Arnobius, Against the Pagans IV.34

Roman law and its failure to protect the Roman gods

Name of the author: 
Arnobius of Sicca
297 CE to 310 CE
Sicca Veneria (near Carthage, North Africa)
Literary genre: 
Apologetic and Rhetorical treatise
Title of work: 
Against the Pagans

For a general introduction to Arnobius and Against the Pagans, please see the commentary on I.5.

Books III-V of Against the Pagans focus more specifically on the pagan gods. Arnobius essentially argues that the characteristics of these deities were formulated in mythology, which had the effect of making the gods appear in many respects extremely human, exhibiting mortal emotions and actions at times, and becoming intensely involved in human affairs such as love and war. Moreover, Arnobius questions that the fantastically detailed myths about the gods can be understood as credible, as it cannot be proven that those who wrote them down have investigated their facts, rather than simply inventing fictional stories (IV.18; see Oliver Nicholson, “Arnobius and Lactantius,” p. 260-261).

Prior to the present extract from chapter 34 of book IV, Arnobius has discussed Roman indifference to their gods being insulted through the stories told about them by poets and other writers. The opening of chapter 34 gives the example of Jupiter, who is described by Arnobius as an adulterer and an idiot for declaring shamelessly which mistresses he preferred to his spouse, Juno (for Jupiter’s adultery, see, for instance, Ovid, Metamorphoses I.587-600; II.417-440, 833-875). It is then argued in the opening sentence of the extract above that if the Roman gods were really feared or even believed to genuinely exist, then it should follow that bills (rogatio), popular ordinances (plebis scitum), and decrees of the senate (senatus consultum) would convict and punish those found to be speaking ill of them. McCracken notes that senatorial decrees were among the most severe methods of taking legal action (Arnobius of Sicca, Vol. II, p. 563), and Arnobius likely mentions such decrees here to emphasise the surprising level of seriousness with which Rome takes slanderous speech against human rulers in comparison to that against the gods, which he himself sees as proof that the pagan gods are undervalued even by those who worship them. Contrary to the lenient approach taken by Roman law in relation to abusive speech against the gods, our author then highlights that when it comes to Roman rulers, magistrates, or senators the situation is entirely different, with even the slightest murmur of derogatory speech punishable with charges of treason. The statute which was concerned with treason was the lex Iulia maiestatis, which might be attributed either to Julius Caesar in c. 46 BCE or to Augustus, roughly between 19 and 18 BCE (on this law and the limited information about it provided in sources such as Justinian’s Digest, see Callie Williamson, “Crimes Against the State,” p. 339-340).

Moreover, another aspect of Roman legal practice, the decemvirate, is mentioned in the following sentences in relation to the protection offered for Romans themselves over that of their deities. The decemvirate was a college of ten Roman magistrates, which had its origins in the Republic, with the first decemvirate responsible for the drafting of the first ten of the laws of the Twelve Tables (lex duodecim tabularum), which Roman tradition understood to be based on the foundations of Roman law. It was believed that after the fall of the last Roman king, Tarquinius Superbus, the Republic was run by magistrates, and because these magistrates were drawn from the patrician class, the plebeian class wished for more recognition (they were after all Rome’s principal labourers). As a result of this discontent, the Twelve Tables were formulated to outline basic rights of all Roman citizens. Livy, for instance, describes in his History of Rome III.34.5-6 the completion of the first ten tables in 450 BCE, with the final two being completed the following year (for an overview of the Twelve Tables and their history, see Gary Forsyth, Early Rome, chapter 7). McCracken sees an allusion to Table VIII, which was concerned with the punishment for slander and fraud, in Arnobius’s comments about the consequences of writing poems slighting the behaviour of another individual being legislated for in the decrees of the decemvirs (Arnobius of Sicca, Vol. II, p. 563).

Essentially then, Arnobius concludes, the Roman legal system is designed in such a way that it offers ample protection for Roman citizens, and prescribes harsh punishments upon those who slander others, particularly those in positions of authority. That such legislation does not extend to the gods both shows them to be greatly dishonoured by those who claim to venerate them, and makes more illogical and unjustified the charges levelled at Christians for slighting pagan deities. In addition to defending Christians from pagan criticism of their shunning of the gods, Arnobius also challenges Roman claims to piety, arguing that their devotion to the gods is entirely disingenuous on account of the fact that slandering Roman authorities is harshly punishable by law, while speaking ill of the gods, a frequent occurrence, is paid no heed. The argument that the Romans were not as pious as they claimed they were was also made by other Christian writers. The third-century author Cyprian, in his On the Vanity of Idols V, written shortly after Arnobius’s text, seeks to quash any claims Rome might make of piety. Cyprian outlines examples of the murderous and corrupt beginnings of the empire, drawing on popular criticisms of Roman history (such as Romulus’s fratricide), which earlier Christian authors such as Tertullian and Marcus Minucius Felix had also utilised (see, for instance, Tertullian, Apology XXV.12-17; Marcus Minucius Felix, Octavius XXV). This is a theme which Arnobius also takes up in VI.7. Arnobius draws on a story related by Dionysius of Halicarnassus in his Roman Antiquities IV.59-61, in which Tarquinius Superbus, the final Roman king, found the head of a murdered foreigner when digging on the Tarpeian Hill, which was perceived by soothsayers to indicate the spot that would become the head of Italy. According to Dionysius, it was from this point onwards that the hill was named the Capitoline (from the Latin caput, “head”). Arnobius therefore argues that rather than naming the temple on the Capitoline Hill after their own supreme god, Jupiter, the Romans have allowed its name to carry within it the memory of a tale involving a murdered foreigner. This fits in with the broader point being made within the treatise which we also see in the present passage, that the Roman gods are so frequently dishonoured by those claiming to worship them that they must not exist, as otherwise they would punish their subjects for their impiety.

Bibliographical references: 

“Arnobius and Lactantius”

Nicholson, Oliverarticle-in-a-bookCambridge History of Early Christian Literature Lewis Ayres, Frances Young, Andrew Louth259-265“Arnobius and Lactantius”CambridgeCambridge University Press2004

“Crimes Against the State”

Williamson, Calliearticle-in-a-bookThe Oxford Handbook of Roman Law and SocietyClifford Ando, Kaius Tuori, Paul J. du Plessis“Crimes Against the State”OxfordOxford University Press2016
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