April 30, 2010

The Numan Option

Augustine's interest in Roman theology is largely to condemn: he has some fun at the expense of the Roman gods and their peccadillos and enjoys attacking the gods for abandoning Illium and going to Rome. Perhaps more interestingly, he asks a question about Numa, king after Romulus. Numa guarenteed peace for 40 years, as Augustine points out Rome only afterwards suffered peace for one year (after the first Punic War), all other years the gates of war remained open. So Augustine asked 'if so great a good was conferred upon Rome or Pompilius by the Gods, why did they not bestow it upon the Roman empire even at the times when Rome was most worthy of praise?' (III 9). This question is important- for it underlays Augustine's critique of Rome's entire project, furthermore a critique of all imperium and all nations.

Augustine mocks the military pretensions of the Romans, 'why must an empire be unquiet to be great' (III 10). Augustine knows the classical historians well enough to know that empire caused decline: he wonders about why an empire was neccessary, 'was so great an extension of empire worth the state of things that Virgil so deplored when he says 'Little by Little, there came a baser, paler age, bringing both the fury of war and the love of gain'' (III 10). Rome might argue it had expanded through the injustice of its enemies: but why then, Augustine asks, did not the classical gods protect their city against such insults. Here we have a question that no Roman believer in the old gods would have asked, Augustine committed to peace asks the question both because it is a way to undermine any providential guidance from the gods, and also because it is a serious question. If empire brought luxury, power brought luxury, then why seek either empire or power?

It is not an easy question to answer.