City of God, Book 3: Who’s to Blame?

Book Two of Augustine’s City of God was mostly focused on the moral degradation the gods had allowed/condoned/promoted within Rome. It was about Rome’s internal decay.

At the beginning of Book Three, Augustine acknowledges that his opponents may not really care about those moral calamities, so he switches gears and takes up “those ills which are the only disasters which our adversaries dread; such things as famine, disease, war, spoilation, captivity, massacre and the like.” Augustine begins to recount these evils that befell Rome before the time of Christ. His point, which he’ll make explicitly towards the end of Book Three, is that his opponents aren’t willing to blame prior calamities on their gods, who were on watch when these disasters came to Rome, they should not blame the Christian God for the most recent disaster. If they want to blame the Christian God now, they must be willing to blame the pagan gods for the myriad of calamities that happened on their watch.

Augustine rewinds all the way to the beginning of the Roman people. He asks, “Why was Troy (or Ilium), the source of the Roman people, conquered, captured, and destroyed by the Greeks then it possessed and worshipped the same gods as the Greeks?” He digs through the myths to find explanations. Apparently, the gods were angry at the city for its duplicitous dealings with Apollo and Neptune. But, Augustine points out, if your gods are so easily tricked, not knowing the city would refuse to pay for their labor in building the city’s walls, are they really worthy of worship?  And if the stories aren’t true, don’t advance them as an explanation for why the Greeks were able to conquer Troy.

An aside, I love his apologetic method – his ‘assuming for the sake of the argument’ the old stories are true. When asked if he believes these old myths, his answer is unequivocal – “No I certainly do not.” But, he assumes the stance of a believer for the sake of discussion. There’s a lot to learn from Augustine’s apologetic approach.

Augustine explores the kingship of Romulus, asking why the gods would have avenged the sins of Troy but left the fratricide of Romulus unpunished. The peace of Rome under Numa, the second king is also an anomaly, for if the gods bestowed peace on Rome because they were pleased that Numa had established the sacred rites, why did they not grant that same peace in later periods when the rites were still performed? Rome, Augustine contends, abandoned this peace. For what? For empire.

As the empire grew, so did the pantheon of gods Rome worshipped. The smoke going up from the altars was voluminous. Augustine reflects on this period, “Strange marriage rites, strange causes of war, strange conditions of fraternity, of affinity, of alliance, and divinity. In  short, what a strange sort of life in a city under the protection of so many gods.” In short, Rome was conquered by the “lust for domination,” a lust that “brings great evils to vex and exhaust the whole human race.” This great evil is whitewashed and veiled by talk of honour and victory, which are a sham.

With few exceptions, the early kings of Rome all met with ignoble ends – assassination being a common cause of death. The period of the consulship was marred by horrific crimes and unhappy events, even though some historians considered this period to be the height of “equity and justice in the government of the commonwealth.” Next came a period in Rome’s history when, according to the historian Sallust, “the patricians reduced the plebeians to the condition of slavery; they disposed of the lives and persons of the plebs in the manner of the kings; they drove men from their lands; and, with the rest of the people disenfranchised, they alone wielded supreme power.” This internal strife faded to the background during the Second Punic War as both parties united to fight Hannibal.

Augustine breaks from the retelling of Rome’s bloody history to ask, “Where were the Roman gods through all this?” Where were they when the Capitol was set on fire, when a plague descended on the city, when the Gauls piled up the bodies in the streets.  He makes a really important point, “The Romans thought they ought to worship their gods to ensure the insignificant and deceptive happiness of this world.” So, how has that worked out?

Continuing this line of reasoning, Augustine singles out the fate of Saguntum, a Spanish city and close ally of Rome. During the Second Punic War, Hannibal broke treaty with Rome and laid siege to Saguntum. The city would surely be lost, but rather than fall into the hands of Hannibal, the city member built a huge pyre in the city and “in mutual slaughter, committed themselves and their fellows to the flames.” Where is the happiness that the gods are supposed to bring?  Christians, Augustine argues, would not have committed such a gruesome act. They may have been destroyed in the city, but would know that they “had suffered destruction for the gospel faith, and it would have suffered in the hope based on its faith in Christ, a hope not of reward of a brief space of time, but of an endless eternity.”

Coming to the time of Caesar Agustus, Augustine claims that Augustus “wrestled from the Roman people a liberty which was no longer glorious, even in their own estimation, but productive of strife and tragedy.” More wars, civil wars, strife, and misery were the order of the day through this period of Ceasars. The war between Sulla and Marius was so bloody, it was hard to tell who actually won, and the victory and peace that followed were marred by mass murders and “exquisite torture…men treated with less than animals”  – more fury savagery than any foreign invaders had displayed.

Augustine returns at the end of Book Three to the question raised at the beginning, “How can our opponents have the effrontery, the audacity, the impudence, the imbecility (or rather the insanity), to refuse to blame their gods for those catastrophes, while they hold Christ responsible for the disasters of modern times?”

It would be a good exercise for us in the church to think about Augustine’s apologetic approach and how it could be applied in our defense of the faith today. Our’s approach would need to differ slightly – not so much before Christ, these things happen, but without Christ, these happen. Against the accusation that Christians have committed great evils, I think Augustine would offer two “defenses”. First, Augustine would agree – Yes, some Christians have committed horrible evils. They are not living up to the standard of the Heavenly City and are likely imposters in the City of God. But secondly, I think Augustine would be quick to line up evils committed in ‘service’ to Christ alongside evils committed in service to the ‘gods’ of our age. How many wars have been fought in service to money?  How many atrocities committed in the worship of freedom and autonomy?  How much misery have the gods of our age – pleasure, security, prosperity at all cost, etc. – caused? What veils have we used to cover these miseries – honour, liberty, autonomy?

We don’t have little statues we worship anymore, but as Calvin says, our minds are virtual idol factories. And these false gods, empowered by demonic forces, still wreak havoc in the city of man.