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Even Smaller Gods

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My apologies–or maybe not–to Terry Pratchett.

There was a minor deity (small god?) in classical Rome called Vaticanus, who was the god of crying infants.

I came across this information while sort of winding my way through City of God. 

It’s one of those books that isn’t really a book in the way we define the term now.  It’s mostly a collection of short (very short, often only a paragraph or two) expositions on one subject or another having to do with the differences between Christianity and paganism, the nature of paganism, the reality (or lack of it) of pagan gods…that kind of thing.

Augustine wrote it in the wake of the sack of Rome in 410, because many people were declaring that Rome had left herself open to sack because the Christians had proscribed the old rites and worship of the pagan gods.

It all sounds very esoteric, put the way I’ve put it, but it’s actually fascinating, because so much of the context of Augustine’s book is similar to the context now, sometimes in direct and particular ways.

First, though, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Vaticanus. 

Augustine finds it absurd and laughable that there should be a god of crying infants.  And on that score, he and I are in complete agreement.  Besides, there’s not just a god of crying infants.  There’s a goddess of  sleeping infants (Cunina) and another (can’t remember the name) for infants suckling at the breast. 

I told my older son about this and he said, “Mel Brooks was right.  The Romans had a god for everything.”

My initial interest, though, was in the name of this one.  It can’t be an accident, after all.  The name “Vatican” must come from “Vaticanus” in some way, if not from the name of the god then for the name of something or someone else named Vaticanus.

I’ve got to assume that, even though I can’t find it, there must be someone or something else, because I can’t imagine the Church naming its principle place of authority after the Roman god of crying infants.


To get back to the point I thought I was heading for, and hoping that I will not do with this post what I did with the last one, which was first spend a lot of time writing it and then forget to publish it for more than thirty six hours after I was finished. 

I’m not getting a lot of sleep lately.

Augustine’s book is eerily familiar, if not contemporary, in more than one way.

For one thing, its overall context has more in common with now than I remembered from reading it in grad school. 

Even the idea that this is an argument between Christianity and paganism fits.  There are a number of secular people these days who like to call themselves “modern pagans.”

They don’t mean by that that they believe in and worship gods like Vaticanus, but that they are opting for a world in which moral questions are decided by philosophy rather than theology and in which many practices (sexual practices, yes, but also things like suicide) that were proscribed by the Christian Church would be allowed and even honored.

Some of the practices in question, then, are the same in Augustine’s time and our own.  Chief among them are homosexuality and sex outside the marriage bond.

I don’t remember Rome being all that fond of the idea of sex outside the marriage bond for women,  but Augustine lived at a time in the history of Christianity when it had yet to come to a comfortable little compromise with the Don Juans of the world, so there’s that.

We, of course, have come to the point where we think that everybody screwing everybody else all the time is not only perfectly normal, but probably desirable.

Augustine seems to think that the Romans of his era, and of many eras before his, thought much the same as we do about generalized rutting, and he’s good at bringing up details on just those practices.

He’s especially good at bringing up such details when they’re stories of the rutting activities of the various Roman gods. 

The main difference I can see between this discussion of sexuality and one that would take place now between, say, a writer for The Humanist and a Catholic moral theologian is that Augustine was able to assume that his opponents shared his disgust at such behavior–that everybody believed that chastity (not the same as celibacy) was a virtue and sexual license was not.

The Romans of Augustine’s time found him pinched and prohibitive in his sexual ideas, but not because they thought that it was a good thing to screw people other than your spouse.  They just thought it was natural, at least for men.

The more interesting parallel is with discussions of homosexuality, or at least of homosexual practice.

First, the major difference:  there was no such thing as “homosexuality” in the classical world.

There was plenty of homosexual sex, and it was far more widely accepted (among men) than it would be after the rise of Christianity, but the idea that some men had an exclusive “sexual orientation” that made them want to have sex with other men in exclusion to all other kinds of sex would have sounded to the Greeks and the Romans as ridiculous as searching the entrails of birds for next week’s lottery numbers would seem to us now.

The Greeks and the Romans accepted the fact that men like to have sex with each other because they assumed that men liked to have sex, period–with each other, with women, with sheep, with random tree bark.

The actual moral status of homosexual sex, though was always ambiguous.   In Greece, there tended to be mild acceptance for the man who took the male role in homsexual intercourse and mild contempt for the one who took the female role.   There was also a lot of difference in acceptance between a man-boy relationship (man-teenager, usually), which although widely practiced tended to be branded more than a little dishonorable, and a man-man relationship, as between bonded men in combat, which was often celebrated.

The Romans, meanwhile, tended to think of all this homosexual sex stuff as vaguely…decadent.  Rome was, after all, a warrior culture.  Of course, you could say the same about Greece at the time of the Trojan War, and there are definitely intimations of homosexual relationships there.

But the Romans thought of homosexual sex as decadent and somewhat “weak,” the practice of men who were not dedicated to upholding the stern and self-denying virtues of the Roman Republic.

Of course, by Augustine’s time, the Roman Republic had been toast for centuries, and the old Roman virtues had had to suffer through Nero and Caligula. 

So there’s that.

What I think is so familiar in Augustine’s arguments, though, is the way in which they seem to set up the virtuous country against the decadent city.

And that’s an old trope in Western literature, of course, but it also happens to be the one we’re now playing out between “red states” and “blue states.”  If there’s a real difference between those two, it’s that the red states are largely rural and the blue states are largely urban–or maybe I should say largely self-identified as such.

The arguments cascade down in little two and three paragraph chapters and all sound so familiar.  I could go onto the net today and look up half a dozen sites all saying the same thing, and not knowing that anybody had ever said it before.

But that brings me to a question, for which I do not have the answer:  what is decadence, anyway?  How do you know a society is decadent?  And what does it mean?

And I’ll leave it there, and go off and let my sons throw Dr. Who at my head for the day.

I can get to Augustine’s attempts to prove that the Roman gods never existed–or some of them didn’t–some other time.

Written by janeh

January 29th, 2011 at 11:04 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Even Smaller Gods'

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  1. The Vatican is so called because it’s on the Mons Vaticanus–Vatican Hill–from “vates” meaning seer or soothsayer. So it was the Hill of Prophets well before the current occupants. But I have no idea how the god of crying infants came to be called Vaticanus.

    As for the “modern pagans” someone did a poem on that, at least a generation ago, pointing out that they were not going to bring back the Vestal Virgins, nor the valor that brings a man to Valhalla. One more example of a la carte “spirituality” with no pesky obligations, is my reading.


    29 Jan 11 at 3:48 pm

  2. Maybe I will try to read ‘City of God’. It sounds interesting.

    As for:

    We, of course, have come to the point where we think that everybody screwing everybody else all the time is not only perfectly normal, but probably desirable.

    well, I agree that it’s taken for granted that anyone who dates someone else more than once is having sex with that person, and a good thing too since they’d probably have pyschological problems if they didn’t.

    But it all changes when the person judging the behaviour is in a married-or-equivalent relationship with someone who’s just been discovered to have been screwing lots of other people. There’s LESS understanding and forgiveness than there might have been in the past, when disapproval of divorce and emphasis on forgiveness (especially by woman) were high. There’s nothing that smashes up a relationship faster than the discovery of sexual infidelity.

    And ‘decadent’? Isn’t it merely the choice of pleasure over necessary but less than pleasant activities? Ignoring anything outside one’s own satisfaction even in the face of work that must be done to preserve the larger society or group, or in the face of a threat to that group?


    29 Jan 11 at 5:12 pm

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