Properties of Blood, Chapter I, Part G: Rome, Urbs Aeterna

In addressing himself to the Jews (and the stray Gentiles who may have been in the crowd), Jesus was able to take for granted certain customs and traditions of moral law, whose inner and original meaning He now revealed.  Although modern Christians make much of the Ten Commandments, the moral injunctions it contains, against blasphemy, theft, perjury, adultery, murder, and filial impiety were hardly unique in the Mediterranean world.  Such prohibitions were the common stock of ancient moral and legal traditions.  Greeks and Romans (going beyond the Egyptians and Sumerians, whose moral codes were similar to that of the Jews) condemned all these crimes, though (like the Jews) they had gradually relaxed their aversion to divorce.  Although Greeks as much as Jews believed in the lex talionis (an eye for an eye), the Romans were quite severe in restricting the rights of retaliation and even self-defense—restrictions the Church was to incorporate into its own codes.

These pre-Christian moral and legal assumptions about marriage, filial piety, and patriotism, and the prohibitions on adultery, theft, and murder make part of what St. Augustine referred to as the earthly city or commonwealth (civitas terrena).  Augustine, as a zealous convert, naturally exempted most Jewish traditions from this category, and he was fond of contrasting the wickedness of pagan customs with the righteousness of the children of Israel.  Augustine lived in a time of crisis, and his primary objective in writing his book was to defend the Church from its pagan critics.  Sixteen centuries later, it is more useful for us (and certainly fairer) to look for parallels among these three ancient cultural traditions whose convergence resulted in Christendom.

For Roman citizens of Augustine’s time, whether Christian or pagan, the city or commonwealth was Rome.  According to Roman tradition, Rome was said to have been founded by Romulus in 753 B.C., though, in fact, there had been much earlier settlements on the Palatine Hill.  From their clusters of huts on the hill, the inhabitants spread across neighboring hills and down to the malarial marshlands along the Tiber, forced the proud ancient towns of Latium and Etruria to acknowledge their authority, and gradually conquered all of Italy and the Mediterranean world.  In the reign of the Antonines (either side of A.D. 100), Roman authority stretched from southern Scotland to North Africa to ancient Mesopotamia and Anatolia.

Posidonius, a Greek philosopher of the early first century B.C., had taught the Romans their destiny: to rule over a stable world order, preserving and spreading the fruits of Greek civilization.  This must have been a somewhat bitter pill for the more civilized Greeks to swallow.  However just the Romans may have appeared to themselves, they had destroyed two of the greatest Greek cities in the world, Syracuse and Corinth, looted many others of their art treasures, and politically subjugated the entire Greek world.  And yet, even at their worst, Roman generals and statesmen were more humane than most of the rulers of Hellenistic Greece had been.  Alexander’s successors and their descendants waged war as a business in which the primary objects were loot and slaves.  To some Greeks, at least, the Roman order offered a relief from the dynastic and territorial wars that sometimes seem more like terrorism than warfare.

Rome’s ability to pacify the Greeks is partly explained by Polybius, a Greek who had gone to Rome as a hostage in 168 BC, between the Second and Third Punic Wars.  He was present, when his friend Scipio Africanus the Younger captured and destroyed Carthage, and that was the year in which the ancient and beautiful city of Corinth was sacked and destroyed for its treasures.  Nonetheless, Polybius, who had seen the Romans wage wars from both sides, declared that Rome’s success was the result of a religious piety that made the Romans just and honorable in their dealings with foreign states.

(6.56.6-10) For I conceive that what in other nations is looked upon as a reproach, I mean a scrupulous fear of the gods, is the very thing which keeps the Roman commonwealth together…

Fear of divine wrath kept Roman public servants honest, Polybius argued, and that is why the punishments of Hell were still useful to keep ordinary people in check:

Much rather do I think that men nowadays are acting rashly and foolishly in rejecting them. This is the reason why, apart from anything else, Greek statesmen, if entrusted with a single talent, though protected by ten checking-clerks, as many seals, and twice as many witnesses, yet cannot be induced to keep faith: whereas among the Romans, in their magistracies and embassies, men have the handling of a great amount of money, and yet from pure respect to their oath keep their faith intact.

In principle at least, the Roman senate did not wage aggressive or preemptive wars but always responded to an attack upon the territory of Rome or its allies.  That Roman statesmen might sometimes expand the definition of foreign aggression does not detract from the novelty: In principle, Romans were only willing to wage a just war and, even when provoked, often conducted their wars with a degree of justice and mercy not often witnessed in either the ancient or modern world.  The poet Vergil sums up this character in his account of the Roman historical mission (Aeneid 6. 853):  “To spare the fallen and subdue the proud”—a phrase that Augustine derides as “the inflated fancy of a proud spirit,” though upon further reflection  he was willing to concede the fact that the Romans had constructed and maintained the only terrestrial order that served the cause of justice.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

7 Responses

  1. Dot says:

    Dr. Fleming: I found this article unsettling. In comparing Roman versus Greek codes, non-compliance with resulting pain of punishment, was feared by Romans more than non-compliance among the Greeks. The Greeks could “wheel and deal” but that appeared to result in a lack of trust among the people in general. The article assumes a trait difference between Rome and Greek thought.

  2. Dot says:

    P.S. Trait differences between Roman and Greek thought may have existed but traits do exist between people and nationalities. A good stew is never made with one or two ingredients …..

  3. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I believe you are referring to the Greek Polybius’ assessment of the Romans vs. his own people. Polybius lived in Rome many years, first as a hostage then as a close friend of the Scipios. His intention in this part of his history was to understand how and why the Romans, rather simple compared to the more sophisticated Greeks, had been so successful in war and diplomacy. He found the answer in their commitment to keeping promises and oaths, which he attributed to their piety, their religious fidelity. I cite this passage, not so much because I accept his evaluation of the Greeks but as a valid observation on the qualities to which the Romans owed their success. This is all a preface to to my polite disagreement with St. Augustine’s rather negative evaluation of the Empire in the City of God. Augustine makes many valid points but they are out of historical context and often patently one-sided. His argument, that the Romans more or less deserved what they got, have to be dealt with, if we are going to try to establish a natural basis for the human social order, one that can be the foundation for the Heavenly Commonwealth.

  4. RR says:

    The Romans were politic in their handling of what Americans today call foreign affairs. They had a natural talent for it, and this talent was forged and honed in the very tough school of Latium, Italy and the Mediterranean. Roman and pagan piety had little to do with modern or Christian inspired notions of morality. Parcere subjectis et debellare superbos made good practical policy quite apart from anything else.

    Augustine should have been thrown to the lions.

    A penetrating and little discussed analysis of the causes of Rom’e expansion can be found in the Neapolitan philosopher G. Vico’s work THE NEW SCIENCE.

  5. Robert says:

    Tom, I know that St Benedict’s lineage was from the Roman noble class and realize St Augustine, like Aristotle in his time, had a very good education and access to much that we no longer possess, was a magistrate as well as bishop in his later life and said very significant things in his retractions towards the end of his life. I actually believe his Confessions is a more important critique of his own cultural period and it’s vices and virtues . I know there are some who would disagree. Hannah Arendt for instance is a very thoughtful woman but she is no Augustinian scholar simply because she read the City of God. There are many threads to the rope of our civilization and the Augustinian view of friendship is certainly one we could use in our time based as it was on the Roman culture he grew up in was most familiar with as a young man.

  6. Dot says:

    Rome’s presence endures in what they left behind and also as expressed in the Romance languages. It is possible that expansion into Europe created a weakness in structure in part because they had to hire German armies to supplement their own army. But the German army did not have the loyalty required in battle and this lack of loyalty is one of the causes for Rome’s fall. Fascinating! Please correct if wrong.

  7. Tjf says:

    Must be brief–I’m waiting to catch flight to Atlanta. There are many causes to fall of an empire that lasted nearly a millennium. Actual mercenaries–as opposed to federated allies– did not become a major military element until later. Italians, Gauls, Spaniards and even Germans often served loyally. The problem came as Germans, taught by Romans, learned better farming that enabled population growth and also gained training and superior weapons. More later, flight is boarding