The City of God
For thirteen or fourteen years, through a thousand employments and a thousand cares, amid the panics and continual alarums which kept the Africans on the alert in those times, Augustin worked at his City of God, the most formidable machine of war ever directed against paganism, and also the arsenal fullest of proofs and refutations which the disputants and defenders of Catholicism have ever had at their disposal.

It is not for us to examine the details of this immense work, for our sole aim is to study Augustin's soul, and we quote scarcely anything from his books save those parts wherein a little of this ardent soul pulsates -- those which are still living for us of the twentieth century, which contain teachings and ways of feeling still likely to move us. Now, Augustin's attitude towards paganism is one of those which throw the greatest light on his nature and character. And it may even yet come to be our own attitude when we find opposed to us a conception of life and the world which may indeed be ruined for a time, but is reborn as soon as the sense of spirituality disappears or grows feeble.

"Immortal Paganism, art thou dead? So they say.
But Pan scoffs under his breath, and the Chimaera laughs." [1]

[Footnote 1: Sainte-Beuve.]

Like ourselves, Augustin, brought up by a Christian mother, knew it only through literature, and, so to speak, aesthetically. Recollections of school, the emotions and admirations of a cultivated man -- there is what the old religion meant for him. Nevertheless, he had one great advantage over us for knowing it well: the sight of the pagan customs and superstitions was still under his eyes.

That the lascivious, romantic, and poetic adventures of the ancient gods, their statues, their temples, and all the arts arising from their religion, had beguiled him and filled him with enthusiasm before his conversion, is only too certain. But all this mythology and plastic art were looked upon as secondary things then, even by pagans. The serious, the essential part of the religion was not in that. Paganism, a religion of Beauty, is an invention of our modern aesthetes; it was hardly thought of in that way in Augustin's time.

Long before this, the Roman Varro, the great compiler of the religious antiquities of paganism, made a threefold distinction of the doctrine concerning the gods. The first -- that of the theatre, as he calls it, or fabulous mythology, adapted to poets, dramatists, sculptors, and jesters. Invented by these, it is only a fantasy, a play of imagination, an ornament of life. The third is civil theology, serious and solid, which claims the respect and piety of all. "It is that which men in cities, and chiefly the priests, ought to be cunning in. It teaches which gods to worship in public, and with what ceremonies and sacrifices each one must be served." Finally, the second, physical or metaphysical theology, is reserved for philosophers and exceptional minds; it is altogether theoretical. The only important and truly religious one, which puts an obligation on the believer, is the third -- the civil theology.

Now, we never take account of this. What we persist in regarding as paganism is what Varro himself called "a religion for the theatre" -- matter of opera, pretext for ballets, for scenery, and for dance postures. Transposed into another key by our poets, this mythology is inflated now and then by mysticism, or by a vague symbolism. Playthings of our pretty wits! The living paganism, which Augustin struggled against, which crowds defended at the price of their blood, in which the poor believed and the wisest statesmen deemed indispensable as a safeguard of cities -- that paganism is quite another matter. Like all religions which are possible, it implied and it enforced not only beliefs, but ritual, sacrifices, festivals. And this is what Augustin, with the other Christians of that time, spurned with disgust and declared to be unbearable.

He saw, or he had seen with his own eyes, the reality of the pagan worship, and the most repellent of all to our modern delicacy -- the sacrifices. At the period when he wrote The City of God, private sacrifices, as well as public, were forbidden. This did not prevent the devout from breaking the law whenever a chance offered. They hid themselves more or less when they sacrificed before a temple, a chapel, or on some private estate. The rites could not be carried out according to all the minute instructions of the pontifical books. It was no more than a shadow of the ceremonies of former times. But in his childhood, in the reign of Julian, for instance, Augustin could have attended sacrifices which were celebrated with full pomp and according to all the ritual forms. They were veritable scenes of butchery. For Heaven's sake let us forget the frieze of the Parthenon, and its sacrificers with their graceful lines! If we want to have a literal translation of this sculpture, and find the modern representation of a hecatomb, we must go to the slaughter-houses at La Villette.

Among the heaps of broken flesh, the puddles of blood, the mystic Julian was attacked by a kind of drunkenness. There were never enough beasts strangled or slaughtered to suit him. Nothing satisfied his fury for sacred carnage. The pagans themselves made fun of this craze for sacrificing. During the three years his reign lasted the altars streamed with blood. Oxen by hundreds were slain upon the floors of the temples, and the butchers throttled so many sheep and other domestic animals that they gave up keeping count of them. Thousands of white birds, pigeons or sea-gulls, were destroyed day by day by the piety of the prince. He was called the Victimarius, and when he started upon his campaign against the Persians, an epigram was circulated once more which had been formerly composed against Marcus Aurelius (the philosophic emperor!) who was equally generous of hecatombs: "To Marcus Caesar from the white oxen. It will be all over with us if you come back a conqueror." People said that Julian, on his return, would depopulate stables and pasture-lands.

The populace, who gathered their very considerable profit from these butcheries, naturally encouraged such an excess of devotion. At Rome, under Caligula, more than a hundred and sixty thousand victims were immolated in three months -- nearly two thousand a day. And these massacres took place upon the approaches of the temples; in the middle of the city; on the forums; in narrow squares crowded with public buildings and statues. Just try to call up the scene in summer, between walls at a white heat, with the smells and the flies. Spectators and victims rubbed against one another, pressed close in the restricted space. One day, Caligula, while he was attending a sacrifice, was splashed all over by the blood of a flamingo as they cut its neck. But the august Caesar was not so fastidious; he himself operated in these ceremonies armed with a mallet and clad in the short shirt of the killers. The ignominy of all this revolted the Christians, and whoever had nerves at all sensitive. The bloody mud in which passers slipped, the hissing of the fat, the heavy odour of flesh, were sickening. Tertullian held his nose before the "stinking fires" on which the victims were roasting. And St. Ambrose complained that in the Roman Curia the senators who were Christians were obliged to breathe in the smoke and receive full in the face the ashes of the altar raised before the statue of Victory.

The manipulations of the haruspicina seemed an even worse abomination in the eyes of the Christians. Dissection of bowels, examination of entrails, were practices very much in fashion in all classes of society. The pagans generally took more or less interest in magic. One was scarcely a philosopher without being a miracle-worker. In this there was a kind of perfidious rivalry to the Christian miracles. The ambitious or the discontented opened the bellies of animals to learn when the Emperor was going to die, and who would succeed him. But although it did not pretend to magic, the haruspicina made an essential part of the sacrifices. As soon as the dismemberment was done, the diviners examined the appearance of the entrails. Consulting together, they turned them over frequently with anxious attention. This business might continue for a long time. Plutarch relates that Philip, King of Macedonia, when sacrificing an ox on the Ithomaea, with Aratus of Sicyon and Demetrius of Pharos, wished to inquire out from the entrails of the victim concerning the wisdom of a piece of strategy. The haruspex put the smoking mass in his hands. The King shewed it to his companions, who derived contradictory presages from it. He listened to one side and the other, holding meanwhile the ox's entrails in his hands. Eventually, he decided for the opinion of Aratus, and then tranquilly gave the handful back to the sacrificer....

No doubt in Augustin's time these rites were no longer practised openly. For all that, they were of the first importance in the ancient religion, which desired nothing better than to restore them. It is easy to understand the repulsion they caused in the author of The City of God. He who would not have a fly killed to make sure of the gold crown in the contest of poets, looked with horror on these sacred butchers, and manglers, and cooks. He flung the garbage of the sacrifices into the sewer, and shewed proudly to the pagans the pure oblation of the eucharistic Bread and Wine.

But what, above all, he attacked, because it was a present and permanent scandal, was the gluttony, the drunkenness, and lust of the pagans. Let us not exaggerate these vices -- not the two first, at least. Augustin could not judge them as we can. It is certain that the Africans of his time -- and for that matter, those of to-day -- would have struck us modern people as very sober. The outbursts of intemperance which he accuses them of only happened at intervals, at times of public festivity or some family celebration. But as soon as they did begin they were terrible. When one thinks of the orgies of our Arabs behind locked doors!

But it is no less true that the pagan vices spread themselves out cynically under the protecting shadow of religion. Popular souses of eating and drinking were the obligatory accompaniments of the festivals and sacrifices. A religious festival meant a carouse, loads of victuals, barrels of wine broached in the street. These were called the Dishes, Fercula, or else, the Rejoicing, Laetitia. The poor people, who knew meat only by sight, ate it on these days, and they drank wine. The effect of this unaccustomed plenty was felt at once. The whole populace were drunk. The rich in their houses possibly did it with more ceremony, but it was really the same brutishness. The elegant Ovid, who in the Art of Love teaches fine manners to the beginners in love, advises them not to vomit at table, and to avoid getting drunk like the husbands of their mistresses.

Plainly, religion was only an excuse for these excesses. Augustin goes too far when he makes the gods responsible for this riot of sensuality. What is true is that they did nothing to hinder it. And it is also true that the lechery, which he flings so acridly in the face of the pagans, the gross stage-plays, the songs, dances, and even prostitution, were all more or less included in the essence of paganism. The theatre, like the games of the arena and circus, was a divine institution. At certain feasts, and in certain temples, fornication became sacred. All the world knew what took place at Carthage in the courts and under the porticoes of the Celestial Virgin, and what the ears of the most chaste matrons were obliged to hear, and also what the use was of the castrated priests of the Great Mother of the gods. Augustin, who declaims against these filthy sports, has not forced the note of his denunciation to make out a good case. If anybody wants to know in more detail the sights enjoyed at the theatre, or what were the habits of certain pious confraternities, he has only to read what is told by Apuleius, the most devout of pagans. He takes evident pleasure in these stories, or, if he sometimes waxes indignant, it is the depravity of men he accuses. The gods soar at a great height above these wretched trifles. To Augustin, on the contrary, the gods are unclean devils who fill their bellies with lust and obscenities, as if they were hankering for the blood and grease of sacrifices.

And so he puts his finger on the open wound of paganism -- its basic immorality, or, if you like, its unmorality. Like our scientism of to-day, it was unable to lay down a system of morals. It did not even try to. What Augustin has written on this subject in The City of God, is perhaps the strongest argument ever objected to polytheism. Anyhow, pages like this are very timely indeed to consider:

"But such friends and such worshippers of those gods, whom they rejoice to follow and imitate in all villainies and mischiefs -- do they trouble themselves about the corruption and great decay of the Republic? Not so. Let it but stand, say they; let it but prosper by the number of its troops and be glorious by its victories; or, which is best of all, let it but enjoy security and peace, and what care we? Yes, what we care for above all is that every one may have the means to increase his wealth, to pay the expenses of his usual luxury, and that the powerful may still keep under the weak. Let the poor crouch to the rich to be fed, or to live at ease under their protection; let the rich abuse the poor as things at their service, and to shew how many they have soliciting them. Let the people applaud such as provide them with pleasures, not such as have a care for their interests. Let naught that is hard be enjoined, nothing impure be prohibited.... Let not subdued provinces obey their governors as supervisors of their morality, but as masters of their fortune and the procurers of their pleasures. What matters it if this submission has no sincerity, but rests upon a bad and servile fear! Let the law protect estates rather than fair justice. Let there be a good number of public harlots, either for all that please to enjoy themselves in their company, or for those that cannot keep private ones. Let stately and sumptuous houses be erected, so that night and day each one according to his liking or his means may gamble and drink and revel and vomit. Let the rhythmed tinkling of dances be ordinary, the cries, the uncontrolled delights, the uproar of all pleasures, even the bloodiest and most shameful in the theatres. He who shall assay to dissuade from these pleasures, let him be condemned as a public enemy. And if any one try to alter or suppress them -- let the people stifle his voice, let them banish him, let them kill him. On the other hand, those that shall procure the people these pleasures, and authorize their enjoyment, let them be eternized for the true gods."...

However, Augustin acknowledges a number of praiseworthy minds among pagans -- those philosophers, with Plato in the first rank, who have done their best to put morality into the religion. The Christian teacher renders a magnificent tribute to Platonism. But these high doctrines have scarcely got beyond the portals of the schools, and this moral teaching which paganism vaunts of, is practically limited to the sanctuaries. "Let them not talk," says he, "of some closely muttered instructions, taught in secret, and whispered in the ear of a few adepts, which hold I know not what lessons of uprightness and virtue. But let them shew the temples ordained for such pious meetings, wherein were no sports with lascivious gestures and loose songs.... Let them shew us the places where the gods' doctrine was heard against covetousness, the suppression of ambition, the bridling of luxury, and where wretches might learn what the poet Persius thunders unto them, saying:

'Learn, wretches, and conceive the course of things, What man is, and why nature forth him brings;...
How to use money; how to help a friend;
What we on earth, and God in us, intend.'

Let them shew where their instructing gods were used to give such lessons; and where their worshippers used to go often to hear these matters. As for us, we can point to our churches, built for this sole purpose, wheresoever the religion of Christ is diffused."

Can it surprise, then, if men so ignorant of high morality, and so deeply embedded in matter, were also plunged in the grossest superstitions? Materialism in morals always ends by producing a low credulity. Here Augustin triumphs. He sends marching under our eyes, in a burlesque array, the innumerable army of gods whom the Romans believed in. There are so many that he compares them to swarms of gnats. Although he explains that he is not able to mention them all, he amuses himself by stupefying us with the prodigious number of those he discovers. Dragged into open day by him, a whole divine population is brought out of the darkness and forgetfulness where it had been sleeping perhaps for centuries: the little gods who work in the fields, who make the corn grow and keep off the blight, those who watch over children, who aid women in labour, who protect the hearth, who guard the house. It was impossible to take a step among the pagans, to make a movement, without the help of a god or goddess. Men and things were as if fettered and imprisoned by the gods.

"In a house," says Augustin scoffingly, "there is but one porter. He is but a mere man, yet he is sufficient for that office. But it takes three gods, Forculus for the door, Cardea for the hinge, Limentinus for the threshold. Doubtless, Forculus all alone could not possibly look after threshold, door and hinges." And if it is a case of a man and woman retiring to the bridal chamber after the wedding, a whole squadron of divinities are set in motion for an act so simple and natural. "I beseech you," cries Augustin, "leave something for the husband to do!"

This African, who had such a strong sense of the unity and fathomless infinity of God, waxed indignant at this sacrilegious parcelling of the divine substance. But the pagans, following Varro, would answer that it was necessary to distinguish, among all these gods, those who were just the imagination of poets, and those who were real beings -- between the gods of fable and the gods of religion. "Then," as Tertullian had said already, "if the gods be chosen as onions are roped, it is obvious that what is not chosen is condemned." "Tertullian carries his fancy too far," comments Augustin. The gods refused as fabulous are not held reprobate on that account. The truth is, they are a cut of the same piece as the admitted gods. "Have not the pontiffs, like the poets, a bearded Jupiter and a Mercury without beard?... Are the old Saturn and the young Apollo so much the property of the poets that we do not see their statues too in the temples?..."

And the philosophers, in their turn, however much they may protest against the heap of fabulous gods and, like Plato and Porphyry, declare that there exists but one God, soul of the universe, yet they no less accepted the minor gods, and intermediaries or messengers betwixt gods and men, whom they called demons. These hybrid beings, who pertained to humanity by their passions, and to the divinity by the privilege of immortality, had to be appeased by sacrifices, questioned and gratified by magic spells. And there is what the highest pagan wisdom ended in -- yes, in calling up spirits, and the shady operations of wizards and wonder-smiths. That is what the pagans defended, and demanded the continuation of with so much obstinacy and fanaticism.

By no means, replied Augustin. It does not deserve to survive. It is not the forsaking of these beliefs and superstitious practices which has brought about the decay of the Empire. If you are asking for the temples of your gods to be opened, it is because they are easy to your passions. At heart, you scoff at them and the Empire; all you want is freedom and impunity for your vices. There we have the real cause of the decadence! Little matter the idle grimaces before altars and statues. Become chaste, sober, brave, and poor, as your ancestors were. Have children, agree to compulsory military service, and you will conquer as they did. Now, all these virtues are enjoined and encouraged by Christianity. Whatever certain heretics may say, the religion of Christ is not contrary to marriage or the soldier's profession. The Patriarchs of the old law were blest in marriage, and there are just and holy wars.

And even supposing, that in spite of all efforts to save it, the Empire is condemned, must we therefore despair? We should be prepared for the end of the Roman city. Like all the things of this world, it is liable to old age and death. It will die then, one day. Far from being cast down, let us strengthen ourselves against this disaster by the realization of the eternal. Let us strengthen our hold upon that which passes not. Above the earthly city, rises the City of God, which is the communion of holy souls, the only one which gives complete and never-failing joy. Let us try to be the citizens of that city, and to live the only life worth calling life. For the life here below is but the shadow of a shadow....

The people of those times were wonderfully prepared to hearken to such exhortations. On the eve of the Barbarian invasions, these Christians, for whom the dogma of the Resurrection was perhaps the chief reason of their faith, these people, sick at heart, who looked on in torture at the ending of a world, must have considered this present life as a bad dream, from which there should be no delay in escaping.

At the very moment even that Augustin began to write The City of God, his friend Evodius, Bishop of Uzalis, told him this story.

He had as secretary a very young man, the son of a priest in the neighbourhood. This young man had begun by obtaining a post as stenographer in the office of the Proconsul of Africa. Evodius, who was alarmed at what might happen to his virtue in such surroundings, having first made certain of his absolute chastity, offered to take him into his service. In the bishop's house, where he had scarcely anything to do but read the Holy Scripture, his faith became so enthusiastic that he longed for nothing now but death. To go out of this life, "to be with Christ," was his eager wish. It was heard. After sixteen days of illness he died in the house of his parents.

"Now, two days after his funeral, a virtuous woman of Figes, a servant of God, a widow for twelve years, had a dream, and in her dream she saw a deacon who had been dead some four years, together with men, and women too, virgins and widows -- she saw these servants of God getting ready a palace. This dwelling was so rich that it shone with light, and you would have believed it was all made of silver. And when the widow asked whom these preparations were for, the deacon replied that they were for a young man, dead the evening before, the son of a priest. In the same palace, she saw an old man, all robed in white, and he told two other persons, also robed in white, to go to the tomb of this young man, and lift out the body, and carry it to Heaven. When the body had been drawn from the tomb and carried to Heaven, there arose (said she) out of the tomb a bush of virgin-roses, which are thus named because they never open...."

So the son of the priest had chosen the better part. What was the good of remaining in this abominable world, where there was always a risk of being burned or murdered by Goths and Vandals, when, in the other world, angels were preparing for you palaces of light?

i the sack of rome
Top of Page
Top of Page