St Augustine on ancient Troy

Last week was Classics week at school (pictures on the departmental twitter feed here). It was an opportunity to put on a range of events – talks, trips, a quiz, a baking competition etc. – with the aim of building a sense of what the study of the ancient world is and can be about, and why it’s exciting. The theme for the week (proposed by one of my colleagues in the Classics department) was the Trojan War.

This made sense as it’s a theme that dovetails neatly with the special exhibition currently showing at the British Museum on just this topic. And the theme worked well: we were very happy to welcome Dr Simon Pulleyn from UCL to talk to us about some aspects of the depiction of Helen in Homer’s Iliad, as well as about some of the linguistic questions which arise through study of the poem. Over the course of the week, and as with the British Museum exhibits, there was a chance to range widely – looking not just at the poetry of Homer, but at the way the Trojan war has been thought about and understood more broadly through time and space.

I myself started the week with a Monday morning assembly touching on a few of the contexts in which the Iliad has had an important impact. These formed the basis of 3 further talks I gave over the course of the week (possible overkill, I concede, but I couldn’t help myself…).

I looked first at the reception of Homer’s gods in ancient Greece, where the description of his poem as ‘Bible of the Greeks’ is not wholly misleading; at the use made of Homer by the Roman poet Virgil, particularly in connection with his depiction of the emperor Augustus in the Aeneid; at the use of the Iliad in the context of psychological therapy for Vietnam war veterans, as outlined in the brilliant book Achilles in Vietnam, by Jonathan Shay; and at some of the recent retellings of Homer from female perspectives, in books like Margaret Attwood’s Penelopiad and Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls. There is in fact an ancient pedigree for this last sort of writing: we see it most clearly on display in Euripides’ fifth century BC play, The Trojan Women.

By the end of the week, like everyone else, I was ready for a rest. But I’ve been waiting to find a chance to write up a few thoughts about the subject matter of my final talk of the week: this concerned the way St Augustine, in his magnum opus The City of God, writes about the Trojan war, just a few years after the sack of Rome by Visigothic invaders, in the early 5th century AD.

Antonio Rodriguez (1636-91), St Augustine

Augustine wrote at a time when stories of Troy, as presented (in particular) by Homer and Virgil, were coming to be viewed in a new and different light. The Christianisation of the Roman west was by now well underway (it had been more than a century since the accession of the emperor Constantine), and Christian thinkers had for decades now been aiming to recalibrate popular understandings of the shape and significance of Roman – and cosmic – history. Writing the Trojan war out of history (and out of Roman religion) – or at least writing it off –  was part of this process.

For first century BC Roman writers like Virgil and the historian Livy, stories of the Trojan war could occupy a proud place of precedence in their tellings of the origins of Roman history. But this way of situating and explaining the development of Roman history, and indeed world history (in relation to the Homeric tales of Troy) was something that made a good deal less sense for writers inspired by Christianity.

Christian writers tended to see the history of Rome, and indeed the history of the cosmos, in an altogether different light. They wanted to tell historical stories that followed a trajectory featuring not Achilles, Aeneas, Romulus and Remus, but instead tales of the Bible – of Noah, Abraham, Isaac and King David.

Christian history writing, as the great historian of historiography Arnaldo Momigliano emphasises, is profoundly influenced in its most fundamental conceptions by Jewish history writing. The foremost influence over the early Christian historiographical tradition, in fact, was the first century AD Jewish historian Josephus.


Augustine himself was not a historian. But in his City of God – a work of theology – he presents passages of prolonged reflection and argument about historical topics. And, like Christian historians, Augustine is fundamentally uninterested in sustaining older linear narratives of Roman history. He is interested rather in vindicating and championing new, Christian ways of seeing and understanding the past.

His treatment of the Trojan war – to which he turns his attention in book 3 – is a case in point. For Augustine, Homeric accounts of the war at Troy do not count as credible historical records. He is particularly unimpressed by Homer’s Trojan gods, most notably Apollo and Poseidon. Poseidon, he notes, was simultaneously credited with building up the city walls of Troy, and – then – with joining the Greek assault on the city.

Poseidon punishes Trojan bad faith (the bad faith in question being the failure of Laomedon, Priam’s father, to pay the sea god for his help in constructing the original city walls of Troy, as outlined at Il. 21.441f.). Meanwhile, Augustine wonders wryly whether it’s more dangerous to believe in such a god or to let him down. He also wonders why – if Troy’s gods are indeed Rome’s gods, as Roman tradition had maintained – a Trojan act of bad faith was punishable in this way, while the perjurious acts of unscrupulous Roman senators apparently were not.

Augustine mocks the idea that the Homeric gods could have had any serious issue with the adultery of Paris (when he took Helen, Menelaus’ wife). The gods themselves were serial adulterers, he notes. He also dismisses the idea that the leading men of the Roman imperial period could reliably trace their ancestries back to Troy, and indeed to the gods themselves (‘Caesar’, he notes, was ‘convinced that Venus was his ancestress’).

Here he takes issue with the subtle perspective of the first century BC Roman encyclopaedist Varro, who supplies Augustine with much of his raw material in the City of God. In Varro’s eyes, a prominent Roman who constructed his identity with reference to divine Trojan ancestors was making a positive move. It was positive, he thought, because it might make him more energetic in action, more bold in undertaking noble deeds, and more secure within himself. The dangers of hubris, apparently, did not loom large in Varro’s view of things!


But, back to Augustine, whose major query about the Homeric (and Roman) gods was this: why should these gods have been so incapable of protecting Troy, yet so capable of protecting Rome (at least, that is, during its years of imperial greatness)? And what was missing from Troy that Rome had come to possess, so that the gods might favour one city, but not the other? Here, in Augustine’s view, was a key and unanswerable question – and it is a question whose unanswerability (he thought) ought really to undermine in its very foundations the traditional, and rather naive, Roman religious worldview.

Augustine has a final point about Troy. He notes that the Roman general Fimbria, in the early 1st century BC, brutally razed a rebuilt latter-day Troy, completely destroying the city and ordering the slaughter of all its inhabitants. But wait: was this not the city that had given the Romans their gods? Why, then, should a Roman general destroy a city whose gods (which were also his own) ought to have been protecting it? The flawed logic of Roman theology is, for Augustine, exposed here all too clearly.

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A depiction of Gaius Flavius Fimbria, whose exploits are first recorded by Livy

In Augustine, the tragic fate of ancient Troy, and the stories told by Homer, are not subjected to thoroughgoing scrutiny – historical, literary, archaeological – in the ways characteristic of modern scholarship. Augustine’s exploration is motivated rather by a desire to dislodge a theological perspective whose weakness he feels confident in identifying. He does not accept that ‘the gods’ acted as protectors either of Troy or of Rome in its imperial heyday.

Even in his doubts, however, Augustine remains very much a theologian: he does not wish to suggest that no god can act as the protector and champion of a people through history. Indeed, his contention is that the rise of Rome, and the city’s greatness, are things that have in fact happened under the oversight of the Christian God, rather than the gods of Troy. Given the recent sacking of Rome, this might seem (and might have seemed also in the 5th century) a quite remarkable point of view for a Christian theologian to advance.

Featured image (top) is Destruction, from Thomas Cole’s series, The Course of Empire.