City of God: Who’s guarding whom?

Augustine’s De civitate Dei was occasioned by pagans’ claiming that Christians had caused the downfall of Rome by leading the empire to abandon the old gods who had protected it (cf. CD 1.1). In response, Augustine hoists them on their own petard, namely, the Aeneid, the story of Rome’s origins in the downfall of Troy and of its founding. Why do the pagans think that the old gods had served to protect the polity, Augustine wonders? “Neque enim homines a simulacro, sed simulacrum ab hominibus servabatur. Quo modo ergo colebatur, ut patriam custodiret et cives, quae suos non valuit custodire custodes? Ecce qualibus diis Urbem Romani servandam se commisisse gaudebant! O nimium miserabilem errorem! … Itane istis penatibus victis Romam, ne vinceretur, prudenter commendare debuerunt?” (CD 1.2-3) (Roughly: it’s not the gods who guarded the men, but rather the men who guarded — or, in Troy’s case — failed to guard, the gods!) Pagan Romans had found shelter from the sack of 410 in Christian churches (CD 1.1), but Priam was slain at the altar of Minerva, and the Greeks Ulixes and Diomedes carried off Troy’s sacred images in their gore-drenched hands (CD 1.2). Rome was founded on the worship of conquered divinities (victos penates); why did the pagans think that things had changed in this order since then?

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