The immorality of Roman behaviour
297 CE to 310 CE
Sicca Veneria (near Carthage, North Africa)
Apologetic and Rhetorical treatise
Title of work:
Against the Pagans
Keywords in the original language:
Thematic keywords in English:
For a general introduction to Arnobius and Against the Pagans, please see the commentary on I.5.
In this extract from chapter 64 of the first book of his treatise Against the Pagans, Arnobius highlights the hypocrisy of numerous despicable practices of Roman society when Christians are shown hostility despite Christ not being guilt of any crime. Firstly, Arnobius cites pagan “tyrants and kings” as ignoring any sense of piety when they have plundered and pillaged the treasuries of temples. This issue is also mentioned in book VI.21, where Arnobius claims that the fact that the pagan gods have historically often failed to punish those who have desecrated their images and temples is taken as proof that these deities do not really exist. While this phenomenon is not specifically exemplified by Arnobius with examples of Roman figures performing such atrocities, George McCracken suggests that he may well have had in mind instances such as those mentioned by Suetonius involving Julius Caesar and Caligula, for example, in addition to the examples involving non-Romans given in VI.21, such as Antiochus IX of Cyzicus, the Seleucid ruler (116-96 BCE), stealing a statue of Jupiter from its temple (for the example of Antiochus, see also Clement of Alexandria, Exhortation to the Heathen IV.52; see also Suetonius, Julius Caesar LIV, for his pillaging of shrines in Gaul; Caligula LVII, for his dismantling of the statue of Jupiter at Olympia in order to move it to Rome; McCracken, Arnobius of Sicca, Vol. I, p. 299). Moreover, as we shall discuss below, the proceeding examples of immoral behaviour that Arnobius cites make it clear that although he draws on wider Greco-Roman culture—especially in relation to philosophy and the gods—here and throughout his treatise, the Roman context of his criticism is very firmly established in his mind.
Arnobius turns next to the fact that the Roman state has been deprived of numerous aristocrats due to proscriptions (proscriptio, referring to the practice of publically declaring an individual as an enemy of the state), exiles, and murders. A prominent example of the first in the list was the outlawing of Marcus Tullius Cicero and his younger brother Quintus in 43 BCE by Mark Antony and Octavian, after the elder of the two brothers attacked Antony in various speeches following Julius Caesar’s death. He was executed by soldiers, and his hands and head put on display in the Roman Forum. The rulers who perform such acts, Arnobius continues, are also responsible for dishonouring married women and virgins. The Roman context appears to be made clear here by the fact that these accusations of poor treatment of state nobles and women are made against those whom Arnobius says are called indigetes (individuals elevated to the rank of gods after their death) and divi (deities), with acts of worship and celebratory games performed in their honour. As McCracken notes, before the time of Diocletian, under whom Arnobius was writing, the title of divus or diva was officially given to Julius Caesar after his death, followed by thirty-four Roman emperors, and twenty-seven other members of the imperial family. We may have in this passage, therefore, a reference to the imperial cult, but if so, this is the only one in the whole of Against the Pagans, and so was clearly not a primary concern of Arnobius’s (see McCracken, Arnobius of Sicca, Vol. I, p. 299-300).
The following lengthy sentence points out the irony in the fact that the Romans celebrate with not only great approval, but also statues and “immortal titles” those who criticise their morality. The argument is that it is striking that authors who themselves approve of communal marriage and sexual relationships with young boys (which we can assume Arnobius himself does not approve of) judge the Romans for their own wicked behaviour, which is viewed to be brutal and characteristic of slaves. As McCracken identifies, the following are mentioned: 1) critics of immorality and excessive luxury (perhaps Juvenal, for example?); 2) proponents of communal marriage (Plato?); and 3) pederasts (likely Socrates and Plato). It should be noted, however, in relation to the second point, that while in his Republic V.457d Plato argues that the female state guardians should provide themselves as wives in communistic fashion for the male guardians, he did not support such behaviour for the general population. In relation to the claim that the Romans wish to place these writers critical of their morality in libraries, McCracken notes the example of Stertinius Avitus, a contemporary of the poet Martial, who in the preface to the Epigrams IX it is claimed wished to place a bust of Martial in his library (Arnobius of Sicca, Vol. I, p. 300; the Epigrams scandalise the brutal and debauched behaviours of Martial’s Roman aristocratic peers and general life in the city of Rome).
Essentially, this extract sees Arnobius drawing upon various examples not only of Roman immorality, including impiety, the elevating of human beings to divine status, and the brutality of Rome’s rulers, but also of the irony that many literary critics of such behaviour are venerated, thereby insinuating that the Romans are somewhat illogical in their particular persecution of the Christians. This combination of critiquing Rome’s behaviour while pointing out Roman acceptance of both its non-Christian critics and their own debauched practices is also found in other apologetical writings, such as Justin Martyr, First Apology IV.1-V.4, particularly in relation to Rome’s relationship with philosophy.