Augustine’s treatise, The City of God, was written with the primary intention of disputing the beliefs of the pagans who still existed within the newly Christianized Roman Empire. Both the Christians and the pagans blamed each other’s religions for the inevitable fall of Rome, with each side attributing the various successes of the Empire to their world view’s reign over the known world. However, though the pagans of Rome were known well at the time, this is not the case today. Paganism has almost disappeared, and thus the discussion within the City of God can only be viewed through the eyes of Augustine – a biased view, for certain. Since the views of the pagans have all but passed away, a new study into the pagans is necessary.
Who were the pagans and what did they worship? Was religion based upon social structures or not? How was Augustine able to allay the concerns of Christians while refuting the pagans? All of these questions will, inevitably, make a great deal more sense when placed into the religious context of the pagans. Augustine did successfully refute the concerns of the pagans, but there is clearly more to understand by having an in-depth knowledge of their religion. As Augustine does not relay to the reader the various aspects of paganism (during his time, it was still assumed that everyone knew what paganism was), such a study will only enhance Augustine’s work. By this, Augustine’ s arguments against his opponents will be fully revealed for today’s world.
Roman paganism (if we want to label it in a more charitable way, “Roman religion”) is very different from modern conceptions of religion. Firstly, paganism was polytheistic – in effect, there were many gods that were responsible for myriad duties. There was also no omniscient, omnipresent god that controlled the universe. In fact, the gods did as they pleased, and their will varied widely as a result (Warrior 5-6). Even so, every outcome was in the hands of the temperamental gods and their wrath could easily extend to the humans who worshiped them (Warrior 6). The only way to placate their anger was to give prayers and offerings (sometimes sacrifices) to the specific god that was transgressed (Warrior 6). The relationship between giver and god was pragmatic; by offerings, humans hoped to gain the god’s divine blessings in return for obedience (Warrior 6).
It was also believed that, in time, humans could become gods. Primarily, the leaders of a country (in this case, the Roman emperors) would be declared god, either by themselves, or after their deaths (Warrior 107). Man could surpass the gods – though the case was extremely unlikely and probably only through obeying the gods that already existed. The Roman gods were, quite literally, integrated not only into nature, but every human action and establishment as well. This can be clearly seen in the example of Jupiter, or Jove. Jupiter was the patron deity of the Roman state, in practice making him the ruler over laws and the social order. Violating laws, going against the Roman state, or disrupting order meant not only a physical punishment, but a divine one from Jupiter. Even with sacrifice and prayer, there were no guarantees that the gods would offer forgiveness or withhold their anger. What is today called mythology was a reality for the Romans – the supernatural was alive in nearly every aspect of human life.
The very existence of Rome herself was attributed to this divine favor. The story of Romulus and Remus, two brothers raised by a wolf, was considered as a factual story of Rome’s origins. According to the poet Ovid, omens were used between the two men to decide which would become the founder of Rome (Warrior 16). Using divination, attempting to see signs in nature from the gods, Romulus gained the favor of the gods by seeing twice as many birds as Remus did (Warrior 17). As irrational as this may seem, within the context of paganism, the signs of the gods are all around humanity.
These divinations could be used in a variety of contexts – from the family, to the state, to understanding the gods’ desires for war, and even the simplest of business transactions were subject to this rule (Warrior 18). The effects of paganism gave the people a natural propensity to be opposed to foreign ideas, as they would disrupt the way of life and quite possibly anger the gods (Warrior 80). In the Roman empire, new religious thought and tradition inevitably were, at first, violently rejected (Warrior 80). The process of assimilation was always a difficult one, as the leaders of Rome had to decide whether a religion or cult would be harmful or helpful to the empire’s power. As long as these beliefs did not infringe on the establishment, they were usually accepted; new gods were accepted in times of crisis as well (Warrior 80-81). However, those that posed a potential threat – usually in the perception of the emperor in charge at the time – severe consequences would be the result.
Christianity is the greatest example of a supposed “bad” religion for the Roman empire. Its chief prophet, Jesus, was not of the violent sort, nor did he advocate serving the government as an end in itself. Instead, a person loved others as they loved themselves, and pay whatever taxes they were required to give (Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:17). The government was not to be followed blindly – if a law violated a precept of the Christian faith, then it could righteously be violated by a Christian. With these two essential points, many of the emperors saw the inherently problems of Christianity within an empire. Not only was it possible for rebellions to occur from supposed “unjust” policies, but this non-aggressive nature and passive stance towards conflict was, in their view, terrible for projecting Roman power. Thus, a great number of emperors persecuted the religion, hoping to eliminate its presence. From Nero to Diocletian, a host of empires continually persecuted the Christian religion (Warrior 123-124). Nearly three hundred years of persecution occurred, until emperor Galerius finally legalizes the practice of the Christian faith within the empire (Edicts of Toleration). Constantine, when he became emperor in 315 CE, made Christianity the state religion (Mitchell 242).
Augustine. The City of God. New York: Random House Inc., 1991.
“Galerius and Constantine: Edicts of Toleration 311/313.” The Medieval Sourcebook. January 1996. April 30, 2008 <http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/edict-milan.html>.
Mitchell, Stephen. A History of the Later Roman Empire. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.
Warrior, Valerie M. Roman Religion. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.