IT SEEMS TO ME I have already said enough about the evils which work havoc on men’s souls and morals, and which they must shun at all costs. I have shown that, far from having done aught to save their worshipers from the miseries that lay heavy upon them, the false gods did their utmost to increase the burden beyond endurance.
I must now turn to those calamities which are the only things our accusers have no wish to endure. Such are hunger, disease, war, plunder, imprisonment, massacre, and horrors such as I have mentioned in Book I. Though these do not make men evil, evildoers regard them as the only evil. Yet, they feel no shame that they themselves are evil amid the things they praise as good. They are more pained if their villa is poor than if their life is bad, as though man’s greatest good were to have everything good except himself.
The fact is that the gods did not ward off the evils which pagans dread, even at a time when they were freely worshiped. At various times and in different places before the coming of our Redeemer, calamities beyond counting and description were scourging mankind. Yet, what others besides your recreant gods did the world worship? I except, of course, the Hebrew nation, and a few individuals beyond its pale, wherever by God’s grace and His secret and righteous judgment they were found worthy.
Not to enlarge too much, I shall say nothing of the dreadful afflictions which other people have everywhere suffered. Confining myself to Rome alone and to the Roman Empire, that is, to the city itself and to the people linked with it either by alliance or by subjection, I shall speak of the visitations they experienced before the coming of Christ, but after their incorporation into the Roman body politic.
To begin with, there is the case of Troy, or Ilium, the cradle of the Roman people. Though I alluded to this in the first Book, I must not omit it or ignore it here. Troy had and worshiped the Roman gods. Why, then, was it conquered, captured, and destroyed by the Greeks? Pagans, of course, will reply that Priam had to pay the price for his father Laomedon’s perjury. If so, Apollo and Neptune must have given mercenary aid to Laomedon. He pledged them pay, so it is said, and then went back on his word. That is most remarkable! To think that Apollo, who is called the Seer, should engage in so vast a venture and not know that Laomedon would default in his promise! Nor does it reflect credit on Neptune himself, his uncle, Jupiter’s brother, and King of the Sea, to have been in the dark about the future. Yet, Homer, the poet who is said to have lived before Rome’s foundation, represents this divinity to us as uttering a momentous prophecy about the race of Aeneas, whose progeny founded Rome, and whom Neptune, as Homer tells us, snatched up in a cloud to save him from the murderous sword of Achilles, although, as Virgil avows,
All his will was to destroy
His own creation, perjured Troy.
So, we have the spectacle of two mighty divinities, Neptune and Apollo, unable to tell that Laomedon was going to cheat them of their pay, building up the walls of Troy—and all for nothing but ingratitude. Pagans should reflect whether it is really not more criminal to believe in such gods than to violate one’s oath to them.
Homer himself has not given easy credence to the fable, for, while on the one hand he represents Neptune battling against the Trojans, on the other he has Apollo fighting for them, in spite of the fact that, as the fable runs, both took offense at the perjury. Hence, if they so swallow the fables, they should blush for worshiping that sort of deities; if they do not swallow them, then they should not appeal to the Trojans’ perjury, or should at least find it strange that the gods should punish perjury on the part of the Trojans and welcome it with pleasure on the part of the Romans.
How could it possibly happen that, ‘in a state so great and so sunk in corruption,’ Catiline’s conspiracy could count a large number of those ‘who made their living by hand and tongue plying perjury and murder of their fellow citizens’? How else can you explain the fact that bribery so often stole the decisions of Senators, and so often the vote of the citizens, both at the polls and in certain cases that were tried before them in public assemblies, except that they, too, resorted to the crime of perjury? For, even when, amid the general let-down of morals, the ancient custom of taking oath was retained, that was not to restrain people from wrong-doing through religious awe, but in order to add perjury to their other crimes.
Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII