On Loving the City

Marc’s post yesterday about Augustine’s two cities–the earthly and heavenly–reminded me of something I read in Peter Brown’s recent book on wealth in ancient Rome. Brown argues that a decisive shift in the conception of generosity accompanied the transition from pagan to Christian society. Both pagans and Christians could be generous. But the objects of their generosity differed.

In pagan Rome, generosity meant adorning one’s city–nowadays, we would say, “country”–contributing to its stature, power, and beauty. Benefactors gave money for magnificent buildings, games, and banquets. Such generosity was understood as a form of love, the “amor civicus,” or “love for the city and its citizens.” A rich person who gave money to glorify his city, Brown writes, “was acclaimed as an amator patriae–a lover of his or her hometown. It was the most honorable love that a wealthy person could show.” A pagan benefactor would not think of looking beyond his city when making a gift. That would have been a snub to his hometown and fellow citizens. 

Christian giving was a different thing. The ideal recipients of Christian generosity were not one’s fellow citizens, who might be quite well-off, but the poor and marginalized, whether they were citizens of one’s patria or not. The point was still to give money in a way that would glorify the city. But the heavenly city, not the earthly city, was the proper object of glorification. Christian charity, Brown writes, was “a transfer of wealth from this world to the next, summed up in the notion of placing treasure in heaven.”

Obviously these are generalities; there were pagans who gave to the poor and Christians who tried to beautify Rome. But the change in focus was essential, and dramatic. From a Christian perspective, the things of this world, although important and necessary, can never be the main concern. Friends, family, home, country–of course one loves these things. Only a monster would not. But it is foolish to glorify or invest too much in them, particularly country. “For here we have no lasting city,” the author of Hebrews says, “but we are looking for the city that is to come.”

Marc began his post with a poem, so I will end with one. In Browning’s “Love Among the Ruins,” a shepherd muses over the ruins of an ancient capital, now a pasture. I’ve always imagined that Browning was talking about the ruins of the Roman Forum, which for centuries, before the archaeologists started to dig, were known as the Campo Vaccino, or cow pasture. The love that Browning describes isn’t Christian love, exactly, but it strikes me as a lot closer to that ideal than the amor civicus:

In one year they sent a million fighters forth
South and North,
And they built their gods a brazen pillar high
As the sky
Yet reserved a thousand chariots in full force—
Gold, of course.
O heart! oh blood that freezes, blood that burns!
Earth’s returns
For whole centuries of folly, noise and sin!
Shut them in,
With their triumphs and their glories and the rest!
Love is best. 

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