We are told in pagan writings that the learned pontifex Scaevola distinguished three classes of divinities handed down to us: the first, by the poets; the second, by the philosophers; the third, by the statesmen. According to him, the first category is useless, because the poets imagined the gods full of vices. The second is ill-suited to states because there was in it much that was superfluous, and certain things in it would be dangerous for the people to know. As to the superfluous, that is of little importance, for even lawyers have a saying, ‘What is left over does no harm.’
But, what is that which it would be harmful for the people to know? ‘It would be,’ he says, ‘to say openly that Hercules, Aesculapius, Castor, and Pollux are not gods. For, the philosophers inform us that they were human beings, and went to their graves like human beings.’ What else do they reveal? ‘That the cities have no true images of those who are gods, since the true God has neither sex, nor age, nor definite bodily form.’ The pontifex wishes to keep the people ignorant of this, for he considers it to be true. Yet, he judges it expedient to deceive the citizens in matters of religion. Nor does Varro himself hesitate to affirm the same thing in his work On Divine Things.
A glorious religion indeed! A haven of refuge for a weak man in need of liberation! When he seeks the truth that makes him free, it is thought best for him to be duped! In the same writings, Scaevola makes no secret of the reasons he had for rejecting the gods of the poets. It is because ‘they so distort them that the gods cannot be compared even with decent men. One they turn into a thief, another into an adulterer, and otherwise make them talk and act like degenerates and fools, such as the three goddesses who fought among themselves for the prize of beauty, and destroyed Troy when two of them were bested by Venus. Jove himself is transformed into a bull or a swan in order to carry on amours with some wanton or other. A goddess marries a man. Saturn devours his children. In fine, no prodigy nor vice can be imagined which is not here, however, utterly irreconcilable with their divine nature.
O Scaevola, pontifex, abolish those plays if you can. Forbid the people to pay to the immortal gods honors of that sort, in which they feast their eyes on divine depravities, and imitate them, as far as possible, in their own lives. If the people retort: ‘You, yourselves, high priests, brought them to us,’ beg of the gods at whose instigation you imposed those horrors to exact no performance of them in their honor!
If these rites are evil, and therefore utterly incompatible with the majesty of the gods, then the wrong done to them is the greater because the tales are concocted with impunity. But, they will not listen to you; they are demons, teachers of depravity, delighting in obscenity. They take it as no affront to have such things written about them. But, they would take it as an intolerable affront if these indecencies were not exhibited in their solemn festivals. In fact, if you appeal to Jupiter against them, especially since many of his own evil deeds are acted in the plays, though you proclaim him the divine ruler and governor of the world, are you not offering him the greatest insult when you associate his worship with that of those filthy divinities, and name him their king?
Gods of that sort, appeased, or rather dishonored, and thereby more vicious for taking delight in the filthy falsehoods ascribed to them than they would have taken if they were true, could never have extended and preserved the Roman Empire. Were this in their power, it is upon the Greeks they should have conferred so great a favor. For, in this kind of religious observance, in stage plays, I mean, the Greeks treated the gods with more honor and dignity. They did not themselves dodge the barbs of the poets, by which they saw the gods torn to pieces, since they gave their poets full freedom to abuse any persons they pleased, nor did they class the comedians themselves as infamous. On the contrary, they even held them worthy of high honors.
Just as the Romans could have had gold money without worshiping the god Aurinus, so they could have had silver and copper money without worshiping either Argentinus or his father Aesculanus. So with the rest, which it would be wearisome for me to repeat. So, also, they could have had their empire, though by no means against the will of the true God. But, if they had ignored and despised that mob of false gods, and, with sincere faith and right living, acknowledged and worshiped that one God alone, they would have won a better kingdom, whether large or small, here below, and, with or without one here, they would have received an eternal one hereafter.
Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII