I should be a bit surprised, though, if she really give birth to dog-headed Cynocephalus, who came from Egypt much later. Whether the goddess Fever was also one of her children, I leave it to Aesculapius, her great-grandson, to say. But, whatever her origin, I do not suppose that the immigrant gods will dare declare a goddess of low birth is a citizen of Rome.

It would be hard to count this horde of divinities—native and foreign, heavenly and earthly, gods of the sea, of the fountains, of the rivers, and, as Varro says, gods definite and dubious, and in every category, male and female, even among animals. Under the protecting shield of such an army of gods, Rome should never have been troubled and afflicted by that frightful succession of disasters, of which I shall mention but a few.

The smoke from innumerable sacrifices that went up like a signal of distress showed that Rome had assembled too many gods for her protection. By instituting and assigning temples, altars, sacrifices, and priests for their service, Rome provoked the anger of the true and all-highest God, to whom alone this worship is properly due. Actually, she led a happier life with fewer gods. But, as she grew in extent, she felt bound to employ more gods, like a bigger ship that employs more sailors. I suppose that Rome lost confidence in the fewer gods of old to sustain her in her greatness, though, in contrast to her more degenerate days, she enjoyed more prosperity under the lesser number. For, considering the old days under the kings, apart from Numa Pompilius, of whom I have already spoken, what a disaster was the strife that led to the murder of Romulus’ brother!

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

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