The sacking of Rome on August 24 in the year 410 by the Visigoths was not only a material blow against the Roman Empire, but also – and may be even more – a psychological blow. The Eternal City was left burning with bodies heaped up, people taken away as prisoners and women raped. True, the Visigoths had reserved some basilicas as asylums – they were Christians, be it Arians – but this did not diminish the pain felt. Christianity was the official religion, but there were many amongst the aristocracy who were no Christians and explained this disaster as a result of leaving ancient Roman religion: the Gods had taken revenge.
Augustine responded to those claims by writing De Civitate Dei. It took him at least 15 years to compose it, but once finished he had written one of the most influential books of Western culture. The reason why it took him so long is because as a bishop he was a busy man: preaching every week, an intensive correspondence, writing theological tractates and maybe also to clarify his mind over matters. It is nowadays hardly known outside the academic world, but during the Middle Ages it was widely read. Augustine warns his readers that this life is only temporary and that Christians should have their mind set on the heavenly city. This may sound as some dry theological treatise, but Augustine was a passionate writer, by nature a psychologist and by study one of the most learned men of that time. His De Civitate Dei is a consolation, a refutation of Roman religion and a study of history of over a thousand pages – and it is a document of how classical tradition merged with Christian thinking.
In the following excerpt Augustine is treating the disaster which befell Troy. Troy and the Greeks worshipped the same gods, so why did the gods destroy Troy? And if Apollo was really a diviner, why did he work for Priam’s father Laomedon, who promised him money but in the end broke that promise and gave nothing, huh?
Augustine, De Civitate Dei, book 3, chapter 2. I have left out the last part in order not to make it too long, but the translation below is complete.
[II] Primum ipsa Troia uel Ilium, unde origo est populi Romani, (neque enim praetereundum aut dissimulandum est, quod et in primo libro adtigi) eosdem habens deos et colens, cur a Graecis uictum, captum atque deletum est? "Priamo, inquiunt, sunt reddita Laomedontea paterna periuria." Ergo uerum est, quod Apollo atque Neptunus eidem Laomedonti mercennariis operibus seruierunt? Illis quippe promisisse mercedem falsumque iurasse perhibetur. Miror Apollinem nominatum diuinatorem in tanto opificio laborasse nescientem quod Laomedon fuerat promissa negaturus. Quamquam nec ipsum Neptunum patruum eius, fratrem Iouis, regem maris, decuit ignarum esse futurorum. Nam hunc Homerus de stirpe Aeneae, a cuius posteris Roma est, cum ante illam urbem conditam idem poeta fuisse dicatur, inducit magnum aliquid diuinantem, quem etiam nube rapuit, ut dicit, ne ab Achille occideretur,
cuperet cum uertere ab imo, quod aput Vergilium confitetur, structa suis manibus periurae moenia Troiae;
Nescientes igitur tanti dii, Neptunus et Apollo, Laomedontem sibi negaturum esse mercedem , structores moenium Troianorum gratis et ingratis fuerunt. Videant ne grauius sit tales deos credere quam diis talibus peierare. Hoc enim nec ipse Homerus facile credidit, qui Neptunum quidem contra Troianos, Apollinem autem pro Troianis pugnantem facit, cum illo periurio ambos fabula narret offensos. Si igitur fabulis credunt, erubescant talia colere numina.
praetereo: to pass by
dissimulo: to hide, ignore
quod et in primo libro adtigi: In the first book Augustine touches (attango) the various subjects he would later on deal with in more detail.
colo colui cultum: to worship
reddo reddidi redditum: to return, pay back
periurium: false oath, perjury
mercennariis operibus: with works for money (Apollo and Neptune helped Laomedon with the building of the walls of Troy, but never got the promised reward.)
quippe: of course, naturally
merces mercedis (f.): salary
perhibetur: it is said, alleged
opificium: labour, hard work
nescientem quod Laomedon fuerat promissa negaturus: not knowing that Laomedon would deny the things promised.
Quamquam nec: although neither
patruus : uncle of fathers side
Nam hunc Homerus de stirpe Aeneae, a cuius posteris Roma est, cum ante illam urbem conditam idem poeta fuisse dicatur, inducit magnum aliquid diuinantem, quem etiam nube rapuit, ut dicit, ne ab Achille occideretur = Nam Homerus , cum…. dicatur, indicit hunc (Neptunum) magnum aliquid divinantem de stirpe Aeneae, a….est, quem (Aeneam) etiam nube rapuit (Neptunus), ut dicit (Homerus), ne ab Achille occidetur(Aeneas)
stirps –is (f.): trunk, offspring
divino: to prophesize
nubes nubes (f.): cloud
cuperet cum uertere ab imo, quod aput Vergilium confitetur, structa suis manibus periurae moenia Troiae; Augustine is quoting Aeneid 5 820-11: cuperem cum uertere ab imo / structa meis manibus periurae moenia Troiae: when I desired to destroy completely (ab imo) the walls of perjured Troy, which were built by my own hands.
structor -is (m.): builder
gratis et ingratis: for nothing and without thanks
videant: let them (i.e. those who think that the Roman gods have taken revenge) see. What Augustine is rhetorically asking is what is worse: to believe in such stupid gods or to swear falsely (peiero +dat.) them.
credunt: i.e. those who believe in the Roman gods
erubesco erubui: to redden, be ashamed of
Translation by Marcus Dods (1950):
First, then, why was Troy or Ilium, the cradle of the Roman people (for I must not overlook nor disguise what I touched upon in the first book ), conquered, taken and destroyed by the Greeks, though it esteemed and worshipped the same gods as they? Priam, some answer, paid the penalty of the perjury of his father Laomedon. Then it is true that Laomedon hired Apollo and Neptune as his workmen. For the story goes that he promised them wages, and then broke his bargain. I wonder that famous diviner Apollo toiled at so huge a work, and never suspected Laomedon was going to cheat him of his pay. And Neptune too, his uncle, brother of Jupiter, king of the sea, it really was not seemly that he should be ignorant of what was to happen. For he is introduced by Homer (who lived and wrote before the building of Rome) as predicting something great of the posterity of Æneas, who in fact founded Rome. And as Homer says, Nep tune also rescued Æneas in a cloud from the wrath of Achilles, though (according to Virgil )
All his will was to destroy
His own creation, perjured Troy.
Gods, then, so great as Apollo and Neptune, in ignorance of the cheat that was to defraud them of their wages, built the walls of Troy for nothing but thanks and thankless people. There may be some doubt whether it is not a worse crime to believe such persons to be gods, than to cheat such gods. Even Homer himself did not give full credence to the story for while he represents Neptune, indeed, as hostile to the Trojans, he introduces Apollo as their champion, though the story implies that both were offended by that fraud. If, therefore, they believe their fables, let them blush to worship such gods; if they discredit the fables, let no more be said of the "Trojan perjury;" or let them explain how the gods hated Trojan, but loved Roman perjury. For how did the conspiracy of Catiline, even in so large and corrupt a city, find so abundant a supply of men whose hands and tongues found them a living by perjury and civic broils? What else but perjury corrupted the judgments pronounced by so many of the senators? What else corrupted the people's votes and decisions of all causes tried before them? For it seems that the ancient practice of taking oaths has been preserved even in the midst of the greatest corruption, not for the sake of restraining wickedness by religious fear, but to complete the tale of crimes by adding that of perjury.
An illuminating introduction to De Civitate Dei by James O’Donnell:http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/jod/augustine/civ.html