A Tale of Two Cities

De Civitate Dei

In Book V, the author contrasts Rome’s lost glory with God’s true blessings:

The martyrs followed in the steps of the apostles. They did not inflict suffering on themselves, but they endured what was inflicted on them; and in so doing they surpassed the Scaevolas, the Curtii, and the Decii [Roman heroes who risked their lives for the empire] by their true virtue, springing from true devotion, and by their countless multitude.

Those Roman heroes belonged to an earthly city, and the aim set before them, in all their acts of duty for her, was the safety of their country, and a kingdom not in heaven, but on earth; not in life eternal, but in the process where the dying pass away and are succeeded by those who will die in their turn. What else was there for them to love save glory? For, through glory, they desired to have a kind of life after death on the lips of those who praised them.

To such men as these God was not going to give eternal life with his angels in his own Heavenly City, the City to which true religion leads, which renders the supreme worship (the Greek word for it is latreia) only to the one true God. If God had not granted to them the earthly glory of an empire which surpassed all others, they would have received no reward for the good qualities, the virtues, that is, by means of which they labored to attain that great glory. When such men do anything good, their sole motive is the hope of receiving glory from their fellow-men; and the Lord refers to them when he says, “I tell you in truth, they have received their reward in full.” They took no account of their own material interests compared with the common good, that is the commonwealth and the public purse; they resisted the temptations of avarice; they acted for their country’s well-being with disinterested concern; they were guilty of no offense against the law; they succumbed to no sensual indulgence. By such immaculate conduct they labored toward honors, power and glory, by what they took to be the true way. And they were honored in almost all nations; they imposed their laws on many peoples; and today they enjoy renown in the history and literature of nearly all races. They have no reason to complain of the justice of God, the supreme and true. “They have received their reward in full.”

Very different is the reward of the saints. Here below they endure obloquy for the City of God, which is hateful to the lovers of this world. That City is eternal; no one is born there, because no one dies. There is the true felicity, which is no goddess, but the gift of God. From there we have received the pledge of our faith, in that we sigh for her beauty while on our pilgrimage. In that City the sun does not rise “on the good and on the evil"; the “sun of righteousness” spreads its light only on the good; there the public treasury needs no great efforts for its enrichment at the cost of private property; for there the common stock is the treasury of truth.

But more than this; the Roman Empire was not extended and did not attain to glory in men’s eyes simply for this, that men of this stamp should be accorded this kind of reward. It had this further purpose, that the citizens of that Eternal City, in the days of their pilgrimage, should fix their eyes steadily and soberly on those examples and observe what love they should have toward the City on high, in view of life eternal, if the earthly city had received such devotion from her citizens, in their hope of glory in the sight of men.

By Martin A. Marty

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #67 in 2000]

Reviewed by Martin A. Marty, professor emeritus of the University of Chicago.
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