The length of wars, whether short or long, depends, like all other afflictions and consolations of mankind, on the justice and mercy of Divine Will. The war against the pirates and the Third Punic War were conducted, respectively, by Pompey and Scipio with incredible speed and finished in the shortest of time. The war against the rebellious gladiators, which cost the Romans the defeat of many generals and two consuls and the devastation and desolation of a large part of Italy, ended after a short three years of carnage.
When the Piceni, Marsi and Peligni, who were Italians and not aliens, revolted in the name of liberty after a long and faithful submission to the Roman yoke, the Romans who had now conquered many peoples and had wiped out Carthage found themselves in this Italian war. More than once suffering defeat, Rome counted among her dead two consuls and some noble Senators. However, not even this calamity was too long drawn out. It came to an end in the fifth year.
It was different with the Second Punic War. It lasted for eighteen years and the devastations and defeats of the republic reduced the Roman forces almost to extinction. In two battles, almost 70,000 Romans fell. The First Punic War lasted no less than twenty-three years; the Mithridatic War, forty. And let no one imagine that the more primitive Romans were more vigorous in the rapid prosecution of their wars. In the good old days, so famous for all kinds of valor, the Samnite War lasted nearly fifty years, and during it the Romans were once so worsted that they were made to pass under the yoke. However, they violated the peace treaty which they had accepted, because it was not for the sake of justice that they loved glory, but rather, it seems, justice for the sake of glory.
I have recalled these facts because some who are ignorant of history, or at least, pretend to be ignorant pounce on our religion the very moment they notice that a war lasts a little longer in the Christian era. If there were no Christianity, they claim, and if only the gods were worshiped in the ancient way, then the Roman valor which used to end wars so quickly with the help of Mars and Bellona would end this war, too. Let these people recall when they have read what I have written how protracted were the wars of the pagan Romans, how varied in their outcome, how tragic the defeats. Let them remember that the whole earth, like a stormy sea, is always beaten by the storm of such calamities. Let them tell the truth even when it hurts, and stop injuring themselves by insensate obloquies against God, and injuring others by playing on their ignorance.
These men, who should be rejoicing with gratitude over a very recent marvel of the mercy of God, are doing everything they can to bury the fact in oblivion. Were I to keep silence I should be as ungrateful as they are.
The facts are these. Radagaisus, King of the Goths, had an immense and ferocious army. He was already on the outskirts of the city, ready for a sudden attack on the Romans. Yet, in a single day, so quickly was he conquered that not one Roman was wounded, let alone killed, while more than 100,000 of his men were strewn about the ground and he himself was captured and very properly put to death.
Suppose a man as irreligious as Radagaisus had entered Rome with his pagan troops, whom would he have spared? What respect would he have shown for the graves of the martyrs? Would he have spared any man out of fear of God? Would any blood have remained unshed, any modesty have been left unmolested? And what a shout the pagans would have raised to honor their gods, and how they would have boasted that Radagaisus had shown such power and been victorious because he had offered daily sacrifice and prayers to the gods whose worship the Christian religion had forbidden in Rome.
While he was approaching the place where, by the omnipotence of God, he was conquered, his fame spread far and wide. I was at Carthage at the time and I was told that the pagans believed and boasted and were spreading the word that Radagaisus, befriended, defended and helped by the gods to whom he was said to offer daily sacrifice, could never be overcome by men who refused to offer sacrifices to the Roman gods and forbade them to be offered by others.
And, now, for this great mercy of God, the puzzled pagans offer no thanks. First, God decided to punish with a Barbarian invasion sins that were deserving of a worse visitation. Then, He tempered His indignation with His mercy, and allowed Radagaisus to be miraculously defeated. He did not want weak minds to be turned by any glory given to the demons whose aid had been invoked. But, a little later, He allowed Rome to be taken by barbarians who had such reverence for Christianity that, counter to all previous customs of war, they spared all who took sanctuary in the holy places. At the same time, these barbarians were so hostile to the demons and the rites of pagan sacrifices on which Radagaisus had relied that, in the name of Christianity, they waged a fiercer war on these gods than on living men.
Thus it is that the true Lord and Governor of the world has been merciful even while punishing the Romans. He has shown by the marvelous victory over the worshipers of demons that pagan sacrifices have no value for temporal life. His purpose was to save the half-Christians—those who are Christians not by inflexible convictions but by cautious prudence—from deserting the true religion and to help them persevere in faithful expectation of Eternal Life.
When we say that some of the Christian emperors are blest, we do not mean they are happy because they reigned many years; or because, when they died in peace, their sons reigned in their steads; or because they conquered the enemies of the republic; or because they were warned in time to put down the rebellions of seditious citizens. Such rewards and consolations in this troubled life have been rightly bestowed even on those who have worshiped pagan gods and who did not belong, like Christians, to the Kingdom of God. The reason for this is God’s mercy. He does not want those who believe in Him to look upon such favors as God’s highest gifts.
We call those Christian emperors happy who govern with justice, who are not puffed up by the tongues of flatterers or the services of sycophants, but remember that they are men. We call them happy when they think of sovereignty as a ministry of God and use it for the spread of true religion; when they fear and love and worship God; when they are in love with the Kingdom in which they need fear no fellow sharers; when they are slow to punish, quick to forgive; when they punish, not out of private revenge, but only when forced by the order and security of the republic, and when they pardon, not to encourage impunity, but with the hope of reform; when they temper with mercy and generosity the inevitable harshness of their decrees.
We call those happy who are all the more disciplined in their lusts just because they are freer to indulge them; who prefer to curb the waywardness of their own passions rather than to rule the peoples of the world, and who do this not out of vainglory but out of love for everlasting bliss; men, finally, who, for their sins, do not fail to offer to the true God the sacrifice of humility, repentance, and prayer.
We say of such Christian emperors that they are, in this life, happy in their hope, but destined to be happy in reality when that day shall come for which we live in hope.
Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII