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Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol III:
Tertullian: Part I: The Power of Rome.  Romanized Aspect of All the Heathen Mythology. Varro's Threefold Distribution Criticised. Roman Heroes (Æneas Included,) Unfavourably Reviewed.

Early Church Fathers  Index     

Chapter IX.—The Power of Rome. Romanized Aspect of All the Heathen Mythology. Varro’s Threefold Distribution Criticised. Roman Heroes (Æneas Included,) Unfavourably Reviewed.

Such are the more obvious or more remarkable points which we had to mention in connection with Varro’s threefold distribution of the gods, in order that a sufficient answer might seem to be given touching the physical, the poetic, and the gentile classes. Since, however, it is no longer to the philosophers, nor the poets, nor the nations that we owe the substitution of all (heathen worship for the true religion) although they transmitted the superstition, but to the dominant Romans, who received the tradition and gave it wide authority, another phase of the widespread error of man must now be encountered by us; nay, another forest must be felled by our axe, which has obscured the childhood of the degenerate worship 922 with germs of superstitions gathered from all quarters. Well, but even the gods of the Romans have received from (the same) Varro a threefold classification into the certain, the uncertain, and the select. What absurdity! What need had they of uncertain gods, when they possessed certain ones? Unless, forsooth, they wished to commit themselves to 923 such folly as the Athenians did; for at Athens there was an altar with this inscription: “To the unknown gods.” 924 Does, then, a man worship that which he knows nothing of? Then, again, as they had certain gods, they ought to have been contented with them, without requiring select ones. In this want they are even found to be irreligious! For if gods are selected as onions are, 925 then such as are not chosen are declared to be worthless. Now we on our part allow that the Romans had two sets of gods, common and proper; in other words, those which they had in common with other nations, and those which they themselves devised. And were not these called the public and the foreign 926 gods? Their altars tell us so; there is (a specimen) of the foreign gods at the fane of Carna, of the public gods in the Palatium. Now, since their common gods are comprehended in both the physical and the mythic classes, we have already said enough concerning them. I should like to speak of their particular kinds of deity. We ought then to admire the Romans for that third set of the gods of their enemies927 because no other nation ever discovered for itself so large a mass of superstition. Their other deities we arrange in two classes: those which have become gods from human beings, and those which have had their origin in some other way. Now, since there is advanced the same colourable pretext for the deification of the dead, that their lives were meritorious, we are compelled to urge the same reply against them, that no one of them was worth so much p. 138 pains.  Their fond 928 father Æneas, in whom they believed, was never glorious, and was felled with a stone 929 —a vulgar weapon, to pelt a dog withal, inflicting a wound no less ignoble! But this Æneas turns out 930 a traitor to his country; yes, quite as much as Antenor. And if they will not believe this to be true of him, he at any rate deserted his companions when his country was in flames, and must be held inferior to that woman of Carthage, 931 who, when her husband Hasdrubal supplicated the enemy with the mild pusillanimity of our Æneas, refused to accompany him, but hurrying her children along with her, disdained to take her beautiful self and father’s noble heart 932 into exile, but plunged into the flames of the burning Carthage, as if rushing into the embraces of her (dear but) ruined country. Is he “pious Æneas” for (rescuing) his young only son and decrepit old father, but deserting Priam and Astyanax? But the Romans ought rather to detest him; for in defence of their princes and their royal 933 house, they surrender 934 even children and wives, and every dearest pledge. 935 They deify the son of Venus, and this with the full knowledge and consent of her husband Vulcan, and without opposition from even Juno. Now, if sons have seats in heaven owing to their piety to their parents, why are not those noble youths 936 of Argos rather accounted gods, because they, to save their mother from guilt in the performance of some sacred rites, with a devotion more than human, yoked themselves to her car and dragged her to the temple? Why not make a goddess, for her exceeding piety, of that daughter 937 who from her own breasts nourished her father who was famishing in prison? What other glorious achievement can be related of Æneas, but that he was nowhere seen in the fight on the field of Laurentum? Following his bent, perhaps he fled a second time as a fugitive from the battle. 938 In like manner, Romulus posthumously becomes a god. Was it because he founded the city? Then why not others also, who have built cities, counting even 939 women? To be sure, Romulus slew his brother in the bargain, and trickishly ravished some foreign virgins. Therefore of course he becomes a god, and therefore a Quirinus (“god of the spear”), because then their fathers had to use the spear 940 on his account. What did Sterculus do to merit deification? If he worked hard to enrich the fields stercoribus941 (with manure,) Augias had more dung than he to bestow on them. If Faunus, the son of Picus, used to do violence to law and right, because struck with madness, it was more fit that he should be doctored than deified. 942 If the daughter of Faunus so excelled in chastity, that she would hold no conversation with men, it was perhaps from rudeness, or a consciousness of deformity, or shame for her father’s insanity. How much worthier of divine honour than this “good goddess” 943 was Penelope, who, although dwelling among so many suitors of the vilest character, preserved with delicate tact the purity which they assailed! There is Sanctus, too, 944 who for his hospitality had a temple consecrated to him by king Plotius; and even Ulysses had it in his power to have bestowed one more god upon you in the person of the most refined Alcinous.



Vitii pueritatem.


Recipere (with a dative).


Ignotis Deis. Comp. Acts xvii. 23.


Ut bulbi. This is the passage which Augustine quotes (de Civit. Dei, vii. 1) as “too facetious.”


Adventicii, “coming from abroad.”


Touching these gods of the vanquished nations, compare The Apology, xxv.; below, c. xvii.; Minucius Felix, Octav. xxv.




See Homer, Il. v. 300.




Referred to also above, i. 18.


The obscure “formam et patrem” is by Oehler rendered “pulchritudinem et generis nobilitatem.”


The word is “eorum” (possessive of “principum”), not “suæ.”


Dejerant adversus.


What Tertullian himself thinks on this point, see his de Corona, xi.


Cleobis and Biton; see Herodotus i. 31.


See Valerius Maximus, v. 4, 1.


We need not stay to point out the unfairness of this statement, in contrast with the exploits of Æneas against Turnus, as detailed in the last books of the Æneid.


Usque in.


We have thus rendered “quiritatem est,” to preserve as far as one could the pun on the deified hero of the Quirites.


We insert the Latin, to show the pun on Sterculus; see The Apology, c. xxv. [See p. 40, supra.]


Curaria quam consecrari.


Bona Dea, i.e., the daughter of Faunus just mentioned.


See Livy, viii. 20, xxxii. 1; Ovid, Fasti, vi. 213, etc. Compare also Augustine, de Civ. Dei, xviii. 19.  [Tom, vii. p. 576.]

Next: A Disgraceful Feature of the Roman Mythology. It Honours Such Infamous Characters as Larentina.

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