It would take too long for me to recount the deadly and widely extended clashes between the two warring nations. They struggled till the victor almost succumbed with the victim. This is admitted even by those historians whose purpose is to glorify the Roman Empire rather than to tell the truth about the Roman wars. Follow Hannibal’s march: he sets out from Spain, crosses the Pyrenees, overruns Gaul, and cuts his way through the Alps. Having gathered strength by plunder and conquest in the course of the long drive, his forces poured like a torrent down through the Italian passes. Many a bloody battle was fought; many a time did the Romans go down in defeat! Many a town surrendered to the enemy; many more suffered capture and ruin! How many ferocious battles there were in which the slaughter of the Romans covered Hannibal with glory!
What can one say of the indescribably frightful catastrophe at Cannae? There, ruthless as he was, Hannibal, we are told was so glutted with the slaughter of his bitterest enemies that he ordered his men to cease killing. From that battle Hannibal sent to Carthage three bushels of gold rings, announcing thereby that the number of slain Roman nobles was so great that they could be more easily measured than counted. Likewise, the still greater number of common and ringless soldiers who perished could be more easily conjectured than given in figures.
At length, fighting men became so scarce that the Romans were compelled to enlist released criminals and liberated slaves, and with them organize what was more like a new army of riff-raff than reinforcements of the line. But the slaves—or, as they now had the right to be called, the freedmen who were to fight for the Roman republic—had no weapons. These the Romans took from the temples, as if saying to their gods: ‘Surrender the arms which you have kept idle so long, against this very possibility that our slaves might be able to use those weapons to advantage, which you, our protecting gods, have had no power to use.’
Then, as the treasury had no money to pay the soldiery, private resources came to the aid of the state. Each one gave what he had, so completely that the Senators themselves were entirely stripped of every ounce of gold, except for a ring and an amulet, which each one kept as a sad token of rank. The remaining estates and tribes were even more impoverished. Who could endure those pagans if they were reduced to such destitution in our own days, seeing that we can hardly stand them now, when out of sheer love of extravagant pleasure they can lavish more on comedians than could be scraped together for the legions in the old days and in a moment of extreme national danger?
Of the tragic events that marked the course of the Second Punic War, none was more pathetic and more deplorable than the fate of Saguntum. This city of Spain, of all cities friendliest to the Roman people, was totally destroyed for standing firm in its loyalty. Hannibal, having broken his treaty with the Romans, took every occasion to provoke them into a new war. Hence, he savagely laid siege to Saguntum. When the news of this reached Rome, envoys were sent to Hannibal demanding that he raise the siege. Rebuffed by Hannibal, they proceeded to Carthage to protest the violation of the treaty, but returned to Rome with nothing accomplished.
In the meantime, that unfortunate city, one of the most flourishing and most highly esteemed both by its own country and by Rome, was razed to the ground by the Carthaginians in the eighth or ninth month of the siege. One shudders with horror as he reads the story of its destruction, and much more so as he writes about it. But, I shall briefly tell the story, for it is very relevant to the subject under consideration. To begin with, famine raged so devastatingly in the city that, according to some reports, people fed on the corpses of their own dead. Then, having reached the point of exhaustion, the people of Saguntum, determined not to fall captive to Hannibal, erected an immense pyre, and into its flames they all plunged, stabbing one another to death as they did so.
This is where the gods should have gone into action, those gluttons and swaggering humbugs who open their mouths for the fat of the sacrifices and throw into people’s eyes the dust of the ambiguous oracles. This is where they might have done something to bring aid to a city friendly to the Roman people. They should not have suffered her to perish for keeping her pledged faith. For, they were the very ones who presided as mediators when Saguntum bound herself to the Roman state by treaty. For standing firm by the pact she had entered into with deliberation in the presence of the gods, accepted with loyalty, and sealed with an oath, that noble city was beleaguered, conquered, and destroyed by a treacherous foe. If those same gods later on frightened Hannibal far away from the very walls of Rome, by thunder and lightning, they should have done something similar on the previous occasion before the walls of Saguntum.
I even venture to say that those gods could have shown their rage with more honor to themselves, in behalf of Rome’s friends than in behalf of the Romans. These friends of Rome faced a deadly peril without assistance, in order to keep their faith with the Romans, while the Romans, fighting for themselves, were able to face Hannibal with ampler resources. If, therefore, the gods were really the guardians of Rome’s prosperity and glory, they should have kept its name clear of the stigma which the tragedy of Saguntum cast upon it. It is foolish to believe that it was due to their protection that Rome survived despite Hannibal’s victory, when we know that they were unable to bring aid to the city of Saguntum because of her friendship for Rome, and save her from ruin.
Suppose that the Saguntines were a Christian people, and had to suffer a calamity of this kind for their faith in the Gospel. They would not, of course, have taken their lives by fire and sword. But, assuming that they had to suffer disaster for their faith, their sufferings would have been brightened by their trust in Christ, which held out to them not a fleeting, but an eternal, reward. As for those gods who are supposed to be worshiped, and whose worship is demanded, in order to assure the enjoyment of transitory goods for a brief moment here below, what more can their advocates and apologists say in their favor, in view of the victims of Saguntum, than they could say about the death of Regulus?
However, there is this difference. In his case, the victim was only one man; in this, the entire population of a city. But, in either case, the calamity was the price of keeping pledged faith. To keep this, Regulus preferred to return to the enemy, and Saguntum refused to surrender to Hannibal. Does the observance of loyalty arouse the wrath of the gods? Can not only individual men, but even whole cities, meet doom in spite of their protection? Let them take their choice. If those gods frown on loyalty to one’s oath, let them look for traitors to worship them. If, even under their patronage, men and cities are allowed to perish amid sufferings beyond count and measure, then their worship brings no reward of happiness here below. Let those, therefore, who imagine that the loss of the sacred trinkets of their gods means misfortune lay aside their ill will toward us. For, not only if the gods remain, but even if they are propitious, our accusers could not only grumble about their misery, as they are now doing, but might also be subjected to barbarous torments, and then be utterly destroyed, as were Regulus and the Saguntines.
Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII