Let the pagans blame their own gods for all their woes, instead of repaying our Christ with ingratitude for all His good gifts. Certain it is that, when calamities rained upon them, ‘the altars streamed with Sabaean incense and were fresh with fragrance of chaplets.’ While Romans were shedding Roman blood, not only in ordinary places, but before the very altars of the gods, the pagan priesthood was held in honor, the shrines were bright, all was sacrifices, plays and orgies in the temples. Note that Cicero sought no temple for sanctuary, because that had been of no avail for Mucius. But, the pagans of our day, while they have far less reason to decry the era, have either fled for sanctuary to the most hallowed Christian places, or have been taken there by the barbarians to save their lives.
I need not repeat what I have already said or mention anything I had to omit, but one thing is certain, and anyone whose mind is free from bias will readily admit it: If mankind had embraced Christ’s teaching before the Punic Wars, and if there had followed the terrible devastation of those wars in Europe and Africa, there is not one of those intolerable critics who would not have blamed those evils on the Christian religion.
Their outcries would have been even more intolerable, especially in what touches the Romans, if the invasion of the Gauls, or the inundation of the Tiber and the devastating fires, or, what was worse, the horrors of those civil wars of evil memory had occurred after the acceptance and spread of Christianity. Other calamities befell, so appalling as to seem the work of demons. Suppose that these, too, had occurred in Christian times. Against what other people but Christians would they have been charged as crimes?
I shall say nothing of the merely freakish phenomena, which caused little harm: talking cattle, unborn infants uttering words in the mother’s womb, flying serpents, women and hens turned male, and the like. These things are recorded in their books, not of fables but of history, and, whether they are true or false, strike men with wonderment but do no harm. However, when earth, clay, and stones (real stones, not hail, commonly called ‘stones’) rained from the sky, these, indeed, could also do serious harm.
In those books we read that, when the lava poured down from the crater of Mt. Aetna to the shore, the sea became such a caldron that it calcined the rocks and melted the pitch from the ships. Incredible as a marvel, this was also harmful as an occurrence. On another occasion, the writers tell us, a similar eruption poured such a deluge of ashes upon Sicily that the houses of Catania were overwhelmed by it and collapsed under the weight. Moved with pity by that disaster, the Romans remitted the tribute for that year. It is also written that Africa was already a Roman province when a swarm of locusts of monstrous proportions swooped down on the land, devoured the fruit and leaves on the trees, and then plunged into the sea in an enormous cloud. When the dead insects were washed ashore, infecting the air by their corruption, a pestilence set in, so violent that in the kingdom of Masinissa alone 800,000 men are reported to have perished, and many more in the regions that lay close to the coast.
We are further assured that in Utica, out of 30,000 people, only 10,000 were left alive. Now, if the half-wits we have to endure and must answer were to witness all these catastrophes occurring in Christian times, there is not one of them who would not saddle them on Christianity. But, they will blame their gods for none of those misfortunes. Indeed, they demand the restoration of their worship, so that they may be preserved from these and lesser evils, despite the fact that when their forebears worshiped the gods, they suffered greater calamities by far.
Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII