Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica knew his history. In fact, his own family made a great deal of the history that he knew. Intermarried with other prominent households, such as the Paullus and Gracchus families, the Scipiones formed one of the most important dynasties in Rome, providing the Republic with some of its most illustrious generals and political leaders. For example, Nasica's first cousin, Publius Scipio Africanus, was the conquering hero of the Second Punic War, an extended conflict in which a number of his illustrious relatives had perished. Nasica himself, born in 227, became a consul of the Republic in 191 and figured prominently in Roman history, especially in Spain and Gaul, for the next two decades.
Rome had defeated Carthage in the First Punic War just fourteen years before Nasica's birth, and during much of his early life those two powers fought the Second Punic War (218 to 201), a long series of campaigns in which the Romans seemed to lose most of the battles and came very close to losing the war. (Happily for them, Hannibal, the Carthaginian general, neglected to bring siege engines adequate to storm the walls of Rome.)
The ensuing peace with Carthage was always tenuous, and some years later Rome, looking for another excuse to attack its rival in Africa, started the Third Punic War (149-146). At the end of this last conflict the Romans, following the famous counsel of Cato (Carthago delenda est), razed Carthage to the ground and forbade anyone to live there. A popular consensus said that three wars with one enemy were quite enough.
Scipio Nasica, with his superior knowledge of history, would never have agreed with that decision. He believed that Rome, except for the constant impetus provided by its competition with Carthage, would not have grown so strong, and he feared that Rome would decline if that healthy competition were definitively removed.
Centuries later, after Rome had fallen to Alaric in A.D. 410, St. Augustine appealed to the ancient authority of Nasica on this point. He explained that Nasica "feared security, that enemy of weak minds, and he perceived that a wholesome fear would be a fit guardian for the citizens. Nor was he mistaken; the outcome proved how wisely he had spoken, for when Carthage was destroyed, and the Roman Republic was delivered from its great source of anxiety, many disastrous evils came about from the new conditions of prosperity" (The City of God 1.30).
The Bishop of Hippo proceeded to list Rome's ensuing many moral evils, which eventually led to Alaric's recent sacking of the city, the disaster that prompted Augustine's own extensive reflections on Roman history.
The Rome that Augustine knew was a soft, self-satisfied, self-indulgent place, in which the citizens felt free to pursue whatever pleasures they fancied, chronically insouciant, answerable to no one, fearing no one. Had the Romans listened to Nasica, Augustine argued, and not destroyed their African rival, there would have been no reason to fear the likes of Alaric.
Since he was making an argument on social morality, Augustine's point was political, as well as theological, and political leaders of all times--perhaps our own time and our own nation especially--should prudently consider the case he made. Indeed, Augustine's description of the moral and cultural decline of Rome (The City of God 2.10, for instance) bears striking resemblance to American life since the downfall of the Iron Curtain. This nation's current economic strength and unrivaled military power have created an atmosphere of great moral and intellectual laziness among the citizens, a condition that augurs poorly for our future. The comparison with declining Rome is sobering, to say no more.
Augustine's argument is applicable in many other respects, however, because the increased effort born of competition is valuable in a host of endeavors. I admit that nowadays this is not a popular thing to say, because competition invariably involves a distinction between winners and losers, and there is currently a strong bias against any idea of losing. Life itself, alas, entertains no such bias.
Perhaps Christian asceticism is the area in which Nasica's counsel and Augustine's argument are most readily applicable. "You can't lose" seems almost to be a rallying cry of much popular American religion, which strikes me, on the whole, as enormously lazy and self-satisfied. The plain truth is that we can lose. At no point in our lives here below are we completely beyond the reach of spiritual disaster. At least the Apostle Paul did not think so. Even as he argued that nothing "shall be able to separate us from the love of God" (Romans 8:39), he strove with robust exertion and made every effort not to be "disqualified" (adokimos--1 Corinthians 9:27). If ever we rest in this world, it is only to be refreshed for the next struggle.
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