Tertullian, Apology XXV.12-17

The impiety and brutality of Rome’s expansion
Name of the author: 
197 CE
Literary genre: 
Title of work: 

For a general introduction to Tertullian and the Apology please see the commentary on Apology V.

In this passage Tertullian argues for the brutal, and as he sees it, impious nature of Rome’s expansion and dominion. In a similar manner to Marcus Minucius Felix in his Octavius XXV, Tertullian counters the claim that Rome owes its success to its religiosity, highlighting as Minucius Felix does, the role that war, pillage, and subjection of peoples has played in the growth of the empire. A similar argument is also made by Cyprian, On the Vanity of Idols V, who quashes any Roman claim to piety, stating that the entire Roman people is descended from criminals. Arnobius, Against the Pagans IV.34 even argues that while the Roman legal system protects its citizens, great impiety is revealed in the fact that it fails to protect the Roman gods from frequent ridicule.

Tertullian begins in verse 12 by arguing that religion cannot have been primarily responsible for Rome’s greatness, because it was only after it became an empire (imperium, although Tertullian states that it might be better called a kingdom, regnum) that Roman religion truly advanced. Tertullian makes reference here to Numa, the legendary successor of Romulus, to whom several of Rome’s significant religious institutions are attributed, such as the temple of Janus, the vestal virgins, and the institution of eight priesthoods (see Livy, History of Rome I.19, 20; and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities LXIII-LXXIV, who discusses Numa’s institutions at length). Plutarch, Life of Numa VIII.7-8, tells us that this early religion forbade images and the representation of gods as men or animals. Idols, he claims, were not placed in temples in this early period. This is what Tertullian alludes to in verses 12-13, when he argues that early Roman religion was made up of simple rites (ritus), and Greek and Tuscan images of deities were nowhere to be seen in the city of Rome. In the formative days, then, Tertullian argues the Romans were not marked out as a spectacularly religious people. This is only logical, he continues, as irreligion (irreligiositas) is clearly at the heart of Rome’s success – the taking over of other empires and kingdoms is something that can only be achieved through war, which naturally includes the sacking of cities (verse 14). For Tertullian, this sort of destructive rampage is in no way in keeping with a claim to piety, particularly because such events cause distress to the gods of the cities under attack, with temples, priests, as well as general citizens shown now mercy: “the hand of rapine is laid equally upon sacred and upon common treasure.”

In the Roman author Cicero’s On the reply of the haruspices 19, the opposite view is presented to that of Tertullian, with Cicero arguing that it is not numbers, strength, or other advantages that have enabled the Romans to excel over those that they have conquered. Rather, it is purely due to their religious piety, which has afforded them the wisdom to understand that the gods are in control of everything. Consequently, the Romans’ victories over all peoples and nations are due to the will of the gods, the implication being that it is their reward for serving them correctly:

5. We may, conscript fathers, flatter ourselves as much as we want to, however, we have not excelled Spaniards by number, nor Gauls by strength, nor Carthaginians by craftiness, nor Greeks by arts, nor indeed Italians themselves and Latins by this natural and innate good sense characteristic of this people and of this land; 6 but it is by piety, religion and also by this exceptional wisdom – which has made us see that everything is controlled and ruled by the divine power of the gods – that we have excelled every people and every nation (sed pietate ac religione atque hac una sapientia, quod deorum numine omnia regi gubernarique perspeximus, omnis gentis nationesque superavimus).

We see clearly here the contrast between the way in which Roman power and victory, and its connection to the divine was conceived of by Roman and Christian members of the empire. Rome prided itself on its religiosity and understood the continual expansion of the empire as the just reward for this (on the importance of Roman piety, see also, for example, Ovid, Fasti V.551-578; Livy, History of Rome XXI.62; Polybius, Histories VI.56.6). However, for Tertullian, the Romans’ triumphs are equal to their sacrileges (sacrilegium) (verse 15), with every conquest adding to their ransacking of the religious sites and personnel of subjected cities. In verse 16, Tertullian states that these captive gods are forced to submit to Rome, in turn being “adored by their enemies.” The reference here is to the Roman practice of incorporating foreign deities into its own pantheon. This is also dealt with by Minucius Felix, who argues against the claims of Romans that their willingness to embrace the gods of subdued peoples actually makes them more pious and open-minded when it comes to religion (see Octavius VI; XXV). Essentially, Tertullian concludes, the Roman people have done too much harm to religion to be considered religiously outstanding themselves, and the expansion of the Roman empire is characterised by this rapacious reality.

Bibliographical references: 

“Pagan Perceptions of Christianity”

Barnes, Timothy D.article-in-a-bookEarly Christianity: Origins and Evolution to AD 600Ian Hazlett 231-243“Pagan Perceptions of Christianity” LondonSPCK1991

“Tertullien et les poètes latins,”

Braun, Renéarticle-in-a-bookApproches de Tertullien: vingt-six études sur l’auteur et sur l’oeuvre (1955-1990) René Braun“Tertullien et les poètes latins”ParisInstitut d'Études Augustiniennes1992


Dunn, Geoffrey D.bookTertullianLondonRoutledge2004

“On the Problem of Church and Empire in Tertullian’s Apologeticum”

Evans, Robert F.article-in-a-bookStudia Patristica 14: Papers Presented to the Sixteenth International Conference on Patristic Studies held in Oxford 1971Elizabeth A. Livingstone21-36“On the Problem of Church and Empire in Tertullian’s Apologeticum” Studia PatristicaBerlinAkademie Verlag1976

“Was Tertullian a Jurist?”

Rankin, David Ivanarticle-in-a-bookStudia Patristica 31: Papers presented at the Twelfth International Conference on Patristic Studies held in Oxford 1995Elizabeth A. Livingstone335-342“Was Tertullian a Jurist?” Studia PatristicaLeuvenPeeters1997
Realized by: