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Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. II:
City of God: Chapter 26

Early Church Fathers  Index     

Chapter 26.—Of the Scenic Plays, the Celebration of Which the Gods Have Exacted from Their Worshippers.

“But,” says Cicero, “Homer invented these things, and transferred things human p. 78 to the gods:  I would rather transfer things divine to us.” 177   The poet, by ascribing such crimes to the gods, has justly displeased the grave man.  Why, then, are the scenic plays, where these crimes are habitually spoken of, acted, exhibited, in honor of the gods, reckoned among things divine by the most learned men?  Cicero should exclaim, not against the inventions of the poets, but against the customs of the ancients.  Would not they have exclaimed in reply, What have we done?  The gods themselves have loudly demanded that these plays should be exhibited in their honor, have fiercely exacted them, have menaced destruction unless this was performed, have avenged its neglect with great severity, and have manifested pleasure at the reparation of such neglect.  Among their virtuous and wonderful deeds the following is related.  It was announced in a dream to Titus Latinius, a Roman rustic, that he should go to the senate and tell them to recommence the games of Rome, because on the first day of their celebration a condemned criminal had been led to punishment in sight of the people, an incident so sad as to disturb the gods who were seeking amusement from the games.  And when the peasant who had received this intimation was afraid on the following day to deliver it to the senate, it was renewed next night in a severer form:  he lost his son, because of his neglect.  On the third night he was warned that a yet graver punishment was impending, if he should still refuse obedience.  When even thus he did not dare to obey, he fell into a virulent and horrible disease.  But then, on the advice of his friends, he gave information to the magistrates, and was carried in a litter into the senate, and having, on declaring his dream, immediately recovered strength, went away on his own feet whole. 178   The senate, amazed at so great a miracle, decreed that the games should be renewed at fourfold cost.  What sensible man does not see that men, being put upon by malignant demons, from whose domination nothing save the grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord sets free, have been compelled by force to exhibit to such gods as these, plays which, if well advised, they should condemn as shameful?  Certain it is that in these plays the poetic crimes of the gods are celebrated, yet they are plays which were re-established by decree of the senate, under compulsion of the gods.  In these plays the most shameless actors celebrated Jupiter as the corrupter of chastity, and thus gave him pleasure.  If that was a fiction, he would have been moved to anger; but if he was delighted with the representation of his crimes, even although fabulous, then, when he happened to be worshipped, who but the devil could be served?  Is it so that he could found, extend, and preserve the Roman empire, who was more vile than any Roman man whatever, to whom such things were displeasing?  Could he give felicity who was so infelicitously worshipped, and who, unless he should be thus worshipped, was yet more infelicitously provoked to anger?


Footnotes

78:177

Tusc. Quæst.i. 26.

78:178

Livy, ii. 36; Cicero, De Divin. 26.


Next: Chapter 27

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