The city of God

The City of God: Book 3: Chapters Thirteen and Fourteen

Chapter 13

How was it that neither Juno who, along with her husband Jupiter, ‘cherished Rome’s lording sons, the nation of the gown’ nor Venus herself, was able to help the descendants of Venus’ son, Aeneas, to be worthy of decent and honorable marriages? Was the lack of women so great that the Romans had to snatch them by fraud and be forced to battle with their fathers-in-law? The tragic result was that the wretched women, still smarting from the wrong their husbands did them, were dowered by their fathers’ blood. The Romans beat their neighbors in this battle, but at what a price for victory—blood and the burial of kinsmen and neighbors!

With deep emotion and justifiable sorrow does Lucan bewail ‘the worse than civil wars in the Emathian plains, and right surrendering to wrong’ when a single father-in-law, Caesar, and one son-in-law, Pompey, lost Julia, Caesar’s daughter and Pompey’s wife. Thus did the Romans win in battle. With hands bloodied by the slaughter of fathers-in-law, they forced sorrowful embraces from daughters who dared not mourn dead fathers out of fear of angering victorious husbands. While the battle raged, the women looked on, not knowing for whose victory to pray. Nuptials of that kind are Bellona’s, not Venus’, gift to the Romans. Or, perhaps, Allecto, that hellish fury, now that Juno favored their side, had had more power against the Romans than when, at Juno’s bidding, she was goaded against Aeneas.

Andromache was happier in captivity than those brides of the Romans in their married lot. For, though Pyrrhus forced Andromache to embrace him, at least he shed no more Trojan blood; but the Romans massacred in war the fathers whose daughters they had taken as their wives. Andromache, slave to the victor, had only to mourn the dead without fear of further bloodshed. The Sabine women, wives to men at war, feared the death of their fathers when the husbands left, mourned the dead when they returned, yet could give no free expression to fears or sorrows. They were faced with the tragic alternative either dutifully to mourn the slaying of tribesmen, kinsmen, brothers and parents, or to take a callous delight in their husbands’ victories. To add to their grief, in the shifting fortunes of battle, some lost husbands by the swords of kinsmen, some lost both husbands and kin when each was slain by the other.

Nor was the peril less on the Roman side when the Sabines laid siege to the city and the Romans defended themselves behind closed gates. When the gates were opened by treachery, the enemy poured in, and in the Forum itself sons-in-law and fathers-in-law fell upon one another with the most savage ferocity. When the abductors were losing the day, they fled inside their houses, and thus stained with disgrace those previous victories, already sufficiently disgraceful and deplorable.

At this juncture, Romulus, losing faith in the valor of his Romans, implored Jupiter that they might stand fast—hence Jupiter’s title of Stator. But, that would not have put an end to the slaughter had not the abducted women, with hair disheveled, rushed forward, and casting themselves at their fathers’ feet, appeased their all too just anger, not with victorious arms, but with filial supplications.

Then, Romulus, who could not tolerate his brother’s joint rule, was compelled to divide the kingdom with Titus Tatius, King of the Sabines. No one expected Romulus, who could not endure his twin brother, to suffer Tatius for any length of time. Tatius was slain, and Romulus, with an eye to becoming a greater god, obtained sole rule over the kingdom.

What sort of nuptial rites are these, what sort of occasions for wars, what bonds of brotherhood, kinship, or alliance, what claims to divinity? Finally, what a political life entrusted to such a mob of divinities! You can realize how much else could be said, if matters I must yet treat of did not urge me to pass on without delay.

Chapter 14

How did things go under the kings who followed Numa? How disastrous both to themselves and to the Romans was the war to which the Albani were provoked because the long peace Numa achieved had become of small account to the Romans! How repeatedly did both the Roman and the Alban troops slaughter one another, with a consequent weakening of their respective cities! The celebrated Alba, which Ascanius, son of Aeneas, founded, and which might, in a truer sense than Troy, be called the mother of Rome, was drawn into war by King Tullus Hostilius. Plunging into the struggle with Rome, both sides dealt out death till, after many battles, both sank from exhaustion.

It was agreed to decide the issue of war by trial of combat, three brothers being chosen from the one side, and three from the other. From the Romans the three Horatii came forward, and from the Albans the three Curiatii. Two Horatii were vanquished and slain by the three Curiatii, but the three Curiatii suffered the same fate at the hands of the third Horatius. So, Rome came off the victor, even in this last battle, at the cost of slaughter—only one out of six returned. On both sides, the loss and the tears were those of the race of Aeneas, of the descendants of Ascanius, the offspring of Venus, the grandchildren of Jupiter! In this worse than a civil war, a daughter city fought against the mother city.

On the heels of this battle of the bands of brothers followed another horrible and ghastly tragedy. Before the war, both communities had lived on friendly terms and, as was proper between neighbors and kinsmen, a sister of the Horatii married one of the Curiatii. After the battle, the wife saw her husband’s arms as spoils in the possession of her brother. She burst into tears; thereupon, she was struck down by her brother. It seems to me that this one woman’s feelings were more humane than those of all the Roman people. I do not see any fault in her tears. How could there be? It was natural for her to weep over the husband to whom she had pledged troth—as it was, in a way, even for the brother who had slain the man to whom he had given his sister. That is why Virgil praises dutiful Aeneas for weeping over the enemy he had slain with his own hand. That is why Marcellus shed tears over Syracuse as he reflected how a city at the height of its glory had fallen at a stroke under his attack, and shared the common fate of all earthly things. If men can be commended for shedding tears over the enemies they conquered, then, in the name of natural affection, I beg indulgence for the woman who wept over the husband her brother had slain. Yet, while that unfortunate woman was mourning her husband killed by her brother, Rome was rejoicing over an incredibly destructive war against the mother city, over a victory paid for by torrents of blood, shed on both sides by her own kinsmen.

Do not speak to me of victory and of glory! Put foolish prejudice aside. See and weigh and judge the dreadful facts in their stark reality. Present the indictment against Alba as the rape of Helen was presented against Troy. There is no similarity between the two cases. All we can say is that ‘Tullus kindled those wars to win his idle people back to war and to renew the discontinued triumphs of his troops.’ Such is the vice that occasioned the horrible crime of the civil and fratricidal war, although Sallust makes only a passing reference to it. Speaking briefly, with admiration, of the earlier times when men lived free from greed and every man was content with what he had, he says, ‘But, when Cyrus in Asia, and the Spartans and Athenians in Greece, began to subjugate cities and peoples, then they began to hold lust for domination as just cause for war, and to consider that their highest glory rested on the widest possible expansion of their frontiers!’

And so the passage continues, but, for my present purpose, these words are enough. That lust for power harasses and afflicts the human race with serious evils. Under the spell of this lust, Rome rejoiced over her conquest of Alba, and called boasting of her crime, glory. ‘For the sinner is praised in the desires of his soul: and the unjust man is blessed,’ as our Holy Scriptures declare.

We should tear away screens and deceptive disguises, and examine facts with honest eyes. Let no one say to me: So and so was great because he fought and defeated so and so. Even gladiators fight; even gladiators win. Even their savagery receives the prize of applause. But, it seems to me preferable by far to pay any penalty inertia may bring rather than to seek the glory which wars like that can win. Suppose two gladiators marched into the arena to fight each other to the death, and one was the father, the other, his son—could any man endure it? Would any man not stop it if he could? How, then, could war between a mother and daughter city be reckoned glorious? Was this different from the gladiatorial combat because the battleground was not the narrower space of the arena, but vast plains heaped with the corpses, not of two gladiators, but of the numberless warriors of two nations; and because those battles were not fought within the confines of the amphitheater, but were offered as an unholy spectacle to the world at large, before the eyes of men then living and of generations yet to come, as long as history should record the infamy?

Yet, those tutelary deities of the Roman Empire, looking on as spectators of such bloody contests in a theatre, were avid for more. They were not sated till the sister of the Horatii was, by the sword of her own brother, sent to join the two slain Curiatii, that there might be three victims on each side, and that victorious Rome might have no fewer dead than defeated Alba. Then, that Rome might reap the full fruit of victory, Alba was razed to the ground—Alba where, after Troy, which the Greeks burnt to ashes, and after Lavinium, where Aeneas had set up a foreign and fugitive kingdom, the Trojan divinities had taken up their third abode.

But, perhaps, as was their custom, they had departed from Alba, and hence Alba was destroyed. The gods had gone, ‘leaving the temples and altars bare’—those gods by whose aid that kingdom had endured. They had now departed for the third time, and with the greatest foresight, that Rome might be the fourth place entrusted to them. They were displeased with Alba, where Amulius reigned after driving out his brother; they were pleased with Rome, where Romulus reigned after murdering his brother. But, we are told that, before Alba was demolished, its inhabitants were transported to Rome, so as to make one city of the two.

Granted that such was the case, Alba, the mother city, seat of Ascanius and dwelling-place of the Trojan gods, was also destroyed by the daughter city. That the surviving remnants of the two populations might be united as one, the dreadful bond of union was sealed by the blood previously shed on both sides. I need not rehearse in detail how repeatedly, under the succeeding kings, the same wars flared up. Seemingly terminated by victory time and again, they were concluded in terrific slaughter. Peace treaty after peace treaty, alliance after alliance, followed between fathers-in-law and sons-in-law, their children and their children’s children; yet, after each, the same thing began all over again. Unmistakable proof of this dreadful state of affairs is the fact that no king ever shut the war gates. No king, therefore, with all the gods to protect him, ever knew what it was to reign in peace.

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

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