Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: rome (page 1 of 1)

Cities 2: archetype and antithesis

The City of God, which, as we saw in a previous post, claims to be an account of the two cities, the City of God and the City of Man, is a work in twenty-two books. It begins to discuss the two cities at the end of Book XIV. Why does Augustine take so long to get to the point? 

Because his pagan interlocutors — who have argued that Rome declined when it abandoned its ancient gods for Christianity — misunderstand the entire subject, and therefore he has to get them properly oriented. To do this he must explain 

  • That the historical record shows that the ancient gods never actually protected Rome; 
  • That those gods were powerless to protect Rome, because they were weak and inferior demons; 
  • That even if they could aid us in our earthly life, which as it happens they can’t, they could do nothing to help us gain eternal life; 
  • That the wisest and best pagan philosophers understood all this; 
  • That, however, those philosophers, not having been granted God’s revelation, could see the falsity of popular religion without having a clear sense of what true religion is; 
  • That true religion was entrusted to the Jews, whose story and message culminated in Jesus Christ; 
  • That once this salvation history is properly understood one will understand that Rome isn’t All That, and insofar as it had successes those resulted from the blessings of the One True God, which are granted and withheld for reasons typically unknown to mere mortals; 
  • That all of history is in a sense salvation history, with the rise and fall of kingdoms contributing to God’s gracious desire to bring us all, through the mediation of His Son, into His everlasting City. 

Only when this (necessarily detailed!) ground-clearing work is done can Augustine take up the story of the Two Cities, because only within this framework can one understand the actual place of Rome, and of all other human social organizations, in the economy of salvation. 


In Miéville’s The City and the City, the Cleavage that created two cites where there had been one is shrouded in mystery. But our the Cleavage that creates the City of Man can be precisely identified, Augustine thinks. It happens not (as one might expect) with the Fall; it does not even happen when Cain murders his brother Abel. It stems, rather, from one of the consequences of that murder: 

Now Cain was the first son born to those two parents of mankind, and he belonged to the city of man; the later son, Abel, belonged to the City of God…. When those two cities started on their course through the succession of birth and death, the first to be born was a citizen of this world, and later appeared one who was a pilgrim and stranger in the world, belonging as he did to the City of God. He was predestined by grace, and chosen by grace, by grace a pilgrim below, and by grace a citizen above. […] 

Scripture tells us that Cain founded a city, whereas Abel, as a pilgrim, did not found one. For the City of the saints is up above, although it produces citizens here below, and in their persons the City is on pilgrimage until the time of its kingdom comes. At that time it will assemble all those citizens as they rise again in their bodies; and then they will be given the promised kingdom, where with their Prince, ‘the king of ages’, they will reign, world without end. [CD XV.1] 

The founding of the City of Man thus arises from a moment of familial violence, and this, Augustine says, is “what the Greeks call an archetype” [CD XV.5]: later world-historical events would be “reflections” of it, most notably the founding of Rome itself, which is intimately connected to Romulus’s murder of his brother Remus. The City of Man is something like the eternal return of the aboriginal fratricide. 

And thus the City of Man is therefore always and necessarily a product of what Augustine famously calls the libido dominandi, the lust for domination. And it is this lust, he repeatedly says, that drives and had always driven Rome. 

One of the key elements of Augustine’s narrative structure, indeed of his theology of history, is antithesis, because, he thinks, antithesis is how God as the author of history shapes and figures that history: 

The opposition of such contraries gives an added beauty to speech; and in the same way there is beauty in the composition of the world’s history arising from the antithesis of contraries — a kind of eloquence in events, instead of in words. This point is made very clearly in the book Ecclesiasticus [33.14], ‘Good confronts evil, life confronts death: so the sinner confronts the devout. And in this way you should observe all the works of the Most High; two by two; one confronting the other.’ [CD XI.18] 

“A kind of eloquence in events” (rerum eloquentia) — what a remarkable phrase.

Thus the City of God finds its antithesis in the City of Man, but also, right from the beginning Augustine makes it clear that his narrative finds its own antithesis in another narrative: the Aeneid. In the opening pages of the City of God he repeatedly quotes Vergil’s poem, and there’s one passage in particular that he zeroes in on. It comes from Book VI, when Aeneas is visiting the underworld and meets his father Anchises, who tells him the story of the great Roman future. That story culminates in this great and famous passage: 

Excudent alii spirantia mollius aera
(credo equidem), vivos ducent de marmore vultus,
orabunt causus melius, caelique meatus
describent radio, et surgentia sidera dicent:
to regere imperio populos, Romane, memento
(hae tibi erunt artes), pacisque imponere morem,
parcere subiectis, et debellare superbos.

Here’s David Ferry’s version: 

“There are those, I know it, who by their shaping art 
Will call forth, from the bronze that breathes, the living 
Features of the face; and those who by 
Their art of eloquence argue and prevail 
In courts of law; or those who by their art 
Describe with their pointing wands the radiant wheeling 
Of all the stars in all the nighttime sky, 
And can foretell the moment of their rising. 
And Romans, never forget that this will be 
Your appointed task: to use your arts to be 
The governor of the world, to bring to it peace, 
Serenely maintained with order and with justice, 
To spare the defeated and to bring an end 
To war by vanquishing the proud.” 

And, more compactly and (I think) more accurately, Allen Mandelbaum: 

“For other peoples will, I do not doubt, 
still cast their bronze to breathe with softer features, 
or draw out of the marble living lines, 
plead causes better, trace the ways of heaven 
with wands and tell the rising constellations; 
but yours will be the rulership of nations, 
remember, Roman, these will be your arts: 
to teach the ways of peace to those you conquer, 
to spare defeated peoples, tame the proud.” 

I’ve always liked Mandelbaum’s translation a lot. It’s a neglected one. 

The key point here, for Augustine, is that everything in Anchises’ prophecy is about Roman domination: Rome is to rule, to teach, to conquer, to tame. And it did — for a while. But now it is falling, as all human endeavors will, in time. The City of Man is no lasting city. And so Augustine from the beginning of his work sets himself up the antithesis of Vergil, offering a counter-plot, a counter-myth to that of the Aeneid. But it is only in Book XV that he begins that myth-against-myth in earnest. 

To all of us, I believe, in the middle of the twentieth century, the Roman Empire is like a mirror in which we see reflected the brutal, vulgar, powerful yet despairing image of our technological civilization, an imperium which now covers the entire globe, for all nations, capitalist, socialist, and communist, are united in their worship of mass, technique and temporal power. What fascinates and terrifies us about the Roman Empire is not that it finally went smash but that … it managed to last for four centuries without creativity, warmth or hope.

— W. H. Auden, 1952

The sheer horror of Cicero’s murder and mutilation contributed to its mythic status in later Roman literature and culture. His death was a popular subject for Roman schoolboys practising the art of speaking, as well as for celebrity orators in after-dinner performances. Learner orators were required to deliver speeches of advice to famous characters from myth and history, or to take sides in notorious crimes from the past: ‘defend Romulus against the charge of killing Remus’; ‘advise Agamemnon whether or not to sacrifice Iphigeneia’; ‘should Alexander the Great enter Babylon, despite bad omens?’ Two of the most popular exercises, repeated in countless Roman schoolrooms and at innumerable dinner parties, involved advising Cicero on the question of whether or not he should ask for Antony’s pardon in order to save his own life; and whether, if Antony offered to spare him provided that he burn all his writings, he should accept the deal. In the cultural politics of the Roman Empire these problems were nicely judged – safely pitching one of the most brilliantly unsuccessful upholders of the old Republican order against the man who, as everyone came to agree, was the unacceptable face of autocracy; and weighing the value of literature against the brute force of life-or-death power. There was lustre, too, in the fact that Roman critics almost universally believed that Cicero had died an exemplary death. Whatever accusations of self-interest, vacillation or cowardice they might level at other aspects of his life, everyone reckoned that on this occasion he behaved splendidly: sticking his bare neck out of the litter, he calmly demanded (as heroes have continued to do ever since) that the assassin make a good job of it.