Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series I/Volume II/City of God/Book III/Chapter 17

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Chapter 17.—Of the Disasters Which Vexed the Roman Republic After the Inauguration of the Consulship, and of the Non-Intervention of the Gods of Rome.

After this, when their fears were gradually diminished,—not because the wars ceased, but because they were not so furious,—that period in which things were “ordered with justice and moderation” drew to an end, and there followed that state of matters which Sallust thus briefly sketches:  “Then began the patricians to oppress the people as slaves, to condemn them to death or scourging, as the kings had done, to drive them from their holdings, and to tyrannize over those who had no property to lose.  The people, overwhelmed by these oppressive measures, and most of all by usury, and obliged to contribute both money and personal service to the constant wars, at length took arms and seceded to Mount Aventine and Mount Sacer, and thus secured for themselves tribunes and protective laws.  But it was only the second Punic war that put an end on both sides to discord and strife.”[1]  But why should I spend time in writing such things, or make others spend it in reading them?  Let the terse summary of Sallust suffice to intimate the misery of the republic through all that long period till the second Punic war,—how it was distracted from without by unceasing wars, and torn with civil broils and dissensions.  So that those victories they boast were not the substantial joys of the happy, but the empty comforts of wretched men, and seductive incitements to turbulent men to concoct disasters upon disasters.  And let not the good and prudent Romans be angry at our saying this; and indeed we need neither deprecate nor denounce their anger, for we know they will harbor none.  For we speak no more severely than their own authors, and much less elaborately and strikingly; yet they diligently read these authors, and compel their children to learn them.  But they who are angry, what would they do to me were I to say what Sallust says?  “Frequent mobs, seditions, and at last civil wars, became common, while a few leading men on whom the masses were dependent, affected supreme power under the seemly pretence of seeking the good of senate and people; citizens were judged good or bad without reference to their loyalty to the republic (for all were equally corrupt); but the wealthy and dangerously powerful were esteemed good citizens, because they maintained the existing state of things.”  Now, if those historians judged that an honorable freedom of speech required that they should not be silent regarding the blemishes of their own state, which they have in many places loudly applauded in their ignorance of that other and true city in which citizenship is an everlasting dignity; what does it become us to do, whose liberty ought to be so much greater, as our hope in God is better and more assured, when they impute to our Christ the calamities of this age, in order that men of the less instructed and weaker sort may be alienated from that city in which alone eternal and blessed life can be enjoyed?  Nor do we utter against their gods anything more horrible than their own authors do, whom they read and circulate. For, indeed, all that we have said we have derived from them, and there is much more to say of a worse kind which we are unable to say.

Where, then, were those gods who are supposed to be justly worshipped for the slender and delusive prosperity of this world, when the Romans, who were seduced to their service by lying wiles, were harassed by such calamities?  Where were they when Valerius the consul was killed while defending the Capitol, that had been fired by exiles and slaves?  He was himself better able to defend the temple of Jupiter, than that crowd

of divinities with their most high and mighty king, whose temple he came to the rescue of were able to defend him.  Where were they when the city, worn out with unceasing seditions, was waiting in some kind of calm for the return of the ambassadors who had been sent to Athens to borrow laws, and was desolated by dreadful famine and pestilence?  Where were they when the people, again distressed with famine, created for the first time a prefect of the market; and when Spurius Melius, who, as the famine increased, distributed corn to the famishing masses, was accused of aspiring to royalty, and at the instance of this same prefect, and on the authority of the superannuated dictator L. Quintius, was put to death by Quintus Servilius, master of the horse,—an event which occasioned a serious and dangerous riot?  Where were they when that very severe pestilence visited Rome, on account of which the people, after long and wearisome and useless supplications of the helpless gods, conceived the idea of celebrating Lectisternia, which had never been done before; that is to say, they set couches in honor of the gods, which accounts for the name of this sacred rite, or rather sacrilege?[2]  Where were they when, during ten successive years of reverses, the Roman army suffered frequent and great losses among the Veians and would have been destroyed but for the succor of Furius Camillus, who was afterwards banished by an ungrateful country?  Where were they when the Gauls took sacked, burned, and desolated Rome?  Where were they when that memorable pestilence wrought such destruction, in which Furius Camillus too perished, who first defended the ungrateful republic from the Veians, and afterwards saved it from the Gauls?  Nay, during this plague, they introduced a new pestilence of scenic entertainments, which spread its more fatal contagion, not to the bodies, but the morals of the Romans?  Where were they when another frightful pestilence visited the city—I mean the poisonings imputed to an incredible number of noble Roman matrons, whose characters were infected with a disease more fatal than any plague?  Or when both consuls at the head of the army were beset by the Samnites in the Caudine Forks, and forced to strike a shameful treaty, 600 Roman knights being kept as hostages; while the troops, having laid down their arms, and being stripped of everything, were made to pass under the yoke with one garment each?  Or when, in the midst of a serious pestilence, lightning struck the Roman camp and killed many?  Or when Rome was driven, by the violence of another intolerable plague, to send to Epidaurus for Æsculapius as a god of medicine; since the frequent adulteries of Jupiter in his youth had not perhaps left this king of all who so long reigned in the Capitol, any leisure for the study of medicine?  Or when, at one time, the Lucanians, Brutians, Samnites, Tuscans, and Senonian Gauls conspired against Rome, and first slew her ambassadors, then overthrew an army under the prætor, putting to the sword 13,000 men, besides the commander and seven tribunes?  Or when the people, after the serious and long-continued disturbances at Rome, at last plundered the city and withdrew to Janiculus; a danger so grave, that Hortensius was created dictator,—an office which they had recourse to only in extreme emergencies; and he, having brought back the people, died while yet he retained his office,—an event without precedent in the case of any dictator, and which was a shame to those gods who had now Æsculapius among them?

At that time, indeed, so many wars were everywhere engaged in, that through scarcity of soldiers they enrolled for military service the proletarii, who received this name, because, being too poor to equip for military service, they had leisure to beget offspring.[3]  Pyrrhus, king of Greece, and at that time of widespread renown, was invited by the Tarentines to enlist himself against Rome.  It was to him that Apollo, when consulted regarding the issue of his enterprise, uttered with some pleasantry so ambiguous an oracle, that whichever alternative happened, the god himself should be counted divine.  For he so worded the oracle[4] that whether Pyrrhus was conquered by the Romans, or the Romans by Pyrrhus, the soothsaying god would securely await the issue.  And then what frightful massacres of both armies ensued!  Yet Pyrrhus remained conqueror, and would have been able now to proclaim Apollo a true diviner, as he understood the oracle, had not the Romans been the conquerors in the next engagement.  And while such disastrous wars were being waged, a terrible disease broke out among the women.  For the pregnant women died before delivery.  And Æsculapius, I fancy, excused himself in this matter on the ground that he professed to be arch-physician, not midwife.  Cattle, too, similarly perished; so that it was believed that the whole race of animals was destined

to become extinct.  Then what shall I say of that memorable winter in which the weather was so incredibly severe, that in the Forum frightfully deep snow lay for forty days together, and the Tiber was frozen?  Had such things happened in our time, what accusations we should have heard from our enemies!  And that other great pestilence, which raged so long and carried off so many; what shall I say of it?  Spite of all the drugs of Æsculapius, it only grew worse in its second year, till at last recourse was had to the Sibylline books,—a kind of oracle which, as Cicero says in his De Divinatione, owes significance to its interpreters, who make doubtful conjectures as they can or as they wish.  In this instance, the cause of the plague was said to be that so many temples had been used as private residences.  And thus Æsculapius for the present escaped the charge of either ignominious negligence or want of skill.  But why were so many allowed to occupy sacred tenements without interference, unless because supplication had long been addressed in vain to such a crowd of gods, and so by degrees the sacred places were deserted of worshippers, and being thus vacant, could without offence be put at least to some human uses?  And the temples, which were at that time laboriously recognized and restored that the plague might be stayed, fell afterwards into disuse, and were again devoted to the same human uses.  Had they not thus lapsed into obscurity, it could not have been pointed to as proof of Varro’s great erudition, that in his work on sacred places he cites so many that were unknown.  Meanwhile, the restoration of the temples procured no cure of the plague, but only a fine excuse for the gods.


  1. Hist. i.
  2. Lectisternia, from lectus, and sterno, I spread.
  3. Proletarius, from proles, offspring.
  4. The oracle ran:  “Dico te, Pyrrhe, vincere posse Romanos.