Augustine’s The City of God, its title deriving from Psalms, as in 46:4 and 87:3, depicts a Christian world order guided by God’s providence, as presented in the Bible. The Visigoth sacking of Rome on August 24, 410, one of the increasing number of attacks upon the Roman Empire, prompted many citizens, Christian and pagan, to account for these events. Augustine, now bishop of Hippo, was asked to explain. While the Roman Empire worshiped pagan gods, the empire grew to dominate the world; now, almost one hundred years after Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion in 312, the empire is failing.
In books 1 through 9, Augustine examines Roman polytheism. He indicates, for example, that Rome had suffered defeats long before the Christian era and had endured catastrophe. Pagan deities provided no protection then, even though Rome was believed to be partners with these gods. At one time, Romans demonstrated great human virtues, and God’s providence allowed Rome to prosper, but its reward extended to the earthly realm and is subject to change. Moreover, Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire resulted in declining moral standards and few checks upon its government. Emperors, assuming sacred status, undertook any manner of activity; even a Christian emperor could not dedicate the empire to Christ. That Rome attained an empire beyond its control resulted more from continual warfare and the quest for glory and renown than it did from the effort to improve the lives of its citizens. In addition, pagan deities, having their own areas of responsibility, could bring no stability or lasting happiness; they could only provide gratifications of the moment, empty gestures toward the unknown. Some of these pagan deities included local gods from the nations Rome had conquered, and the resulting mix of deities defied each others’ morality and rationality.
Augustine explains that pagan deities, evil spirits, fallen angels, or mere glorified humans represented an attempt to imitate God. The once-official paganism of imperial Rome signified dangers. Roman emperors, along with their subjects, wanted flattery and comfort, not facts. As a whole, Romans did not understand that the coming of Christ marked the purpose toward which all creation draws. The Roman Empire could be a means of God calling all people—-Romans, as well as Hebrews, Greeks, and barbarians—to Christ, whose kingdom, not of this world, demanded prior...
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