'On the Government of God' by Salvian (circa 439)

Be ashamed, ye Roman people everywhere, be ashamed of the lives you lead! ... It is neither the strength of their bodies that makes the barbarians conquer, nor the weakness of our nature that makes us subject to defeat. Let no one think or persuade himself otherwise ---- it is our vicious lives alone that have conquered us. (Book 7)

[Work in Progress]

Book 1

By certain men God is said to be careless and neglectful of human actions, on the ground that he neither protects good men nor restrains the wicked; and they claim that this is why at the present time the good are generally wretched and the wicked happy. Since we are dealing with Christians the Holy Scriptures alone should be sufficient to refute this charge. The many who are still somewhat infected by pagan unbelief may perhaps be convinced by the testimony of the greatest pagan philosophers. Let us, then, prove that not even these men had any conception of a God careless and neglectful of the world...

Pythagoras the philosopher, whom Philosophy herself regarded as her master, said in his discourse on the nature and beneficent works of God: “The Soul moves to and fro and is diffused through all parts of the world, and from it all living creatures receive their life. . . .”

How then can God be said to neglect the world for which he so far shows his love that he extends his own being through its whole mass? Plato and all the Platonic school confess that God is the controller of all things. The Stoics testify that he remains always as steersman within that which he guides. What truer or more religious conception could they have had of the loving care of God than this comparison with a helmsman? For they clearly understood that as the helmsman never takes his hand from the tiller, so God never in the slightest degree withdraws his care from the world; and as the pilot catching the breezes, avoiding rocks, watching the stars, is completely absorbed, body and soul, in his task, so our God never turns his most gracious eyes from the whole extent of the world, nor takes away the guiding power of his providence, nor removes the indulgence of his most kindly love. [...] Tully [Cicero]  also says: “Nor indeed can God himself, who is known by us, be known in any other way than as a mind loosed and free and separated from all mortal matter, understanding all things and moving them.”

One of those of whom we complain said to a certain holy man who followed the true doctrine, that is, that God rules all things... : “Why then, I ask, are you yourself infirm?” His line of reasoning, I suppose, was as follows: “if God, as you think, rules everything in this present life, if he dispenses all fortunes, then how is it that a man whom I know to be a sinner is strong and healthy, whereas you, whose sanctity I do not question, are infirm?”

I answer... not in the name of any one saint but of them all: “Do you ask, then, whoever you are, how it is that holy men come to be weak? My answer is brief: they make themselves infirm for the express reason that if they are strong, they can hardly be holy.” I think that men gain strength entirely through their food and drink, and are weak through abstinence, thirst and fasting. Therefore it is not strange that those are weak who scorn the use of the means by which others are made strong. [...] This, then, is the reason why men who have given themselves over to Christ both are and wish to be weak. [...] What other reason could there be but that which he himself has given? “For the flesh lusteth against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary,” he says, “the one to the other, so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.”

It was not without insight that a certain author said in this connection that if the strength of the body prevents us from doing what we wish, the flesh must be weakened in order that we may achieve our desires. For he says: “The weakness of our flesh sharpens the vigor of the mind, and when our limbs are weakened bodily strength is transformed into spiritual virtue. Then our inmost parts no longer seethe with disgraceful passions, and secret desires no longer kindle a diseased mind; our senses do not roam wantonly over various enticements, but the soul alone exults, rejoicing in the weakness of the body as over a defeated adversary.”

This, as I said, is the cause to which religious men ascribe their infirmities, and you, I think, can no longer deny its validity.

Book 4

Nothing causes greater devastation in the poorer states than the high officials. Honor is bought by a few to be paid for by the oppression of the many; what could be more disgraceful or more unjust than this? Wretched men pay the purchase price for honors which they do not buy for themselves; they have nothing to do with the bargain, but know only too well the payments made; the world is turned upside down that a few men may be glorified; the honor of one man is the ruin of the human race.1

Book 5 On heresy, and on the oppression of the poor by the powerful throughout the Roman Empire.

What would you do if you had not felt the present judgment of God in the scourging you have just received? [...] Be content now, I pray, with robbing your friends and companions. Let it be enough that the poor have been harried and beggars despoiled by you, that hardly any one can keep from trembling in your presence, no one can feel secure. [...] You evict your neighbors from their little farms, those nearest you from their houses and property. Would you “be placed alone in the midst of the earth,” as it is written? This is the one end you cannot gain. Seize all that you can, occupy by force all that you can, still you shall always find a neighbor.

Learn the true good from a pagan, who says: “One should be fenced about by charity and goodwill, not by arms.” [Pliny Panegyric 49: “In vain has he girded himself with terror, who was not fenced about with charity; for arms are stirred up by arms.”]

So your delusions lead you astray; the wickedness of your blind and evil heart deceives you. If you wish to be upright, to be powerful, to be great, you ought to surpass other men not in ill will but in honor. I once read somewhere: “No one is wicked but a fool; for if he were wise, he would prefer to be good.” Do you, therefore, if you can at last return to sanity, put off your wickedness, if you wish wisdom. For if you hope to be at all wise or sane, you must discard all that you have been and change completely. Deny yourself that you may not be denied by Christ; cast yourself off that you may be received by him; lose yourself, that you may not perish. For the Savior says: “Whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.” Wherefore love this profitable loss, that you may gain true safety. For God will never set you free, unless you have first condemned yourself.

Book 6
On the ruinous influence of circuses and spectacles

In the first place, there is almost no crime or vice that does not accompany the games. In these the greatest pleasure is to have men die, or, what is worse and more cruel than death, to have them torn in pieces, to have the bellies of wild beasts gorged with human flesh; to have men eaten, to the great joy of the bystanders and the delight of onlookers, so that the victims seem devoured almost as much by the eyes of the audience as by the teeth of beasts. That such things may take place the whole world is ransacked; great is the care with which the search is carried on and perfected. Hidden retreats are entered, pathless ravines are searched, impenetrable forests traversed, the cloud-bearing Alps are climbed, the depths of valleys plumbed, and in order that the flesh of men may be devoured by wild beasts, the last secrets of the world of nature are revealed.

Therefore in these pictures of vice the whole people commits fornication mentally, and any who happen to come to the spectacle chaste go home from it adulterers. They are guilty of this fornication not only when they go home, but also when they come to the theater, for the very desire of the obscene makes a man unchaste who is hurrying toward an impure spectacle.

You see then in what actions all or the majority of Romans participate.

Do we perhaps suppose that, like the ancient pagans, we [Christians]  have a god of theaters and circuses? For they built the theaters and circuses long ago because they believed that such vanities were a delight to their idols.

...if in our hearts we know that God abhors and abominates them, that as they are the devil’s food so are they also a cause of offence
to God, then how can we say that we worship God in the church, we who always serve the devil in the obscene games with full knowledge and understanding and with deliberate intention?

Who can describe this delusion of ours, this folly? Are we really unable to enjoy ourselves day by day, and to laugh, without turning our laughter and joy into crime? or do we perhaps consider wholesome enjoyment profitless and find no pleasure in innocent laughter? What wickedness is this, I ask, and what insanity? [...] For what is the first confession of faith made by Christians in baptism for their salvation? What else than their vow to renounce the devil and his pomps and spectacles and his works? So in the very words of our profession of faith spectacles and pomps are the works of the devil261 How then, O Christian, shall you after baptism seek the spectacles, which you confess are the work of the devil? You have once renounced the devil and his spectacles, and therefore as a rational and intelligent being must recognize that in resorting again to them, you are returning to the devil. For you have renounced them both at the same time and declared them to be one and the same. If you return to one, you return to them both. For your words were: “I renounce the devil, his pomps and spectacles and his works.” What follows in your baptismal vows? “I believe in God the Father Almighty and in Jesus Christ his Son.” First then, you renounced the devil that you might believe in God, for he who does not renounce the devil does not believe in God and therefore he who returns to the devil forsakes God.

We prefer vain shows to God’s churches, we scorn his altars and honor the theaters.

...on every day when the fatal games are given, whatever festival of the church it may be, not only do men who claim to be Christians fail to come to the services, but any who do happen to have come unwittingly, if they chance to hear, while in the church, that games are being given, leave the building at once. The temple of God is scorned for a rush to the theater; the church is emptied and the circus filled; we leave Christ alone on the altar and feast our adulterous eyes on the foulest sights of the vile games.

What hope have Christian congregations in the sight of God when these evils cease to exist in the Roman cities only from the time when the cities themselves have come into subjection to barbarian jurisdiction? This mark of vice and impurity seems to be a native characteristic of the Romans, an inborn trait, for wherever there are Romans, these evils prevail.

...the collapse of the imperial fiscus and the beggary of the Roman treasury do not permit money to be lavished on trifling matters that make no return. [...] In respect of our lustful desires and our base pleasures we should certainly like to have more abundance, if only that we might be able to transmute our wealth into disgraceful filth.

Thus the spectacles are no longer possible in the cities where they were formerly performed; as God himself said to sinners through
his prophet: “The Lord remembered these things and it came into his mind, and the Lord could no longer bear, because of the evil of your doings and because of the abominations which ye have committed; therefore is your land a desolation, and an astonishment and a curse.”269 So it has come to pass that the greater part of the Roman world is become a desolation and an astonishment and a curse.

Our old abundance has deserted us; the resources of former times are gone, and we are in a wretched state, but do not cease our frivolities. Although even orphan wastrels are usually benefited by poverty, leaving off the error of their ways as soon as they have squandered their wealth, we seem to be a new class of profligates, in whom opulence has ceased to dwell, but dissipation persists.

...in each individual place where shows are held, not merely one devil, but devils of all varieties, for they preside over the places dedicated to their worship. Therefore in spectacles of this sort neither allurements nor vices are found alone. It is sacrilege for a Christian  to mingle with this superstition, sharing in the worship of those in whose festivals he takes delight.

We who are corrupted by prosperity, you say, are corrected through adversity. Long peace had made us unruly, but we are brought back by strife to moderation. In what cases have the dwellers in our cities, who were licentious in prosperity, begun to be chaste in adversity? When has drunkenness, which increased in the time of our peace and prosperity, ceased under the ravages of the enemy?

The city of Rome has been besieged and taken by storm: have the Romans therefore ceased their mad blasphemy? [...] ...did terror drive them to modesty and self-restraint?

Like that fabulous monster whose heads multiplied as they were cut off [the Lernaean hydra], so also in the most excellent city of Gaul, wickedness gathered strength from the very blows that punished it. You would have thought that the punishment intended to end the crimes of its people acted instead as the begetter of vice.

Perhaps such things have occurred in the past, but have now come to an end, or will do so at some future time. Yes, forsooth, if today any city or province that has been smitten by God’s scourge or devastated by the enemy appears humbled, converted and amended, if practically all who bear the Roman name do not prefer death to reformation, the end of their life to the end of their vices!

What followed these calamities? Who can assay such utter folly? The few men of rank who had survived destruction [of Treves] demanded of the emperors circuses as the sovereign remedy for a ruined city.

Do you, O citizens of Trèves, long for circuses when you have been plundered and captured, after slaughter and bloodshed, after stripes and captivity, and the repeated destruction of your ruined city? What is more lamentable than this stupidity, more grievous than this folly? I confess I thought you most miserable when you were suffering destruction, but I see that you are now more miserable when you demand public shows. At first I thought you had lost only your material property in the capture of your city; I did not know that you had lost also your intelligence and control of your senses. Do you then ask for theaters, and demand a circus from our emperors? For what condition, I ask, what people and what city? A city burned and destroyed, a people captive and killed, who have perished, or mourn their dead; a city of which nothing survives but sheer calamity, whose people are altogether anxious in their grief, worn out by tears, prostrate in bereavement, so that it is hard to say whether the lot of the living or the dead is worse to bear. So great are the miseries of the survivors that they surpass the ill fortune of the dead.

Do you then seek public shows, O citizen of Trèves? Where, pray, are they to be given? Over the pyres and ashes, the bodies and blood of the dead? For what part of your city is free from these? Where has blood not been shed, where are bodies and mangled limbs not strewn? Everywhere the city’s appearance betrays its capture, everywhere are the horror of captivity and the image of death. The remains of a most unhappy people lie on the graves of their dead, yet you ask for circuses; the city is blackened by fire, yet you put on a festive countenance; all things mourn, but you rejoice! Yea more, by your infamous pleasure you provoke God, and by your vile superstitions arouse his divine wrath. Can there be any wonder that such a fate has befallen you, when threefold destruction has not corrected you, so that you richly deserved to perish by the fourth?

...no portion whatever of the Roman world and Roman name, however greatly chastised by afflictions sent from heaven, has ever been corrected. Thus we prove that we do not deserve to enjoy prosperity, since we are not corrected by adversity.

Where are now the old resources and honors of Rome? The Romans were of old the mightiest of men, now they are without strength; of old they were feared, but now they live in fear; barbarous nations paid tribute to them, but to these same nations they are now tributary.  The enemy sell us the very daylight; almost our whole safety is purchased for a price. Alas for our misfortunes! to what a pass have we come! For this we give thanks to the barbarians, that we are allowed to ransom ourselves from them at a price. What could be more abjectly wretched than to live on such terms? Yet after all this we think that we are living, we whose lives depend on tribute! We even make ourselves additionally ridiculous
by pretending that the gold we pay is merely a gift. We call it a gift, yet it is really a ransom—but a ransom paid on unusually hard and wretched terms. ...we pay ransom constantly in order to have the privilege of continuing endlessly to pay.

Book 7

I admitted that the very people who, as pagans, conquered and ruled the world, are being conquered and enslaved, now that they have become Christians. Is not this clear evidence of God’s neglect of human affairs?

The Lord wishes to cure us by his chastisement, but improvement does not result. [...] ...in all parts of the world, since the healing care that is given us has no effect, our lives are being brought to an end by death and destruction. Indeed, not to repeat what I said some time ago, how can we define these disorders except by saying that we are at the same time living in misery and in luxury? Grant that luxury is the vice of the fortunate (though no one can be both infamous and happy at the same time, since there is no true happiness without honor), grant that these are the vices of a long peace and plentiful security, why then are they found where there is no longer peace or security? Almost throughout the Roman world peace and security have ceased. Why do only the vices they engender survive? Who can tolerate licentiousness in a needy man? Wantonness in poverty earns the more reproach, and a worthless fellow is more heavily censured if his condition is wretched.

The whole Roman world is at once wretched and voluptuous. What poor man is also wanton? What man awaiting captivity thinks of the circus? Who laughs in the shadow of death? Yet we, in the fear of captivity, continue to frequent the games, and shadowed by the fear of death, we laugh. You would think the whole Roman people had been steeped in Sardonic herbs: they are dying, yet they laugh. So in almost every part of the world tears follow close upon our laughter; and the saying of our Lord comes home to us at the present time: “Woe unto you that laugh, for ye shall weep.”


If my human frailty permitted, I should wish to shout beyond my strength, to make my voice ring through the whole world: Be ashamed, ye Roman people everywhere, be ashamed of the lives you lead! ... It is neither the strength of their bodies that makes the barbarians conquer, nor the weakness of our nature that makes us subject to defeat. Let no one think or persuade himself otherwise ---- it is our vicious lives alone that have conquered us.