In prep for my classes next semester, I picked up The City of God today and started what will have to a be a very fast read. It’s been a while since I was in Augustine so I was a bit apprehensive about how it would go, but I was pleasantly surprised with its readability and interest (at least for most parts) compared to my memory.
Louis Comfort Tiffany, Window of St. Augustine, in the Lightner Museum, St. Augustine, Florida (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
While reading, however, one anecdote jumped out at me, of which I had virtually no memory. The story was of Marcus Regulus, the Roman general and great man of virtue who had been captured by Carthage during, I believe, the 2nd Punic War. (Anyone else remember? It’s in Bk 1, ch 25.) The Carthaginians sent Regulus back to Rome to present a proposal to swap prisoners, including himself–but not before making him swear to return to Carthage if the proposal failed.
Regulus, however, argued and persuaded the Senate instead that it wasn’t advantageous for the Roman Republic to exchange prisoners, and then–despite the pleas of his countrymen–kept his oath and returned to Carthage where he was summarily viciously tortured to death.
Augustine’s point was to show how even the most virtuous and pious of the Romans were not protected by their gods. But what really struck me was simply the fact that I wasn’t familiar with this great story of civic duty, honor, and sacrifice.
Every schoolboy for hundreds of years was prepared for citizenship through the great examples of such men of great virtue who sacrificed for their country, who made their countries strong through their courage and devotion to duty. Rome itself–especially the old Rome of the days of the Senate–had hundreds of such men, men who up until this last century would have been familiar to any lad of twelve.
Why not anymore? Why did I have to wait till my college Roman History class to breifly hear of the example of Cincinnatus (for whom the city is named), who laid down his plow to lead Rome as dictator through a dire threat and then returned straight to his furrow? Why, when we so desperately need to be reminded of such models of patriotism, self-sacrifice, nobility, and duty, do we no longer teach our youth their stories and give them as heroes?
One of the greatest benefits of history is simply the ability to glean from the finest and most inspiring examples of mankind from the endless cache the written record has to offer. We ignore such a wealth to our own republic’s great disservice and, I might even add, danger.
But I suppose we’re lucky today when a Primary school textbook stops to mention the even the names of America’s Founding Fathers. How long can the ideals of a Republic–and the Republic itself–survive when it neglects even the heroes of its own political heritage?