Episode 101: Against the Pagans

Augustine’s City of God, Part 1 of 2. The first half of the City of God is a broadside against paganism – its culture, religion, and history, subjects about which Augustine had much to say.

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Augustine’s City of God, Books 1-10

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Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 101: Against the Pagans. This is the first of two episodes of Saint Augustine’s City of God, the full title of which is Concerning the City of God against the Pagans. The City of God, a nearly 1,100 page monolith of Late Antique theology written between 413 and 427, historically marks the ascendancy of Roman Catholicism as a religion, and the death knell of Rome – or at least the western half of the empire.1 In a sentence, the City of God explains the tribulations of Augustine’s Christian contemporaries, attempts a revisionist history of the entire world with Augustine’s own religion being the final outcome of all the world’s events, defends the Old Testament’s narratives as literally true, and works through many of the major questions of Christian theology not definitively answered by the Bible – how salvation works, what free will is, how Satan and evil came to be, and the nature of heaven and hell. While long parts of the City of God are carefully organized, multi-chapter discussions, the book also frequently meanders from topic to topic as its author sees fit. As scholar G.R. Evans writes at the outset of the Penguin edition, the City of God can be thought of as “[an] old man’s book” – the sometimes rambling, but always forceful magnum opus of a churchman trying to compress his ideology, over a period of fourteen years, into a single, vast volume.1

The scope and ambition of the City of God make it quite a challenging work for modern readers. While as a stylist, Augustine is generally marvelously clear, he wrote the treatise in his 60s and early 70s after an unusually bookish life. The City of God draws on Augustine’s experience as a student of history, a reader of philosophy, and a former adherent of ideologies other than Christianity. If we open the book expecting pure Catholic theology, we find ourselves surprised by the amount of other content that the book deals with – a great deal on the history of the Roman republic, on the older religions of the ancient Mediterranean, and on the philosophy and culture of the non-Christian world. Because the City of God is such an enormous and demanding text, then, I want to break the contents of this giant doorstopper into three categories – really the three main things that Augustine is up to in the City of God.

The first is as follows. In the year 413, when Augustine began writing The City of God, Christianity had been a permitted religion in the Roman Empire for exactly a hundred years – the Edict of Milan had been passed back in 313 after the emperor Constantine had converted the previous year. For the century between 313 and 413, Christianity had swelled through all echelons of Roman society. By 413, when Augustine started the City of God, Roman emperors had been mostly Christian for a century, and the religion had overtaken much of the aristocracy. All of this was good news for Augustine and his Christian contemporaries. But there was also bad news. The end of the 300s and the beginning of the 400s saw terrible problems for the Roman Empire. While civil wars and border wars had been regular occurrences for a long time, after the year 376, the persistence and scale of barbarian migrations into Roman territories had become unprecedented. The decade between 400 and 410 ultimately resulted in the loss of Britannia and Gaul, three Gothic invasions of Italy, and the sack of Rome in 410. And seeing the storied old empire shuddering to pieces, the massive population of pagans still alive and well during Augustine’s later years had begun to ask a very punchy question. Rome had held sovereignty over the Mediterranean for over five hundred years under the same spongy polytheistic system. This system had weathered every calamity Rome had ever faced. Could it be, though, (Augustine’s pagan contemporaries were asking), that with old pagan temples slowly growing cobwebs under their eaves, and once-cherished pagan statues being nudged into storage basements, that Rome was suddenly dying precisely due to Christianity? That apostasy from paganism was why the old empire was falling? And so in writing the City of God, Augustine’s first goal was to debunk this pagan argument – to assure his readers that in spite of the terminal decline of Rome, and despite the fact that contemporary Christians were being butchered and raped and losing their family fortunes, everything was as it should have been.

The second of the three main things that Augustine does in the City of God is to offer a long, careful account of pagan history and culture, and not a favorable one. To those pagan critics who accused Christianity of being a blight on Roman civilization, Augustine offers a sizable highlight reel of various grim and graceless junctures of ancient Rome’s culture and past. The aim of Augustine’s revisionist history is to demonstrate that pagan religion was not only a quagmire of misguided superstition, but also, that pagan religion hadn’t been of any great use to Rome at several of its hours of greatest need. And thus, again, if we open the City of God expecting pure Catholic doctrine, we’re often surprised to see how many citations there are to the authors of classical antiquity – references to ancient Latin historians like Sallust and Livy, and even poets like Virgil and Lucan.

And third of the three things Augustine accomplishes with the City of God is this. In Books 11-22 of the City of God, a 700-page lake of text written between 417 and 427 CE, Augustine essentially sets out to answer many of the pressing questions left unanswered by the Bible – questions about salvation, about free will, about the origins of evil and Satan, and about what saints and sinners could expect in heaven and hell. In philosophical history there is a term called “system building” – one often applied to German idealist philosophers like Kant and Hegel, and other philosophers from different epochs. System builders, rather than limiting their work to investigating one small area of philosophical knowledge, attempt to assemble entire accounts of the cosmos and our place in it. And in the City of God, Augustine sets himself up for precisely this task – not just to take the Bible alone as a sufficient handbook for life on earth, but to invent new arguments, new origin stories, new interpretations, and careful workarounds in response to pagan critiques of Christianity that had come about by the time Rome was sacked by the Visigoths in 410.

Those, then, are the three main things on Augustine’s agenda in the City of God – first, answering why Rome was faring so poorly now that it had become Christian; second, demonstrating that Roman history under pagan religion hadn’t ever been any better; and third, building a new system around the diverse raw materials of the Bible to offer coherent theological answers to Christian believers and pagan skeptics alike. Today, Augustine’s earlier work, the Confessions, due to its short length and the fairly accessible nature of its first few books, is his most popular and well-known word. But for those of us interested in the process by which the manifold and evolving world of early Christianity solidified into the Roman Catholic Church, the City of God is the book to read – a book in which we learn about Original Sin, innate depravity, the actual mechanics of hell and heaven, and a colorful back story about fallen angels and their evil leader. All of this material had roots – sometimes very tiny roots – in the Bible, and certainly in surviving apocryphal material from the second century onward, but in Augustine’s City of God they received more definitive doctrinal formulations, and after Augustine’s death in 430, his theological innovations began their 1,100-year hegemony over European ideology up until the Protestant Reformation began in 1517.

I’d like to get into the City of God pretty quickly in this episode. It’s a long book, and even an audio summary of it will take a little while. But before we open the front cover, let’s look for just a little while longer at the title on that front cover, and learn about what it meant to Augustine. [music]

Church and State, 313-413 CE

About two decades before Augustine’s birth in the year 354 – back in the 330s – the Emperor Constantine was wrapping up his successful tenure on the imperial throne. The first Christian emperor had not only been a symbolic triumph for the early Catholic church. Constantine had also taken an active role in Christian theology by bankrolling the Council of Nicaea in 325, that singularly important convention at which Trinitarian Christianity was formally proclaimed as doctrine. By the 330s, then, Constantine had been Christianity’s most important Roman convert, guaranteeing the safety of Christians in the empire with the Edict of Milan back in 313, and helping to mediate some of its sectarian tensions in 325. And because of Constantine’s role in the religion’s history, naturally, contemporary Christian evaluations of Constantine were rather positive. Most famously, the church historian Eusebius, who wrote most of a biography on Constantine, had this to say about the emperor in the last years of the 330s. This is a fairly long quote, by the way, and the gist of it is that the historian Eusebius is going to say very, very nice things about Constantine:
A coinage [of Constantine] was. . .struck which bore the following device. On one side appeared the figure of our blessed prince, with the head closely veiled: the reverse exhibited [Constantine] sitting as a charioteer, drawn by four horses, with a hand stretched downward from above to receive him up to heaven.

Such are the proofs by which the Supreme God has made it manifest to us, in the person of Constantine, who alone of all sovereigns had openly professed the Christian faith, how great a difference [God] perceives between those whose privilege it is to worship him and his Christ, and those who have chosen the contrary part, who provoked his enmity by daring to assail his Church. . .Standing, as [Constantine] did, alone and pre-eminent among the Roman emperors as a worshipper of God; alone as the bold proclaimer to all men of the doctrine of Christ; having alone rendered honor, as none before him had ever done, to his Church; having alone abolished utterly the error of polytheism, and discountenanced idolatry in every form: so, alone among them both during life and after death, was he accounted worthy of such honors as none can say have been attained to by any other; so that no one, whether Greek or Barbarian, nay, of the ancient Romans themselves, has ever been presented to us as worthy of comparison with him. (IV.73-5)3
Eusebius’ biography of Constantine often strikes a triumphalist tone, just like this. In Eusebius’ universal history, later imitated by Christian historians like Saint Jerome, Gregory of Tours and Isidore of Seville, the long and murky prehistory of the world had finally resulted in the glorious dawn of a Christian empire. Rome was now congenial to Christianity, the Council of Nicaea had purged Christianity of partisan infighting, and paganism was a thing of the past. At least, Eusebius had written all of this, two generations before Augustine.

Augustine, nearly a century after Eusebius had extolled the emperor Constantine in that biography, knew that the Christianization of Rome had not been so decisive as a single conversion. The longest-lived of Constantine’s heirs had strayed into Arianism, and throughout the later fourth century, the population of emperors and would-be emperors who held power over Rome were not uniformly in the Nicene Christian fold. Beyond Rome’s rulers, too, Christian sectarianism was still alive and well. Paganism, in spite of Eusebius’ proclamation otherwise, remained comfortably entrenched in the Late Antique Roman population, and many pagans, as we’ve seen in past episodes, regarded Christianity with indifference more than hostility. But much more unsettlingly than this for Augustine, less than a century after Eusebius proclaimed a brave new Roman Christian world order under Constantine, that world was rapidly being dismantled by barbarian armies and immigrants, some of them Arian Christians like those who had been forbidden back at the Council of Nicaea in 325, and others, not Christian at all.

As of 413, then, when Augustine began the City of God, it seemed that a shining Christian Roman empire was not a thing fated to be, after all. And while some Roman Christians, like Eusebius, had been happy to cast their lot in with Constantine, others were more reserved about the fusion of church and state. Way back in 197, Augustine’s fellow North African theologian Tertullian had described Christians as “a body knit together as such by a common religious profession, by unity of discipline, and by the bond of common hope. We meet together as an assembly and congregation. . .[but] we have no pressing inducement to take part in. . .public meetings; nor is there aught more entirely foreign to us than [the] affairs of state.”4 Tertullian thus explicitly emphasized that Christians ought not to let their religions lead them into politics. And a generation after Tertullian lived, the Carthaginian bishop Cyprian denounced bishops who held secular offices alongside their Christian ones.5 To these early Christian thinkers, bishops, priests and deacons did not need to be mucking around in the messy world of politics, the church was quite fine without the state, and Jesus had definitely said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Matt 22:21).

In the early Christian history that led up to Augustine, just as is the case today, there were members of the clergy interested in what the rough and tumble of secular politics had to offer them, and then members of the clergy content to serve their congregations and treat the affairs of state with indifference. Augustine’s titular City of God, then, is on one level simply a metaphor for a Catholic church purified from dealings with any state system – a closed organization with neither enmity nor allegiance to any government. It’s easy today to forget how important this concept of a church, unmoored to particular state, was when Augustine wrote the City of God. He certainly had compelling reasons to imagine the Catholic church disentangled from the faltering machine of the western empire. In ancient history up to the year 400, religions and hereditary priesthoods had often been interwoven with state systems, and Augustine knew his religious history well enough to know that empires – even big ones – came and went, and thus that yoking Catholicism to this or that Roman dynasty would have been a shortsighted move. As scholar David Vincent Meconi puts it, “Augustine composed [the City of God] in the post-Constantinian Church but with a sober distance from the enthusiasm that led others. . .to praise the emperor’s conversion as God’s finally embracing the political-militaristic machine of Rome as a way to advance the heavenly kingdom.”6

The titular City of God, then, is on one level simply a metaphor for the incorruptible, enduring apparatus of the church separated from the state. But it’s also a metaphor for good Christian believers. The common rabble of humanity might lose themselves in a proverbial opposite sort of city – the city of the world, frittering away their hours with the pleasures and distractions of food, sex, wealth, and worldly power. But those with their eyes on the City of God, in contrast, were willing to await the pleasures of heaven, and in the meantime to be meek, mild, and have faith in their deity. To Augustine, the two metaphorical cities – one of God, and one of the world, were a way of understanding how history had unfolded all the way back to Adam and Eve.

So that’s some background on the title of the City of God, together with a bit of information on how other Christian theologians prior to Augustine had conceived of the relationship between church and state – some very amenable to it, some opposed to it, and others in the gritty and realistic middle ground somewhere in between. A little earlier, I told you that Augustine is really up to doing three things with the City of God – first, explaining why the decline of Rome was no blemish on the record of Christianity; second, and relatedly, emphasizing that the old pagan religions of the Mediterranean had never protected Rome from any calamity; and finally, formulating a lot of doctrinal but non-biblical parts of Catholicism related to Original Sin, heaven, hell, and so on. In this program, again the first of our two on the City of God, we’re going to be reading Books 1-10 – books that primarily deal with Roman history as Augustine understood it. While we’ve already learned that Augustine was inspired to write the book by the contemporary history he saw unfolding around him, we haven’t quite delved into what was going on in his own life that compelled him to begin this vast book. And we know what compelled Augustine to begin the City of God because of what he tells us in the book’s first few pages. [music]

Volusianus and Donatism: The Immediate Circumstances Behind the City of God

In its opening moments, the City of God reveals the immediate circumstances of Augustine writing his great treatise. Augustine, along with the Christian intelligentsia of Carthage and Numidia, were in touch with a certain aristocrat named Rufius Antonius Volusianus. Volusianus had a cordial relationship with the North African Christian community, although he was not himself a Christian. A conservative pagan, Volusianus shared with many likeminded people of his generation a sense that the Empire had moved too hastily beneath the sway of powerful bishops. This generation of skeptical pagans, when they considered Rome’s apocalyptic territorial losses at the beginning of the 400s, felt that the precipitous decline of Rome, epitomized by the old capital’s sack in the summer of 410, was a clear sign that the old gods were displeased at Rome’s headlong rush into Christianity, and the power grabs made by various politically inclined churchmen.

Volusianus was like several other unconverted pagans we’ve met in our programs on Late Antiquity – writers like Ausonius and Rutilius Namatianus, who, while not baptized Christians, were familiar and congenial with the new religion.7 By the 410s, with Christianity having taken hold of emperors and much of the aristocracy, it would have been difficult for anyone in a position of power to take a hardline stance of complete intolerance against the religion. Volusianus, who had ruled as a proconsul of the province of Africa, knew full well the direction in which the Empire was headed. His mother and niece were Christians, and thus when Augustine first wrote to Volusianus in 411 or 412, Volusianus was at a point very similar to where Augustine himself had once been during Augustine’s own long road to conversion.8 Volusianus, however, though polite, wasn’t an easy sell for the Christians trying to convert him. And Augustine wasn’t the only one working on converting the aristocratic pagan Volusianus. Augustine’s friend and disciple Marcellinus, who’d been summoned to Carthage in 411 to preside over an ecclesiastical council there, had also determined to save Volusianus’ soul. And Marcellinus is the first proper noun in Augustine’s City of God.

The opening sentence of the City of God begins the thousand plus page book as an epistle. Augustine writes, “Here, my dear Marcellinus, is the fulfillment of my promise, a book in which I have taken upon myself the task of defending the glorious City of God against those who prefer their own gods” (1.1.1). Marcellinus had asked Augustine for help in winning Volusianus over, some time around the year 413, and the mission of the first few books of The City of God is to explain why, at the very moment that Christianity assumed stable control over Roman leadership, the western half of the empire had begun its death spiral.

As we open this book in a moment, though, there’s one final piece of historical context to keep in mind. The City of God – especially its opening five books – are widely understood as an attempt to answer why the generation that saw Rome finally become Christian also saw Rome finally reach its terminal decline. But the book should also be understood as a response to the Donatist controversy. The Conference of Carthage in 411 was held in an attempt to heal a century-old rift in the North African church between Donatists and Roman Catholics – one which we learned about two episodes ago. To review this controversy fairly quickly, the Donatist schism had begun toward the end of the last great Roman persecution of Christians from 303-311. During this persecution, in North African provinces, some Christians cooperated with Roman authorities and handed over their scriptures and other sacred goods, and others refused and were killed or imprisoned. Followers of the theologian Donatus held that churchmen who had compromised and cooperated with persecuting authorities were turncoats whose offices were illegitimate. While this immediate schism might have passed with the generation that endured the persecution of 303-311, instead, it grew into something else. Donatists promoted their own homegrown clergy, spurring the African provinces to reject Catholic bishops and deacons from abroad as the descendants of spurious churchmen. Cultural and economic differences exacerbated the rift between Donatists and Roman Catholics, and by the end of the 300s, the Donatists had become an enduring faction of North African religion, steering their congregations into sectarian exceptionalism and affiliating themselves with revolutionary groups bent on usurping Roman rule of law.

Thus, on one hand, explaining why the Roman Empire had begun falling to pieces right after the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 was Augustine’s primary motivation for beginning The City of God. But on the other hand, writing about a divine city that weathered all earthly declines and falls, and all earthly schisms, was a way for Augustine to imagine something beyond the imperfect and sectarian history of fourth century Christianity – sectarian history that had affected his own life and career. As a Catholic bishop of Hippo Regius while Donatists and their associates continued to fan the flames of a Christian separatist movement in the streets and squares of his diocese, Augustine needed to prove that his own faction of Christianity was not just another flawed product of human culture, but instead, part of a divine plan.

So, with all of that background upfront, let’s delve into the first half of Augustine’s City of God. The full title of Augustine’s great treatise, as we learned earlier, is Concerning the City of God against the Pagans. The opening ten books of the long discourse, which we’re about to read, are where Augustine engages with pagan ideology in detail. In these ten books, Augustine’s overall agenda is to show that pagan antiquity was not the valorous yesteryear that conservative Romans were sometimes making it out to be, but instead a tarnished and bumbling prelude to the coming ascendancy of the Catholic Church. Unless otherwise noted, quotes in this episode come from the Henry Bettenson translation, published by Penguin Classics in 2003. [music]

Book 1: A Response to Contemporary Christian Calamities

After addressing his recipient Marcellinus, and a few other prefatory remarks, Augustine gets straight to the heart of his task. In late August of 410, again about three years prior to Augustine beginning work on the City of God, the ancient capital of Rome was sacked by a force of Visigoths. But even during the direst hours of the city’s being plundered, Augustine writes, Alaric and his forces spared those who sought refuge in Christian places of worship, whether those refugees were Christian or pagan. Augustine writes that “The bloodthirsty enemy raged thus far, but [in Christian holy places] the frenzy of butchery was checked. . .their monstrous passion for violence was brought to a sudden halt; their lust for taking captives was subdued” (1.1.1). And, indignantly, Augustine writes that some pagan survivors of the sack, in spite of cowering in Christian churches during the attack on Rome, had still dared in subsequent years to criticize the ascendancy of Christianity over the empire. Such pagan ingrates, Augustine promises, would suffer from eternal punishment.

Conquerors, according to Augustine, had never before spared places of worship during conquests.9 Citing Virgil’s Aeneid, Augustine recounts the sack of Troy in the epic’s opening books, emphasizing that the Greeks gave their Trojan adversaries no quarter in this popular story. When, in the Aeneid, Trojan heroes scuttled out of their fallen city bearing the statues of their household gods, Augustine writes, they inadvertently revealed these minor deities as nothing more than human creations, lost if their false idols perished. During the same sack, the sanctuary of Juno was given no special treatment by the rampaging Greeks, and Augustine cites passages in the Roman historians Sallust and Livy as evidence that during city sacking in and before the first century BCE, the general policy was no-holds-barred murder, rape and destruction, with Romans viewing the indigenous religions of populations that they conquered with bemused condescension at best.

Sack of Rome by the Visigoths on 24 August 410 by JN Sylvestre 1890

Joseph-Noël Sylvestre’s The Sack of Rome. The first decade of the 400s saw refugees from Italy spilling down into the safer North African provinces, where churchmen like Augustine consoled them. The painting, incidentally, displaying nude and wild barbarians as it does, continues the misconception that Augustine helped popularize of the Visigoths, who, under Alaric, were by this period largely Romanized, and sometimes generations-long residents of the empire.

What happened in Rome in 410, Augustine tells us, was different. He argues that “there was something which established a new custom, something which took on such an aspect of gentleness that the largest basilicas were selected and set aside to be filled with people to be spared. . .[the] fierce and savage minds [of the barbarians] were terrified, restrained, and miraculously controlled by [God]” (1.1.7). To here for just a moment, Augustine’s opening argument is surprisingly poor and uninformed, considering the overall quality of his work. Alaric and his forces, as we’ve learned many times in past episodes, were not howling savages in loincloths, but instead a community of first, second and third generation Roman immigrants victimized by the inconsistent policies of the Emperor Honorious, and a cold war between the Roman west and the Byzantine east. Alaric’s Visigoths spared Christian centers of worship in late August of 410 because they were Christians. Augustine’s modest half dozen citations from pagan historians, themselves wobbly with facts, and from the wonderful but completely fictitious Aeneid of Virgil, together with his basic misunderstanding of who the Visigoths were, make the opening sections of The City of God a bumpy start to the long book.

Anyway, to move forward, after recounting how the Christian Visigoths spared Christian centers of worship, and claiming that this was a special dispensation of the divine, Augustine moves into more well-worn theological territory – the problem of evil. With good Catholics all over the empire having suffered terrible losses as a result of the past half century of barbarian migrations, in 413, the problem of evil would have been something on a great many Christian minds. A massive amount of Christian theological history has involved fashioning various complex escape hatches from the problem of evil, and Augustine offers up some of the standard ones in the opening book of The City of God, though with some characteristically innovative flourishes.

Earthly windfalls and misfortunes, Augustine writes, although we tend to focus on them all too often, are meaningless in comparison to the ultimate pleasures of heaven or pains of hell. Further, God can’t simply serve up rewards and punishments in real time, as, if this were the case humanity would simply act to accrue temporal rewards and punishments, their behaviors motivated not by awe at the divine, but instead the opportunistic pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain. Having faith in spite of calamity adds to the moral improvement of Christians, as was exemplified by Job in the Old Testament. Following an assortment of New Testament commonplaces about not placing stock in worldly things, Augustine contends that “those who obeyed their Lord’s advice about where and how they ought to amass treasure, did not lose even their worldly riches to the barbarian invasions” (1.10).

Augustine concedes that in the tumult of the Italian peninsula being invaded, good Christians were tortured and forced to hand over their possessions. But they could not, Augustine promises, be forced to hand over their faith as Christians, nor the coming enjoyments of heaven. Their torture was not a punishment, but a lesson in holding to the steadfast love of God, and thus in a way, torture was a worldly good greater than worldly riches. Starvation, too, was a gift, allowing those Christians who endured it to cling fast to their faith, and reminding them that they could live on very little. Although many good Christians had died, Augustine writes – and taking a truism from the old playbook of stoicism – they died with dignity and mental clarity as Christians. And although good Christians had been butchered and left unburied, he argues, the fate of the body did not affect the fate of the soul.

While in recent times Christians had lost their worldly fortunes, been tortured, been murdered and left unburied, they had faced another calamity in recent decades, and this was being taken captive and enslaved. Augustine cites the example of Daniel and his companions, of Jonah in the belly of a whale, and says that kidnapping and the travails of the imprisoned have happened to all people in all ages. And in his great inventory of recent privations visited on Christians, Augustine comes to the subject of rape. Wives, unmarried women, and even chaste members of Christian religious orders had all suffered this awful fate in recent years. On this subject, Augustine writes “the consecrated body is the instrument of the consecrated will; and if that will continues unshaken and steadfast, whatever anyone else does with the body or to the body. . .involves no blame to the sufferer” (1.16). Continuing his account of all the sufferings Christians were experiencing by the 410s, Augustine comes to the subject of suicide. Suicide, Augustine writes, is a sin. In spite of the extreme circumstances that might prompt us into it, it is something that must be avoided. Augustine, again emphasizing that suffering a rape is neither a sin, nor a blemish on one’s chastity, retells the story of the Roman maiden Lucretia – a popular folktale from the Roman historian Livy. Lucretia was raped, and then she committed suicide. It was an awful story, Augustine notes, because Lucretia had committed no crimes or misdeeds, unlike the man who had raped her. He writes that Lucretia “was ashamed of another’s foul deed committed on her, even though not with her, and as a Roman woman, excessively eager for honour, she was afraid that she should be thought. . .to have willingly endured what. . .she had violently suffered” (1.20). Christian women, Augustine writes, should have no such hang ups about social perception – they should know that rape was no stain whatsoever on their sanctity. Suicide, however, Augustine stresses again, is a sin, and never under any circumstances permissible.

Augustine knew that pagan intellectual history had a number of heroic suicides – Socrates, Cato the Younger, and various other ancient Greeks and Romans who’d taken their own lives rather than compromise with an imperfect world. But there were also famous Christian martyrs who, in the old Mediterranean tradition, had killed themselves rather than suffering rapes or the violations of their sacred vows. On this subject, Augustine diplomatically writes, “I would not presume to make a hasty judgment on their case” (1.26), and he admits that the will of God may well have been involved, as when Samson brought down a temple on the Philistines, ending his own life, too, in the process.

Seeming to realize that with his discussion of the inviolable sanctity of the Christian has moved away from the problem of evil, Augustine returns very directly to the question of why bad things were happening to good Christians, as in the case of rapes and murders. In the face of this insoluble question Augustine resorts to a common, if predictable argumentative maneuver in theology, telling us that “the providence of the Creator and Governor of the universe is a profound mystery, and ‘his judgments are inscrutable, and his ways cannot be traced’” (1.28).10 The statement that god works in mysterious ways is theology’s argumentative smoke bomb, allowing a pious writer to give an obsequious hat tip to the divine while skulking off into the shadows in mid-debate. Somewhat more memorably than his platitude on God’s incomprehensibility, Augustine tells rape victims, “Accept this twofold consolation, you fainthearted creatures” (1.28), the consolation being that victims were allowed their sanctity in the first place, and then they were, after being raped, left alone to themselves with their sense of inviolability, since the societies around them considered them tarnished. Christian theology, from the Gospels onward, has always been fond of paradoxes – poverty is wealth, wealth poverty, etc. But when Augustine, with a zest for paradox and argumentative maneuvering that came from both pagan and Christian educations, tells us that torture and rape are blessings in the opening book of the City of God, he may stretch the credulity of even the more faithful among us. [music]

The City of God, Book 2: Augustine’s Opening Salvo Against Pre-Christian Rome

Having extensively considered the recent tribulations his generation of Christians were enduring, and promised his reader that their sufferings were actually benedictions, or at the least, mysteries too profound for humanity to comprehend, Augustine turns his attention toward his imagined pagan critics. Pagan naysayers, Augustine writes, dared to ask Christians why Christ was not intervening to help them. But the real reason that pagans disparaged Christians was that they wanted to “enjoy. . .vices without interference, and to wallow in. . .corruption, untroubled and unrebuked” (1.30). And just to flash forward for a moment, following his opening 40-page attempt to explain why so many Christians were being massacred under the aegis of an omnipotent Christian God, Augustine is going to now go on for about four hundred pages on the subject of the deficiencies of pagan religion and pagan philosophy.

To Augustine, Rome’s embrace of stage productions way back in 364 BCE was the beginning of a long and unaccountable preoccupation with theater. This is a curious detail to fixate on, by the way, at the outset of a massive salvo against Roman culture, but it is what Augustine begins with, and he emphasizes that even after the sack of Rome in 410 CE, the aristocratic refugees who’d fled the old capital hurried to theaters in places like Carthage to console themselves with the comfortable vices of their civilization. As he did in the Confessions, Augustine recounts going to the theater in Carthage as a young man and being swept up in the spectacles there.

Roman stage shows, Augustine argues, with all of the disgraceful vices they put on display, had their roots in the freewheeling world of pagan religion. Ancient Greek plays, like the Old Comedy of Aristophanes, had put the gods onstage doing all sorts of scurrilous things, and put actors and playwrights into prominent positions of statesmanship. When Rome had long ago legislated stage productions, it had passed laws against libel of specific individuals, but left it perfectly legal to have gods and goddesses onstage, doing whatever an author saw it fit to have them do. This, Augustine says, was difficult to understand for a reverent Christian person. If pagans really revered their deities, then they’d at least give their gods the legal protections afforded to their citizenry in the sphere of the theater, and make it illegal to slander and lampoon the Roman gods.

Augustine expresses indignation that Rome’s gods never seemed to be regulated by, or to issue any sort of moral code for personal conduct. Recounting familiar stories from early Roman history – the rape of the Sabine women, and the ill-treatment of Marcus Camillus, Augustine sees them as evidence of Roman civilization’s immorality from its earliest centuries.

Now, by Augustine’s age, there was an old story that Romans had already loved telling for at least six hundred years. This was the story that there had been a golden age, then a silver age, then a bronze age, and that humankind had declined from generation to generation. By the Middle Ages, the term senectus mundi, or “old age of the world” had emerged to describe the sense that Earth had entered its withered and final epoch, having degenerated from a more virile and morally upright youth. We see this idea in the diatribes of the Hebrew Bible’s prophetic books – that Israel has declined and declined, and the New Testament widely assumes that the morally faulty world will be brought to its closing phases by the interventions of Christ. Naturally, then, Augustine, a Roman Christian steeped in the Old Testament and faced with what must have looked like tangible evidence of the end of the world, was extremely invested in the notion that civilization in the Ancient Mediterranean was declining hastily toward an appointment with judgment day.

In ancient Roman historiography, the idea we most frequently encounter is that after Rome stopped cracking skulls in 146 BCE following the joint conquest of Carthage and the Greek mainland, Romans became wimps infected with the degeneracy of Greek culture and/or no longer had foreign enemies to subdue, and they began feasting, fornicating, and fighting with one another. Augustine, quoting the ancient Roman historian Sallust, enthusiastically buys into the notion that Roman culture fell into gross decadence. Reviewing some salient historical details, Augustine concludes, “anyone who pays attention cannot fail to observe, that Rome had sunk into a morass of moral degradation before the coming of our Heavenly King” (2.18). And offering scattershot anecdotes about Rome’s republican history down to 50s BCE, Augustine observes that “Thus, when [Rome] was perishing through its moral depravity, the Roman gods took no action to direct or correct morals to prevent that ruin” (2.24). On the contrary, late republican warlords like Sulla consulted entrails and used other arcane rituals to confirm that pagan gods approved of their bloody usurpations and civil wars.

While a pantheon of false pagan gods had encouraged the civil wars that finally broke the republic, more generally, Augustine writes, cult religions and state religious holidays encouraged strange and often grotesque public rites – sacrifices, parades, loud performances, and worse, brutality in the amphitheater. The totality of all of it, together with “scandalous and slanderous stories about the gods” (2.28), had had a long and corrosive effect on the public morality of Rome. In contrast, Augustine writes, Christian worship services were modest, with men and women separated, and with a central emphasis on living a good life on earth to as to secure the benefits of paradise afterwards. For all of these reasons, Rome ought to abandon its long and fraught polytheistic history, Augustine insists, and become Christian through and through, as “true justice is found only in that commonwealth whose founder and ruler is Christ” (2.22). [music]

The City of God, Book 3: Further Criticisms of Republican Rome

So far in the City of God, Augustine has worked to explain why the recent sack of Rome in 410 was not at all a blemish on the glorious ascendancy of Christianity, to emphasize that contemporary Christians’ sufferings were often blessings in disguise, and then to disparage Roman history as the often wayward result of a morally vacuous religion. The remainder of the first half of the City of God that we’ll go through today continues a broad critique of the pagan civilizations that came before Christianity.

Pagan gods, Augustine writes, never protected the societies that worshipped them from ruin and spoliation. Obviously a big fan of Virgil’s Aeneid, Augustine once again cites Virgil’s fictional epic as historical evidence that pagan gods did not protect their worshippers, and then, citing story of the Catiline conspiracy of the 60s BCE, Augustine writes that the late republic was corrupt because it was not Christian. Augustine then cites the writings of a pagan scholar named Marcus Terentius Varro, a rough contemporary of Cicero. Varro was a pagan skeptic of pagan religion, and Augustine concurs with Varro that during pre-Christian antiquity, “many more ostensibly religious rites may have been invented in cases where lies about the gods were thought to bring advantage to the citizens” (3.4).

Continuing his broad critique of pagan religion, Augustine writes that the annals of ancient Greek and Roman religion were always filled with logically and morally unintelligible contradictions. Why was Helen’s adultery so consequential, and Romulus’ murder of his brother Remus scarcely remarked on? Why did Romulus, after a war, accept a partnership with the enemy Sabine king, even when he’d been unable to compromise with his own brother? Why did the ancient Roman King Numa usher in a period of peace and tranquility, if Rome’s gods afterward surrendered the civilization to more than a thousand years of tumult? Reviewing the very early history of Rome as he knew it from Livy, Augustine pointedly concludes, “Strange marriage-rites, strange causes of war, strange conditions of fraternity, of affinity, of alliance, and of divinity! In short, what a strange sort of life in a city under the protection of so many gods!” (3.13).

Moving through the pseudo-historical work of the Roman writer Livy, Augustine remarks with incredulity on the stories of the Horatii and Curiatii, and the grisly crimes and fates of Rome’s early kings. Switching to the more historical, though morally heavy-handed historian Sallust, Augustine reviews the period of the founding of the republic and Rome’s early consuls, and the pivotal strife between patrician and plebeian classes back in the 490s BCE. Augustine then assures us that the next 300 or so years of Roman history prior to the First Punic War were very bad ones, writing that during these centuries, “Rome’s victories did not bring the substantial joys of happiness, but only the empty consolations of misery” (3.17). Offering a synopsis of some of the rougher patches of republican history that he had read about in Livy and Sallust, Augustine adopts the style of a sermon, asking where Rome’s gods had been during the old age of Cincinnatus, the condemnation of the hero Camillus, Rome’s defeat by the Samnites at the Battle of the Caudine Forks, Rome’s defeat in 283 BCE by a confederated army of its Italian foes, or Rome’s fraught campaign against Pyrrhus in the 270s. Augustine demands to know where Rome’s gods were when the Tiber froze in 271, and no consultation of the Sibylline books could bring warmth to the snowy city.

Switching to later republican history, Augustine comes to the subject of the Punic Wars, a conflict that was of course close to home for him as a citizen of Hippo Regius, a hundred miles west along the coast from Carthage. Pressing the same line of argument, Augustine asks where Rome’s gods were during the wars with Carthage. The First Punic War saw religious rites undertaken to help restore the losses Rome had suffered as a result of Carthaginian hostilities, but nothing came of them. Instead, Rome flooded in 242 BCE, and in 241, a major fire incinerated the temple of the Vestal Virgins, together with an ancient and sacred carving of Athena. And while Rome’s gods left the civilization to suffer during the First Punic War, during the Second Punic War, things were even more catastrophic. Hannibal, crossing the Alps with war elephants and shattering Roman defense forces on the peninsula, thundered through the heart of Roman civilization unchecked by the Olympian Pantheon. And at the end of the Second Punic War in 202, though Scipio Africanus bested Carthaginian forces, he became so disgusted by self-interested political maneuvering enacted against him that he retired to a small villa northwest of Naples.

As Roman history wore on, Augustine recounts, in 169 a law called the Lex Voconia passed, which denied women the right of being heirs of family fortunes. On this legislation, Augustine writes “I cannot quote, or even imagine, a more inequitable law” (3.21). And while Rome finally defeated Carthage in 146 BCE at the close of the Third Punic War, this defeat ushered in a period of decadence and internecine strife that Augustine maintains was much worse than the threat Carthage had ever posed.

Augustine regards republic’s end and the rise of Augustus Caesar with chilly ambivalence, the first Roman emperor being nothing more than a monarch who seized power at the close of an exhausted and bloodied century. Recounting the demagoguery of the Gracchi brothers, the Social War with Italian populations, the Third Servile War with Spartacus, the long and bloody Mithridatic wars, and the strife between Marius and Sulla that resulted in a dictatorship and bloody purges in Rome, Augustine indicates that the later republic had received no divine aid in its darkest hours. Indeed, Augustine writes, the Gauls had sacked Rome way back in 390 BCE, and the Goths had just sacked Rome in 410 CE, but really, Romans had had it worst of all beneath other Romans, and their religion had offered them neither moral instruction, nor real divine miracles to rescue them from their manifold sufferings. [music]

The City of God, Book 4: Augustine Begins His Criticism of Greco-Roman Paganism

Here at the cusp between Books 3 and 4 of the City of God, we have just seen Augustine review some of the major crises of Rome’s republican history in an effort to show that the ancient civilization’s baggy polytheistic religion hadn’t done it any consistent good. He is arguing, once again, against those who alleged that Rome fell in 410 CE to the Visigoths because Rome had lost its ancient pieties. To these pagan critics of Christianity, real or imagined, Augustine makes quite a strong argument that Rome’s ancient pieties had never done it any good to begin with.

Still, Augustine had a simple fact to contend with, and that was that the non-Christian Roman empire, warts and all, had enjoyed sovereignty over the Mediterranean and beyond for well over 400 years. To this counterargument, Augustine writes that it’s better to live a modest life in honesty than a glamorous one made so by vice, and that some empires are more like thuggish gangs than united bodies of citizens. Spartacus and his slave army, Augustine writes, might have had divine help, considering what they achieved in the late 70s BCE, but what Rome had achieved was more aptly described, in Augustine’s opinion, as “brigandage on the grand scale” (4.6). And you have to admit, that’s a good line.

Marble head of a god, probably Zeus MET 92345

The marble head of a God, likely Zeus. Augustine, unfortunately, treats “paganism” as though it is a religion which is supposed to be internally consistent. The generalization allows him a grab bag of things to criticize, but also demonstrates a basic misunderstanding of the hundreds of religious ideologies prior to, and current with Christianity, many of which were also salvation-based faiths with interest in the ethical self-regulations of their adherents.

Returning to the subject of Roman religion in more detail, Augustine asks his reader to consider the absolutely gigantic number of Roman deities out there – not just the Olympians, but all of the uncountable minor gods Romans had worshipped over the past thousand years. Some pagan intellectuals, following Plato, and his descendants in Stoic philosophy, had identified a single god as an ascendant prime mover of the universe. But considering all of what pagan theology had come up with – story cycles involving many gods and then philosophical works alleging the unity of all gods in one – Augustine finds little consistency. On a side note, Augustine is here describing 1,500 years of evolving and institutionally unregulated theological and philosophical history as though it’s all a unified entity that’s supposed to be internally consistent. When you put the whole religious history of ancient Greece and Rome into a jar with the label “paganism” on it, you can’t really expect this artificial composite of ideologies to make sense as a unit, So, taking aim at the rather easy target of institutionally unregulated pagan polytheism, Augustine fires away, emphasizing that it’s absurd that Jupiter is the coalescence of Rome’s hundreds of miscellaneous gods. The Romans at least, Augustine observes, worshipped the Goddesses Virtue and Faith – with these, they were on the right track. Augustine writes fairly extensively about the Roman goddess Felicity, or good fortune, saying that she ought to have deserved far more concerted worship than the smorgasbord of other gods who received sacrifices and adulations.

Following the well-trod paths of various critics of pagan polytheism, Augustine brings his argument to a crescendo by remarking incredulity at the vulgar and incoherent behavior of the sacred Olympian pantheon in so many popular narratives, concluding that “It is utterly impossible that the increase and preservation of the Roman Empire could have been due to such gods as these” (4.28). As we know from past episodes, pagan academics and philosophers had already written withering accounts of traditional Roman religion, and Augustine, citing Cicero and the stoic philosopher Quintus Lucilius Balbus, notes that these thinkers went far in the direction of theological critique, though stoics were inferior because they were not Christians. Returning to the pagan theological critic Marcus Terentius Varro, Augustine congratulates Varro on dismissing ancient Roman polytheism and moving in the direction of monotheism, as many other pagan intellectuals were doing during the first century BCE, but dismiss some of Varro’s ideology as distinctly non-Christian.

Zooming out from his discussion of Rome’s gods and history, Augustine attests that his own deity actually orchestrated all events of all periods of history. The ancient Israelites had indeed been selected for special dispensation, and when they won wartime victories, they praised Yahweh, rather than some half dozen deities associated with battlefield successes. And, as Augustine puts it, “if [the Jews] had not sinned against God by turning aside to the worship of strange gods and of idols. . .if they had not finally sinned by putting Christ to death, they would have continued in possession of the same realm, a realm exceeding others in happiness” (4.34).11 The Hebrew Bible and history of the Israelites, Augustine concludes, all served as proof that the coming of Christ and Christians was long foreordained. [music]

The City of God, Book 5: Against Astrology, On Free Will, and More Against Paganism

Augustine opens Book 5 of the City of God with a discussion of twins. Identical twins, he writes, though conceived at the same moment and born on the same day, often have very different personalities and careers. Twins like these presented committed astrologers with a pickle – and Augustine writes that astrology is silly and its practitioners have no counterargument to well known records of twins leading very different lives, though born under the same sign. At the end of a dozen or so pages on astrology and horoscopes, Augustine judges them to be demonstrably false.

While he dispatches with astrology fairly quickly, Augustine then goes on to the old pagan notion of fate. Fate, ever since the age of the Homeric epics, had been described as a vast but often numinous power that held sway over even the gods themselves, sometimes personified in the forms of three weaving sisters, as in the final story in Plato’s Republic. Stoic philosophy had sopped up the notion of fate, as it was consistent with stoicism’s general sense of a pantheist force that animated the entire cosmos.

The discussion of fate here in Book 5 leads Augustine briefly to one of the most important subjects in the City of God, and this is free will and predestination, free will meaning that we choose and have control over what we do, and predestination meaning that we don’t. Augustine had a complex and slippery position on this subject, which we’ll discuss in a lot of detail next time. If we picture a continuum with free will on the far left, and then predestination on the far right, Augustine moved cautiously from side to side along this continuum throughout his corpus of writings, staking out positions depending on context and what he was arguing for and against. To give you a preview of what we’ll cover mainly next time, let’s hear what Augustine writes about Christian free will here fairly early on in the City of God – this is again the Henry Bettenson Translation, published by Penguin in 2003.
Now if there is for God a fixed order of all causes, it does not follow that nothing depends on our free choice. Our wills themselves are in the order of causes, which is, for God, fixed, and is contained in his foreknowledge, since human acts of will are the causes of human activities. Therefore he who had prescience of the causes of all events certainly could not be ignorant of our decisions, which he foreknows as the causes of our actions. (5.9)
In other words, we’re free to play the pinball machines of our own lives – God sets them up, and sets up our identities, propensities, and circumstances, and determines all the rules of physics, and knows ahead of time who’s going to win and lose, but we are free – kind of – to play our own games. As I said, we’ll get into Augustinian free will and its companion ideas of predestination and Original Sin next time, because they were among the most important ideas under discussion in all of Late Antiquity. But to move forward here in the first half of the City of God, Augustine’s preliminary discussion of Christian free will is deployed in Book 5 to counter older ideas about fate that predated him.

The stoics had, in Augustine’s estimation, placed too small an emphasis on the individual freedom of will. Cicero, on the other hand, had placed too much emphasis on free will, alleging that no divine foreknowledge was possible amidst the powerful vagaries of individual human choice. Only his own ideology, Augustine attests, really struck the right balance between free will and predestination. To Augustine, the infinitesimal bubbles of moral decision that we get to make – the most important of which is whether or not to embrace Christianity – though they are made in a roiling ocean of elements out our control, and all absolutely constructed and foreordained by God – these tiny pockets where free will can be exercised mean that both individual choice and divine determinism were equally real and valid.

Augustine’s fairly short discussion of Christian free will leads him back to the subject of ancient Roman history – a history largely of people who’d sought power and glory rather than personal virtue. These individuals, Augustine tells us, enjoyed worldly success and the adulations of posterity, though not the posthumous pleasures that awaited Christians. One thing that the hardy early Romans and Christians shared, however, was selflessness. Trawling once again through the annals of Livy, Augustine cites examples of ancient Romans who’d acted for the benefit of the collective, rather than the furtherance of their own fame and fortune, enchanted, like so many Romans before him, by the old Livian legends of Torquatus, Camillus, Mucius, Cincinnatus, and others.

Rome thus really had displayed traces of resplendent glory, a glory that, though not propelled by Christianity, at least occasionally showed Christian virtues of selflessness and collectivism in action. And, returning to an earlier theme, Augustine writes that “The Jews put Christ to death, when the New Testament revealed what was veiled in the Old Testament, the knowledge [of]. . .the one true God. . .And for this the Jews were justly given over to the Romans” (5.18). As imperfect as the Roman empire was, Augustine contends, it was an instrument of divine will. Thus, even though the Arian Visigoths had sacked Rome in 410, the pagan Ostrogoths, back in 405, under their leader Radagaisus, had been quite speedily vanquished – evidence, to Augustine’s mind, of the mercy of the Christian God.

But God’s blessings to Rome had been more than tinkering with which sorts of barbarians got to sack which Italian cities. God had also made Christian emperors – first of all Constantine the Great. Augustine treads carefully around the various blotches on the Constantinian and Valentinian dynasties – some scions of these dynasties had become Arian or had been assassinated. But on the subject of Theodosius, the father of Augustine’s current sovereign emperor Honorius, Augustine lavishes praises, pointing to the fact that Theodosius had once shown deference to Saint Ambrose of Milan, who had once been Augustine’s idol, some decades before. [music]

The City of God, Books 5-6: More Criticisms of Pagan Pantheons and Religion

So this takes us through about the first fourth of the City of God – Books 1-5 of the 22 total. As I mentioned earlier, Augustine wrote and published the books of this huge treatise in bundles. He often writes nice little introductions to new clusters of books in the City of God – for instance, telling us that he’s covered X and Y in the previous few books, and is now moving on to Z. But because the City of God was written over a long period of time, and because Augustine’s organizational style was always kind of digressive, latter books of the long treatise often repeat content that’s been covered in earlier books, or simply augment earlier content with small variations. It’s easy to imagine that after publishing this and that salvo against pagan ideology, two years or four years later, half a dozen other criticisms occurred to Augustine, and so he folded them into later books of the City of God. Thus, as we move from the first quarter of the book to the second quarter, we encounter territory we’ve already been through before, although with a bit more depth and severity. In a sentence, the second main section of the City of God – Books 6-10 – offer a secondary layer of criticism of pagan ideology, beginning with the more absurd aspects of Roman polytheism and then, steering into newer territory, reprimanding even the more intellectual and respectable branches of pagan ideology like Platonism and Neoplatonism, as inferior to Christianity. We’re going to move through the second quarter of the City of God a bit more quickly, just because we’ve already seen the main thrust of Augustine’s critique of pagan ideology – he is correct, and everything that fails to fall within his specific branch of Christianity is incorrect.

Perhaps thinking of pagan naysayers who responded to the initial books of the City of God – two years had elapsed between his completion of Book 5 and then his sitting down to write Books 6-10 – Augustine writes that “Stupidity glories in never yielding to the force of truth. . .It is a disease proof against all efforts to treat it. . .because the patient himself is incurable” (6.1).12 With these and other opening insults to his naysayers, Augustine begins augmenting his earlier critique of pagan religion.

Pagan gods, Augustine emphasizes, hovered over their little areas of specialty – Vulcan helped blacksmiths, Ceres helped farmers – but none of them offered the delights of the afterlife. He cites his favorite pagan critic of pagan religion, Marcus Varro, once again, summarizing Varro’s lost work to emphasize that even Varro’s tempered polytheism was a fraught system. Varro had evidently reserved a place for civic ceremonies honoring the divine, though he disparaged poetic and philosophical writings on gods. But Augustine, considering some of ancient Rome’s more clownish and indecent religious rituals, dismisses even Varro’s easygoing openness toward such public displays of religious faith. Reviewing some of the weirder specifics of Rome’s gigantic pantheon, Augustine gawks at the fact that Romans had all sorts of deities related to weddings and wedding nights – a god of leading the bride home, a goddess of having the bride remaining at home, a god helping the groom subdue the bride in the bedroom, a goddess of pressing the bride down, and a goddess of piercing the bride’s hymen. As Augustine puts it, “I feel sure that the belief in the presence of so many divinities of both sexes to urge on the business at hand would so embarrass the couple as to quench the enthusiasm of the [groom] and stiffen the reluctance of the [bride]” (5.9). Ultimately, Augustine praises the pagan religious critic Marcus Varro again, but writes that Varro was too fainthearted to demolish his age’s religious climate altogether – Varro again worked during the first century BCE.

Moving onto another pagan critic of pagan religion, Augustine describes a work by Seneca the Younger called Against Superstitions, which has not survived. This lost work seems to have been right up Augustine’s alley, as it called attention to some of the more radical superstitions and rites of the pagan world – for instance, acts of self-mutilation, and women drifting around the Temple of Jupiter in the belief that the god was in love with them. After quoting Seneca the Younger’s derogatory words on Jews and ancient Jewish ideology, Augustine brings Book 6 to a conclusion. The pagan gods, Augustine writes, were not only silly and obscene, supposedly hovering over they did over the humdrum grottos of daily human life. The pagan gods also failed to offer eternal bliss, like Augustine’s deity, and thus could be confidently dismissed. [music]

The City of God, Books 6-7: More Criticisms of Pagan Deities and Rituals

Augustine opens the seventh book of the City of God on the subject of what were by 400 CE understood as the “select” Roman gods – not the bazillion deities who oversaw all the minutiae of the world, but instead the main set of twenty Roman deities who were understood as having the most reverence. Augustine asks at the outset of this book how exactly the control of the world was subdivided by the manifold deities worshipped by Romans. Many, after all, seemed to have overlapping responsibilities, and while Jupiter was most often placed as the foremost of the gods, sometimes Janus seemed to hold more sway than him. Jupiter himself had countless epithets – Jupiter the helpful, Jupiter the impeller, Jupiter the stabilizer, and so on – epithets emphasizing the different ways that Jupiter impacted humankind, some of which were quite different than one another. Other select gods seemed to have overlapping areas of sovereignty with Jupiter, like Saturn and Genius. Others still served as lords of nasty human spheres of operation that ought not to be divinely represented, like Mars, the god of war. Gods were also represented by celestial bodies in Roman astronomy. But, Augustine writes, where was the planet Janus, or the planet Juno? Why did star clusters like Taurus and Gemini stand for deities, when individual planets also stood for deities?

Considering all of these questions, Augustine writes, “The most plausible explanation of all of this is. . .that the gods were once human beings who received adulation from men who wished to have them as gods. Those men instituted rites and ceremonies in honour of each of their heroes, based on their personalities, their characters, their achievements” (7.18). Rather than pursuing this argumentative path very far, though, Augustine returns to a derogatory and discursive survey of pagan religious rites – the deity Liber, god of seeds, was celebrated by carting a giant penis sculpture from the countryside into the city. Romans had two goddesses of waves – one for shorebound waves and one for returning waves. On this subject, Augustine writes, “Why was [a second goddess] added unless it was to multiply the invitations offered to demons by the gratuitous invention of unnecessary ceremonies at the whim of a corrupted soul?” (6.22). Later, allowing himself to harangue a bit on the sheer plurality of Roman gods, Augustine writes,
The fact is that there comes a time when the vilest of women grow tired of the crowds of lovers they have acquired to gratify their sensuality; and in the same way the debauched soul which has prostituted itself to filthy spirits takes the greatest delight in the multiplication of gods before whom to fall and offer itself for defilement; but in the end comes to disgust. (7.24)
One of the more extreme moments of Augustine’s City of God, in this passage we see him claiming that the souls of pious Romans are promiscuous strumpets, glutted by an overabundance of couplings with the divine. A moment later, Augustine describes the Phrygian-Roman goddess Cybele and her son Attis, calling attention, as Christian church fathers before him had, to the extreme and noisy religious rites honoring the tragic death of this goddess’ son.

Toning down his rhetoric a bit, Augustine argues that all of the so-called “select” gods and goddesses of Rome, who ruled sovereign over various elements of the world, were merely spurious puzzle pieces of his own deity, who really did rule every tiny detail of the world. The Christian God, Augustine admits, had been a long time in coming, but Christ was the only force that could puncture and draw away the old rotten tapestry of pagan religion. His often-quoted pagan critic of pagan religion, Marcus Varro, Augustine writes, had come far along the path of showing the messiness of the theology of the first century BCE, but Varro, lacking Christian teachings, had not gone far enough. [music]

The City of God, Book 8: Augustine Engages with Pagan Philosophy

Beginning with Book 8 of the City of God, Augustine, evidently feeling that he had clobbered ancient Mediterranean polytheism long enough, switches to a long critique of pagan philosophy – one which will take us to the end of what we’re going to read in this first program – Books 8-10 will round us out for today. Opening his long critique of non-Christian philosophy with a sloppy syllogism, Augustine writes that since philosophy means the love of wisdom, and since wisdom was only held by his own deity, then no pagan philosophers had ever really loved wisdom.

What comes next is a short history of Presocratic Greek philosophers and their usual taglines – Thales had predicted an eclipse and theorized that everything came from water. Next, Anaximander held that there were infinite worlds that came and went. Next, Anaximenes taught that everything came from air. Next Anaxagoras had taught that the world was made of tiny particles, and his pupil Archelaus had offered a variation of this. Augustine hurries toward Socrates, whom he says embarrassed his fellow Athenians by placing an emphasis on personal ethics and accountability and thus exposing the shoddy morality of those around him, which was why he was killed. I will pause for just a moment here to note that Augustine’s three-page summary of all philosophy leading up to Plato is as brisk and shoddy as it probably was influential in the long run. We now know a lot more about the Greek philosophy of the fifth century BCE and before than Augustine communicates in the City of God, and it was not some murky sky from which Platonic philosophy appeared like a starburst, but instead a long sequence of fairly well documented evolutions that led to the more ethically oriented and homocentric ideologies of the fourth century BCE and long afterward.

Plato, due to the ultimate influence he had on the New Testament, has always been lauded by Christian writers, as we’ve learned in past episodes. And Augustine, predictably, piles on the praises of his predecessor, who was also a staunch horizontal dualist, who also believed in immortal souls and innate ideas, who also believed that the world was not eternal but had been created by a single deity, and who had his own version of heaven and hell and how earthly ethical decisions led to either one. No other school of philosophy, Augustine writes, resembled his own religion in so many points, and “This is why we rate the Platonists above the rest of the philosophers. The others have employed their talents and concentrated their interests on the investigation of the causes of things, of the method of acquiring knowledge, and the rules of moral life, while the Platonists, coming to a knowledge of God, have found the cause of the organized universe, the light by which truth is perceived, and the spring which offers the drink of felicity” (8.10).

Augustine admits that he himself once claimed that Plato had learned his ideas from the Jewish prophet Jeremiah, but that he has since become better acquainted with ancient history and has retracted this statement. As you might remember, early Christians loved Plato so much that writers like Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria had penned outlandish theories about how Plato had somehow become acquainted with Christianity four hundred years before Jesus was born. Augustine can’t quite divorce himself from this old pattern of wishful thinking, and compares lines of Plato’s Timaeus to ones in Genesis, and a line in Exodus to ideas Plato set down in the Republic (8.12).

However, though Augustine was as starry eyed toward Platonic theology as many of his Christian predecessors had been, he admits that Plato had some deficits that were naturally carried forward by Plato’s heirs. They remained too open-minded toward polytheism, Augustine writes, and too blandly approving of their many gods. Though Plato was correct in his desire to censor poetry and theater and thereby force ideological conformity upon the citizenry of the Republic, Plato was not stringently monotheistic enough, in Augustine’s estimation.

Skipping, for the moment, about 500 years of Greek philosophy, Augustine turns to the work of his fellow North African Apuleius, that Carthaginian polymath who wrote The Golden Ass, in addition to being a Platonist. Augustine goes through Apuleius’ book The God of Socrates systematically, debunking its arguments – Apuleius had written of an elaborate hierarchy of spirits that presided between humanity and the highest deity as intermediaries, which of course was distasteful to Augustine’s ideology. God, Augustine writes, had no need of demonic go-betweens ferrying communications back and forth. And taking another shot at later pagan theology, Augustine critiques ideas prevalent in the cult of the Greco-Egyptian deity Hermes Trismegistus, a cult which trafficked in the notions of esoteric knowledge and also, like Apuleius, believed in spiritual intermediaries between humans and the divine.

Hermes Trismegistus, not to be confused with the Greek deity Hermes, was a legendary person, worshipped as a deity after his death. Augustine has argued in the City of God in what we’ve heard today so far that many pagan deities had this same path to divinity, and he writes that although Christians revere saints and martyrs, they do not actually worship saints and martyrs like gods. As Augustine puts it, “we honour our martyrs neither with divine worship nor with human slanders as the pagans worship their gods” (8.27). [music]

The City of God Books 9-10: Augustine Engages with Demonology, Neoplatonism, and Theurgy

Book 9 of the City of God opens with a discussion of demons. Several branches of Late Antique ideology – prominently Gnosticism and Manichaeism, had dealt extensively with light and dark spirits. Augustine’s fellow North African Apuleius had written a lot about demons, and Augustine had spent a lot of time as a Manichaean, and so this was a subject a little closer to his life and times than it was to later epochs of Christian history. He really spends a lot of time on the subject, demons having been popular topics of philosophical debate deep into the Neoplatonic period.

Augustine understood the human need to reach out toward the divine. In his grim worldview – of course more understandable when we consider the decades in which he wrote his works, “all men, as long as they are mortals, must needs be wretched” (9.15), and the pursuit of earthly happiness was a lost cause. The pursuit of happiness through means of demonic intermediaries, to Augustine, was doubly misguided, as the only intermediary really needed between humanity and God was Christ.

Though he contradicts later Platonic writings on demons as divine intermediaries, as a careful reader of the New Testament, Augustine of course knew that demons appeared in the scriptures, as well as angels, and at several junctures in the City of God he is compelled to deal with Christianity’s second-string divine beings and make sense of them. To Augustine, angels were divine because they could see the divine plan behind the material world, whereas demons could not. Pagan philosophers like Apuleius might have readily discussed demons as go-betweens zipping back and forth between humanity and the deity, but, Augustine clarifies, in Christianity, only angels who apprehend the Christian God can work as the messengers and deputies of the celestial realm.

Augustine moves from Book 9 to Book 10 of the City of God – our last for today – continuing on the subject of angels and Platonism, with the overall emphasis that the way Platonists and Neoplatonists had been writing about angels had been riddled with errors. Moving on, finally, from the subject of angels, Augustine turns to the subject of sacrifice. Animal sacrifice, and regulations related to it, as we know from past episodes, takes up a huge amount of page space in the Pentateuch, and Christianity had, since the Apostolic generation, held to the fact that Christ had been the final sacrifice needed. To this general truism, in the City of God, Augustine adds that “God does not want the sacrifice of a slaughtered animal, but he desires the sacrifice of. . .the heart bruised and humbled in the sorrow of penitence” (10.5). Further, Augustine writes that Christians could consider sacrifices to be “every act which is designed to unite us to God in a holy fellowship” (6.6).

While Augustine had issues with latter-day Platonists going on and on about angels and demons, he had another problem with them, and this was their writings about a practice called theurgy – ritual practices designed to bring humans closer with God, either through inducing states of divine vision or actually luring the deity down into a communion with the believer. To Augustine, this kind of thing, celebrated by pagan philosophers like the Neoplatonist Porphyry, was strictly forbidden. Gods, Augustine writes, could not be lassoed by magical spells into communions with believers. After a dour critique of Neoplatonic theurgy, Augustine moves on to the subject of Christian miracles, beginning with those documented in the Old Testament.

Yahweh is the author of numerous miracles in the Old Testament – the plagues on Ancient Egypt, the Red Sea parting, food and water in the desert, and on and on. He is also a physical presence in many Old Testament books. On the subject of Yahweh remaining hidden in modern times, Augustine tells us that biblical patriarchs had an unusual capacity of perception, and when they looked directly at Yahweh, “those patriarchs were well aware that they were seeing the invisible God in a material form, though God himself was not material” (10.13). On the subject of perception, Augustine writes that modern Christians make invisible offerings to their invisible deity – in the form of prayers and praises – no less real than the meat offerings of old.

Modern Christians also had it right in a different way. While Neoplatonists like Porphyry promised that special rituals would purity believers through communions with the divine, Augustine writes that the only real way for humans to be pure was through piety toward Christ. Turning again to condemn the hubris of Porphyry, whose theurgic rituals promised false unities with the god of Platonism, Augustine blames Porphyry’s Babylonian ideological heritage for his philosophical hubris. Augustine writes that though the Platonists had come close to apprehending Christianity, they had still failed to convert. As Augustine phrases it, “In spite of your irregular terminology you Platonists have here some kind of an intuition of the goal to which we must strive, however dimly seen through the obscurities of a subtle imagination. And yet you refuse to recognize the incarnation of the unchanging Son of God, which brings us salvation. . .But humility was the necessary condition for submission to this truth; and it is no easy task to persuade the proud necks of you philosophers to accept this yoke” (10.29). I should note here that Augustine often addresses parts of his book to argumentative opponents, often deceased ones, like Porphyry, evidently gratified by imaginary dialogues with ideological adversaries who could not reply back.

While he has hammered away at several different Platonists throughout out Books 8-10 of the City of God, Augustine squeezes in a few more shots at the philosophy in the last pages of Book 10. The Platonists, Augustine says, were wrong about the world having always existed. They were wrong about the doctrine of uncreated souls. Porphyry hinted at the idea that maybe there was a way for all souls to be liberated from the penitentiary of earthly existence, and Augustine, of course, writes that this way has been found, and it is his own branch of Christianity.

Analysis of Books 1-10: Augustine’s Limited Engagement with Ancient Mediterranean History

So that takes us through the first two legs of Augustine’s City of God, perhaps the most influential indictment of pagan antiquity ever written. In the remainder of today’s episode, I mostly want to focus on the subject of history. Having heard a full summary of the first ten books of the City of God, we know full well what Augustine is up to in this section of the treatise. Rome’s pagan partisans, in the 410s, may have been lamenting the passing of a pax deorum, or peace of the gods, now that Christianity had begun inserting itself so forcefully in the Roman world. But, as Augustine seeks to demonstrate in the opening 400-page stretch of the City of God, the fabled pax deorum had been neither peaceful nor godly, and even the more laudable figures of pagan antiquity, like Plato and Varro, had still fallen short of the simple pieties of the contemporary Christian.

Our podcast has taken a long and winding road to get to the works of Saint Augustine. Along this road, we have spent close to a hundred hours alone on Roman literary history, and many more before that Greek, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian literary history. We have access to things that Augustine did not. We live in a world in which high standards for scholarly translations exist, and annotated editions of complex works help us identify obscurer references and unfamiliar proper nouns. While Augustine was never a comfortable reader or writer of Greek, we know that he still sought out works of Greek theology to read. Though his world was an intellectual one, fluency in just one language and a dearth of strong translations and more simply accurate copies of books and scrolls all meant that the scope of Augustine’s erudition had certain insurmountable limitations. He is always clear, judicious and forceful within the materials available to him, but the opening ten books of the City of God, which attempt a broad and critical overview of Roman history, leave out hundreds of primary sources familiar to us today, instead relying on a surprisingly small set of dog-eared Latin texts that Augustine references again and again. Let’s talk about those texts – the books on which Augustine bases his critique of pagan antiquity, and why he uses the same texts so much.

Augustine’s main sources on the thousand plus years of Roman history that came before him are as follows. First, Virgil’s Aeneid seems to have constantly been on his desk, as lines from it appear from end to end of the City of God, sometimes, as in books we read today, cited as though it’s actual history, and at other times, quoted simply because Virgil phrased something nicely. While we can’t fault an ancient Roman for frequently quoting ancient Rome’s most famous poem, the way that Augustine sometimes appears to discuss the Aeneid as actual history is often striking, and no different than, say, a modern English statesman frequently quoting Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur to make arguments about contemporary English history. And while the Aeneid is one of Augustine’s go-to sources on pagan history in the City of God, most of the others are a just bit more historical in nature. Titus Livius, who lived from around 60 until the 10s BCE and is known to us today is Livy, is Augustine’s most important source on Roman republican history. Livy left behind the famous legends of Rome’s early kings, Romulus and Remus, the rape of the Sabine women, the death of Lucretia, the Horatii and the Curiatii, and many more. A generation or two after Livy lived came other sources Augustine leveraged – Lucan, who lived during the middle part of the first century CE, and then Plutarch, who worked at the end of the first century CE and the beginning of the second.

This little cadre of Latin historians, with a couple more I’ll get to in a moment, offered Augustine most of the Roman history that he presents us with in the City of God. Their works run the gamut between fairytale and fact, being considered fictional, or partially so more and more often by today’s Latinists. As we know from past episodes, works of ancient history were composed with plenty of poetic license. The Roman historian Livy intended to offer his readers some chronology and some facts, but Livy also sought to craft spellbinding narratives with heroes and villains and invented speeches that inspired patriotism. His colorful saga of the early kings of Rome is not supported by modern archaeology, and his dialogues are likely mostly wholesale fiction.13

While some of Augustine’s historical sources are thus not particularly historical, others are a bit more so – these include mostly the references to Sallust and Cicero, both at work during the middle part of the first century BCE. In the gamut ancient historians, with fabulists like Livy on the left side and then more factually grounded figures like Thucydides and Tacitus on the right, Sallust and Cicero are likely somewhere in the middle, not above moralizing or the occasional creative fiction, but also not altogether working in the realm of myth and legend. And those, really – Virgil, Livy, Sallust, Cicero, and once in a while Plutarch – that quintet of Latin authors offers Augustine the backbone of historical knowledge that he works to comment on in the City of God.

This is a pretty modest little group of writers on which to base a full-scale critique of the thousand plus year history of Roman civilization. Throughout the City of God, Augustine is curiously indifferent to much of the imperial period of Roman history, omitting the works of Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Ammianus Marcellinus, and of course the earlier Greek works of Polybius, Diodorus Siculus, and others. His inventory of sources for pagan religion is similarly humble. For information about pagan religion, Augustine mainly makes use of a double helping of Virgil’s Aeneid, and then Augustine’s likeminded pagan religious critic Marcus Varro, and then a later volume on demonology by the second century philosopher Apuleius. There are, occasionally, other sources than these on ancient pagan ideology – a text by Seneca the Younger, and works by Plato and the two major Neoplatonists Augustine had become familiar with decades before. But not knowing Greek barred Augustine from the primary works of Homer, Greek lyric poetry, the primary works of Presocratic philosophy, the intellectual renaissance of fifth century BCE Athens and the primary works of Aristotle and early stoicism and Epicureanism. Put simply, Augustine’s engagement with pagan history is centered on republican Rome and the small handful of texts from which he drew his knowledge about it.

Considering the context in which Augustine makes his broadside against ancient Roman culture, his relatively narrow scope of source material is one of the stranger features of the City of God. When one reads the book for the first time, the jump between Book 1 and Book 2 is jarring. In Book 1, Augustine does his best to justify the horrific traumas Gallic and Italian Christians were facing during the barbarian invasions that had taken place between 402 and 410. His argument, as scholar David Vincent Meconi puts it, is that “God uses adversity to purify the purified and to sanctify the sanctified.”14 It’s probably the best that any theologian of his generation could have come up with, and it’s important to remember that Augustine would have been taking real refugees into his congregation who had actually suffered the terrors of siege, rape, and murder, and it was his professional duty to offer them justification and consolation for what they’d been through. And while Augustine the bishop surely did a lot of good as a counselor to his congregation across the awful years of the 410s, nonetheless, the written justifications that he leaves behind in Book 1 of the City of God feel more like rhetorical exercises than anything else. As scholar Christian Tornau writes, at various junctures of the City of God, “The technique that [Augustine] employs, especially the strong stylistic effects and paradoxes, are reminiscent of rhetorical declamation, a popular literary genre of Late Antiquity that had originated, and continued to be, a school exercise that trained the pupils’ ability to view a case from different angles and to find and phrase compelling arguments even for seemingly counter-intuitive propositions.”15 The educated classes of antiquity had always been fond of rhetoric. And so when Augustine sets himself up to address the dreadful realities of his fellow Christians’ suffering, he finds his main solution mainly in a threadbare paradox – suffering is a blessing, and a process of purgation.

To be fair to Augustine, I think he earnestly means what he says in Book 1, and we have to respect a professional clergyman’s attempt to address the age-old problem of evil – Augustine does as decent a job as anyone at trying to rationalize why awful things happen to good people beneath the auspices of a beneficent deity. But what follows in the City of God immediately after Book 1, rather than further consolations to his contemporary Christian community, is a scowling, 400-page whataboutist attack on ancient Roman culture.

And the strangest thing about this attack, as we learned a moment ago, is that it’s based on an extremely small group of often factually sketchy dozen or so books. From calling the Christian victims of barbarian rapes “fainthearted creatures” (1.29) toward the end of Book 1, and telling these victims to learn to appreciate the test of faith that God had given them, he abruptly turns to the Aeneid, in the subsequent book of the City of God. Trojan shrines, he tells us, were not respected when the Greeks ransacked the city after using the Trojan Horse to breach the city walls. The citizens of Troy had no quarter from their Greek adversaries. Now, it’s certainly true that these events unfold in Book 2 of Virgil’s Aeneid. It’s also true that the Aeneid was a 400-year-old work of fiction, built atop even older works of fiction, and that elsewhere in the City of God Augustine derogates the very same book for its fabulist tendencies, elsewhere describing them as laughable “fables” (3.3). And a little later, in the midst of a discussion of the ancient parentage of Romulus and Remus, he writes, “Someone will ask, ‘Do you yourself believe those tales?’ No, I certainly do not believe them” (3.4). Odd, then, that elsewhere, he cites these fables to elicit historical conclusions about Roman society.

When Augustine begins his long criticism of ancient Roman history, then, starting with the legendary saga of Troy, we perhaps expect him to leave behind the foggy early history of the republic pretty quickly and then move forward to more recent times. For anyone looking to launch a fusillade against ancient Roman culture, the grotesque reign of Caligula, the awful closing years of the Julio-Claudian and Nerva-Antonine dynasties, the rudderless and bloody chaos of Rome’s third century – these eras of Roman civilization are pretty objectively solid evidence that the glorified hereditary monarchy of the empire really didn’t have things together very well. But rather than engaging with more recent Roman history, Augustine sticks mostly to events prior to the first century CE in his critique, and the small handful of Latin texts from which he’d learned these events.

There are a few different reasons Augustine likely doesn’t engage very much with the imperial period of Roman history. One is that like any of us, his knowledge and textual resources were limited, and he was drawing on what he knew. His education as a youth would have involved epic poetry, the patriotic myths of Livy and the more factual chapters of Sallust; and as an adult he would have learned the schema of universal Christian history from Eusebius, and these were the works ready at hand when he wrote the City of God. Another reason he might have largely ignored imperial Roman history was that its past four centuries had overlapped with the Christian period. It might have made Augustine squeamish to think about Earth’s history floundering onward in spite of the manifestation of Christ on earth, which would have been a motivation to concentrate on the pre-Christian, rather than the Christian period of Rome’s history.

A less conjectural answer to why Augustine largely ignores Roman imperial history, however, is that in engaging so much with Rome’s foundation stories – especially Virgil and Livy, Augustine is trying to debunk the old and patriotic sagas that Rome had been telling about itself for generations, and that Augustine knew were extremely pervasive in his culture.16 In the 410s, when Augustine wrote the chapters that we read today, the conservative Roman argument against Christianity was that Rome had enjoyed a shining pax deorum – again peace of the gods – prior to the emergence of newfangled religions like Christianity. Traditional Roman evidence of this pax deorum had never been rooted in survey archaeology or peer reviewed historical texts, but instead, stories. The exciting and patriotic chapters of Livy, the generally nationalistic tenor of Virgil – these stories were penned at the midpoint of Rome’s long history with the intention of solidifying a national mythos – one in which Romans were the good guys and shone brightly beneath the auspices of Jupiter and Venus and Mars. Thus, if we expect a full survey of Roman history in the City of God, we slightly miss the point. Augustine tells us in Book 3 that “If I were to attempt to recall and relate [more events than these] I should turn into just another chronicler” (3.18). His aim is not, then, a comprehensive inventory of Roman vice throughout the centuries, but instead, to decisively debunk the old Roman myth of the bygone pax deorum.

The result of Augustine’s limited engagement with Roman history is ultimately a little strange, and had long term consequences in Latin Christendom. Newcomers to Roman history, as so many medieval readers of the City of God were, might mistake Augustine for a knowledgeable historian, and the patriotic comic books of Livy and Virgil as actual history. Augustine’s knowledge of Sallust left him with a general grasp of the events of the late republic. But across the 400 pages of the City of God that discuss Roman history, Augustine is more interested in critiquing Roman propaganda than Roman history, and even within this critique, he focuses his energies almost entirely on the period before Christ. His criticism of Rome’s patriotic legends is devastatingly effective. Books 2-10 of the City of God demonstrate, very powerfully, that the sacred and self-aggrandizing myths that Rome often told about itself were often morally and logically unintelligible. But as a critique, Augustine’s broadside against Roman history is as limited in historical scope as it is doggedly partisan in its approach.

Augustine’s overview of Roman history in the City of God, then, was written in order to puncture the age-old balloon of Roman exceptionalism, rather than to serve as a work of documentary revisionist history. Christian churchmen of Augustine’s generation had become adept at just this sort of iconoclasm. As historian Dean Hammer writes, rather than respecting the old Roman legends, bishops like Augustine had:
for centuries articulated a particular version of authority: the authority of Scripture with the clergy as its interpreter. And in the early history of the Christian church, that authority stood against imperial authority. Even as Christian authority itself grew in different communities, both with the role of bishops and the church councils, it identified itself with a different constituency: the poor and disenfranchised who often found themselves at odds with imperial authorities and the wealthy landowners the imperial authorities protected. Thus, local church authority self-consciously emerged as an alternative path of appeal, often intervening on behalf of the dispossessed.17
For Augustine, then, being irreverent toward the old Roman myths wasn’t just done in the service of piety toward Christian narratives. It was also done to curry favor with congregations. The old Roman aristocracy, like Augustine’s contemporary Rutilius Namatianus, was still invested in the mythos of the republican past, and still, obstinately tracing its roots to this and that Homeric or Virgilian dynasty. The contemptuous irreverenec we see in Augustine’s history in the City of God, then, was par for the course with his generation of churchmen’s countercultural spirit. The farmers and bricklayers in Augustine’s pews, in particular, must have had little patience for Rome’s aristocratic hogwash about its gallant origins.

If there is a general propellant to the historical and critical portions of the City of God, it is of course Christian partisanship against the faltering Roman state system. This partisanship, as we’ve just seen, inspires a partial critique of Roman civilization – a critique of narratives written in the years between 100 BCE and 100 CE, rather than an actual fusillade against all of Roman civilization. While Augustine surely had many reasons for writing only a partial assessment of ancient Rome, not the least of which was simply a lack of knowledge and source texts, he may have ignored much of imperial history for a reason we haven’t discussed yet. This was that although the ancient Olympian pantheon, who receives so much tongue lashing in the City of God, was still present in the temples and monuments of the Roman empire, cult religions, most famously Christianity itself, had centuries ago joined the civic polytheism of the republican period, and at various junctures, usurped the Olympian pantheon altogether. By the time Augustine wrote the City of God, cult religions, focused on the care of the self and posthumous salvation, had been gaining steam for eight hundred years. Before we wrap this program up, then, let’s spend a moment considering what Augustine has to say in his book about the family of religions from which his own had emerged. [music]

Analysis of Books 1-10: Augustine’s Limited Engagement with Ancient Mediterranean Spirituality

It is somewhat of a mistake to say that ancient Romans worshipped Jupiter, Juno, Venus and Mars. It would be equally accurate to say that they worshipped Isis, Cybele, Mithras, Zagreus, and various versions of Jesus. As we’ve learned in past episodes, ancient Mediterranean cult religions, beginning in the documentary record with Pythagoreanism and Orphism in the sixth century BCE, began to replace indigenous religions seated in specific buildings of specific city states. If we only read the surviving poetry of the ancient Mediterranean, then indeed, the gods and goddesses of ancient Greece and Rome seem a bungling melodrama of jealousies and rapes and fistfights. But poetic sagas should not be confused with religious faiths or practices proper. Augustine seems to take the Aeneid as a rather serious record of Rome’s religious ideologies, but, as scholar Oliver O’Donovan notes, in the City of God, “Mystery religions receive the barest and most contemptuous treatment.”18 Strangely, then, Augustine uses poetry and pseudo-history to make his case against ancient Rome’s religious culture.

On the subject of real ancient Roman religion – not to be confused with the popular epic poetry of the Roman world – the actual worship practices of Romans, we have to dig a little bit deeper than Augustine did. Today, archaeology and meticulous sifting through primary source material has provided us with a shadowy, fragmentary archive of sources – archaeological remnants of Thesmophoria rituals and countless other seasonal rites, scraps of information about the great Eleusinian Mysteries, grave goods attesting to a nearly infinite array of beliefs, altogether suggesting a vast and ever-evolving pantheon of gods that changed and melded along with the population of the Roman world who believed in them. Homer and Virgil indeed offer us the ancient Roman world’s most famous stories, but to learn about ancient Mediterranean religion, today we turn to scholars like Walter Burkert, Marvin Meyer, Mary Beard, and specialists trained in archaeology, paleography and otherwise steeped in their disciplines. Homer and Virgil, again, give us two of the ancient Mediterranean’s greatest blockbusters, but as scholar H.J. Rose writes, “As early as the [200s B.C.] the traditional stories of the doings of gods and heroes had ceased, save perhaps as allegories, to command belief among educated people.”19 In many ways, then, Augustine’s critique of Roman religion is 600 years out of date, and doesn’t seem at all in touch with the religious faiths of the early fifth century. The backwardness of Augustine’s critique, for those of us with more modern educations on ancient Mediterranean spirituality, is difficult to overlook.

Having worked himself up into a frenzy against the Neoplatonist Porphyry in Book 10, Augustine demands to know why Porphyry, (who had been dead for a hundred and ten years, incidentally), has not embraced Christ. Augustine asks Porphyry, “Perhaps you were put off by the unexampled birth of his body from a virgin?” (10.29). Unexampled is the word to consider there, as it indicates that Augustine either did not know, or chose to ignore the virgin birth of the great Greek hero Perseus. He evidently did not know of the virgin birth of the ancient Jewish priest Melchizedek, a figure in the Dead Sea Scrolls associated with a “Day of Atonement” and “forgiving [sinners] of all their iniquities” in the same decades the New Testament was being written.20 The Anatolian deity Attis, and his father Agdistis, were each the products of virgin births, the latter from the virgin birth of the great goddess Cybele.21 Looking beyond, strictly speaking, virgin births in ancient mythology, a critical mass of ancient Greek and Roman heroes shared Jesus’ stature as the miraculous child of a deity and a human – Dionysus, Romulus and Remus, Aeneas, Theseus, Helen, Achilles, and on and on.

Now, it would be ridiculous to think that Augustine could possibly have known about all of the virgin births in world religion and mythology. For his time and context, his learning was immense, and the evolving world of the mystery and cult religions all around him rarely stood still long enough to produce any standard texts. But still, in sidelining or altogether ignoring pagan cult religions, Augustine does do something rather intellectually unscrupulous. In the parts of the City of God that we read today, there are two categories of ideology and culture. Christian ideology and culture are focused on personal ethics and posthumous salvation. Pagan ideology and culture are focused on worldly gratifications. This central dichotomy of two cities may be the fulcrum of Augustine’s book, and the way that he actually looked at the world. But historically, Augustine’s model of two cities shows a broad dismissal the actual religious ideologies in the world around him. He knew, after all, that Manichaeism was an ideology focused on personal purity and ethical self improvement, and must have known that many other cult religions shared Christianity’s focus on self regulation and moral uprightness.

In the City of God, however, the only things that were – kind of – okay before Christianity were Platonism and then unrelatedly, the discipline encouraged by ancient Roman laws. Platonism and ancient Roman laws, in Augustine’s view, inspired their adherents to concentrate on self-regulation and personal virtue, rather than just running around having fun all the time. But within what Augustine presents as pagan religion, there was no regulatory framework. The ancient myths and legends surrounding Zeus and his large family, rather than offering a coherent moral compass, to Augustine, only inspired self-indulgence. To be respectful to what Augustine accomplishes in the City of God, Augustine’s critique of ancient Mediterranean literature – of Virgil and Terence and company – is often quite coherent. The Latin authors Augustine had read while in school were a diverse and historically scattered bunch whose works were not intended as ethics manuals, but instead as nationalistic legends, rousing war stories, or more simply entertainment. If we ignore the long evolution of pagan spirituality and let Virgil’s Aeneid stand for the apotheosis of Roman religion, then yes, surely there’s something more profound out there than poetic sagas of Jupiter dashing around, humping people, and blowing things up.

But within the ancient Mediterranean world, long before Augustine, numerous historically documented groups had, for a thousand years, been parts of religions that placed intense emphasis on individual ethics. Salvation-based cults, again beginning with on the historical record around a thousand years prior to Augustine writing the City of God, have always had something very simple in common. In salvation-based religions, you have to do things to get saved. Adherents of Pythagoreanism and Platonism believed that mindful living and intellectual work were the keys to advantageous reincarnations. In mystery religions, like Orphism, and from what we can tell, the Eleusinian Mysteries, sacred rites and spoken words were the keys to blessed afterlives. The massive religious heritage of Ancient Egypt, typified during the imperial period by the cult of Isis, had always been rooted in salvific ethics – the Book of the Dead’s most famous and artistically rendered scenes show the weighing of the believer’s heart in one of the antechambers of the underworld. In Mithraism, a process of spiritual purification led believers up through seven grades of enlightenment, the religion’s ubiquity, a century before Augustine’s lifetime, being attested by hundreds of surviving mithraea all over the empire. Augustine writes two sentences about mystery and cult religions in the City of God, and they reveal his condescension, indifference, and ignorance about the broad course of pagan religious ideology that had led up to the fifth century. Those sentences are,
And we do not want to hear general assertions about whispers breathed into the ears of a chosen few, and handed down by a secret religious tradition, teaching integrity and purity of life. Let the pagans show, or even mention, places consecrated for such gatherings where what happens is not the performance of spectacles marked by lewd utterances and gestures on the part of the actors, with a free reign to every kind of depravity. (2.6)
So much, then, for the millions of faithful of adherents of the Ancient Mediterranean’s cult religions. Though they, too, pursued blessed afterlives through shared meals and drinks, and their ideologies, too, often emphasized self-regulation and reverence for the divine, Augustine dismisses their sacred gatherings as mummeries and orgies.

Augustine’s remarks against competing salvific religions aren’t too surprising, of course. Church fathers, since the second century works of Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria, had left behind autobiographical records of their journeys to the faith like Augustine’s Confessions, together with scathing critiques of other religions, like the first part of the City of God. While we, in our podcast, have taken a historical and anthropological approach to understanding how our religions have come to be, this was not Augustine’s strategy. The ideologies that Augustine embraced over his lifetime – Manichaeism, Platonism and Neoplatonism, and later, Nicene Christianity, were a series of horizontal dualist systems that rewarded him with posthumous pleasures and the gratified sense that he was correct. What drives the City of God is not the desire to lay out historical events, but instead fierce partisanship – in Augustine’s own words, causam agere, or “pleading a case,” and thus it would be silly to expect him to offer positive, or even neutral appraisals Rome’s real theological history.

Still, the nearly total indifference with which the City of God treats imperial Roman religion had lasting consequences. While the portion of the City of God that we read today is perhaps the drier and more boring part of the book for many readers, the singular stature that Augustine held during the Middle Ages led to the book’s historical portions being read at face value. The consequence was that Augustine retrojected a broad-based hostility, and an incompatibility between Christianity and pagan religion that are often not well attested during the imperial period. As scholar G.R. Evans writes,
Despite their refusal to join in the syncretist game, late antique Christians did not in reality retain a complete intellectual independence from the thought of the contemporary world. Numerous surviving texts reveal or underline the mutual fascination of Christian and pagan apologists with one another’s ideas. The more they sought to clarify their differences from the more philosophically minded pagans, the more intimately entangled their ideas became.23
This is not to say that Christian and pagan clerics were holding hands and singing songs in public squares together all the time, but instead that natural human curiosity often led them toward the same theological territory, and thus toward one another. Beneath headline historical events like the Decian Persecution of the 250s and the Diocletianic Persecution of 303-312, and later, when the shoe was on the other foot, beneath the increasing persecutions of pagans following the reign of Theodosius after 395, Christians and pagans had accrued centuries of experience of living harmoniously together, notwithstanding the sectarian rigidity of churchmen epitomized by Augustine himself.

Ultimately, though, Augustine’s sectarian rigidity won out. To quote G.R. Evans once more, in the decades that Augustine wrote the City of God, “the whole structure of the culture was already changing under the pressure of events. Within a generation or two, the world of educated people he wrote for was to change; the new leaders of society were to lack their sophistication as the barbarian invaders took control across the Empire.”24 Visigoths, Vandals, Franks, Ostrogoths, Lombards, and more – when they sat down in their thrones after the western empire was carved up – these leaders and the courts around them did not have the grand old Roman education that Augustine had, and that so many Christians and pagans before him had enjoyed. As leaders and statesmen came of age in the new kingdoms that followed the old empire, as the sixth century led into the seventh, the great, bilingual educations of Romans like Cicero, Ovid, and Marcus Aurelius gradually became a thing of the past. And when, in later centuries, the scions of barbarian kingdoms learned about ancient Roman civilization, they often learned about it from Augustine himself, and those like him.

The consequences of this transition, I think, can still be felt today. We continue to imagine Rome, in popular media, as sex and violence and coliseums. We continue to misunderstand Roman religion as an uncouth scrimmage between Homeric and Virgilian gods. We continue to misunderstand early Christianity as just one thing, born in a flash in the 20s and 30s CE and somehow radically different from an otherwise depraved bog of pagan sin. And one of the fountainheads of all of these misunderstandings was Augustine himself, and the very section of the City of God that we’ve read together in this program. Augustine’s generation of Catholic clergymen lived through a dramatic transition in history. Three generations after Constantine’s conversion, they had embraced a severer form of Christianity than the centuries before them had practiced, adopting celibacy and frequently asceticism. Rome had been increasingly useful to them in the twilight of the 300s, offering not only patrician patrons and imperial benefactors, but also offering converts like Augustine and polyglots like Jerome strong skill sets that became useful in their later work as Christians. But when Rome began to collapse in earnest, they condemned it wholesale, with the old fury of Jeremiah and Ezekiel laying into Babylon and Assyria. The earthly communities that had produced them, their pagan teachers and the cultures of their childhoods and families, and the thousand-year history of mother Rome – all of it was a corrupt and iniquitous prelude to the City of God. [music]

Moving onto the Second Half of the City of God

Well that takes us through the first two main legs of Augustine’s City of God. And as influential as those parts of the book have been, really, the summit of all of Augustine’s theology can be found in the closing twelve books of this same treatise. For three full episodes, now, we have circled around the heart of what Augustine bequeathed to Catholic, and moreover world history. This, in a word, was his understanding of human nature. Augustine, more than any other thinker in Christian history, is associated with popularizing the dovetailed ideas of Original Sin and innate depravity – not cheery ideas, certainly, but ideas absolutely central to the last thousand and a half years of Christian theology. The closing half of the City of God presents us with these twin ideas in their most important formulation. But Books 11-22 of the City of God also show us Augustinian exegesis in action – and how this Late Antique writer used his considerable rhetorical education to wring a Christian interpretation out of Genesis and other books of the Hebrew Bible. Original Sin, innate depravity, and fundamentalist exegesis are the main courses of the City of God’s second half, which I can’t imagine sound like a very bright and exciting program to tune into. However, there is also some extremely weird stuff that Augustine set down in the later books of the City of God – stuff about sex, sex in Eden, numerology, and more, stuff that you will absolutely have to hear in order to believe. In our final program on Augustine, then, we will at last learn about his signature contributions to world theology. But we’ll also explore some of the theological meanderings that he undertook in his magnum opus that really didn’t make it big, meanderings that demonstrate that as familiar as Augustine can often seem, he could still, round about the age of seventy, be deeply, unforgettably odd. Thanks for listening to Literature and History. There’s a quiz as usual available for this show. For you Patreon supporters, I have some fun little bonuses for this and the next program. I am going to read some chapters from the end of a book called Bulfinch’s Mythology on the Eddas, our main surviving sources on Norse mythology. Bulfinch’s Mythology, published in the United States in 1867, is predominantly about Greek and Roman myths, but as of Episode 101 of the Literature and History podcast, we have probably tested out of that section of the book. Coming up on the Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson and the Poetic Edda of the Codex Regius, we have some exciting stories ahead of us in our podcast, and if you’re a little tired of Late Antique Christian history, Thomas Bulfinch’s primer on Norse mythology should definitely be a nice, colorful pagan side dish to today’s episode. I have a silly song coming up as usual to close things out – stick around if you want to hear it, and otherwise, we’ll wrap up with Augustine next time. Still here? Well, I got to thinking about what Augustine’s entire life would sound like in short song, a biography of the famous thinker that culminated with the creation the magnum opus that we have spent so much time with today. This one is called “The Ditty of God.” I hope you like it, and here it is. [“The Ditty of God” Song]


1.^ For the timeframe of composition, see Augustine. City of God. Translated by Henry Bettenson and with an Introduction by G.R. Evans. Penguin Classics, 2003, p. viii.

2.^ Evans, G.R. “Introduction.” Printed in Augustine. City of God. Translated by Henry Bettenson and with an Introduction by G.R. Evans. Penguin Classics, 2003, p. xxxiii.

3.^ Eusebius. Life of Constantine (IV.73-5). Printed in Delphi Collected Works of Eusebius. Delphi Classics, 2019. Kindle Edition, Location 22105.

4.^ Tertullian. Apology (39, 38). Printed in Delphi Complete Works of Tertullian. Delphi Classics, 2018, Location 4843.

5.^ Cyprian. De Lapsis (6).

6.^ Meconi, David Vincent. “Introduction.” Printed in Meconi, David Vincent, Ed. The Cambridge Companion to Augustine’s City of God. Cambridge University Press, 2021, p. 5.

7.^ He was friends with Rutilius Namatianus, who mentions him in DRS 1.169-76.

8.^ See Augustine (Ep 1.32).

9.^ Translator Henry Bettenson lists some counterexamples (p. 7n) that would have been available to Augustine in Plutarch and Arrian.

10.^ The internal quotes are drawn from Psalms 2 and 11.

11.^ On this culpability in the same volume, see also 5.18 and 18.45-6.

12.^ See Bettenson (2003), p. vii.

13.^ See Beard, Mary. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. New York and London: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2016, pp. 96-8 and Forsythe, Gary. A Critical History of Early Rome (2005).

14.^ Meconi, David Vincent. “The Crumbling and Consecration of Rome.” Printed in Meconi, David Vincent, Ed. The Cambridge Companion to Augustine’s City of God. Cambridge University Press, 2021, p. 26.

15.^ Tornau, Christian. “Rome’s Woes Before Christ.” Printed in Meconi, David Vincent, Ed. The Cambridge Companion to Augustine’s City of God. Cambridge University Press, 2021, p. 69.

16.^ See Tornau (2021), p. 57.

17.^ Hammer, Dean. “Roman Religion and Just Power.” Tornau, Christian. “Rome’s Woes Before Christ.” Printed in Meconi, David Vincent, Ed. The Cambridge Companion to Augustine’s City of God. Cambridge University Press, 2021, p. 99.

18.^ O’Donovan, Oliver. “Augustine on Religion without Morality.” Printed in Meconi, David Vincent, Ed. The Cambridge Companion to Augustine’s City of God. Cambridge University Press, 2021, p. 44.

19.^ Rose, H.J. “Introduction.” Printed in Nonnus. Dionysiaca, Books I-XV. Translated by W.H.D. Rouse, and with an Introduction and Notes by H.J. Rose. Loeb, 1940, p. x.

20.^ Melchizadek’s virgin birth is recorded in the first century CE book of 2 Enoch in the annex between Chapters 69-72. The quotes are from 11Q13, printed in The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English. Translated and with an Introduction by Geza Vermes. Penguin Classics, 2011, p. 533.

21.^ See Ovid’s Fasti (4.225-30) and Arnobius of Sicca’s Case Against the Pagans (5.5-7, 16-17), printed in Meyer, Marvin. The Ancient Mysteries: A Sourcebook of Sacred Texts. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987, pp. 116-20.

22.^ See Tornau (2021), p. 57.

23.^ Evans, G.R. “Introduction.” Printed in Augustine. City of God. Translated by Henry Bettenson and with an Introduction by G.R. Evans. Penguin Classics, 2003, p. xxii-xxiii.

24.^ Ibid, p. liii.