IN THE FIRST PAGES of this work on the City of God, I saw fit to give an answer to its enemies. Running mad after the pleasures of earth and eagerly grasping at fleeting goods, they denounce the Christian religion, the only salutary and true one, for any hardship they suffer rather through God’s merciful admonition than through the severity of His punishment.
Among our accusers there is an ignorant rabble, incited by the authority of the learned to cast greater odium upon us. These simple souls imagine that the abnormal calamities that have occurred in our own day were entirely unknown in the past. This foolish opinion is encouraged even by those who know it to be false, but who pretend ignorance in order to give an air of truth to their grumblings. Hence, I have gone to the books in which their own historians have recorded, for men’s information, the things that happened in the past, and from these I have proved two important facts: first, that the actual events were far different from what these people imagined; second, that the false gods which pagans then worshiped in the open, and now worship under cover, were unclean spirits, malignant and lying demons.
The truth of this is clear from the fact that these demons go so far as to take delight in their own villainies, to the extent of wanting them exhibited, either as facts or as fictions, in the festivals celebrated in their honor. I have also pointed out that, as long as these villainies are exhibited for imitation under divine sanction, so to speak, it is impossible to restrain weak humans from actually reproducing in their own lives the abominable acts committed by the gods.
My proofs were not guesses. I have drawn them partly from my own recent recollection, for I have seen with my own eyes those indecent dramas, performed in homage to such divinities. I have drawn them also from the writings of those who left accounts of these mythological exploits, not with the intention of casting disgrace upon the gods, but of doing them honor. Thus, Varro, one of their most learned and authoritative scholars, wrote various books on human and divine institutions. But, when he arranged his topics in the order of their importance, grouping human affairs in one book, and divine in another, he by no means classed stage plays under human, but under divine institutions. He was certain that, if none but good and decent men lived in Rome, stage plays would have found no place among human institutions. Nor did Varro so classify things on his own authority. Since he was born and educated in Rome, he simply found stage plays a part of the pagan religious rites.
At the end of Book I, I briefly sketched what I had in mind to say in the sequel. Part of that I have told in the two books that followed, but I realize what I still owe to my expectant readers.
I promised to advance some facts that would show the error of those who blame our religion for the woes of the Roman state, and to recall, as they occurred to me according to their gravity and in sufficient number, the calamities which Rome and the provinces of the Empire had to endure in times before their sacrifices were forbidden. All these calamities they would certainly have blamed on us, if our faith had by then shed its light on them or banned their sacrifices. These matters I have sufficiently described, I think, in Books II and III. In the second, I dealt with the moral evils which must be regarded as the only real and serious calamities. In Book III, I treated of those calamities which alone foolish people dread to face, those evils which affect the body and material goods, and which ordinarily even the good have to suffer.
As for their own moral evils, our pagan accusers accept them not only patiently, but gladly. I have spoken only of the city of Rome and its imperial possessions, and have not even extended my discussion to Caesar Augustus, and I covered very few evils.
What if I had chosen to review and to emphasize, not the kind of evils which men inflict on one another, such as the ravages and devastations brought on by wars, but those which the elements of nature let loose upon the earth? To these Apuleius briefly refers in a passage of his treatise, De mundo, where he says that all earthly things are subject to change, to transformation, and to annihilation. To use his own words, he relates that tremendous earthquakes made yawning chasms in the ground, swallowing cities with their inhabitants. Cloudbursts deluged entire regions; what had been continents were turned into islands by the onrush of near and distant waters. Other places became accessible as the surrounding waters withdrew, and men could reach them on foot. Cities were beaten to the ground by windstorms and hurricanes. Conflagrations kindled by lightning swallowed up in flames whole regions in the East, while on the coasts of the West waterspouts and floods caused similar devastation. So, also, on one occasion the craters overflowed from the summit of Mt. Aetna and down the slopes rushed torrents of flaming lava ignited by divine power.
If I had wished to gather these and similar occurrences from history and other sources, I could never finish the tragic story of all that came to pass before the Name of Christ had put bounds to all the follies so dangerous to true salvation.
I also promised to point out the Roman virtues, and the reasons why the true God—to whose power all kingdoms are subject—deigned to bless the Empire with increase. I also proposed to show how those beings the pagans imagine to be gods contributed nothing, and how, on the contrary, they worked immense harm by their frauds and deceptions. That, I take it, is the topic I must now discuss, and, in particular, the growth of the Roman Empire. On the wicked deceits of the demons whom the Romans worshiped as gods, and on the incalculable harm those demons did to Roman morals, I have already commented at some length, principally in Book II.
On the other hand, in the three completed Books, wherever it seemed opportune, I pointed out how much comfort, even amid the hardships of war, God brought both to the good and to the wicked. This He did through the Name of Christ, whom the barbarians reverenced counter to the ways of war. Thus, ‘He maketh His sun to rise upon the good and bad and raineth upon the just and unjust.’
Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII