Augustine, City of God V.17.2

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That the heavenly kingdom resembles in a way the mythical origins of Rome

Name of the author: 
413 CE to 427 CE
Literary genre: 
Rhetorical treatise
Title of work: 
City of God

For an introduction to Augustine and the City of God, please see the commentary on II.16.

Chapter seventeen of book V begins by arguing that Rome’s submission of other nations was carried out purely out of desire for human glory and victory, which is empty in comparison with the glory of the eternal kingdom of heaven (for a discussion of the earlier part of the chapter, see the commentary on V.17.1). The present extract is found at the end of V.17, and argues that residency in the “eternal country” (patria aeterna) of God bears a type of resemblance to the situation of Rome’s earliest days, when Romulus took in numerous criminals from neighbouring states, offering them asylum in the new and growing city of Rome. This story is related by Livy in his History of Rome I.8, where he describes how the recently founded city was expanding in anticipation of its future population (I.8.4), and details Romulus’s method of filling up the increasing space as follows:

“Romulus resorted to a plan for increasing the inhabitants which had long been employed by the founders of cities, who gather about them an obscure and lowly multitude and pretend that the earth has raised up sons to them. In the place which is now enclosed, between the two groves as you go up the hill he opened a sanctuary. There fled, from the surrounding peoples, a miscellaneous rabble, without distinction of bond or free, eager for new conditions; and these constituted the first advance in power towards that greatness at which Romulus aimed” (I.8.5-7; the translation is that of B. O. Foster, from the Loeb edition of the text, p. 33, slightly modernised).

The story is referred to by other ancient authors also, for example in Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities II.15, Plutarch, Life of Romulus IX, and Florus, Epitome of the Roman History of Titus Livius I.1.8-10 (see Jean Gaudemet, “Asylum,” col. 491). For Augustine, the similarity between early Rome and the eternal city of God is found in the fact that both offer, or offered, a space where wrongdoing (sin, peccatum, or crime, delictum) is forgotten and unpunished in the case of Rome (impunitas) or forgiven in the case of heaven (remissio). In this sense, Rome’s foundation is of course compared extremely unfavourably to the heavenly city. The collection (colligo) or congregation (congrego) of citizens for Rome and heaven are starkly juxtaposed, with the latter presented ultimately as being entirely founded on immorality (the immorality of pagan Rome is elaborated on at length in the City of God, with Rome’s growth and expansion attributed to its brutality and desire for purely earthly wealth and glory; for a discussion of this elsewhere, see the commentary on V.17.1, and Augustine’s Letter 138.17). Essentially, the asylum of Romulus is presented as a “prophetic ‘shadow’ of the divine city” (see Gerard O’Daly, Augustine’s City of God, p. 98). That Rome had criminal origins was a popular theme amongst early Christian authors, and is found in several of the apologists. For instance, the Octavius XXV of Marcus Minucius Felix also makes reference to the asylum of criminals in early Rome, as does Cyprian, On the Vanity of Idols V. However, critiquing the very origins of Rome follows a rhetorical tradition also seen in Roman authors such as Tacitus, Sallust, and Cicero.

Augustine also draws on the asylum legend of early Rome in City of God I.34:

“It is said that Romulus and Remus, in order to increase the population of the city they founded, opened a sanctuary in which every man might find asylum and absolution of all crime—a remarkable foreshadowing of what has recently occurred in honor of Christ. The destroyers of Rome followed the example of its founders. But it was not greatly to their credit that the latter, for the sake of increasing the number of their citizens, did that which the former have done, lest the number of their enemies should be diminished” (translation by Marcus Dods from the volume cited above, p. 21).

In this passage, the city of Rome, similarly to our passage from V.17, is presented as a safe space for all men, which Augustine sees as foreshadowing the events following the sack of Rome in 410 CE by the Visigoths, where the churches were granted the status of sanctuaries for refugees, meaning that even non-Christians took shelter in them (see also City of God I.1-2, 4, where Augustine notes that it is somewhat commonplace in war for the victors to spare those who had fled to religious sanctuaries, making reference to Virgil’s account of the Trojan war and the use of the Temple of Juno as a refuge). A large number of Roman refugees made their way to North Africa, Augustine’s home, which made the theme of refuge and asylum something which was rooted very much in his social reality  (on Roman churches used as sanctuaries, see also Orosius, Seven Books of History Against the Pagans VII.39.1 and Jerome, Letter 127.13). However, the similarity between early Rome and the churches following the sack of Rome stretches only as far as the fact that both have provided refuge at some point, as the asylum provided by Romulus and the founders of Rome essentially consisted of the city harbouring criminals who thereby escaped punishment for their wrongdoing. Moreover, Augustine argues, the early Romans took in all these morally questionable people with the aim of increasing Rome’s citizens and at the same time decreasing the number of enemies residing in neighbouring states. Their actions were entirely selfishly motivated, therefore, and in this sense the exact opposite of those undertaken by the churches who offered asylum to Rome’s displaced citizens “in honor of Christ.”

To conclude, we see in our passage from V.17.2, as well as in I.34, Rome’s origins drawn upon by Augustine in order to contrast the Roman people with the citizens of God’s heavenly kingdom. While both the eternal city of God and Rome have in common their gathering together of multitudes of people into a place where sin and crime is no longer held against them, in the case of Rome, this is presented negatively as Romulus’s overlooking of immoral conduct in order to expand the population of his growing state. The very foundation of the Rome is therefore corrupt due to its granting of impunity to anyone who took refuge there. On the other hand, God’s kingdom offers the remission of sins for those who would seek citizenship there. Sin is not simply brushed away and ignored as it was by Romulus, but completely forgiven in Christ. The very nature of the citizens of heaven and the citizens of Rome is thus contrasted, with the latter debased as immoral.

Bibliographical references: 
Gaudemet, Jean, “Asylum” , in Augustinus-Lexikon, Vol. 1 (Aaron - Conuersio) (ed. C. Mayer et al.; Basel: Schwabe & Co., 1986), col. 490-493
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Augustine, City of God V.17.2
Author(s) of this publication: Kimberley Fowler
Publishing date: Tue, 04/16/2019 - 15:57
Visited: Thu, 02/29/2024 - 10:44

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