If the Assyrian Empire grew so vast and lasted so long without any help from the gods, why should the extensive territory and the long duration of the Roman Empire be credited to the Roman divinities? Whatever cause explains the growth of the one must explain the growth of the other. Should they insist that even the Assyrian Empire must thank the gods for their help, I ask: What gods? The nations Nimus vanquished and brought under his yoke worshiped the same gods as he. If the Assyrians had special gods of their own, better skilled in building and preserving their empire, were they dead when the empire fell? Or, having received no pay, did they decide to pass over to the side of the Medes for larger pay promised to them? And did they, in turn, accept the invitation of Cyrus and the ampler reward he held out to them to go over to the Persians? These people still continue, after the vast but short-lived empire of Alexander the Great, to hold sway over large regions of the East.
If that be so, the gods are traitors for deserting and passing over to the enemy. Even a man refused to perpetrate such an infamy. This was Camillus, who, for having conquered and occupied a formidable city, was rewarded with the ingratitude of Rome, in whose name he had fought. But, forgetting the injustice, Camillus thought only of his country, and saved it a second time from the hands of the Gauls. If the gods are not traitors, then they are not as powerful as gods should be, since they can be overcome by human wit or force. Or again, if, fighting among themselves, the gods are beaten, not by men, but by other gods, the special tutelaries of each city, then they, too, carry on feuds of their own, in which each one joins according to the interests of his party. At any rate, the city owed no more worship to its own gods than it did to others who might bring it help.
Finally, however one is to take this passing over to the enemy, or flight, or migration, or desertion in battle, one thing is certain. In those early days, and in those parts of the world which saw the empires in question crash amid the havoc of war and fall into other hands, the name of Christ had not yet been preached. If twelve hundred and more years ago, when the Assyrian Empire fell, the Christian religion had proclaimed an eternal kingdom and forbade sacrilegious worship of false gods, what would the foolish people of that race have said? What else but that the empire which had endured for so many centuries perished precisely because its cults were abandoned and the Christian religion was accepted in their place.
In a stupid complaint such as this, which might well have been made in those days, our accusers may well see their own image as in a mirror. If there is any shame left in them, they should blush to repeat it. However, the Roman Empire has been violently buffeted by storms, but not shattered. It experienced violent storms, too, before Christ’s name was heard, but it weathered them all. Hence, there is no reason to despair in our own times. For, who can tell what is God’s design in this matter?
Let us now examine, if you please, which one god, or which gods, out of the vast horde the Romans adore, they believe particularly responsible for the growth and preservation of the Empire. Surely, they will not dare to ascribe any part of so superb and stately a work to the goddess of the sewers, for example, or to Volupia, so called from voluptuousness, or to Lubentina, who derives her name from lust, or to Vaticanus, who presides over the wailing (vagitus) of babies, or to Cunina, whose business is to attend to cradles (cuna). It is impossible to mention in one passage of this book all the names of the gods and goddesses which the pagans could scarcely find place for in the huge volumes where they indicate the special function assigned to each divinity.
They did not even believe that the protection of the countryside should be entrusted to any one god, but appointed Rusina over the plains, Jugatinus over the mountain tops, Collatina over the hills, Vallorina over the valleys. They could not even find a single goddess Segetia to whom alone they might entrust all the crops, but for the sown seed, as long as it lay underground, they would have a goddess Seia, and, from the moment it sprouted to the time of its harvest, a Segetia to act as guardian. When the wheat was gathered and garnered, a Tutilina was to keep it safe. Surely, that one goddess Segetia alone could have managed things from the sprouting of the green blades to the drying of the ears.
It was not enough for the lovers of a swarm of gods to see the poor soul spurn the chaste embrace of the one true God, and prostitute itself to the rabble of demons. They wanted Proserpina in charge of the sprouting seed, the god Nodutus over the joints and knobs of the stalk, and Volutina over the sheaths enclosing the ears. When the sheaths open and the ears break through, then the goddess Patelana is on duty. When the new ears reach the height of the old stalks, the goddess Hostilina is put to work, because hostire was a verb the ancients used to mean ‘to get even with.’ When the wheat ripened, the goddess Flora was on the job. When it grew milky, the god Lacturnus presided; the goddess Matuta, when it ripened; Runcina, when it was ‘runcated,’ that is, pulled out of the ground. I refrain from naming all the specialists. It revolts me, though it does not shame them.
However, I have mentioned these very few instances to make clear that they have no right to affirm that the establishment, growth, and preservation of the Empire were due to that sort of divinities. Each was so confined to his particular function that no entire task was entrusted to any single one of them. How could Segetia take care of the Empire, when she was not permitted to look after both the crops and the orchards? How could Cunina give thought to military affairs, when she was not allowed to go beyond minding babies’ cradles? How could Nodutus give aid in war, when his sphere was restricted to the knots of the joints, and could not even include the sheath of the ear?
People post a single gatekeeper to guard the house, and, because he is a man, he is quite sufficient. But the pagans had to post three gods: Forculus at the door, Cardea at the hinges, Limentinus at the threshold. Forculus was evidently unable to guard the hinges and threshold, too.
Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII