The city of God

The City of God: Book 4: Chapters Five and Six

Chapter 5

I shall not press the inquiry as to what kind of people Romulus gathered around him to populate the city, since they gave him much to think about. His idea seemed to be that, if they gave up their bandit life and were received into the new city, they need no longer fear the penalties hanging over their heads, dread of which had driven them to commit more desperate crimes. Thenceforth, they would be a more peaceful element in human society. But, this much I say: The Roman Empire, which had already grown mighty by the conquest of many nations and had become an object of dread to the rest, itself experienced bitter anxiety and grave fear. Only with great effort was it able to ward off a tremendous disaster when a handful of gladiators in Campania broke away from their school, organized a large army, put it under the command of three generals, and spread havoc and bloodshed throughout Italy.

Let them tell us which of the gods made it possible for a small and contemptible gang of bandits to become a power strong enough to strike fear into the Romans, despite their forces and citadels. Will any one say that, because the day of their power was short, no help was therefore given from above? As though any man’s life were a long affair! On that reckoning, then, the gods aid no one to sovereign power, since each individual lives but a brief time, and no one can regard it as a blessing, since, in a short space, for every individual man, and hence for all men together, it ‘is a vapor which … shall vanish away.’

What does it matter to those who worshiped the gods under Romulus, and are now long dead, that the Roman Empire grew to such proportions after their death? They are now only pleading their own causes in the lower regions, and whether their causes are good or bad is irrelevant here. This may be said of all, since each one, carrying the burden of his actions for the few short days of life, passed swiftly across the stage of imperial power—even though a long chain seems formed by the men who died and those who succeeded them in power.

Even if one must credit the gods for the benefactions of a brief period, then the gladiators just mentioned benefited from the help of the gods in no small degree. They broke the chains of their bondage, ran off, escaped, raised a large and strong army, and, acting under the directions and orders of their chiefs, struck fear into the mighty Roman Empire. When several Roman generals could not put them down, they captured much booty, gained an impressive number of victories, plunged into dissipation, and gave free reign to indulgence. Until they were finally put down, and that with the greatest difficulty, they lived like kings in splendor. But, let us pass to more important topics.

Chapter 6

Summarizing the historian Trogus Pompeius, Justinus wrote in Latin a history of Greece, or, to be more exact, of the non-Roman nations. He begins as follows: ‘At the dawn of history, races and nations were ruled by kings raised to that eminence of power, not by courting popular favor, but by the recognition of the self-restraint which characterizes good men. The people were not bound by laws [for the will of the ruler took the place of law]. They were more concerned in protecting their boundaries than in extending them. The jurisdiction of each king ended with the frontiers of his kingdom.

Ninus, King of the Assyrians, driven by a lust for power hitherto unknown, was the first to change this time-honored and, I may say, inherited, tradition among the nations. He was the first to carry war into the territory of his neighbors and to subjugate, as far as the confines of Libya, backward tribes as yet unable to defend themselves.’ A little further on he writes: ‘Ninus thus consolidated the wide extent of the power he sought, by remaining in constant occupation of the captured lands. Acquiring more power by conquest of his frontier neighbors, he passed on to successive conquests. He made each victory a stepping stone to another until he finally subdued the nations of the entire Orient.’

Whatever the trustworthiness of Justinus or Trogus, for it appears from more reliable sources that, in some matters, they did not report the truth, other historians do agree that King Ninus expanded the Empire of the Assyrians far and wide. Moreover, it stood for such a long time that the Roman Empire itself has not yet endured so long. As the writers of chronological history assure us, the Assyrian Empire lasted for 1240 years, from the first of Ninus’ reign till it passed into the hands of the Medes. Can waging war on neighbors, and then, by a series of wars, crushing and enslaving peaceful nations be called anything else but colossal brigandage?

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

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