The city of God

The City of God: Book 3: Chapters Twenty-One and Twenty-Two

Chapter 21

We come now to the period between the Second and the Third and last Punic Wars. In order to keep within the scope of my work, I must pass over many details. It is the period in which Sallust describes the Romans as living on a high moral level and in perfect harmony. It was in this period of high morality and perfect concord that the illustrious Scipio, by his incredibly brilliant generalship, saved Rome and Italy, brought to an end that monstrously brutal, ominous, and perilous Second Punic War, defeated Hannibal, and conquered Carthage.

From his youth, his life is described as devoted to the gods and nurtured in the atmosphere of the temple. Yet, this hero was made the target of envious enemies’ accusations, and was driven from the city which he had saved and liberated by his valor. Like a man without a country, he retired to Linterno, on the Campanian coast, where he spent the rest of his days. After his brilliant triumph, he never had any desire to return to Rome. In fact, we are told, he gave orders forbidding that, even after his death, his bones be brought to his ungrateful country for funeral rites.

Shortly after the victory of the proconsul Gnaeus Manlius over the Gallo-Grecians, we see for the first time Asiatic luxury invading Rome, more sinister than an enemy. Then, for the first time, we read of gilded beds and precious carpets being seen in Rome. Then, too, were women cithara-players and other accompaniments of debauchery first introduced at banquets. But, my purpose is to speak of evils which men suffer unwillingly, not of those which they deliberately bring upon themselves. Hence, what I said of Scipio’s fate, namely, of his dying outside the country he saved, a victim of his enemies, is more relevant to the present discussion. The Roman gods who are venerated for the sake of earthly happiness made him no return for driving Hannibal from their temples.

But, since Sallust speaks of the high morality of that period, I thought fit to mention the licentiousness that then invaded Rome from Asia, in order to make it perfectly clear that Sallust’s eulogy is to be understood only relatively. What he says is true only by way of comparison with other times, when morals had sunk even lower because of violent dissensions. For it was then, in the interval between the Second and the last Punic Wars, that the notorious Voconian Law was passed, which excluded a woman from the benefits of inheritance even though she was the only daughter. I do not know what can be imagined more iniquitious than this law.

Nevertheless, the misery of the whole period which separated the two Punic Wars was not wholly unendurable. Abroad, the armed forces were worn out by wars, but were compensated by victories. At home, no dissensions raged, as in other years. But, in the last Punic War, by one vigorous thrust, the second Scipio, who was on that account surnamed ‘the African,’ destroyed the rival of the Roman Empire down to its very roots. From then on, because of the flood of immorality caused by a period of prosperity and security, the Roman republic itself was overwhelmed by a mounting tide of disasters. Thus, the sudden fall of Carthage did more harm to Rome than its prolonged hostility.

Such were the conditions under which Romans lived during the long period preceding the time of Augustus Caesar. Augustus did not, as pagans believe, wrest from the Romans their glorious liberty, but only a contentious, pernicious, thoroughly anemic, and languishing liberty. Making his royal will the law in everything, he put new life and vigor into a state that was tottering, as it were, with decrepit old age. For many other reasons, I say nothing about the endless calamities that wars brought on during those years, nor about that indelible stain on Roman honor, the ignominious treaty with Numantia. The sacred chickens had flown out from their coop, and this, people said, was an omen of disaster for the consul Mancinus—just as though it was under other omens that other Roman generals moved against Numantia during all those years in which that little city had harassed the besieging Roman army, and had begun to strike with terror the mighty republic of Rome itself.

Chapter 22

I need say no more about this, but there is one disaster about which I cannot possibly keep silent. That is the order which Mithridates, King of Asia, issued, that Roman citizens traveling in Asia, of whom there were large numbers engaged in business, should all be massacred on one and the same day. The order was executed. What a ghastly spectacle to see men suddenly, without warning, barbarously struck down wherever they were, in the field or on the road, in town or at home, in the street, the forum or the temple, in bed or at table. No one can describe the groans of the dying, the tears of the onlookers—even those of the very executioners. Think of the cruelty of forcing hosts not only to witness those butcheries in their homes, but to perpetrate them; and to change suddenly from friendly courtesy to bloody murder in an atmosphere of peace. Here, the wounds were inflicted on both sides: the victim was stabbed in the body; the assailant, in the soul. Had all those unfortunates, by any chance, despised the omens? When they left their homes to go on the journey from which they were not to return, did they have neither domestic nor public gods to consult?

If this be true, then our pagan accusers have no reason, on this head, to complain about Christianity. The Romans have long regarded these absurdities with scorn. If they did consult the auguries, then what good did it do them at a time when those things were authorized, though only by human laws, and no one forbade them?

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

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