The city of God

The City of God: Book 4: Chapters Twenty-Nine and Thirty

Chapter 29

What sort of augury was that, which the pagans acclaimed as so wonderful? I mean the one I mentioned above, by which Mars, Terminus, and Juventas refused to give place to Jove, the King of the gods. This, the pagans claim, indicated that the race of Mars—the Romans—should give place to none; that no one should drive the Romans from their frontiers set for them by the god Terminus; and that, by the aid of the goddess Juventas, the youth of Rome would yield to no one. Do they realize how inconsistently they treat as the King of their gods and the bestower of their kingdom one whom the auguries set down as an enemy to whom it would be honorable not to yield? Though, indeed, if these things are true, they have nothing to fear. They will not admit that those gods who would not give place to Jove have given place to Christ. Yet, with no change in the frontiers of the empire, they have yielded to Christ and have been driven from the temples, and especially from the hearts of their worshipers.

Before Christ came in the flesh, and before what I have quoted from their books was written, but after that augury occurred under King Tarquinius, the Roman army was several times scattered or put to flight. Thus, the augury according to which Juventas did not give place to Jove was proved false. The race of Mars was overcome within the city itself by the attack of the conquering Gauls, and the frontiers of the empire were contracted by the defection of many cities to Hannibal. So, the trustworthiness of the auspices was made void, and all that remained was the defiance of Jove, not by gods, but by demons. For, it is one thing not to have given place at all, and another to have given place and then to have returned.

Later on, by the will of Hadrian, the eastern frontiers of the empire were changed. For, he surrendered to the Persian Empire three splendid provinces, Armenia, Mesopotamia, and Assyria. Thus, it would appear that the god Terminus, who was to protect the Roman frontiers for them, and who, according to that fine divination, would not give place even to Jove, was more afraid of Hadrian, a king of men, than of the King of the gods. Those provinces were later recovered, but almost within our memory Terminus again gave ground, when Julian, obeying the oracles of those gods, stupidly ordered the supply ships to be burned. Thus, the army, left without provisions and with the leader slain by the enemy, was so weakened that, terrified by the death of the general, not a single soldier would have escaped the fierce attack of the enemy had they not accepted a treaty which set limits to the empire. The ceded territory is still held by the enemy, though the compromise was not as harmful as the agreement made by Hadrian.

Thus, it was a futile augury, for the god Terminus, who would not yield to Jove, yielded to the will of Hadrian, to the imprudence of Julian, and to the compulsion of Jovian. This the more intelligent and serious-minded among the Romans understand. But, against the custom of the state, which had been delivered into bondage to the rites of the demons, they could do little, since they themselves, though they realized the futility of these rites, still thought that nature, though created under the rule and dominion of the one true God, should be accorded the divine worship due to Him alone. St. Paul states this in the words, ‘and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever.’ There was need of the aid of this true God who sent holy men of real piety to die for the true religion, that the world might be freed from false ones.

Chapter 30

Cicero, who was an augur, scoffed at the auguries, and reproved men for regulating their lives by the bird calls of a raven or a little crow. But, that philosopher of the New Academy, who holds that nothing is certain, does not, perhaps, deserve to be trusted in these matters. Quintus Lucilius Balbus discusses these points in Cicero’s De natura deorum (Book II), and, though he traces these superstitions to nature and gives them physical and philosophical interpretations, he takes offense at the institution of images and the belief in fables. He says, ‘Do you not see, then, that from the good and useful knowledge gained from physical things reason was misled toward imaginary and fictitious gods?

This gave rise to false opinions, disturbing errors, and even old-womanish superstitions. We knew the outward appearance of the gods, their age, their clothing, their ornaments, as well as their genealogies, their marriages, their relations, all transformed to the likeness of human weakness. For, they are pictured as having disordered minds; we know their passions, their infirmities, their rages. Nor, as the fables relate, have they been free from wars, not only as when in Homer some gods gave aid to one side, some to the other, of two opposing armies, but also they waged war among themselves, as with the Titans or with the Giants. These things are asserted and most foolishly believed, though they are frivolous and utterly groundless.’

Such, then, is the admission of those who defend the gods of the pagans. Yet, though Balbus confesses that some fables pertain to superstition, he regards as true religion what he seems to teach according to the doctrine of the Stoics. He states: ‘Not only the philosophers, but also our ancestors, distinguished between superstition and religion. For, those who prayed for entire days and sacrificed that their children might outlive them [superstites] were called superstitious.’ It is plain that, out of reverence for the custom of the state, he would like to praise the religion of the ancients and to distinguish it from superstition, but he cannot find a way to do this. For, if those who prayed for entire days and offered sacrifices were called superstitious by the ancients, should not this name be given also to those who instituted images of the gods differing in age and clothing, and devised genealogies of gods, consorts and relations? When he blames these practices as superstitious, the guilt attaches to the ancients who instituted and worshiped such images, and also to himself, for, though in his public utterances he tried to keep himself free from superstition, he held that these images must be venerated. But, what he said so eloquently in this discussion he dared not even whisper in public.

Let us Christians give thanks to the Lord our God—not to heaven and earth, as Cicero says, but to Him who made heaven and earth. He it is who, through the most sublime humility of Christ, by the preaching of the Apostles, by the faith of the martyrs who lived by and died for the truth, and by the free service of His followers, uprooted from the hearts of religious men and from the temples of the superstitious those false beliefs which Balbus so haltingly reproved.

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

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