With this knowledge at hand, Augustine’s argument against the pagans is easier to decipher. First, the empire becoming Christian was, in fact, a violation of the natural order. At least from their view, one God did not exclusively rule the universe – assuming that one did would be a terrible mistake, angering many of the gods that they would ignore in the process. Their continual irrelevance in the empire was also quite a blow to the pagans, especially when Constantine made Christianity the religion of the Romans. The pagans that remained were eventually outlawed to practice their faith, though it was not necessarily enforced (Mitchell 250). This continued irrelevance was definitely something the pagans wanted to correct, and the coming fall of the empire at the beginning of the 5th century was a perfect place to prove their point.
They blamed Christianity for the barbarian encroachment on Rome’s borders, showing how much success the early empire had in its expansion. Christianity, in their view, had made the Romans a weak lot, easily susceptible to their enemies. The teachings of Jesus were bad for an empire; they nearly prohibited war, except in cases of self defense. Thus, the Christians would allow the unwashed masses to take over the great empire of the pagans due to their pacifistic ways. The pagan Romans felt the blame was rightly placed upon the Christians, who had incurred the wrath of the gods and violated the natural laws of the world. There had been plenty of divination showing these terrible events, but the Christians had suppressed them; it was the pagan’s duty to show how the pagan empire had been destroyed from the inside by a foreign faith.
Augustine’s argument makes a great deal more sense in this historical context. These are the people and arguments Augustine was up against – how would he prove that his religion was not responsible for the fall but also the one true belief system? The City of God was meant, in part, to counter the arguments of the pagans. Augustine definitely had a plan – in every way, he meant to gut the pagans from the inside out, not only to show that their arguments had no bearing on the situation but that their religion was a farce. Augustine went this route precisely because he knew Christianity was strong enough to withstand the blows of the pagans. Augustine made a host of claims supporting his beliefs, but for his conflict against the pagans, he made two strikingly relevant arguments against the Roman gods.
First, Augustine shows the moral superiority of his religion to the pagans. The pagans certainly did not have the moral high ground when blaming the Christian and this lack of morality hurt quite a bit. In book two of The City of God, Augustine relates to the reader the practices of pagan worship. The games celebrated in the honor of Berecynthia, the mother of the gods, apparently contained songs that were incredibly filthy and obscene (CoG 2.4). These rituals, to Augustine, seem utterly vile; if these actions are used to worship the gods, what could possibly be considered pure or sacred (CoG 2.4)? Augustine will not even mention the acts they produced for the mother of the gods. The problem with the pagan perception of the gods as role models (CoG 2.25). In fact, the gods themselves are selfish, immoral creatures that continually kill each other, rape each other’s women, and engage in other violent, sexually charged acts. Celebrating these actions only propagates them in the human consciousness as the right way to live, especially if they are associated with the divine; their ways are encouraged by their power over the world (CoG 2.8). Is it any surprise that, with this appeal to the lowest common denominator of human nature – lust – that the worship of these gods would involve such rituals (CoG 2.7)? The gods do not provide a code of morality and as such the people who follow them must basically follow their base instincts (CoG 2.10). If the gods were self-focused in that fashion, how could they possibly have helped Rome?
The gods, to Augustine, do not even answer the essential questions of life, such as purpose, what the will of the gods is, or what humanity should do to please them. Rome, because of its lack of moral codes from pagans, used empire as a way to obtain a moral code from others nations; Solon of Athens’ laws, as well as Sparta, were adapted into the fold because the gods did not provide answers (CoG 2.16). Augustine never goes as far to say that the gods do not exist – for him, they are demons and devils sent by Satan to mislead people into eternal damnation (CoG 2.10). They are actively trying to draw mankind down the wrong path, the path against Christianity. Considering all of these factors, how could one trust in the gods of the pagans? They were immoral, uncaring, and ambivalent towards humanity; why should humans worship something that provides so little in return that outside sources were necessary to develop law? Thus, Augustine plainly shows the inferior moral ground of the pagans – who are they to judge Christianity for bringing the empire into a downward spiral if the gods intentionally led them into wrongdoing?
Second, Augustine heaps piles of historical evidence suggesting the ambivalence of the gods towards Rome’s affairs. Even before the empire became Christian, plenty of terrible events had befallen Rome. Augustine directly counters the pagans’ use of history by using history. While the pagans proved their point using the victories and successes of the empire, Augustine used the information they omitted to form his argument against the morality of the gods. The story of Rome’s founding, for example, was more nefarious than it appears (CoG 3.6). Remus, Romulus’ brother, was killed soon after the city was established (CoG 3.6). According to Augustine, all historians at the time concluded that neither hired men nor enemies killed Remus, but his own brother Romulus committed the act (CoG 3.6). Both would have been the rulers of the city, but pride and the libero dominadi – the evil desire to dominate – influenced Romulus, who slew his brother (CoG 3.14). However, there is no recording of punishment or condemnation of an act by the Romans; fratricide was accepted as part of life, and no Roman questions it. What kind of gods would allow a man to kill his own brother (CoG 3.6)? To Augustine, a moral god would never allow premeditated murder.
In addition, though there were many great wars for Rome, there were just as many horrendous defeats. The Punic Wars, where Rome fought against Carthage, caused untold casualties (CoG 2.18). Two mighty nations, straining their might against one another, used every tool in their power to make the other side submit – but at what cost? Not all wars were favorable to the Romans, especially the second Punic War, where Hannibal (leader of the Carthaginian army) roamed around the Italian peninsula and laid waste to the countryside (CoG 3.19). Even a win could come at great cost, not only to territory but to human life (CoG 3.19). The gods did not intervene in these events; in fact, they were complacent. Augustine lists hosts of wars and internal conflicts where the gods have no say, no action, and no hope for the pagans. Even doing what the gods wanted (or, at least what they believed they wanted), the Roman empire rose and fell during its duration (CoG 3.31). To blame Christianity for any hardships, for Augustine, is simply ignoring the evidence of the past. Both religions share conflict and war during their reign over the empire, and thus the historical argument of the pagans is rendered moot (CoG 3.31).
Certainly, Augustine’s argument reached much further than is discussed here – moving into realms concerning eternal life and divine favor – but what has been presented plainly shows what Augustine did to the pagans. Without a moral or historical foundation, paganism simply could not sustain itself. By removing the basic tenets of their faith, Augustine was able to make a much more powerful argument allaying the fears of Christians who heard the pagans objections, as well as bringing the pagans to their own double standards. However, Augustine does attribute Rome’s success to divine intervention – the same belief of the pagans. Religion cannot be directly proven to have dictated certain events on the earth, but Augustine’s purpose was not really to prove God’s existence and presence in the world (the existence of the divine was assumed for both sides). As much as the pagan gods had promised a lot, to call them demons and show their irrelevance to the Roman empire was a wise choice for Augustine. With a knowledge of the Roman gods, his discourses on these long-forgotten gods make all the more sense, showing not only how religious traditions pass into the ages but Augustine’s continual knowledge of contemporary religious belief. As the apostle Paul said, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you,” and Augustine more than adequately performs the task required of him by his faith (1 Peter 3:15).
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.