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Posted July 26, 2005

Book: Augustine: A New Biography
Author: James J. O’Donnell
Harper Collins, New York, pp. 396

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

Augustine, sinner and saint, the celebrated theologian who served as bishop of Hippo from 396 c.e. until his death in 430 c.e. is widely regarded as one of the most influential thinkers in the western world. Augustine: A New Biography tells the story of Augustine from the vantage point of Hippo, where he spent almost forty years as priest and bishop. During Augustine’s post-Confessions years he became prominent as a churchman, politician, and writer, and James J. O’Donnell looks back at the events in the Confessions from this period in Augustine’s life.

Much of Augustine’s writing consists of sermons and letters rich in vivid primary material about the events of his time. Prosperous men converting to Christianity to get ahead, priests covering up their sexual and financial peccadilloes, generals playing coldly calculated games of Roman barbarian geopolitics – these are the figures who stand out in Augustine’s world and who populate O’Donnell’s intriguing portrait set against a background of the battle over the future of Christianity. This book reveals much of what Augustine didn’t confess.

The Wider World

Augustine stayed on dry land in Hippo, but his adoptive home lived on shipping and used its position to communicate quickly and well with the great world on the other side of the water, a world of which Augustine was always more conscious than most other Africans. In large part what made him independent and powerful were the comings and goings of his letter-bearers, who kept him in touch with the world beyond the mountains and the sea.

Our name for it, Mediterranean, recognizes that the water lies at the center of a circle of lands. The idea that all the seas from Gibraltar and Marseilles to Alexandria and Constantinople are one is an idea with its own history. Fishermen in small boats in antiquity knew their won neighborhoods, rarely ventured out of sight of land, and told awe-inspiring and awful tales of what happened to those mad enough to sail far from home. The oldest of such tales that we read is the Odyssey: the Laestrygonians the Lotus-Eaters, Circe, and Calypso, all lay over the horizon for those readers, and they knew noting of a “Mediterranean” yet.

Herodotus knew of lands beyond his ken, a little more accurately than Homer did. But it was the conquests of Alexander in Greece and Asia Minor and the Levant and Egypt that began to bind together a communion of people, whose elite members spoke and wrote mainly in Greek around the eastern end of the great sea. Romans and Carthaginians meanwhile, fought it out for dominion of the western seas between Italy and Spain and Africa. The Romans triumphed, took their conquests east again, and made what Julius Caesar was the first to call “our seas,” mare nostrum, their own.

The Mediterranean was the superhighway of that world, and the cities that faced it could communicate with one another more rapidly than with people nearer but separated by arduous overland journeys. Greek was often the international language of commerce, Latin that of government, and proud people took offense now and then at the influx of foreigners: Greek-speakers in Rome or Latin-speakers in the east. “The Orontes flows into the Tiber” was the satirist Juvenal’s complaint at the influx into supposedly pristine Rome of people from distant Syria who spoke the wrong language and showed too little deference to their hosts.

There was one government for all these lands by the first century of the common era, and it persisted then for another five hundred years among most of the Latin-speakers and another fifteen hundred years among the Greeks. At its summit was the emperor, a title of military command first of all, but bringing with it civic authority to legislate, tax, and punish. The fourth century of the common era was a time on the upswing for the Roman regime. The reforming emperors Diocletian and Constantine (whose reigns together extended from 284 to 337, punctuated by a spasm of civil war between their times of ascendancy) had mad the local authority of Roman government real and effective after a time of some disarray, and they restored military discipline and effectiveness. Two and sometimes three emperors split authority among themselves by military regions, with usually one to be found somewhere along the Rhine or Danube frontiers (or wintering at headquarters at Trier, in Germany, or Milan, in Italy) and the other most often in Constantinople but sometimes venturing out toward Mesopotamia to fight the Persians. Theodorsius, who died in 395, was the last emperor to lead armies and the last to exercise authority in both eastern and western lands; his successors tended to stay home and let the generals do the venturing.

Africa lay at the geographic heart of this Mediterranean world, yet was happy to be politically marginalized. Its produce was brought down to the harbors at Hippo and Carthage and shipped from there across the water, some of it requisitioned by the government to support the army and the teeming population of the city of Rome. But there was ordinary commerce in these African ports as well, and large and small fortunes to be made and lost.

The local power and authority in such places was held by a senate, not unlike a modern chamber of commerce except that membership was like a form of taxation. If you had the money you had to join. The members of this senate (such as the one Patricius and Romanianus belonged to in Tagaste) were then obliged to provide for the public works of the community, and so would be compelled to contribute funds – for example, to the local forum and its decoration. Sometimes they did so reluctantly, other times the members vied with one another to see who could spend the most to best self-advertising effect. It had always been like this in the Hellenistic and Roman Mediterranean, and the genius of Roman government was to make ostentation compulsory and use it as the backbone of local rule.

One way in which civic pride flourished in olden times was in the expenditure of local wealth on temples, ceremonies, and shows. Those traditions had begun to fade in the half-century before Augustine’s life. In his time and, to some extent, through his work, they lost out decisively to new practices and traditions. For three hundred years, followers of the teachings of Jesus had collected in smaller and larger bands around the Greek and Latin words, forming and dissolving over time, but gradually becoming familiar in more and more places. Traditional Romans could be forgiven for failing to distinguish Christians from Jews during those years.

Augustine shows us a world in which the lines between religious communities are clear and unmistakable, but he speaks as preacher rather than sociologist. In reality, the boundary between one group and another was often porous and the distinction between a religious ritual and a “secular” ceremony was often negligible. It was, as one recent writer has called it, a world full of gods, with a long history of eclectic toleration. Augustine’s most vivid picture of that more-than-Christian world is his recollection of that god-filled world:

“When I was a young man, I used to go to their spectacles of sacrilege and their “pagan” games, to watch the priests in their frenzies and listen to the music. I got a thrill out of the disgusting shows enacted in honor of their gods; Caelestis, their virgin god, and Berecynthia, the mother of the gods. Their lewd actors sang songs in front of Berecynthia’s processional litter on the day of her solemn purification that were unfit for the ears of the mother of a senator. .

In practical terms, back in places like Hippo, the coming of state-sponsored Christianity meant the emergence of new forms of power and patronage. The local Christian leader, bearing the Greek title episcopus (“overseer,” carried over into Latin and then Anglo-Saxon, and contracted eventually to “bishop”), would emerge in many places as a figure of authority in his own right. Especially if he had powerful and wealthy friends, he could be someone to reckon with, and even in unprepossessing places where he had few connections, his claim to connection with the best new god in the world (enforced by the state) made him attractive to a variety of followers, some of them devout believers. The diversity of Christian beliefs and practices meant that in many places around the Mediterranean world, Christian rivals competed for the same local attention. There was nothing unusual about that . Augustine’s own story is largely about the working out of the new role of bishop in his town and in his country. But by his time, even the locals who had no interest in such things had to pay attention.

Table of Contents:

1. A view from Africa

2. Augustine confesses

3. A modern classic

4. Augustine unvarished

5. Augustine in his books

6. Augustine in public

7. Augustine and the invention of Christianity

8. The Augustinian putsch in Africa

9. Loomings

10. Augustine’s great failure

11. Augustine the theologians

12. Who was Augustine?

Epilogue: We are not who we think we are