On the basis of this explanation, we may possibly find less difficulty in drawing to our way of thinking those who have not hardened their hearts unduly. For, human weakness has become aware that only a god has the power to bestow felicity, and those men were conscious of this who paid worship to the crowd of deities with Jupiter as their sovereign. Since they were ignorant of the name of Him who bestows felicity, they decided to call Him by the name of His gift. They, thus made it clear that the Jupiter they worshiped could give no felicity, but only that other deity which was to be worshiped under the name of Felicity.
I entirely agree that they believed felicity to be the gift of a God unknown to them. Then let them seek Him, let them adore Him. He suffices. Let them reject the noisy rabble of demons! Let this God not suffice that man—if there is such a man—whom His gift does not suffice. Let the worship of the true God, the Giver of felicity, not suffice the man who is not content with receiving that felicity. But, let the man for whom happiness suffices—and a man should desire no more—serve the one God from whom happiness comes. He is not the one they call Jupiter, for, if Jupiter were the bestower of felicity, they would not be seeking, under the name of the same felicity, for another god or goddess to give them felicity. Nor would they have thought of paying Jupiter himself an honor so deeply stained with infamy. For, he is considered a betrayer of other men’s wives and an unnatural lover and robber of a lovely boy.
But, writes Cicero: ‘These were inventions of Homer, who transferred human weaknesses to the gods. Would that he had transferred divine virtues to us.’ Justly is that serious minded man indignant at the poet who invented the scandalous actions of the gods. Why, then, are the stage plays, in which these villainies are declaimed, sung and acted, presented in honor of the gods, and written down by the most learned pagans as parts of their religion? Here, Cicero should have cried out, not against the fictions of the poets, but against the institutions of the ancients. But, would not they, in their turn, cry out and ask: ‘What have we done? The gods themselves demanded those scandals to be performed in their honor. They wickedly ordered them, threatening non-compliance with reprisal. They pitilessly punished any neglect and, when the neglect was remedied, showed signs that they were appeased.’ A proof of their extraordinary power and of the wonders they could work is the incident I am about to relate.
Titus Latinius, a Roman farmer and head of a family, was bidden in a dream to go to the Senate and tell the fathers to restore the Roman stage plays. The reason given him was that, on the first day of their presentation, a criminal had been ordered to public execution, and that the gods had found no pleasure in the painful affair. What they looked for in the plays was diversion. The next day, the man did not dare carry out the order he had received in the dream. On the second night, therefore, he received a more menacing order, but, as he again failed to carry it out, he lost his son. On the third night, he was warned that, should he again fail to obey, a still worse penalty threatened. Again his courage failed, and this time he was stricken with a painful and horrible disease.
Then, on the advice of friends, he reported the affair to the magistrates and had himself carried to the Senate in a litter. When he told his dream, the illness suddenly left him, and he walked off on his own feet a cured man. Struck with wonder at so great a prodigy, the Senate voted a renewal of the plays with a fourfold appropriation of money. Any man of sense can see that men, under the domination of demons, are compelled to perform for gods of that sort acts which sound judgment would pronounce indecent. From such a slavery only the grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord can deliver them.
In those plays, the misdeeds of the gods are represented as the poets imagined them, yet the Senate ordered the renewal of those plays, because the gods commanded them to do so. In those stage plays the vilest actors sang, acted and amused Jupiter, as a corrupter of purity. If those obscenities were fables, Jupiter should have been infuriated. But, if he took delight in his debaucheries even when unreal, then to worship him is to serve the Devil himself. Is this the being who founded, extended, and preserved the Roman Empire—a being more contemptible than any Roman who sickened at beholding those scenes of debauchery? Is he the one to give us happiness—a god whose worship was attended by such depravity, and one who would have been so disgracefully angry, were he not so worshiped?
Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII