When fear had somewhat abated, not because there was respite from wars, but because the people felt their burden less, and when the time had come to an end in which ‘life was regulated by fair and equitable law,’ there followed the events which are thus briefly chronicled by Sallust:
‘Then the patricians began to treat the people like slaves, to dispose of life and limb as arrogantly as the kings had done, to drive them from their fields, and by excluding all others from participation, to monopolize the government. But, oppressed by these outrages, and especially by usury, while they had at the same time to bear the burden of taxes for incessant wars and of military service as well, the people rose up in arms, and entrenched themselves on the Sacred Mount and the Aventine. Thus, they then secured for themselves tribunes of the people and other rights. It was only the Second Punic War that put an end to the dissensions and struggles between the two classes.’
But, to what purpose do I waste time writing these things and imposing them on my readers? Sallust has given us a summary of the wretched condition of the commonwealth in that long period, and through the many years preceding the Second Punic War, when the republic was harassed by incessant foreign wars and torn asunder by domestic quarrels and civil war. Those boasted victories did not bring the lasting joys of the blessed, but only the hollow comfort of a forlorn and restless people. They were, moreover, deluding inducements to submit to more and more useless misery, and all to no purpose.
I hope that good and sensible Romans will not censure me for saying these things. Such men need no urging or cautioning from me. Indignation on their part is out of the question, for I am saying nothing harsher, or more harshly, than their own writers, whose equal I am neither in style nor in leisure for composition. All Romans have pored over those writers, and they still compel their children to do the same. How can they resent my words, when they could not resent my using the following passage of Sallust?
‘There broke out numerous riots and uprisings, culminating in civil wars, while a handful of dictators with a number of followers snatched at power under the honorable name of the Senate or the people. Amid the general corruption, both worthy and unworthy citizens were raised to power, not because of their services to the common weal, but according to each one’s wealth and capacity for wrong-doing. A man had only to champion the existing order of things to be held in honor.’
Surely, those writers felt that the historian had a right to speak freely about the dark parts of their city’s past. They felt obliged to praise it in many passages, since they had no idea of a nobler city, in which they could be enrolled as citizens of eternity. What should I be expected to do? I have a greater claim to freedom because I have a stronger and surer hope in God, and because it is more called for in view of the charge that our Christ is responsible for the present ills—a charge calculated to alienate weaker and simpler souls from that City in which alone life can be unendingly happy. As for their gods, I say nothing worse against them than well-known authors whom they themselves read and boast about have said. Indeed, it is from those very authors that I took the facts of the story—not all of them and not with their skill in the telling.
Where, then, were those gods whom people falsely think should be worshiped in order to gain the brief and deceptive enjoyment of this world? Where were those gods when the Romans were being crushed by overwhelming disasters, those gods who, with lying cunning, were imposing themselves as objects of worship? Where were they when the consul Valerius was killed while defending the Capitol, fired by slaves and bandits? He could have done more to bring aid to Jupiter’s temple than that mob of gods with their highest and best king, whose temple Valerius himself had saved. Where were they when the city, already exhausted by endless revolts, awaiting in a moment of respite the return of the envoys sent to Athens to borrow its laws, was ravaged by famine and disease?
Where were they when the people, again suffering from famine, appointed the first minister of food? As the famine became worse, Spurius Maelius, who distributed grain among the hungry people, was accused of aspiring to the kingship. At the instance of the same minister, and by the decree of the old and decrepit dictator, Lucius Quintius, he was killed by the hand of the master of the knights, A. Servilius, an act which threw the city into a state of indescribable anarchy and danger. Where were the gods then? Where were they when another deadly plague broke out and, as the helpless gods looked on, the long and much afflicted people conceived the idea of resorting to the celebration of lectisternia, something they had never done before? Beds were spread in honor of the gods, and from this the ceremony derived its religious, or rather sacrilegious, name.
Where were they when for ten years the Roman army fought unsuccessfully at Veii, and suffered many a bloody defeat, until Furius Camillus finally came to their aid, and was subsequently rewarded with banishment for his services to the ungrateful city? Where were they when the Gauls captured Rome, sacked it, fired it, deluged it in blood? Where were they when that other dreadful pestilence spread death abroad and carried off, among others, the illustrious Furius Camillus, the hero who first defended a thankless republic against Veii, and then avenged it against the Gauls? During this pestilence, the Romans first introduced stage plays, thus inflicting a new plague, not on their bodies, but, what is far more fatal, on their manners and morals.
Where were they at the time when another frightful plague was started, as it was believed, by the poisons spread by women whose characters, by the testimony of many noble ladies, were more poisonous than any contagion? Where were they when the two consuls, with their armies, were caught by the Samnites in the Caudine Forks and compelled to sign a dishonorable treaty, by the terms of which the Romans delivered 600 knights as hostages and the rest, stripped of their arms and cloaks, had to pass under the enemy’s yoke, wearing only a single garment? Where were they when, while another pestilence was taking heavy toll of the rest, a bolt of lightning struck down a great number in the army itself? Or again, during still another malignant epidemic, when Rome was compiled to entreat Aesculapius, as it would the god of medicine, to come from Epidaurus to lend his services? Was it, perhaps, because the habitual debauchery of his youth had disqualified for the study of medicine Jupiter, lord of all the gods, who for so long had sat enthroned in the Capitol?
Where were the gods when the Lucani, the Brutii, the Samnites, the Etruscans, and the Gallic Senones, joined in one vast hostile alliance, first killed the Roman envoys, then crushed the army, and menaced the praetor with seven tribunes and 13,000 troops? Again, where were they when, at the climax of a long series of bloody insurrections in Rome which drove the people at sword’s point to the Janiculum, the mischief wrought by this crisis was so intolerable that, as generally happens in times of great danger, a dictator was appointed in the person of Hortensius? This man brought the people back to the city, and then suddenly died while still in office, a fate which had befallen no other dictator before him? The blame for this falls all the more heavily on the gods because the god-physician Aesculapius was at hand.
After that, so many wars broke out on all sides that, for lack of fighting men, it became necessary to conscript even the proletarians—so called because, rendered incapable of fighting by their wretched poverty, they were fit only to beget children. Then, summoned to their aid by the people of Tarentum, Pyrrhus, King of Greece, declared himself the enemy of the Romans. So, he put the question to Apollo as to what the future had in store for him on the field of battle. Apollo gave this ambiguous reply: ‘I declare, O Pyrrhus, that you the Romans can conquer,’ a reply so worded that whichever of the two things happened, he would still be regarded as a god. Thus, whether Pyrrhus defeated, or was beaten by, the Romans, Apollo could await either issue as an infallible prophet.
The mutual slaughter of the two armies that followed was frightful beyond all description. In one battle Pyrrhus emerged the victor, wherefore he, understanding the oracle in his favor might proclaim Apollo a divine prophet, had it not happened that in a second battle the Romans were victorious. To add to the horrors of the war, plague broke out, this time concentrating its violence on women, and carrying them off with child before they could give normal birth. Here, I presume, Aesculapius found excuse for offering no help, on the plea that his function was that of chief physician and not of obstetrician. Even cattle died off in the same way, in such numbers that it was feared the animal species would become extinct.
How can I describe that horrible and unforgettable winter? It raged with such incredible fury that in the Forum itself snow piled up mountains high, and the Tiber was frozen solid for forty endless days. If such a calamity were to happen now, imagine the clamor the enemies of Christianity would raise! What of still another of those devastating epidemics, raging for a long time and destroying countless numbers? As it dragged on its deadly course into a second year, in the helpless presence of Aesculapius, the desparing citizens had recourse to the Sibylline books. In that kind of oracle, Cicero tells us, people place great faith in the interpreters, though these latter merely offer conjectures on doubtful matters as best they can, or as they will.
Their answer, in this case, was that the cause of the plague was the fact that many private persons were occupying a great number of the sacred shrines. Thus was Aesculapius once more acquitted of the grave charge of incompetence or of indolence. But, how was it possible for so many people to invade those sacred places without anyone protesting, save that the prayers to that horde of deities were in the long run found to be a waste of time and effort. The worshipers gradually abandoned the shrines, and, when vacant, they could at least be used to meet human needs without anyone being shocked.
In the hope of seeing the plague abate, the shrines were zealously reclaimed and reconverted for worship, but they fell back into the old state of neglect, were appropriated by individuals and again fell into oblivion. Had this not happened, Varro’s great learning would not have received due credit for having preserved a record of many of those forgotten sanctuaries in the book he wrote on sacred edifices. However, the reclaiming of the temples brought about no cessation of the epidemic, but only ingenious exculpation of the gods.
During the Punic Wars, victory for a long time hung in the balance between the two great powers battling with all the strength and resources at their command. Meanwhile, what a number of small nations were crushed out of existence! How many prosperous and illustrious cities were razed to the ground; how many communities reduced to misery, even to utter ruin! How many lands and regions were devastated throughout their length and breadth! How often did victory favor first one side, then the other! What a holocaust of lives of combatants and noncombatants! What mighty fleets were destroyed in battles and storms! Any attempt on my part to relate and recall these events would merely turn me into a chronicler.
Stricken by panic, the city of Rome had hasty recourse to vain and ridiculous remedies. By command of the Sibylline Books, the secular games were again celebrated. They were meant to be celebrated century by century, but had already fallen into oblivion in happier days. The pontiffs resumed the celebration of the sacred games in honor of the nether gods, which had also been abolished in the good old days. Of course, when the games came back, the deities of the lower world, swelled by the host of the dead, wanted to have a good time—as though miserable men, with their ferocious wars, murderous hatreds, and alternating and deadly victories, had not already provided games and sumptuous banquets enough for the devils in hell.
Surely, in the first Punic War, nothing was more tragic than the defeat of the Romans in which the heroic Regulus himself was taken prisoner—as I have mentioned already in Books I and II. He was most certainly a great man and on a previous occasion had beaten the Carthaginians and tamed their spirit. He would have even brought the First Punic War to an end, had not a craving for fame and glory led him to impose on the weary Carthaginians harsher conditions than they could bear. If that man’s unforeseen capture, humiliating imprisonment, fidelity to his oath, and barbarous death do not strike shame into those gods, then indeed they are brazen—and bloodless.
Within the walls of the city itself there was no lack of misfortunes during this period. The waters of the Tiber rose abnormally above the banks and flooded almost the entire lower section of Rome. Some buildings collapsed at the first violence of the flood and others by the constant seeping of the stagnant water. On top of this disaster followed an even more destructive fire, which razed the taller buildings around the Forum, and did not even spare the Temple of Vesta—fire’s faithful shrine. For here, the Vestal Virgins, condemned to, rather than honored by, such service, dutifully fed a fire with wood and kept it perpetually alive. But, on that occasion, the fire not merely lived, it raged with savage fury. Terrified by its onrush, the Virgins could not rescue from the flames the fateful penates, which had already brought ruin to the three cities where they had been, but the pontifex Metellus, without a thought for his own safety, rushed in and rescued them, though he was badly burned. Either the fire had no respect for its own pontiff, or else the god of fire was there, but would not have fled, even though he could.
Hence, the man was a greater protection to the gods of Vesta than the gods were to the man. For, if the gods were unable by their own power to turn back the fire, how could they save from flood and conflagration the city whose security rested, as people imagined, in their hands? The event made it more than ever clear that such a thing was beyond their power.
I would not bring all this up if the pagans would only admit that those sacred emblems were instituted not to protect earthly, but to symbolize eternal, goods. In that case, if those things were to perish as do all material and visible things, that would be no loss to the higher benefits their institution was meant to secure. They could always be replaced and serve the same purposes. But, by a strange blindness, the Romans imagine that the material security and the temporal well-being of the city could be guaranteed against loss by means of sacred objects that are liable to destruction. Yet, though it is made obvious to them that, even if those sacred objects remain safe, they bring only misfortune and the breakdown of security, they still are ashamed to give up a belief they cannot defend.
Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII