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Chapter X. 604 —The Christians are Not the Only Contemners of the Gods. Contempt of Them Often Displayed by Heathen Official Persons. Homer Made the Gods Contemptible.

Pour out now all your venom; fling against this name of ours all your shafts of calumny: I shall stay no longer to refute them; but they shall by and by be blunted, when we come to explain our entire discipline. 605 I shall content myself now indeed with plucking these shafts out of our own body, and hurling them back on yourselves. The same wounds which you have inflicted on us by your charges I shall show to be imprinted on yourselves, that you may fall by your own swords and javelins. 606 Now, first, when you direct against us the general charge of divorcing ourselves from the institutions of our forefathers, consider again and again whether you are not yourselves open to that accusation in common with us. For when I look through your life and customs, lo, what do I discover but the old order of things corrupted, nay, destroyed by you?  Of the laws I have already said, that you are daily supplanting them with novel decrees and statutes. As to everything else in your manner of life, how great are the changes you have made from your ancestors—in your style, your dress, your equipage, your very food, and even in your speech; for the old-fashioned you banish, as if it were offensive to you! Everywhere, in your public pursuits and private duties, antiquity is repealed; all the authority of your forefathers your own authority has superseded. To be sure, 607 you are for ever praising old customs; but this is only to your greater discredit, for you nevertheless persistently reject them. How great must your perverseness have been, to have bestowed approbation on your ancestors’ institutions, which were too inefficient to be lasting, all the while that you were rejecting the very objects of your approbation! But even that very heir-loom 608 of your forefathers, which you seem to guard and defend with greatest fidelity, in which you actually 609 find your strongest grounds for impeaching us as violators of the law, and from which your hatred of the Christian name derives all its life—I mean the worship of the gods—I shall prove to be undergoing ruin and contempt from yourselves no less than 610 (from us),—unless it be that there is no reason for our being regarded as despisers of the gods like yourselves, on the ground that nobody despises what he knows has absolutely no existence.  What certainly exists can be despised.  That which is nothing, suffers nothing. From those, therefore, to whom it is an existing thing, 611 must necessarily proceed the suffering which affects it. All the heavier, then, is the accusation which burdens you who believe that there are gods and (at the same time) despise them, who worship and also reject them, who honour and also assail them. One may also gather the same conclusion from this consideration, above all:  since you worship various gods, some one and some another, you of course despise those which you do not worship.  A preference for the one is not possible without slighting the other, and no choice can be made without a rejection.  He who selects some one out of many, has already slighted the other which he does not select. But it is impossible that so many and so great gods can be worshipped by all.  Then you must have exercised your contempt (in this matter) even at the beginning, since indeed you were not then afraid of so ordering things, that all the gods could not become objects of worship to all. For those very wise and prudent ancestors of yours, whose institutions you know not how to repeal, especially in respect of your gods, are themselves found to have been impious. I am much mistaken, if they did not sometimes decree that no general should dedicate a temple, which he may have vowed in battle, before the senate gave its sanction; as in the case of Marcus Æmilius, who had made p. 119 a vow to the god Alburnus. Now is it not confessedly the greatest impiety, nay, the greatest insult, to place the honour of the Deity at the will and pleasure of human judgment, so that there cannot be a god except the senate permit him? Many times have the censors destroyed 612 (a god) without consulting the people.  Father Bacchus, with all his ritual, was certainly by the consuls, on the senate’s authority, cast not only out of the city, but out of all Italy; whilst Varro informs us that Serapis also, and Isis, and Arpocrates, and Anubis, were excluded from the Capitol, and that their altars which the senate had thrown down were only restored by the popular violence. The Consul Gabinius, however, on the first day of the ensuing January, although he gave a tardy consent to some sacrifices, in deference to the crowd which assembled, because he had failed to decide about Serapis and Isis, yet held the judgment of the senate to be more potent than the clamour of the multitude, and forbade the altars to be built. Here, then, you have amongst your own forefathers, if not the name, at all events the procedure, 613 of the Christians, which despises the gods.  If, however, you were even innocent of the charge of treason against them in the honour you pay them, I still find that you have made a consistent advance in superstition as well as impiety.  For how much more irreligious are you found to be! There are your household gods, the Lares and the Penates, which you possess 614 by a family consecration: 615 you even tread them profanely under foot, you and your domestics, by hawking and pawning them for your wants or your whims. Such insolent sacrilege might be excusable, if it were not practised against your humbler deities; as it is, the case is only the more insolent. There is, however, some consolation for your private household gods under these affronts, that you treat your public deities with still greater indignity and insolence. First of all, you advertise them for auction, submit them to public sale, knock them down to the highest bidder, when you every five years bring them to the hammer among your revenues. For this purpose you frequent the temple of Serapis or the Capitol, hold your sales there, 616 conclude your contracts, 617 as if they were markets, with the well-known 618 voice of the crier, (and) the self-same levy 619 of the quæstor. Now lands become cheaper when burdened with tribute, and men by the capitation tax diminish in value (these are the well-known marks of slavery).  But the gods, the more tribute they pay, become more holy; or rather, 620 the more holy they are, the more tribute do they pay. Their majesty is converted into an article of traffic; men drive a business with their religion; the sanctity of the gods is beggared with sales and contracts. You make merchandise of the ground of your temples, of the approach to your altars, of your offerings, 621 of your sacrifices. 622 You sell the whole divinity (of your gods). You will not permit their gratuitous worship. The auctioneers necessitate more repairs 623 than the priests.

It was not enough that you had insolently made a profit of your gods, if we would test the amount of your contempt; and you are not content to have withheld honour from them, you must also depreciate the little you do render to them by some indignity or other. What, indeed, do you do by way of honouring your gods, which you do not equally offer to your dead? You build temples for the gods, you erect temples also to the dead; you build altars for the gods, you build them also for the dead; you inscribe the same superscription over both; you sketch out the same lineaments for their statues—as best suits their genius, or profession, or age; you make an old man of Saturn, a beardless youth of Apollo; you form a virgin from Diana; in Mars you consecrate a soldier, a blacksmith in Vulcan. No wonder, therefore, if you slay the same victims and burn the same odours for your dead as you do for your gods. What excuse can be found for that insolence which classes the dead of whatever sort 624 as equal with the gods? Even to your princes there are assigned the services of priests and sacred ceremonies, and chariots, 625 and cars, and the honours of the solisternia and the lectisternia, holidays and games. Rightly enough, 626 since heaven is open to them; still it is none the less contumelious to the gods: in the first place, because it could not possibly be decent that other beings should be numbered with them, even if it has been given to them to become divine after their birth; in the second place, because the witness who beheld the man caught up into heaven 627 would not forswear himself so freely and palpably before the people, if it were not for the conp. 120 tempt felt about the objects sworn to both by himself and those 628 who allow the perjury. For these feel of themselves, that what is sworn to is nothing; and more than that, they go so far as to fee the witness, because he had the courage to publicly despise the avengers of perjury. Now, as to that, who among you is pure of the charge of perjury?  By this time, indeed, there is an end to all danger in swearing by the gods, since the oath by Cæsar carries with it more influential scruples, which very circumstance indeed tends to the degradation of your gods; for those who perjure themselves when swearing by Cæsar are more readily punished than those who violate an oath to a Jupiter. But, of the two kindred feelings of contempt and derision, contempt is the more honourable, having a certain glory in its arrogance; for it sometimes proceeds from confidence, or the security of consciousness, or a natural loftiness of mind. Derision, however, is a more wanton feeling, and so far it points more directly 629 to a carping insolence. Now only consider what great deriders of your gods you show yourselves to be! I say nothing of your indulgence of this feeling during your sacrificial acts, how you offer for your victims the poorest and most emaciated creatures; or else of the sound and healthy animals only the portions which are useless for food, such as the heads and hoofs, or the plucked feathers and hair, and whatever at home you would have thrown away. I pass over whatever may seem to the taste 630 of the vulgar and profane to have constituted the religion 631 of your forefathers; but then the most learned and serious classes (for seriousness and wisdom to some extent 632 profess 633 to be derived from learning) are always, in fact, the most irreverent towards your gods; and if their learning ever halts, it is only to make up for the remissness by a more shameful invention of follies and falsehoods about their gods. I will begin with that enthusiastic fondness which you show for him from whom every depraved writer gets his dreams, to whom you ascribe as much honour as you derogate from your gods, by magnifying him who has made such sport of them. I mean Homer by this description. He it is, in my opinion, who has treated the majesty of the Divine Being on the low level of human condition, imbuing the gods with the falls 634 and the passions of men; who has pitted them against each other with varying success, like pairs of gladiators: he wounds Venus with an arrow from a human hand; he keeps Mars a prisoner in chains for thirteen months, with the prospect of perishing; 635 he parades 636 Jupiter as suffering a like indignity from a crowd of celestial (rebels;) or he draws from him tears for Sarpedon; or he represents him wantoning with Juno in the most disgraceful way, advocating his incestuous passion for her by a description and enumeration of his various amours. Since then, which of the poets has not, on the authority of their great prince, calumniated the gods, by either betraying truth or feigning falsehood? Have the dramatists also, whether in tragedy or comedy, refrained from making the gods the authors 637 of the calamities and retributions (of their plays)? I say nothing of your philosophers, whom a certain inspiration of truth itself elevates against the gods, and secures from all fear in their proud severity and stern discipline. Take, for example, 638 Socrates. In contempt of your gods, he swears by an oak, and a dog, and a goat.  Now, although he was condemned to die for this very reason, the Athenians afterwards repented of that condemnation, and even put to death his accusers. By this conduct of theirs the testimony of Socrates is replaced at its full value, and I am enabled to meet you with this retort, that in his case you have approbation bestowed on that which is now-a-days reprobated in us.  But besides this instance there is Diogenes, who, I know not to what extent, made sport of Hercules; whilst Varro, that Diogenes of the Roman cut, 639 introduces to our view some three hundred Joves, or, as they ought to be called, Jupiters, 640 (and all) without heads. Your other wanton wits 641 likewise minister to your pleasures by disgracing the gods. Examine carefully the sacrilegious 642 beauties of your Lentuli and Hostii; now, is it the players or your gods who become the objects of your mirth in their tricks and jokes? Then, again, with what pleasure do you take up the literature of the stage, which describes all the foul conduct of the gods! Their majesty is defiled in your presence in some unchaste body. The mask of some deity, at your will, 643 covers some infamous paltry head. The Sun mourns for the death of his son by a lightning-flash amid your rude rejoicing. p. 121 Cybele sighs for a shepherd who disdains her, without raising a blush on your cheek; and you quietly endure songs which celebrate 644 the gallantries of Jove. You are, of course, possessed of a more religious spirit in the show of your gladiators, when your gods dance, with equal zest, over the spilling of human blood, (and) over those filthy penalties which are at once their proof and plot for executing your criminals, or else (when) your criminals are punished personating the gods themselves. 645 We have often witnessed in a mutilated criminal your god of Pessinum, Attis; a wretch burnt alive has personated Hercules. We have laughed at the sport of your mid-day game of the gods, when Father Pluto, Jove’s own brother, drags away, hammer in hand, the remains of the gladiators; when Mercury, with his winged cap and heated wand, tests with his cautery whether the bodies were really lifeless, or only feigning death.  Who now can investigate every particular of this sort although so destructive of the honour of the Divine Being, and so humiliating to His majesty? They all, indeed, have their origin 646 in a contempt (of the gods), on the part both of those who practise 647 these personations, as well as of those 648 who are susceptible of being so represented. 649 I hardly know, therefore, whether your gods have more reason to complain of yourselves or of us. After despising them on the one hand, you flatter them on the other; if you fail in any duty towards them, you appease them with a fee; 650 in short, you allow yourselves to act towards them in any way you please. We, however, live in a consistent and entire aversion to them.



Comp. The Apology, cc. xii. xiii. xiv. xv.


See The Apology (passim), especially cc. xvi.–xxiv., xxx.–xxxvi., and xxxix.










Perinde a vobis.


Quibus est.


Adsolaverunt, “thrown to the ground;” “floored.”


Sectam. [Rather—“A Christian secession.”]




Domestica consecratione, i.e., “for family worship.”








Exactione, “as excise duty for the treasury.”




“In money,” stipibus.


“ Victims. ”


Plus refigitur.


Utut mortuos.






Rigaltius has the name Proculus in his text; but Tertullian refers not merely to that case but to a usual functionary, necessary in all cases of deification.


Oehler reads “ei” (of course for “ii”); Rigalt. reads “ii.”


Denotatior ad.


Gulæ, “Depraved taste.”


Prope religionem convenire, “to have approximated to.”




Credunt, one would expect “creduntur” (“are supposed”), which is actually read by Gothofredus.


Or, “circumstances” (casibus).


Fortasse periturum.


Traducit, perhaps “degrades.”


Ut dei præfarentur. Oehler explains the verb “præfari” to mean “auctorem esse et tanquam caput.”






Tertullian gives the comic plural “Juppiteres.”




Because appropriating to themselves the admiration which was due to the gods.


Cujuslibet dei.


Sustinetis modulari.


It is best to add the original of this almost unintelligible passage:  “Plane religiosiores estis in gladiatorum cavea, ubi super sanguinem humanum, supra inquinamenta pœnarum proinde saltant dei vestri argumenta et historias nocentibus erogandis, aut in ipsis deis nocentes puniuntur.” Some little light may be derived from the parallel passage of the Apology (c. xv.), which is expressed somewhat less obscurely. Instead of the words in italics, Tertullian there substitutes these: “Argumenta et historias noxiis ministrantes, nisi quod et ipsos deos vestros sæpe noxii induunt”—“whilst furnishing the proofs and the plots for (executing) criminals, only that the said criminals often act the part of your gods themselves.”  Oehler refers, in illustration of the last clause, to the instance of the notorious robber Laureolus, who personated Prometheus; others, again, personated Laureolus himself: some criminals had to play the part of Orpheus; others of Mutius Scævola. It will be observed that these executions were with infamous perverseness set off with scenic show, wherein the criminal enacted some violent death in yielding up his own life. The indignant irony of the whole passage, led off by the “plane religiosiores estis,” is evident.






i.e., the gods themselves.





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