skip to Main Content

Rome and Christianity

Rome And Christianity

St. Augustine and Varro’s Civil Theology

It is curious that both Saint Ambrose and Saint Augustine, while bitterly engaged in the struggle for existential representation of Christianity, should have been almost completely blind to the nature of the issue [that the Romans had their own theology, though it was more compact.]. Nothing seemed to be at stake but the truth of Christianity versus the untruth of paganism. This does not mean that they were quite unaware of the existential issue involved; on the contrary, the Civitas Dei has its peculiar fascination because Saint Augustine, while obviously not understanding the existential problem of paganism, was rather worried that something eluded him.

His attitude toward Varro’s civil theology resembled that of an enlightened intellectual toward Christianity—he simply could not understand that an intelligent person would seriously maintain such nonsense. He escaped from his difficulty by assuming that Varro, the Stoic philosopher, could not have believed in the Roman divinities but that, under cover of a respectful account, he wanted to expose them to ridicule.

It will be necessary to hear Varro himself, as well as his friend Cicero, in order to find the point that eluded Saint Augustine. The elusive point was reported by Saint Augustine himself with great care; it obviously disconcerted him. Varro, in his Antiquities, had treated first of “human things” and then only of the “divine things” of Rome. First, the city must exist; then it can proceed to institute its cults. “As the painter is prior to the painting, and the architect prior to the building, so are the cities prior to the institutions of the cities.”

This Varronic conception that the gods were instituted by political society aroused the incomprehending irritation of Saint Augustine. On the contrary, he insisted, “true religion is not instituted by some terrestrial city,” but the true God, the inspirator of true religion, “has instituted the celestial city.” Varro’s attitude seemed particularly reprehensible because the things human to which he gave priority were not even universally human but just Roman.

Moreover, Saint Augustine suspected him of deception because Varro admitted that he would have put the things divine first if he had intended to treat of the nature of the gods exhaustively; and because he, furthermore, suggested that in matters of religion much is true that the people ought not to know and much false that the people ought not to suspect.

What Saint Augustine could not understand was the compactness of Roman experience, the inseparable community of gods and men in the historically concrete civitas, the simultaneousness of human and divine institution of a social order. For him the order of human existence had already separated into the civitas terrena of profane history and the civitas coelestis of divine institution. Nor was the understanding facilitated by the apparently somewhat primitive formulations of the encyclopedist Varro . . . .

Cicero’s Idea of Religion

The more supple Cicero voiced the same convictions as his friend [Varro] with more conceptual refinement through the figures of his De natura deorum, especially through the princeps civis and pontifex Cotta. In the debate about the existence of the gods there stand against each other the opinions of the philosopher and of the Roman social leader. Subtly Cicero suggests the different sources of authority when he opposes the princeps philosophiae Socrates to the princeps civis Cotta; the auctoritas philosophi clashes with the auctoritas majorum.

The dignitary of the Roman cult is not inclined to doubt the immortal gods and their worship whatever anybody may say. In matters of religion he will follow the pontiffs who preceded him in the office and no Greek philosophers. The auspices of Romulus and the rites of Numa laid the foundations of the state that never could have achieved its greatness without the ritual conciliation of the immortals in its favor.

He accepts the gods on the authority of the forebears, but he is willing to listen to the opinion of others; and not, without irony he invites Balbus to give the reasons, rationem, for his religious beliefs that as a philosopher he ought to have, while he the pontiff is compelled to believe the forebears without reason.

The Varronic and Ciceronian expositions are precious documents for the theorist. The Roman thinkers live firmly in their political myth but at the same time have been made aware of the fact through contact with Greek philosophy; the contact has not affected the solidity of their sentiments but only equipped them with the means of elucidating their position.

The End of Archaic Social Order

The conventional treatment of Cicero is apt to overlook that in his work something considerably more interesting is to be found than a variant of Stoicism–something that no Greek source can give us, that is, the archaic experience of social order before its dissolution through the experience of the mystic philosophers.

In the Greek sources this archaic stratum never can really be touched, because the earliest literary documents, the poems of Homer and Hesiod, are already magnificently free reorganizations of mythical material–in the case of Hesiod even with the conscious opposition of a truth found by him as an individual to the lie, the pseudos, of the older myth. It was perhaps the unsettlement in the wake of the Doric invasion that broke the compactness of Greek social existence so much earlier, a type of shock that never disturbed Rome.

Anyway, Rome was an archaic survival in the Hellenistic civilization of the Mediterranean and still more so with its advancing Christianization; one might compare the situation with the role of Japan in a civilizational environment that is dominated by Western ideas.

Philosophy as “Foreign Learning” in Rome

Romans like Cicero understood the problem quite well. In his De re publica, for instance, he deliberately opposed the Roman style of dealing with matters of political order to the Greek style. In the debate about the best political order ( status civitatis ), again a princeps civis, Scipio, takes his stand against Socrates.

Scipio refuses to discuss the best order in the manner of the Platonic Socrates; he will not build up a “fictitious” order before his audience but will rather give an account of the origins of Rome. The order of Rome is superior to any other–this dogma is heavily put down as the condition of debate. The discussion itself may freely range through all topics of Greek learning, but this learning will have meaning only in so far as it can be brought usefully to bear on problems of Roman order.

The highest rank, to be sure, is held by the man who can add the “foreign learning” to his ancestral customs; but if a choice must be made between the two ways of life, the vita civilis of the statesman is preferable to the vita quieta of the sage. The thinker who can speak of philosophy as a “foreign learning,” to be respected but nevertheless to be considered as a spice that will add perfection to superiority, has, one may safely say, understood neither the nature of the spiritual revolution that found its expression in philosophy nor the nature of its universal claim upon man.

The peculiar way in which Cicero mixes his respect for Greek philosophy with amused contempt indicates that the truth of theory, while sensed as an enlargement of the intellectual and moral horizon, could have no existential meaning for a Roman.

The Myth of Rome Loses is Ordering Force

Rome was the Rome of its gods into every detail of daily routine; to participate experientially in the spiritual revolution of philosophy would have implied the recognition that the Rome of the ancestors was finished and that a new order was in the making into which the Romans would have to merge–as the Greeks had to merge, whether they liked it or not, into the imperial constructions of Alexander and the Diadochi and finally of Rome.

The Rome of the generation of Cicero and Caesar was simply not so far gone as was the Athens of the fourth century B.C. that engendered Plato and Aristotle. The Roman substance preserved its strength well into the empire, and it really petered out only in the troubles of the third century A.D.

Only then had come the time for Rome to merge into the empire of its own making; and only then did the struggle among the various types of alternative truth, among philosophies, oriental cults, and Christianity, enter into the crucial phase where the existential representative, the emperor, had to decide which transcendental truth he would represent now that the myth of Rome had lost its ordering force.

For a Cicero such problems did not exist, and when he encountered them in his “foreign learning” he emasculated the inexorable threat: The Stoic idea that every man had two countries, the polis of his birth and the cosmopolis, he transformed deftly into the idea that every man had indeed two fatherlands, the countryside of his birth, for Cicero his Arpinum, and Rome. The cosmopolis of the philosophers was realized in historical existence; it was the imperium Romanum.

Rome, Syncretism, and Summodeism

The patrocinial [system of patrons and clients superimposing their rule on the Roman Republican system had expanded into the imperial principate and] was the institution that made the new ruler the existential representative for the vast agglomeration of conquered territories and peoples. Obviously, the instrument was brittle. Its effectiveness depended on the experience of the patrocinial relation as a sacramental bond in the Roman sense.

The new Augustus saw the problem; and his legislation for moral and religious reform must be understood, at least in part, as the attempt of reinforcing sacramental sentiments that had been waning even among the Romans at the time of Varro’s Antiquities. In face of the vast oriental population the task was hopeless, especially since the Easterners streamed into Rome in ever increasing numbers and were clinging to their non-Roman cults in spite of all prohibitions; and the task became still more hopeless when the emperors themselves ceased to be Romans, when the Julian dynasty was followed by the provincial Flavians, by the Spaniards, the Syrians, and the Illyrians.

The remedy for the sacramental deficiency in the position of the emperor was found only gradually, on a tortuous path of experimentation and failure. The divinization of the emperor, following the model of Hellenistic kingship, proved insufficient. It also had to be determined which divine power he represented among the mass of cult divinities in the empire. Under the pressure of this problem the religious culture of the Roman Mediterranean underwent a process that usually is called syncretism, or theokrasia, mixture of the gods.

The evolution is not singular; it is in substance the same process that the Near Eastern empires had undergone at an earlier time, the process of reinterpreting the multitude of local cult divinities in the politically unified area as the aspects of one highest god who then became the empire-god.

Failed Experiments to Create an Empire God

Under the peculiar conditions of the civilizationally mixed Roman area, experimentation with such a highest god was not easy. On the one hand, the god could not be a conceptual abstraction but had to have an intelligible relationship to one or more concretely experienced gods who were known as high; on the other hand, if the relationship to a concretely existing god became too close, his value as a god above all known special gods was in danger.

The attempt of Elagabalus (218-222) to introduce the Baal of Emesa as the highest god to Rome miscarried. A circumcised Caesar who married a Vestal virgin in order to symbolize the union between Baal and Tanit proved too much of a strain on the Roman tradition. He was murdered by his praetorian guards.

The Illyrian Aurelian (270-275) tried with better success when he declared a sufficiently nondescript sun god, the Sol Invictus, as the highest god of the empire and himself as his descendant and representative. With some variation under Diocletian (284-305) the system lasted until A.D. 313.

A Universal Prayer That is Not Quite Christian

The fact that the empire cult was a subject of experimentation should not deceive us, however, about the religious seriousness with which these experiments were undertaken. Spiritually the late Roman summodeism had approached closely enough to Christianity to make conversion almost a slight transition.

There is extant the prayer of Licinius before his battle against Maximinus Daza in 313. An angel appeared to Licinius in the night and assured him of victory if he and the army would pray it:

Highest God, we pray to thee,
Holy God, we pray to thee.
All justice we command to thee,
Our weal we command to thee,
Our realm we command to thee.
By thee we live, by thee we are victorious and successful.
Highest, Holy God, hear our prayers.
We raise our arms to thee,
Hear us, oh Holy, Highest God.

Story and prayer are reported by Lactantius, with the understanding that the victory was due to a conversion similar to Constantine’s in the year before.

The Christianity of Licinius is at least doubtful in view of his anti-Christian policy in subsequent years, but the prayer, which could as well have been prayed by his pagan opponent Maximinus, appeared as a confession of Christianity to Lactantius.

Toleration and the Edict of Galerius

The precise meaning of the surprising turn of events that in 311-313 gave freedom to Christianity is still a matter of debate. It seems, however, that the recent interpretation by the Dutch theologian Hendrik Berkhof has cleared up the mysterious affair as far as the sources allow.

The persistence and survival of the Christians under violent persecutions apparently convinced the regents Galerius, Licinius, and Constantinus that the Christian God was powerful enough to protect his followers in adversity; that he was a reality that should be treated with caution. The Edict of Galerius, of 311, explained that as a consequence of the persecutions the Christians neither fulfilled their cult obligations to the official gods nor worshiped their own God in proper form.

This observation apparently motivated the sudden change of policy. If the powerful God of the Christians were not worshiped by his own adherents, he might take his revenge and add to the troubles of the rulers who prevented his worship. It was the good, solid Roman do-ut-des principle.

In return for their new freedom the edict ordered the Christians to pray for the emperor, the public weal, and their own. This was no conversion to Christianity but rather an inclusion of the Christian God into the imperial system of divinity.

The Edict of Licinius, of 313, stated that the former anti-Christian policy had been revised “so that all that is of divinitas in the celestial habitat be propitious to us and all who are under our rule.” The curious term divinitas was reconcilable with official polytheism and the recognition of the Summus Deus of the empire religion, and at the same time it sounded monotheistic enough to make Christians happy.

The suspense of meaning was probably intended–one feels in it the deft hand of the Constantine, who later, in the christological debate, insisted on the sublimely meaningless homo-ousios.

Celsus Discerns the Implications of Christianity

The problems of imperial theology, however, could not be solved by a linguistic compromise. The Christians were persecuted for a good reason; there was a revolutionary substance in Christianity that made it incompatible with paganism. The new alliance was bound to increase the social effectiveness of this revolutionary substance.

What made Christianity so dangerous was its uncompromising, radical de-divinization of the world. The problem had been formulated perhaps most clearly by Celsus in his True Discourse, of ca. A.D. 180, the most competent pagan critique of Christianity. The Christians, he complained, reject polytheism with the argument that one cannot serve two masters. This was for Celsus the “language of sedition ( stasis ).”

The rule, he admitted, holds true among men; but nothing can be taken from God when we serve his divinity in the many manifestations of his kingdom. On the contrary, we honor and please the Most High when we honor many of those who belong to him while singling out one God and honoring him alone introduces factiousness into the divine kingdom. That part will be taken only by men who stand aloof from human society and transfer their own isolating passions to God.

The Christians, thus, are factionals in religion and metaphysics, a sedition against the divinity that harmoniously animates the whole world in all its subdivisions. And since the various quarters of the earth were from the beginning allotted to various ruling spirits and superintending principalities, the religious sedition is at the same time a political revolt. Who wishes to destroy the national cult wants to destroy the national cultures.

And since they all have found their place in the empire, an attack on the cults by radical monotheists is an attack on the construction of the imperium Romanum. Not that it were not desirable, even in the opinion of Celsus, if Asiatics, Europeans and Libyans, Hellenes and barbarians, would agree in one nomos, but, he adds contemptuously, “anyone who thinks this possible knows nothing.”

The answer of Origen in his Contra Celsum was that it not only was possible but that it surely would come to pass. Celsus, one may say, discerned the implications of Christianity even more clearly than Cicero the implications of Greek philosophy. He understood the existential problem of polytheism; and he knew that the Christian de-divinization of the world spelled the end of a civilizational epoch and would radically transform the ethnic cultures of the age.


This excerpt is from Modernity Without Restraint: The Political Religion, The New Science of Politics, and Science, Politics, and Gnosticism (Collected Works 5) (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2004).

Eric VoegelinEric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin (1901-85) was a German-born American Political Philosopher. He was born in Cologne and educated in Political Science at the University of Vienna, at which he became Associate Professor of Political Science. In 1938 he and his wife fled from the Nazi forces which had entered Vienna and emigrated to the United States, where they became citizens in 1944. He spent most of his academic career at the University of Notre Dame, Louisiana State University, the University of Munich and the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. More information about him can be found under the Eric Voegelin tab on this website.

Back To Top