In a previous post I wrote, “The Pax Romana is not a telos, it’s merely an event among other events, subject to varying interpretations and to the power of change.” But it’s it at least curious that Rome grew so powerful. What led to that power?

Here we have to invoke the idea of multiple causes. For Augustine, of course, God is the Final Cause of everything. In CD IV.33 he writes,

It is therefore this God, the author and giver of felicity, who, being the one true God, gives earthly dominion, both to good men and to evil. And he does this not at random or, as one may say, fortuitously, because he is God, not Fortune. Rather, he gives in accordance with the order of events in history, an order completely hidden from us, but perfectly known to God himself. Yet God is not bound in subjection to this order of events; he is himself in control, as the master of events, and arranges the order of things as a governor.

Though he says here that “the order of events in history” is “completely hidden from us,” a little later he wonders whether at least some of these divine purposes, and the order of events emerging therefrom, might be readable by humans. In the Preface to Book V he writes, “Let us therefore proceed to inquire why God was willing that the Roman Empire should extend so widely and so long.” And then he lays (at least some of) his cards on the table:

The cause of the greatness of the Roman Empire was neither chance nor destiny, in the sense in which those words are, somewhat arbitrarily, employed, when ‘chance’ is used of events which have no cause, or at least no cause which depends on any rational principle, and ‘destiny’ of events which happen in an inevitable sequence, independent of the will of God or man. Without the slightest doubt, the kingdoms of men are established by divine providence.

But then Augustine has to do things like discredit astrology — which is often used to show that human affairs are predestined — and it’s not until V.12 that he returns to the question: “Let us go on to examine for what moral qualities and for what reason the true God deigned to help the Romans in the extension of their empire; for in his control all the kingdoms of the earth.“ At this point we should remember that Augustine is replying to pagans who say that Rome flourished because of its devotion to its gods, and when Rome ceased to worship its gods, those gods withdrew their patronage. And Augustine has already demonstrated (to his satisfaction anyway) that those gods were either sheer fictions or weak and ineffectual demons, in either case unworthy of any devotion and incapable of assisting humans in their endeavors.

No, Augustine says, the real explanation for Rome’s success lies altogether elsewhere, and you can see where he’s headed if you note the phrase “moral qualities” (mores). Briefly, Augustine makes this remarkable argument: Rome flourished because, and insofar as, its citizens loved it. When Romans loved their city and sacrificed their personal interests to its needs, then it flourished. Yes, many Romans did this in order to gain the praise of their neighbors, which is not ideal — only the praise of God should really matter to us, and even pagan poets like Horace understood the dangers inherent in the love of praise (V.13) — but it is better to want to be praised for virtuous acts than to pursue vice.

Augustine has several points he wants to make about all this.

  1. Those who sacrificed their own personal interests out of love for their city “received their reward” (V.15). They got the earthly happiness they wanted.
  2. But they did not get, because they did not seek, eternal life and true happiness (beatus). This is a constant theme of Augustine’s writings: In the end, we pretty much get what we want.
  3. And the Romans succumbed to the libido domanandi — you can see in the Aeneid, as I noted in an earlier post, this gradual shift from (a) wanting one’s city to flourish to (b) wanting one’s city to rule.
  4. And this lust for political domination leads to a lust for personal domination. The infection spreads. In the days of the Republic, before the mania for imperial conquest set in, it wasn’t unusual to find virtuous Roman leaders, virtuous by the world’s standards anyway; now, at the fag-end of Empire, vice rules all. There could be no fifth-century Cato. 

At IV.28 Augustine writes of the Romans, “though they could not have exercised dominion without the consent of the true God, still, if they had ignored, or despised, that multitude of false gods, and had recognized the one God, and given him the worship of sincere faith and pure lives, they would have had a better dominion – whatever its size – here on earth, and would have received hereafter an eternal kingdom, whether they had enjoyed dominion in this world or no.“ But instead they got what they asked for; they have their reward. So it is always with the City of Man.