Augustine's Critique of the Roman Empire

This year’s election cycle promises to reveal more and more of the sickness that seems to afflict America. For years, the virus eating away at our teetering national life slept under the surface waiting for the body to weaken. Now it is attacking. Where should a Christian stand?

Roman Empire


The Roman Way

As dead flies give perfume a bad smell, so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor” (Ecclesiastes 10:1). 


The power and influence of the Roman Empire was the cultural setting for the life and work of Jesus and the rise of the Western Christian Church. Roman philosophy was a mixed bag, but ultimately, two ideas surfaced as the driving force behind the Roman concept of success.

1. Earthly Happiness.

The Romans were, on the whole, optimistic. They believed that the pursuit of earthly happiness was not only achievable but the ultimate aim of humanity.


To be happy — and the definition of earthly happiness mutated over the centuries — was the primary moral good.


They believed in the human capacity to create this state of happiness — the human ability to plan and reason and build and overcome.


For all of their statues, shrines, and cathedrals dedicated to the deities, they were, in practice, thoroughly humanistic.


2. A Just Social Order.

The Romans believed that justice would prevail if humans were simply able to reason together and create a just society. They believed that their society was primarily a meritocracy and that a person of sound mind and body could rise to any position of power or influence if they simply worked hard enough.


This naturally led them to believe that the ability to make money reflected not only a certain practical ability but also a superior inner virtue. Wealth was seen as a sign of intellectual, emotional, and moral health. Fame due to the amassing of wealth was seen as a virtue worthy of emulation.


It stood to reason, then, that a society built on the work of her most worthy citizens, was ultimately a just society.  Anyone at the bottom of that society who disagreed was simply a laggard, jealous of the virtue and success of those at the top.


In addition, the minimal role the gods eventually played was that of benevolent blessers. The Roman Empire was the most powerful force on earth and therefore obviously blessed by the gods.


After the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, the Christian Philosopher and Historian, Eusebius proposed that earthly power was God’s instrument for establishing Christianity on earth.


So that the powerful in Rome were now not just privileged, and virtuous by virtue of their position, but were also blessed and righteous in God’s eyes.



Augustine disagreed … furiously.



Augustine’s Critique of Rome

What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” (Romans 7:24).


Augustine was a Christian Bishop at the turn of the fourth and fifth centuries AD. He ministered for 35 years to a poor and uneducated congregation on the fringes of a radically decaying Roman Empire in a north African town called Hippo. He is one of the most important theologians in Christian history and his critique of the Roman Empire is chillingly relevant today.


In his masterpiece, City of God, he attacked and destroyed both of the aforementioned Roman assumptions — that human life could be perfected and that societies were just.


It was Augustine who came up with the idea of original sin. This is the idea that all human beings — not just a few reprobates — are crooked and broken.


When it comes to virtue, no one can claim a superior position, for we are all so far away from the Perfect One that the moral differences between us are rendered negligible and insignificant.


We all fall equally short of the righteousness of God because we are all unwitting heirs of the sin of Adam (Rom. 3:23). We are born with the brokenness that no self-help course can correct.


In addition, our sinful nature gives rise to what Augustine called a Libido Dominandi, a “desire to dominate.” This “desire to dominate” is manifest in the horrible, brutal, and violent ways we treat those around us.


We cannot properly love because we are constantly undermined by our egoism and pride — the two sins that fuel the Libido Dominandi. We are filled with anxiety and feelings of guilt and shame because we know inherently that the mask we wear is fragile and our own powers to reason and discern are frail and untrustworthy.


At first, this may seem a depressing and pessimistic view of life. However, there is a freeing and empowering effect from the Augustinian view of humanity.


The Christian Way

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free …” (Luke 4:18). 


When we understand that all human beings are inherently broken and can only find wholeness in Christ, then we begin to see the world through very different eyes. It frees us from guilt and shame, and it empowers us to live with courageous altruism.


There are four important ramifications of Augustine’s Biblical worldview.


1. We are under no delusion about the “pursuit of happiness.”

We understand that true happiness is never found in the material things of this world. There is nothing wrong with enjoying the material. However, human happiness can only be found in God and in pleasing him in our work, relationships, and enjoyment.


We were created to worship and please God. We enjoy Him all our days on earth and we spend eternity enjoying our true reward.


As Calvin Miller wrote, “The world is poor because her treasure is buried in heaven, but all her treasure maps are of the earth.”


2. We have a compassionate view of our fellow human beings.

We are all in the same boat. And it’s sinking.


When we understand that we all inherit the same broken flesh, we see every human being as being on the same team.


The word compassion means “to feel with.” We can feel with our fellow human beings because we all walk in the same frail and fragile shoes.


3. We have a forgiving view toward our own sin.

We recognize that the shortcomings we experience are a ramification of our own nature. To fail is to be human. To be human is to fall short.


Success in life, then, must be judged not by how many times we fall, but by how many times we get back up.


4. We are under no delusion about the evils of our own society.

We recognize that all governing systems designed and created by human beings are corrupted by sin. We understand that the answer to our problems, the balm for our pain, the healer of our wounds of war, is never a human construct.


Only God can save us from our misery.


We pray for our societal leaders. We are thankful for them.


However, we never worship them, deify them, elevate them, or align them with the power of God. Nor do we expect to find happiness through their efforts.


It is only in this posture — living outside the corridors of political power — that we can speak the truth — unmasking the evil that is always crouching at our side (Gen. 4:7).



Eusebius’ attractive view won the day in the Roman Empire, bringing unprecedented moral corruption to the church and costing the lives of thousands of “heretics, pagans, and other unrighteous protestors (the root word for Protestants).”


Let us pray for more theologians like Augustine and fewer like Eusebius.









Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.