The long twilight of the Roman gods

Aeneas and Sibyl in the Underworld, by Jan Bruegel the Elder

How to Think about God
By Marcus Tullius Cicero, translated by Philip Freeman
Princeton, 151pp, £13.99/$16.95

This handy little book could just have well been called “How to Think about God – just before Jesus Turned Up”.

It is a translation (with Latin on the lefthand page, as in a Loeb) of Cicero’s works On the Nature of the Gods and The Dream of Scipio. And it’s a good summary of the religious thoughts of the Stoics.

But what’s particularly striking is that it’s written by Cicero (106-43 BC), the great politician and orator, just before the birth of Jesus Christ. And, as such, it shows quite how dramatically different Christian thought was from Roman thought – and what a revolutionary religion Christianity is.

In On the Nature of the Gods, Cicero lays out his thoughts on Stoicism; he, like many Romans, was heavily influenced by Greek thought. Those thoughts are presented through a debate between Velleius the Epicurean, who argues against the gods having any interest in human affairs, and Balbus the Stoic, who argues that the universe is controlled by a divine presence.

Balbus gives, albeit in elegant Latin, a rather weak justification for the existence of the gods: “What could be more clear and obvious when we gaze at the sky and contemplate the heavens, than that there is some divine power of surpassing intelligence which rules over this realm?”

I’m not sure Richard Dawkins would be convinced.

At another point, Cicero writes: “The existence of the Gods is so abundantly clear that I regard anyone who denies it as out of his mind.”

For all his belief in the gods, Balbus is surprisingly sceptical about earlier classical beliefs. Are there any ignorant old women, he wonders, who still believe in the monsters of the underworld which people once feared?

Suddenly Virgil’s Aeneid – written not long after Cicero’s death – and Aeneas’s descent into the Underworld look less like an accurate picture of devout Roman beliefs than a sort of fantasy legend, the equivalent to the Romans of Tolkien or Philip Pullman.

The idea of augury or taking the auspices – in other words, interpreting omens – had also become outdated by Cicero’s time: “We no longer call on the gods when crossing rivers nor when our spears flash,” says Balbus. The Romans – or sophisticated ones like some of Cicero’s speakers here, anyway – are much more sceptical than we like to think, as we assume in a patronising way that ancient civilisations were much less self-doubting than our own.

That’s not to say that, in Roman eyes, the gods weren’t thought by many to be in ultimate control of the tides, the moon and the stars, as Cicero writes. And you can see how the Romans logically – if erroneously – filled gaps in their scientific knowledge with divine power. Balbus notices that hearts, veins and arteries throbbed with warmth. But, rather than connecting that throbbing warmth with blood movement, Balbus concludes that such elemental heat is derived from a vital force that extends through the whole universe – a universe which, because it’s controlled by God, possesses perfect and absolute reason.

All this isn’t too far removed from Old Testament thought about the creation of the universe. But Roman Stoic thought puts man on a higher pedestal than the Old Testament did. “Humans have emerged for contemplating and imitating the universe,” writes one of Cicero’s speakers. “We are certainly not perfect but we are a part of perfection.”

That puts man in a more commanding, superior position than he appears in the Old Testament – and certainly more so than in the New Testament. The Romans, of course, worshipped many gods while Christians were to worship one. Still, the Romans were familiar with another monotheistic religion, Judaism.

There’s another big difference here between Roman religion and the Christianity that emerged shortly after Cicero. The obligations towards your fellow man that Jesus preaches – of kindness, love and charity towards the poor – are much less prominent in Roman religion.

Philip Freeman’s introduction and translation are models of their kind. This book would work well on its own as a way of learning how to translate Cicero’s beautiful but complex Latin. Freeman’s translations are colloquial without being slangy or bathetic; they give an accurate picture of Cicero’s writing without being too literal or prolix.

Along the way, too, you get a good feel for everyday thought in 1st-century BC Rome. You see how strong a presence Greek thought remained in sophisticated Rome, long after Greece had been conquered by Rome. As Horace put it, “Captured Greece took captive her savage conquerer and brought the arts to rustic Latium.” In other words, Greece may have been conquered but she still shaped Roman culture.

But the book’s principal use is to show what the Roman Empire thought about the gods just before the birth of a visionary baby changed everything, just over 2,000 years ago.

Harry Mount is author of Amo, Amas, Amat and All That (Short Books)