In view of all this, there is no basis for thinking that the gods—allegedly the ‘pillars of the empire’ but manifestly beaten by the greater might of the Greeks—were aroused to anger by the Trojans’ perjury. Nor did the adultery of Paris—sometimes alleged to justify their abandoning Troy—kindle their wrath. For, as a rule, they are the perpetrators and teachers of evil, not its avengers. ‘As I have learned the story,’ writes Sallust, ‘in the beginning the city of Rome was founded and possessed by the Trojans, who, led by Aeneas, wandered about as refugees with no fixed home.’ If, therefore, the gods thought fit to avenge the adultery of Paris, they should have visited their penalties more on the Romans, or at least equally on them, since it was the mother of Aeneas who comitted that crime.
But, how could they detest the misdeed in Paris when they did not detest the adultery of his associate Venus with Anchises (to mention no others) by whom she begot Aeneas? Was it because the former was comitted in the face of Menelaus’ wrath; the latter, with Vulcan’s connivance? I suppose the gods are not jealous of their wives to the extent of not deigning to share them with men! But, perhaps I may seem to be scoffing at these fables, and not treating so weighty a matter with due seriousness.
Well, then, if you please, let us suppose that Aeneas was not the son of Venus. I agree to that, provided it be also admitted that neither was Romulus the son of Mars. If the one be true, why not the other? Or is it licit for gods to consort casually with the wives of mortals and illicit for mortal men to do the same with goddesses? Those are hard, or rather incredible, terms: that what was lawful to Mars by Venus’ law should not be lawful to Venus by her own law. But, both have the support of Roman authority, for, in times nearer to us, Caesar was no less convinced that he was descended from Venus than was Romulus that Mars was his father.
Someone may say to me: ‘Do you believe all that stuff?’ My answer is that I do not. Even one of the most learned pagans, Varro, if not with outright decisiveness and confidence, still cautiously avows that all this is sheer nonsense. For all that, he affirms that it is expedient for states that men of valor should claim divine lineage, however shallow the pretence. This is on the theory that, by that sublime fiction, the human spirit, urged on by the self-assurance of being divinely born, will venture into great exploits and, by the confidence such illusion inspires, achieve more signal success.
You cannot but observe how wide a door this view, which I have summarized in my own words, would open to sham and false pretence. This is especially so where lies even about the gods are regarded as advantageous to the people. Endless fictions will be invented, and invested with a so-called sacred and religious character.
Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII