July 22, 2010

The uses of Rome

So why had God created the Roman Empire? Augustine did not believe that providence was ever purposeless. History was directed and intended from on high. Individuals on earth might act without instruction, God's will might not be obeyed, but in the end his design would be. The history of Rome was, Augustine acknowledged, a history of suffering and courage. He remarks on Brutus who slew his own sons for the state (V 18), Scaevola, Curtius and the Decii (who flung themselves into battle to save their army) and several other praiseworthy Romans (V 15). He suggests that these men were indeed 'heroes' (V 15). They fought of course for the things of this world. As Augustine argues 'they sought a Kingdom not in heaven but upon earth; not in the realm of life eternal but in the realm where the dead pass away and are succeeded by the dying' (V 17). This contrast between the lustre of their deeds and the dismal object is one that Augustine develops all the way through this passage. There is no sense for Augustine that the greatest of the Roman heroes is to be compared to the least of the Christian saints.

Save that is in one particular. The example of what the Romans were prepared to do for so meagre an object is used by Augustine to argue that the Christians should be prepared to do more. This is both used as an admonition: 'How is it any great thing then to despise all the blandishments of this world, however sweet, for the sake of that heavenly fatherland, when, for the sake of this temporal and earthly one, Brutus was able to kill even his own sons'. (V 18) As Augustine notes, Christians are not asked to slay their own sons, merely to 'regard Christ's poor as their sons' (V 18). He argues that if the Romans were able to disdain Camillus who defeated the Gauls, the Christians should likewise hold it no real feat for a controversialist to defeat the pagans. (V 18). The example of Mucius who put his hand into the flame to show Porsenna that all Romans would suffer that much for their city, is used to remind Christians that martyrdom was performed for lesser causes (V 18). Augustine uses the heroes of Rome to remind Christians that 'they are not on this account to puff themselves up with boasting? For they do this in order to obtain a place in the company of angels whereas those others, the Romans, though they did the same thing, did only so to preserve their own glory'. (V 18)

This point is crucial. What Augustine is trying to do is two things. Firstly he is trying to maintain the taint upon Roman history. Roman history was a history of glory motivated by vice. Secondly because he believes that and feels he has persuaded a Christian audience of that, he also feels that he can use it. He can use it to remind Christians that their actions are not so dissimilar from those who only intended viciousness. The deeds of the Romans deflate the deeds of the Christians. The only and key difference between the two groups becomes the faith of the Christians- sola fides indeed will in this passage justify the christian saint.


James Higham said...

So why had God created the Roman Empire?

He didn't - the other fella did.

Gracchi said...

James Augustine believed only God could intervene into history to that extent and that he would turn Satan's inventions against Satan through his providence.