The Decline of an Empire
The fall of Rome has fascinated scholars for generations, as the collapse of such an expansive and great civilization is veiled in such mystery that none have determined a singular cause. Many scholars, such as Edward Gibbons, preferred to take the opinion that Christianity was to blame for the collapse of Rome, as Rome had successfully performed without it. However, blaming Christianity for the long collapse of Rome was misplaced, as Christianity had not even formed when many of these issues rose in Roman culture. Moral decay and the ever-growing problem of the pagan civil religion were pushing Rome towards collapse long before the introduction of Christianity into Roman society. St. Augustine, in his extensive defense of Christianity, cites Roman history, the long decline of Roman morality, and the faults of the Roman civil religion in order to prove that Christianity was not to blame for the weakening of Rome and its imminent collapse.
When Rome was sacked, the world felt the impact of this moment, as it appeared to many that civilization itself was collapsing. In such a catastrophic situation, many pagans and non-Christians made Christianity the scapegoat, saying that it was to blame as it had weakened the Roman Empire with its values and virtues. What many of these people failed to recall was that in fact, Rome had faced hardships and conflicts like these long before the advent of Christianity. Augustine points to Roman history, saying that if Christianity was to blame, Rome would have had no previous problems or injustices; however, it is evident that Rome had many faults before its incorporation into Christianity.
Augustine starts with the origins of the Roman Republic and the introduction of its kings. According to Roman tradition, the founders of Rome were the brothers Romulus and Remus. Romulus killed his brother Remus and took control of the small area. Under his rule, he created the Senate, as a place to reelect kings once the reigning king passed away. Roman society under Romulus, even according to the legends, was unjust as they kidnapped neighboring women and eventually, Romulus was killed by senators. The kings ruled Rome until the son of King Tarquin ravished a woman by the name of Lucretia, who, after telling her kinsmen and husband about the encounter, committed suicide as a way to escape her indignity. After her suicide, her husband Collatinus helped to drive out the kings and establish the consulship, which was the co-leadership of two men who had short periods of service due to their hatred of monarchy. Even after the advent of the Roman Republic, the conflicts in Rome did not stop, as they were in almost a constant state of war for the five hundred years of the Republic. Although Rome itself was not sacked, the Republic as a whole experienced foreign invasions during the Punic Wars, as well as near constant civil war near the end of the Republic. This constant state of conflict, as well as the rise of the Roman Empire, showed that in fact Rome had faced hardships before the advent of Christianity and had succeeded in time, but even a close examination of their history did not stop the pagans from blaming Christianity for the downfall of Rome.
Augustine realized that an examination of Rome’s history was not enough to argue against the pagans, as they would raise new arguments saying that Christian values had destroyed Roman morality, therefore causing the moral collapse of the Empire. Here Augustine made some of his stronger points, as he argued that the Roman Empire had been in a state of moral decay for generations. Even though traditional Roman ideals were not bad and arguably quite good, the state of things during his lifetime had been perverted to such an extent that these ideals were unrecognizable in the contemporary society.
With morality, Augustine started at the beginning of the foundation of Rome. Augustine argued, the Roman Republic and therefore the Empire were founded on the action of fratricide, a horribly unjust and unforgivable crime that went ultimately unnoticed by those who knew Roman history. As this society was formed on such an unjust act, it would be hard or even near impossible for the society to become just with such an unjust foundation. Even in the so-called golden years of the monarchy, there were wars, kidnappings of neighboring women, and even the ravishing of women. Pagans argued that the monarchial years were unjust and it was with the Republic that true morality took hold in society. However, the Republic was also born out of an unjust, sinful act: the suicide of Lucretia. Therefore, even the Republic could not escape this fallen morality. Indeed, the Romans had virtues and values that they held dear and yes, these virtues are to be appreciated, but many did not live by these virtues and instead perverted them into something they were not. They turned their restraint into imperialism, their moderation into greed, and their reverence into pride.
This moral decay can be blamed on numerous sources, including their religion. Roman religion was a pagan, civil religion in which the people would come together to worship the gods through festivals, parades, or other ritualistic acts; however, many of these acts of worship were highly immoral, such as the plays done for the honor of the gods or the positions in which people would put themselves before the gods. The descriptions and depictions of the gods in these ceremonies or plays were almost slanderous, as they would depict the gods in such acts committing adultery and fighting with each other. In a sense, this form of worship, especially through the plays, showed men that such acts were alright as the gods themselves participated in them. Even the Romans themselves seemed to think something was wrong with this worship, as the actors themselves could not even hold office and the slander of men was not allowed within these plays, even though the slander of gods was allowed. This constant state of moral decay culminated in the world that Augustine lived in, a world where the prosperity of Rome had made people greedy and apathetic to their country.
As many would not acknowledge the constant decline, Augustine took one last final measure to dissuade the Roman pagans of their claims against Christianity: he completely destroyed the idea of paganism and the need of so many gods in society. As a monotheist, Augustine could not understand why they needed so many gods to do such mundane tasks. Romans would have a god of the door, the door frame, and the doorknob, each only with the power to perform their individual task. In other words, Augustine showed the weakness and absurdity of the numerous gods that the pagans so highly worshiped.
The Romans religion had a deep connection with the Roman culture, as it was mostly a civil religion in which people were bonded together as fellow Romans. They held the belief that Jupiter was the king of the gods and that the rest of the gods had their own sphere of influence within his jurisdiction. However, one look into the Roman mythology and Jupiter’s jurisdiction over the other gods was weak or even nonexistent, as the gods would fight each other and would even rebel against Jupiter himself. If Jupiter was so powerful, why did he allow these acts of rebellion and infighting to go on? Augustine argues that it was because he actually held no power over any other gods, as they were all powerless anyways. Augustine’s strongest point came with his extensive discussion about the multiple gods that were used for incredibly mundane purposes. He cited the gods Forculus, the god who guarded doors; Cardea, who guarded the hinges; and Limentius, who guarded the threshold. Therefore, none of these gods could protect both the threshold and the hinges at the same time, but such an act can be undertaken by a man easily. Even many of the notable Roman intellectuals knew the foolishness of the religion but refused to acknowledge it so to not disrupt the status quo. The Roman gods could only promise temporal delights rather than the ethereal delights that philosophy and Christianity had to offer.
As the Roman gods were so powerless, they could not be attributed to the success of the Roman Empire. In fact, Augustine argued that God himself was responsible for the great expansion and prosperity of Rome. As previously stated, the original Roman ideals, although not as complete as Christian ideals, were not bad and incorporated many of the same virtues that Christians held dear. It was because of this slight similarity in virtue that God chose Rome to be the successor in the Mediterranean after the fall of Greece and Persia. Augustine rightly argued that Rome would not have been able to succeed in its dominion without the consent of the true God, as one cannot oppose the will of God as he knows and wills all things. Therefore, Rome should have thanked God for their prosperity and not their false gods, as those had just brought them misery and discontent.
Augustine matched the pagans at every turn, countering their positions, destroying the concept and need of paganism. Although his arguments were incredibly thought out and detailed, there are those who were stubborn and stuck to their ways, choosing ignorance over truth and felicity. However, as the years went on and Rome grew weaker and weaker, many still clutched to their traditions of paganism, continuing to blame Christianity until their dying breath. This trend was revived in the Enlightenment during the so-called “age of reason” and has never truly gone away. Many take the Edward Gibbons approach in terms of history, especially Roman history, and refuse to take into considerations the contemporary writings of the time, such as The City of God, and instead enjoy riding on their anti-Christian superiority.