Augustine & the Fall of Rome:
How Satisfactory an Answer Did Augustine Give to Those Who Blamed the 'Christian Ages' for the Sack of the Eternal City?
Historical Pamphlets Series: No. 19
By Troy Southgate

THE FOLLOWING essay will seek to address Augustine’s refutation of the pagan analysis in five important stages. I shall begin by examining how Augustine accounts for the audacious claim that the Christian suppression of pagan sacrifice had been chiefly responsible for the sack of Rome. I will then study his approach towards those who believed that the pagan gods were somehow capable of providing Roman society with an abundance of happiness and contentment. Thirdly, I will deal with pagan claims that the gods were capable of protecting the city from material destruction, before going on to look at how Augustine accounted for the rise of the city itself. Finally, I will discuss Augustine’s reaction to the vast endurance of the Roman Empire and look at whether this phenomenon can be attributed to the virtue of its citizens.

To suggest that Rome had heavily discouraged all forms of pagan worship is an understatement. Peter Brown takes up the story: “For over a decade the bishops in Africa had provoked the destruction of the old ways. Public paganism had been suppressed: the great temples were closed; the statues broken up, often by Christian mobs; the proud inscriptions that had proclaimed the unshakeable alliance of the ancient cities and their protecting gods, had been used to pave the public highways.”[1] But whilst Augustine’s De Civitate Dei (‘The City of God’) is generally perceived to be one of the greatest theological works of all time - and rightly so - the analysis of paganism which occupies its first five sections was originally developed in four sermons which Augustine gave between 410 and 411. These invaluable sources contain the Bishop’s earlier attempts to combat the seething allegations of his pagan contemporaries on the one hand, and effectively allay the fears and doubts which had crept into the minds of his increasingly sceptical congregation on the other. Indeed, “Augustine had to deal with disillusioned Christians quite as much as with angry pagans”[2] and he begins by demolishing the pagan assertion that “Rome stood upright, Rome flourished. Now the sacrifice of your god has prevailed, it is offered in every place, and the sacrifices of our gods has been forbidden and proscribed. Look at the calamities Rome has suffered!”[3]. Although this statement is an example of how Augustine often sought to paraphrase his critics, it does represent the fundamental basis of the argument being propagated at that time by cynical fifth-century pagans. On the face of it, the fact that Christianity had inherited the city of Rome from its pagan rivals did seem to suggest that the city’s demise was due to the shortcomings of a government which had failed to obtain the benefits of supernatural patronage. But Augustine was unmoved by such a claim, knowing full well that Rome had fallen on two previous occasions when Christianity had not been the official State religion: “The first time it was destroyed by the Gauls, so that only the Capitoline hill remained. Afterwards by Nero . . . This city, which has just been burned down while Christians were offering their sacrifices everywhere, as they say, has already been reduced to ashes twice, when sacrifices were offered only to pagan deities . . .”[4] In De Civitate Dei Augustine develops this argument much further, even claiming that in comparison to other disasters the sack of Rome was relatively humane. Book I Chapters 4-6 note that when the pagan Greeks had annihilated their equally pagan cousins, no respect was shown towards the temples and sanctuaries of the latter whatsoever. Indeed, Alaric I - whose barbarian hordes were responsible for the catastrophe in a practical sense - was fairly honourable in his approach to Christianity and took pity upon those who took sanctuary in the basilicas of St. Peter and St. Paul, showing “mercy beyond the custom of war whether they so acted in general in honour of the name of Christ, or in places specially dedicated to Christ’s name, buildings of such size and capacity as to give mercy a wider range. For this clemency our detractors ought rather to give thanks to God; they should have recourse to His name in all sincerity”[5]. In other words, Augustine is suggesting that by sparing the lives of both Christians and pagans, God did not attempt to distinguish between the two. Indeed, “He does not choose whom to scourge or select whom to condemn; for He scourges the just and the unjust together”[6]. Whilst suffering Christians were being asked to accept that heavenly salvation can only come by way of earthly sacrifice, to surviving pagans this episode was designed to demonstrate the Christian forgiveness of an all-powerful deity. Indeed, God often seeks to punish his most devoted adherents because suffering and hardship are primarily designed to test the faith and commitment of their recipients. So whilst the Creator was clearly dividing the wheat from the chaff, Rome’s idolatrous inhabitants were presented with an opportunity to thank God for their good fortune and then go on to emulate their Christian brothers and sisters. As far as Augustine was concerned, the fact that a rabble of degenerate pagans (with an obvious penchant for the wiles of the immoral playwright) had been presented with a chance to redeem themselves was clear evidence that God is both fair and just. Augustine’s case is extremely well-argued and based on a series of incontrovertible facts. God did not fail to protect Rome, on the contrary, He enabled her citizens to discover within themselves the capacity for personal salvation. On the other hand, the fact that God is often prone to an intermittent bout of human purification should not allow Christians to attribute any great significance to the sack of Rome itself. In fact Augustine had already used his sermons in order to demonstrate why the event should be perceived as a simple test, rather than a cataclysmic landmark in the history of the world. The Bishop had dismissed the fall of Rome and further sought to diminish its importance by referring to the Book of Job, a man whose suffering was decidedly more excessive than that experienced by the comparatively fortunate citizens of Rome. In his own words: “I think it would be far more preferable to have the sword bite into one’s flesh than maggots, more bearable to see blood spurting from one’s wounds, than pus oozing from sores.”[7] So whilst the denizens of paganism sought to interpret the calamity as being directly attributable to an inadequate Christian god, Augustine replied by effectively reducing the whole importance of Alaric’s campaign and seeking to portray God in an ever greater capacity; a capacity, of course, which redefine His actions as being in the best interests of mankind, thus consolidating Christianity’s vast superiority over its idolatrous rivals. Rome’s fate is portrayed as divine justice and those who died must be envied, for death represents the liberation of the soul from its state of earthly bondage. In other words, although the sack of Rome may appear very harsh, in terms of the implications it has for the Christian afterlife it was both necessary and just.

Another bone of contention which Augustine is inevitably forced to deal with, surrounds the question of whether the pagan gods possessed the ability to provide for the material well-being of Rome’s inhabitants. In De Civitate Dei, the Bishop refutes this allegation by making reference to the failure of such idols to defend their worshippers from the multifarious ills and “disasters which overwhelmed the Roman State before Christ’s incarnation”[8]. In fact the Romans had often created gods with which to flatter themselves, or to justify their own actions. But whilst Augustine’s portrayal of paganism is enough to convince the average Christian reader, pagans obviously lacked the gift of faith which is so vital if one is to fully appreciate Augustine’s evaluation of idolatry in Book II. He argues that pagan gods did not significantly prevent men and women from becoming corrupted by what he saw as the depraved nature of their superstitious rites. This may or may not be true, but as far as the average pagan is concerned Augustine’s analysis has been fashioned from a theological substance far different to that which has shaped his own religious understanding. In other words, Augustine can convince the Christian because he is basically preaching to the converted, but a pagan has a set of very different values and cannot, for example, understand why theatrical displays of pagan worship are so offensive when they are sanctioned by a pantheon of spirits who obviously have very little time for the moralising rhetoric of their Christian adversaries. But Augustine is aware that most Romans - whether pagan or Christian - have the ability to distinguish between right and wrong, truth and falsehood. Augustine’s analysis, therefore, is a direct appeal to the pagan conscience. After all, Cicero - one of the noble pagans whose work had so inspired Augustine in his earlier life - had formulated a concept of Natural Law which was not too far removed from its Christian equivalent. Pagans were conveniently ignoring their own philosophical roots. Many aspects of pagan worship, therefore, were fundamentally humanistic and undoubtedly alien to what Christians perceived as being the standard form of human behaviour, and Augustine could rely upon his more astute readers to question whether the licentiousness and immorality of Roman life could truly be attributed to the stability of Rome itself. If the citizens of Rome had angered the supernatural powers-that-be, it was far more likely that Alaric had been the instrument of a god who was unprepared to tolerate the continuing process of degeneration which was being mainly propagated by the city’s pagan element. This argument is intelligently linked to that previously covered in Book I, in which Augustine portrays the Almighty as an all-merciful Being capable of giving His humble creatures one final chance to redeem themselves.

The third aspect of Augustine’s masterpiece of Christian apologetics deals with the question of whether pagan gods have the ability to prevent cities from being destroyed. Pagans saw the universe as being eternal. Decline therefore, was perceived as purely temporary and thus representative of a low point in an on-going cycle. Birth and death are followed by rebirth; a purifying process determined by Fate and Providence. This idea stems from pagan philosophy and Virgil’s Aenaid, for example, speaks of an empire without limits. Thus, the decline of Rome had led pagans to believe that their gods had deserted them for allowing Christianity to suppress the ways of their forefathers. Christians, on the other hand, believe that the world is part of a continuing thread which has its origins in the Creation. In the ancient world disaster was often perceived from a decidedly millenarian perspective, with many Christians constantly striving to predict the end of the world in accordance with the Book of Revelations. Both religions, therefore, were prone to interpret the sack of Rome as a form of divine retribution. The problem was, however, whose god was punishing who and why? Augustine deliberately sought to familiarise himself with the very roots of paganism: “He went back to the sources of their antiquarianism, and primarily to Varro, in order to undermine the foundations of their work.”[9] In Book III, Augustine employs pagan history as a means of undermining the capabilities of its chief idols. He demonstrates the reluctance of the gods to intervene in human warfare; their inability to punish and chastise in a consistent manner; and their failure to bring a satisfactory conclusion to the political and military intrigue which had so badly affected the early, pre-Christian Republic. According to Augustine, pagans had no right to blame Christianity for Alaric’s invasion when their own governmental regimes had been well versed in the fine art of corruption before Christ was even a twinkle in the carpenter’s eye. Augustine clearly has little difficulty in undermining the highly-inaccurate pronouncements of his critics, for to claim that pagan gods had defended Roman interest far better than Christianity was an argument that was always going to be constructed upon sand. But if paganism was so ineffective, why had God allowed the early pagans to found the city of Rome in the first place? This brings us on to the fourth facet of the Augustinian defence of the faith.

Book IV concerns the issue of whether a god (or gods) had any influence upon the rise and fall of cities and empires. Augustine notes that most cities are forged upon the anvils of war and bloodshed, and that it is impossible to determine the will of God in such matters. Something of which Augustine is certain, however, is that by attributing certain earthly objects to the control of individual gods, pagans cannot seriously credit them with the formation of the Roman Empire. Indeed, as Augustine himself explains: “When could Segetia have looked after the Empire, seeing that she was not allowed the simultaneous charge of crops and trees? How could Cunina have even given a thought to arms, when her authority was not permitted to range beyond cradles? How could Nodutus help in war, when his interest was confined to the stalk and did not even extend to the follicle?”[10] At this point, one could argue, perhaps, that the pagan gods must have pooled their resources in order to launch a highly-organised and systematically co-ordinated effort to secure the growth of the Empire. However, Augustine destroys this myth by explaining that pagans constantly “try to find ways to botch together their fables, but without success.”[11] Quite. Taken as a whole, the pantheon of pagan gods represents a vast mish-mash of contradictory elements claiming to exert their providential authority over various parts of the universe. In reality, they are anything but harmonious. Augustine’s own view is that although Rome was initiated by pagans, this was simply part of the mysterious fabric of God’s own plan for the world at large. Although it is futile for us to try to fathom the divine reasoning behind every event in human history, it logically follows, therefore, that if pagans were able to lay the foundations for what was poised to become the greatest Empire the world had ever seen, then God Himself must have willed it. But in order to satisfy the natural curiosity of those Christians who continued to question why the Creator would assist a race of godless heathens, Augustine gave the following reply: “The reason why God gives worldly dominions both to the good and the evil is this: to prevent any of His worshippers who are still infants in respect of moral progress from yearning for such gifts from Him as if they were of any importance.”[12] On the other hand, R.H. Barrow has pointed out that “Whereas the pagans asserted that Roman character had made Roman history and Roman character was bound up with ancient religion, St. Augustine admired much of Roman history, admired much of roman character, but denied the necessary association of either with ancient religion.”[13] In fact Augustine’s main argument concentrates solely upon God’s unique ability to determine world events precisely as he sees fit. Once again, the Bishop had effectively eradicated the seemingly impenetrable edifice of the pagan hypothesis.

The final part of Augustine’s literary defence of Christendom relates to the actual duration of the Roman Empire. By this time the aforementioned sections of De Civitate Dei had made it perfectly clear that nothing earthly can be sanctioned without God’s own approval. If God had allowed the pagans to construct the Empire in the first place, then surely its great stamina can be attributed to the same source? Mere ‘chance’ and ‘destiny’ are here repudiated, as are the other superstitious tenets of pagan astrology. Although mankind has the ability to rely upon free will - sometimes with often devastating consequences - it is God who actually formulates the hidden and mysterious pattern of history. Similarly, whilst the Romans constructed their beloved city with the blessing of Almighty God, such an achievement was due to the fact that it was partly inspired by an ambitious pursuit of glory and material wealth. However, Augustine does rightly concede that whilst some Romans were undoubtedly motivated by a yearning to dominate others, there is a vital distinction to be made here in that man’s desire to achieve personal glory and recognition can lead to a form of virtue and self-discipline in itself. In fact the noble deeds of the city’s founding pagans put many of its Christian heirs to shame. God, on the other hand, continues to dominate events as the chief source of all power. This fact is further clarified by Augustine’s references to the ‘happiness’ of a Christian Emperor; a state of felicity which relates not to the attainment of worldly goods or simple prosperity, but to the desire for eternal happiness in the afterlife. Herein lies the fundamental difference between the pagan Emperor who accumulates wealth for the sake of glory and notoriety, and the Christian Emperor who seeks his reward in heaven. Augustine admits, that Constantine was an exception. Indeed, he was allowed to receive material benefits simply because it was a necessary part of the Roman State’s transition from paganism to Christianity and inspired future emperors to do likewise, although “no emperor should become a Christian in order to earn the good fortune of Constantine”[14]. The final part of Augustine’s argument may appear rather duplicitous, but it is obviously intended to show that the demise of pagan rule was rewarded in both material and spiritual terms. Perhaps those readers who, through lack of faith, were left uninspired by Augustine’s devastating theological suppositions, could identify with an Emperor who was rewarded in a way the average pagan could understand and appreciate? If this was Augustine’s intention, then he may have been even more perceptive than many of us imagine.

By way of conclusion, Augustine’s reply to those who sought to blame the ‘Christian Ages’ for the invasion of Alaric and the Goths was more than satisfactory: it literally obliterated the very core of pagan belief. Peter Brown attributes the Bishop’s great success to an inherent ability to “employ to the full the approach of a true radical faced with the myths of conservatism - he will indulge in the great pleasure of calling a spade a spade”[15]. In many ways, the sack of Rome had presented Augustine with an opportunity to demolish paganism once and for all. When Augustine died in 430 - just four years after completing De Civitate Dei - there seemed little doubt that God had played a vital role in the life of the man who never understated the power of his beloved Creator. According to one source, the work “is not a ‘tract for the times’, it is the careful and premeditated working out by an old man, of a mounting obsession.”[16] But most of all, perhaps, De Civitate Dei is important for the hope it generated in the desperate citizens of Hippo who, like the Romans before them, were confused by the imminent destruction of their city and soon to be overrun by a horde of barbarians.