God who is good did not wish that men who believed in Him and adored Him for the sake of eternal life should think that none but those who sought the aid of demons, who are powerful in such matters, could attain to worldly greatness or political dominion. For this reason, the Christian Emperor Constantine, no suppliant of the demons but a worshiper of the true God, was loaded with more earthly favors than any man could dare to hope for. It was granted to him to found a great city, daughter and companion of Rome and of her empire, yet without a single temple or statue of the pagan gods. His reign was long, and alone, like another Augustus, he ruled and defended the whole Roman world. In the planning and conducting of his wars he was most successful, and he never failed to defeat the usurpers who opposed him. Worn out by sickness and his years, he died in a good old age and left the succession to his sons.
On the other hand, God did not wish any emperor to become a Christian merely to enjoy the good fortune of a Constantine—no one should become a Christian for any motive but eternal life. And so, to Jovian He gave a shorter reign than to Julian. He allowed Gratian to die by the sword of a usurper—though the death was far less tragic than that of the great Pompey, a worshiper of the Roman gods. Pompey failed to be revenged by Cato, whom he had left as his heir to carry on the civil war; whereas Gratian—little as Christian souls look for such solace—was revenged by Theodosius whom he made co-regent, preferring, as he did, a firm alliance to personal power, and preferring Theodosius to his younger brother.
Theodosius was not only true to the fidelity he owed while Gratian was alive, but, after his death, he received Gratian’s young brother Valentinian as a Christian welcomes an orphan and he protected him with fatherly affection. Valentinian had been driven out by Maximus, the murderer of Gratian. Had Theodosius been moved by lust for power more than by love of doing good, he could easily have rid himself of Valentinian after reducing him to poverty. Instead, he not only maintained Valentinian in his imperial dignity, but showered on him every sign of graciousness and favor.
In the meantime, Maximus’ initial success had made him an enemy to be feared. In this crisis, Theodosius was not tempted by recourse to any illicit and sacrilegious oracles, but preferred to consult the hermit John in the Egyptian desert, a servant of God who was famous far and wide for his spirit of prophecy. The answer came back that victory was certain.
As soon as Theodosius had disposed of the usurper Maximus, he restored the young Valentinian, whom he both pitied and esteemed, to the part of the empire from which he had been driven. Valentinian died shortly after—naturally or by some traitorous design—and the usurper Eugenius had himself illegally elected as his successor. Theodosius, assured by another prophetic intimation, took up arms against the immensely powerful army of this tyrant and, more by prayers than battles, overcame him. Soldiers who took part in the war have told me that they felt their weapons torn from their hands. So fierce a wind blew from where Theodosius had his forces that it not merely halted enemy javelins and arrows but blew them back into their own faces. Hence, the poet Claudian—who was no friend of Christianity—sang in praise of Theodosius:
O Happy man, of whom your God is fond,
Your bugles call, and all the winds respond.
And so he conquered, as he believed he would and as had been predicted. His first step was to demolish the statues of Jupiter which had been set up in the Alps with rites and incantations for his harm. Jove’s lightnings, which were made of gold, he gave with cheerful generosity to his couriers. To cap the pleasant occasion, they jokingly replied that it was a pleasure to be struck by lightning of that sort. The children of his enemies (who had been killed, not by his orders, but in the heat of battle) sought sanctuary in a church, although they were not Christians. Theodosius, whose only desire was that they should become Christians, treated them with Christian charity, allowed them to keep their property and titles, and even added to them. After the victory, he allowed no one to seek any private vengeance.
Unlike Cinna, Marius, Sulla, and others who fought civil wars and kept up a battle of hate even after the heat of battle was over, Theodosius always began his wars with reluctance, and never ended them with rancor. For all his preoccupations from the very start of his reign, he found time, by wise and temperate laws, to help the Church, struggling with her enemies, much as the heretic Valens, by his indulgence to the Arians, had done it grievous harm. He was happier, in fact, to be a member of the Church than monarch of the world. On the ground that even temporal prosperity is the gift of the true God and not of pagan divinities, he ordered their idols to be everywhere destroyed.
As for his religious humility, it was never more marvelously revealed than in the case of the Thessalonians. They had committed a grave crime, but he promised pardon at the petition of the bishop. However, under pressure from the members of his retinue, he yielded to vengeance. Thereupon, ecclesiastical authority compelled him to make reparation, and the people who saw him, penitent and prostrate in all his princely trappings, were now more inclined to sob and intercede for him than, when he was angered, they had feared his vengeance.
It was such good deeds and others like them, too many to mention here, which Theodosius took with him when he left behind the fleeting puff of all this human pomp and power. Their reward is the everlasting bliss which is given by God only to those who are truly devout. Other glories and good things in this life God gives to the good and the evil alike—as He gives to all the sky and light and air, the earth and fruits, the soul and body of man, his senses and mind and life. And among God’s temporal gifts is the greatness of this or that empire which Providence dispenses as occasion calls.
There is another defense of the gods which, I see, must now be answered. Confuted by the most cogent proofs and convinced that no amount of false divinities can help us to obtain those temporal goods which only fools can passionately desire, our pagan friends try to claim that their gods are to be worshiped, not for favors in this present life, but for favors after death. As for those who want to worship shadows for the sake of worldly satisfactions and childishly complain that this is not permitted, I think they have been sufficiently refuted in these first five books. As soon as I had published the first three and they had gained a wide circulation, I was told that a number of writers were preparing some kind of a rebuttal of what I had written. Later, I was told that this was already written, but that they were waiting for a time when it would be less perilous to publish it. My advice to them is to stop hoping for what cannot help them. It is easy, of course, for anyone to imagine he has replied, simply because he was unwilling to keep quiet.
For, who is more talkative than a man who has nothing to say? An empty head, if it will, can make more noise than one that is full of truth. Only truth convinces. Let these men consider carefully all that I have written. If they will do this with an unprejudiced mind, they may come to see that their brash garrulity, and worse, the quips of their miming and mumming, have left my arguments unanswered. It may be better for them to keep their fiddle-faddle to themselves and to learn from the wise rather than be lauded by fools.
Perhaps they are not waiting for liberty to speak the truth, but merely for a license to lie. I can only hope that theirs will not be the lot of the man in Cicero who thought he was happy because he was free to sin. ‘O unhappy the man for whom lust was lawful. Anyone who thinks that a license to lie will make him happy will be far happier if he is silenced by the law. But if, in the meantime, these men will put aside their baseless boasting and, here and now, in the interest of genuine debate, question any point they will, then in a friendly discussion, fair, serious, and free, they will get all the answers I am able to give them.
Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII