The reward of the saints is altogether different. They were men who, while on earth, suffered reproaches for the City of God which is so much hated by the lovers of this world. That City is eternal. There, no one is born because no one dies. There, there reigns that true and perfect happiness which is not a goddess, but a gift of god—toward whose beauty we can but sigh in our pilgrimage on earth, though we hold the pledge of it by faith. In that City, the sun does not ‘rise upon the good and bad’ for the Sun of Justice cherishes the good alone. There, where the Truth is a treasure shared by all, there is no need to pinch the poor to fill the coffers of the state.
It was, then, not only to reward the Roman heroes with human glory that the Roman Empire spread. It had a purpose for the citizens of the Eternal City during their pilgrimage on earth. Meditating long and seriously on those great examples, they could understand what love of their Heavenly Fatherland should be inspired by everlasting life, since a fatherland on earth has been so much loved by citizens inspired by human glory.
When it is considered how short is the span of human life, does it really matter to a man whose days are numbered what government he must obey, so long as he is not compelled to act against God or his conscience? And, what injury did the Romans do to those they conquered, save that they imposed their laws by means of war and slaughter? It is true, they would have triumphed better by compact than by conquest. But then they would have had less glory. The fact is that the Romans lived under the identical laws they imposed on others. And all could have been arranged without the help of Mars, Bellona, and Victoria. But, no war, no victor; and that would have put the Romans on the same level with other peoples. This would have been the case, especially, if the Romans had done earlier what they were kind and gracious enough to do later, namely, to make the privilege of a few a fellowship of all, and to call all who belonged to the Roman Empire citizens of Rome. The only exception to this was the lower class of people who had no property of their own. These lived at the public expense. They were well off in the sense that the food that might have been taken from them by their conquerors was guaranteed to them by the state and provided by good administrators.
So far as I can see, it makes no difference at all to political security or public order to maintain the purely human distinction between conquerors and conquered peoples. It adds nothing to the state but empty pomp—fit reward for those who wage fierce battles out of lust for human glory. Do not the Romans pay taxes for their lands as others do? Are they more free to learn than others are? Are there not many Senators in foreign lands who do not even know what Rome looks like. When all the boasting is over, what is any man but just another man? And, even though a crooked world came to admit that men should be honored only according to merit, even human honor would be of no great value. It is smoke that weighs nothing.
Yet, in this matter, too, let us turn to our profit the goodness of God, our Lord. Let us reflect what good things they despised, what suffering they sustained, what passions they subdued for human glory—the sole reward such marvelous virtues merited. Let it help us to suppress our pride when we think of the difference between their city and ours and to reflect how little we can claim to have done if, to gain our City, we do a little good or endure certain ills, when they have done and suffered so much for the sake of the earthly city which is already theirs. Our City is as different from theirs as heaven from earth, as everlasting life from passing pleasure, as solid glory from empty praise, as the company of angels from the companionship of mortals, as the Light of Him who made the sun and moon is brighter than the light of sun and moon. We can learn from this, too, that the remission of sins which makes us citizens of the Eternal City was faintly adumbrated when Romulus gathered the first citizens of his city by providing a sanctuary and immunity for a multitude of criminals.
If, for the sake of this temporal and earthly city, Brutus could have his own sons put to death—a sacrifice which the eternal and heavenly City compels none of us to make—why should we think much of giving up all the pleasures, however enjoyable, of this world? It is surely more difficult to put one’s own sons to death than to give to the poor, or to lose altogether, at the call of faith or justice, what one has earned and hoped to save for one’s children. The riches of this earth can make neither us nor our children happy, if they are to be lost while we are alive or, after we are dead, are to pass to people we do not know or, perhaps, dislike. Only God can make us happy, for He is the true riches of our souls. As for Brutus, who killed his sons, we know how unhappy he was from the poet who has praised him:
What, though ’twas Freedom called for filicide?
And what, though after ages gave him glory?
Poor Brutus was unhappy till he died.
However, the next line offers some consolation: ‘Yet, love for Rome and glory made him strong.’ These are the two motives—freedom and the greed for fame—that made the Romans so marvelously successful. If, then, fathers could slay their sons for the sake of fame and freedom among mortal men, what wonder if, for the sake of true freedom, we do not kill them but rather add the poor of Christ to the number of our sons? This is a freedom which makes us free from servitude to sin and death and the Devil. And we are moved, not by a passion for men’s praise, but by a charity that seeks to free men, not from a king like Tarquinius, but from devils and the Prince of demons.
Consider, too, that other Roman leader, Torquatus. He killed his son, not for being the enemy of his country, but its friend. Only, the son acted against the authority of his state in acting against the command of the general, his father, and allowing his youthful ardor to be provoked into an attack on the enemy. The attack was successful, but he was put to death lest his example of disobedience should do more harm than the glory of his victory, good. Those, then, who despise earthly goods which are far less dear to them than children and do this under the laws of their eternal home, have little right to boast.
Again, take Furius Camillus. If he could, first, save his country from the yoke of its bitter enemies, the Veientes, then find himself condemned by rival countrymen, and yet once more save his ungrateful nation from the Gauls because he knew no better place where he could live in glory, why need we make a hero of a Christian who has suffered some grave wrong from enemies within the Church, and then does not pass over to its enemies the heretics, or does not start some heresy of his own, but defends the Church from the dangerous dogmas of the heretics? After all, there is only one Church where one can gain eternal life, whatever heresy may offer in the way of human glory.
Remember Mucius, who tried to kill Porsenna when he was threatening to conquer Rome, and by mistake killed another? Determined to bring about a peace, there before the eyes of Porsenna, he held his hand in a flame of an altar fire, saying that many others like him had vowed Porsenna’s death. And Porsenna, frightened by the fortitude and determination of men like that, at once put an end to the war and declared peace. Why, then, should a Christian think he has fully merited the Kingdom of Heaven if for its sake he has willingly thrust one of his hands in the fire, or even if he has lost his whole body in the flames as a victim of persecution?
Or take Curtius. He spurred his horse and plunged into a great chasm in the earth, in obedience to an oracle of the gods commanding that the Romans should cast into the chasm the most precious thing they had. No Roman could believe that they had anything more precious than their armed warriors, and it followed that, to obey the gods, an armed warrior had to meet his death by plunging into the chasm. Why, then, must a Christian say he has done something great for the Eternal City, when he has not even cast himself into such a death but has merely suffered it at the hands of some enemy of the faith? After all, better than any oracle, he has the assurance of his Lord who is King of his Country: ‘Fear ye not them that kill the body, and are not able to kill the soul.’
The Decii offered up their lives and, in a sense, consecrated the act with a formula of words, so that, as they fell, their blood might placate the anger of the gods and so save the Roman army. There is no reason, then, even for the holy martyrs to imagine that they have done anything deserving citizenship in that City of true and everlasting felicity, simply because they have striven, to the shedding of their blood, for the sake of their brothers—or, for that matter, of the enemies who shed their blood. After all, they were under a law to love with the faith of charity and the charity of faith.
There is the example of Marcus Pulvillus. While dedicating a temple in honor of Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, he was falsely informed by some of his enemies that his son had died. They hoped that he would be too moved to continue, and his colleague thus would have the glory of the dedication. But, the greed for glory conquered the grief in his broken heart. He remained unmoved, and told them to bury the boy without benefit of a funeral ceremony. What, then, of the disciple, solicitous for his father’s burial to whom our Lord said: ‘Follow me and let the dead bury the dead’? Why should we say that he did anything outstanding for the holy Gospel? Is it not by such preaching that the citizens of the heavenly country are brought together and freed from many errors?
Recall how Marcus Regulus, rather than break his oath, returned from Rome to Carthage, after telling the Romans that no one who had been in slavery to the Africans could maintain the dignity of a Roman citizen. Whereupon, the Carthaginians tortured him to death for the speech he had made against them in the Senate. What kind of cruelty, then, should we not endure in order to remain true to that City into whose blessedness we are led by the truth of faith. Is anything really ‘Rendered to the Lord for all the things He hath rendered us’ even when a man, for the sake of the true faith which is owing to God, suffers the kind of treatment that Regulus suffered for the sake of the good faith which he owed his direst enemies?
Or, suppose a Christian walks the way of voluntary poverty, which, in this pilgrimage of life, is the quickest way to the home where God Himself is our true riches. How can he dare to boast, once he has heard or read the story of Lucius Valerius? He died while he was consul, but he was so poor that a collection had to be taken among the people to pay for the funeral. Or, let a Christian hear or read the story of Quintius Cincinnatus. He owned no more than four acres of land and he was plowing them with his own hands when he was taken off to be dictator which is, of course, more than being a consul. But, once he had defeated the enemy and gained immense glory, he returned to his former poverty.
Even though a Christian can be seduced by no earthly promise from citizenship in the Eternal City, he should learn not to boast of what he has done. Fabricius, who was loaded down by the gifts of Pyrrhus, King of Epirus, and was promised a quarter of the kingdom if only he would secede from Rome, preferred to remain there in poverty as a private citizen. For the Romans, the Commonwealth meant the common wealth, the people’s wealth, the country’s wealth. When it was at the height of its opulence, Rome’s citizens were so poor in private that once, when a man who twice had been consul was found to have ten pounds of silver hidden in a vase, he was accused by the censor and expelled from the Senate of those poor men. Even those were poor by whose triumphs the public treasury was filled. Surely, Christians have a better motive for holding all their wealth in common. They have the ideal, mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles of dividing ‘to all, according as everyone had need …; neither did anyone say that aught of the things which he possessed was his own, but all things were common unto them.’ And they ought to understand that they have no reason to talk boastfully about this. After all, they are doing very little more to gain citizenship with the angels than the pagans did to maintain their Roman greatness.
All such stories which are found in the Roman writers would never have become known and never have been retold so frequently had not the Roman Empire spread so far and wide and developed with such astonishing success. What the Romans wanted was an empire large and long enduring, famous for its citizens of shining virtues. They got what they wanted. They received their reward. But, their example is meant as a lesson for us. If we do not practice for the glorious City of God the virtues which, in some sense, are like those which they practiced for the sake of glory in the city on earth, we ought to be ashamed; if we do practice them, we have no reason to be proud. For, as the Apostle says: ‘the sufferings of this time are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come that shall be revealed in us.’ Whereas, their life might well be compared with the human and temporal glory they received.
Another lesson concerns those who put Christ to death. It was revealed in the New Testament, what was not clear from the Old, that the one and true God should be worshiped for the sake of everlasting life and unending rewards and citizenship in the Heavenly City and not for any earthly and temporal returns. It is not surprising that the Jews fell a prey to the glory of the Romans, that those who by wickedness killed and rejected the Giver of the true glory of the Eternal City should fall before those who sought, and secured at least with virtues of a sort, their glory on earth.
Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII