For a general introduction to Arnobius and Against the Pagans, please see the commentary on I.5.
In this present passage, from near the end of the treatise, Arnobius questions the reality of the pagan gods by arguing that Roman success in battle ought to be attributed to the latter’s military skill and might rather than to the support of the gods. The particular superstition that is attacked in this passage is that of the Pessinus stone. As Livy tells us in his History of Rome X.4-XI.18, during the Second Punic War, the Romans consulted the Sibylline books after experiencing several meteor showers, and decided to introduce the Phrygian cult of the Great Mother (Cybele) to Rome. Upon the advice of Attalus I, ruler of Pergamon and an ally of Rome, they went to Pessinus, a city in Asia Minor and a centre of the Cybele cult, and removed her most important image which was a large black stone believed to have fallen from the sky. This stone was subsequently taken to Rome where it was hoped its powers would provide the Romans with support. Arnobius, however, poses a series of rhetorical questions whose aim is to cast doubt on the fact that this stone had any effect whatsoever upon Rome’s military success. The prominent example he uses is that of Hannibal, whom our author insinuates was certainly not kept at bay because of a stone.
Rather, Arnobius suggests, credit ought to be given to Rome’s military leaders, whose strength and tactical wisdom was pivotal in the protection of Rome from its enemies, and in ensuring that Rome rose to the “height of power” (Valerius Maximus, Memorable Doings and Sayings II.8.praef, refers to the Roman empire in similar language to Arnobius here, as a terrarum orbis columen). Their success cannot be attributed to a stone, just as their enemies’ defeat cannot be understood as affected by such an inanimate object taken from the earth. Moreover, it is extremely foolish to believe that a black, sooty stone could contain the Mother of the Gods, or that any deity would dwell within pieces of flint. For George McCracken, the reference to that which dwells within flint may be an allusion to Virgil, Aeneid VI.6-7, where the Trojans attempt to light a fire with pieces of flint; see also the mention of this practice in Georgics I.135 (Arnobius of Sicca, Vol. II, p. 619). Arnobius proceeds to reemphasise that Roman victory was not due to any divine power with the Pessinus stone, but rather “by the zeal and valour of the soldiers, by practice, time, wisdom, reason.” Interestingly, in addition to citing the skill of the Roman army, Arnobius also mentions the role of fortune; he of course does not refer here to the goddess Fortuna, but rather simply the abstract notion of chance, which in many instances has possibly also played a part in Rome’s military success. If indeed the stone were to be understood as having played a role in Roman victory, Arnobius states, then one has to question why Cybele, the Phrygian Mother, was not present at certain dire times of need, when Rome was struggling at war, and the situation was so bleak that the stability of the commonwealth was threatened. The allusion here, given the context of the entire chapter, is likely to the battles of the Trebia, Lake Trasimenus, and Cannae, where the Roman armies suffered great decimation (McCracken, Arnobius of Sicca, Vol. II, p. 620). The response to these questions given by Arnobius’s supposed opponent, is that it was simply that the stone had not yet been brought to Rome, and Cybele’s help had not yet been sought. For Arnobius, this answer is insufficient, as if the goddess was genuinely good, she would have helped her worshippers regardless of whether they had formally asked or not, and regardless of whether her stone was physically upon Italian soil. This sort of geographical boundary would not prevent a real deity from acting, proving once again that the Romans have pinned their hopes in a false god, and failed to comprehend that their real strength and advantage as a state lies in their military talents. Of course, later on in the fourth century, the Christian God would be presented notably by Eusebius as directly supporting the military actions of Rome, ensuring that Constantine’s troops defeated those of the “tyrant” Maxentius, allowing the former to become sole ruler of the empire. Arnobius’s rhetoric, in an empire which had not yet formally accepted Christianity, is slightly different of course, especially given that his wider aim is to critique pagan religion. However, it is interesting to note that by the time Eusebius is writing, not too many years after Arnobius, the Roman army is indeed viewed as partly powered by a supernatural force, that of the Christian God. For Arnobius, who emphasises the sharp divide between Graeco-Roman religion and Christianity, the achievements of Rome’s armies needed to be firmly attributed to human strength and cunning in order to further make clear that the gods Rome worshipped were non-existent.
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