Interpreting Sallustius: Part I

Sallustius wrote one of the oldest known treatises on the Greek gods, “On the Gods and the World” in the 4th century. In this treatise, he discusses the characteristics of the gods and myths in dense detail. The treatise itself is under 15 pages, but it contains a wealth of wisdom for any polytheist interested in theology.

In the second chapter, Sallustius discusses the nature of the gods. He starts by saying that:

A god is immutable, without Generation, incorporeal, and has no Subsistence in Place.

This is the first argument about the gods that he puts forth, and he  explains it thusly:

The essences of the gods are neither generated; for eternal natures are without generation; and those beings are eternal who possess a first power, and are naturally void of passivity. Nor are their essences composed from bodies; for even the powers of bodies are incorporeal; nor are they comprehended in place; for this is the property of bodies; nor are they separated from the first cause, or from each other; in the same manner as intellections are not separated from intellect, nor sciences from the soul.

In the modern era, this is not an easy passage to interpret, especially as it concerns the nature of the gods themselves.

Even the first line can be difficult to wrap your mind around because how do the gods exist if they were not first generated? But Sallustius explains that the gods cannot have been generated, as the gods possess eternal natures and eternity itself cannot be generated – it simply exists.

His next statement holds some fairly interesting connotations since he states that eternal beings cannot be passive simply because they exist. That definitely implies that the gods are constantly in motion, constantly acting. They may be doing so in ways we cannot understand, but the lack of passivity definitely indicates that the gods are always in motion – that eternity itself is not a passive existence but a very involved one.

Sallustius then states that the gods do not possess bodies due to the fact that bodies hold powers that are incorporeal. By this, he means that the powers of a body do not impact the eternal existence of the material universe. In converse, the powers of the gods do impact and shape that existence, thus their powers cannot be found in something that holds a physical form. Essentially, if a god was bound to a body as physical beings are, they could not be gods, as the powers of the body would prevent the gods from acting upon the eternal existence of the material universe.

For a similar reason, the gods are not bound to place because only bodies hold the property of being bound to place. The gods are not restricted to where they are or are not – they simply exist. In some ways, this implies that the gods are both everywhere and nowhere because place means nothing – they are not bound to existence; they are existence.

Finally, Sallustitus states that the gods are never separated from the first cause or from each other, which is where this gets very metaphysical. Essentially, the gods are always existence, and, because they are always existence, they can never be separate from it. Since the gods are all always existence, and existence cannot be separated from itself, the gods themselves are always connected to each other.

This does not mean that all the gods are one god or that all existence is singular – it rather suggests that the gods each are a very particular type of existence that resides nested in all the other potentialities of existence. The gods are all in each, rather than all in one, which is the central component of the doctrine of polycentric polytheism.

Sallustius essentially establishes this principle within the second chapter of his treatise, where he lays out his basic understanding of the nature of the gods. In his third chapter, which I will examine in Part II, he discusses the divine nature of myths.



Sallustius “On the God and the World”

©Kyaza 2019


  1. kaye · June 16, 2019

    I tend to think of some of these concepts as a dance hall with a somewhat complex dance — interactions of weight and motion and force, set out over the substratum of the floor, with a melody and a logic to the movements that pervades all. It’s admittedly imprecise and a tad too poetic.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kyaza · June 16, 2019

      I don’t think it’s possible to get too poetic about the nature of the gods and/or cosmology in general. Poetry serves us in a way that prose can never reach. I also love the metaphor of a dance hall.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Interpreting Sallustius Series | A Polytheistic Life
  3. Fra’ Lupo · 5 Days Ago

    Was rereading this treatise today and it remains among my favorites as it is simply and direct yet effectively conveys some very complex ideas.

    Only recently learned that (apparently) this is an earlier work than Proclus’s Elements of Theology. Would’ve thought it was the other way around…



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