Saint Augustine: His Life and Times*
A. The Environment
1. The Place:
Augustine was born in the town of Tagaste in the Roman Province of Numidia in North Africa in the year 354. At that time Rome's influence stretched along the coastline of present day Algeria and Tunisia, extending inland with diminishing power to the borders of the Sahara desert. These coastal regions were a fertile land, producing great crops of grain and vegetables in the river valleys and huge forests or olive trees on the hillsides and arid high plains.
The town of Tagaste (the present Souk-Ahras in Algeria) was situated in the north-east highlands of Numidia, some sixty miles from Hippo Regius (the present Annaba [Bone]) the sea-side city where Augustine was to spend the last 40 years of his life. It was about 15 miles from Madaura (the present M'Daourouch, Algeria) where he went to "prep" school and about 150 miles from Carthage on the coast of present day Tunisia, where he was to go for higher education and where he was to spend the early years of his teaching career. Carthage was the grand metropolis of the land, founded by the Phoenicians nine centuries before the coming of Christ, destroyed by Rome in 146 BC, reestablished by the Emperor Augustus in 29 BC, it had become in Augustine's day the second largest city in the Western Empire. Only Rome itself was larger.
Tagaste had no such pretensions to grandeur. Though it had already existed for
300 years before Augustine was born (and was to last even till today), it was nothing more
than somewhat pleasant county-seat for farms and great estates. It is likely that its
population was never more than a few thousand people, if that. It was situated in the
river valley of the Medjerda, a fertile land filled with corn and pastures and gardens.
The hills (where they were not cultivated with olive trees) were heavily forested with oak
and pine and in these natural habitats lived lions and bears and panthers, animals
frequently captured to be sold for the Roman amphitheater games. Wild-flowers were
sprinkled through the open ground and flocks of various birds coursed through the clear
skies. It was a land of four seasons with a climate not unlike southern Spain. The winters
were short, of course, but snow was not unknown. The summers were long and very hot. In
sum it was a land full of life, pungent smells, and vibrant colors. It is no wonder that
Augustine's writings are filled with analogies from the land and that he so often speaks
about the beauty of this world. He grew up and lived most of his life in a bountiful and
2. The People:
This vitality was reflected in the people of the land. The native North African was Berber and these were still the dominant population in the rural areas (e.g. Tagaste) in the fourth century. Added to these roots was that of the Phoenicians who had founded Carthage nine centuries before the coming of Christ. There was also some Roman blood intermixed, coming from the army veterans who had been given land as a reward for their services some two hundred years before. Roman settlement had ceased when Augustine was born, though many of the great estates were owned by absentee Roman landlords. The flow of immigrants would increase later on as the barbarians swept down on Rome in the early fifth century.
The people had a taste for wine, women, and song. They were sociable and gregarious but given to violent anger when they felt abused. Augustine in 420 gave the following sympathetic description of the typical North African Christian who was serious about salvation. He was like a husband who did good works from time to time, who was faithful to his wife and enjoyed having sex with her, who was very serious about his honor and who thought seriously about taking revenge on anyone who sullied that honor. He valued his property without being especially greedy or grasping. He would give some of his goods to those in need but would fight vigorously anyone who dared to steal from him. He did not pretend to be a saint nor did he think he was God. He was ready to admit his failings and in all humility recognized that without the grace of God they were likely to occur again.
The society was characterized by defined social strata. At the very top were the landowners, high government officials, and rich expatriates from Italy. The landowners lived like feudal kings supported by the annual fees paid by tenant farmers for the use of the land. Many of them were absentee landlords, taking little interest in the products or the people that provided their income. At the second level were minor bureaucrats, merchants, lawyers, and teachers. If the great estate owners were the noble rich, these were the noble poor. They were noble in that they lived by their wits more than by their sweat, but they were poor because any extra funds from gainful employment were quickly absorbed by high taxes. The problems that this middle class had in "making ends meet" is exemplified in the difficulty Patritius had in keeping his son in school much beyond the elementary level. It was only through the kindness of the wealthy Romanianus that Augustine was able to continue his education and career in Carthage.
At the third level in society were the peasants, poor fishermen, and
day-laborers of the city. These lived a hard life, glad on any given day to find a warm
bed and adequate food. Their only equity was their physical strength and when this ran out
they faced disaster. It was not unknown for them to sell their children into slavery so
that both they and the children could get enough to live. Sometimes they turned to crime,
attacking any person foolish enough to travel far from the towns without military escort.
People of the land, they had a healthy suspicion of any alien people or alien ideas that
threatened their historic culture. The peasants owned little but themselves. The very
lowest class in society, the slaves, owned not even that. Still, from a material point of
view their lot was sometimes better than that of the poor freeman. If their master was
kind, they could at least be sure of daily meals and evening shelter. In truth they were
not free, but at least their owner was a human being who could just possibly take pity on
them. The peasant was chained by a harsher master ... an economic condition which could
not feel pity or any other emotion and which destroyed the very possibility of a truly
human, secure, comfortable existence.
3. The Political Environment:
When Augustine was born in the middle of the fourth century, the western Roman Empire was still a force to be reckoned with. Though rebellion of border tribes in Northern Europe were a continuing aggravation, Rome could still claim control over most of the civilized world in Europe and North Africa. When Augustine died seventy-six years later, all this had changed. The western Empire was under siege from the barbarians from the north. They had invaded France and Spain. In 410 they captured the city of Rome itself. They moved on into North Africa and by 430 were laying siege to Hippo where Augustine lay dying. They were to rule in North Africa for a hundred years thereafter.
During most of Augustine's life, Rome held uneasy control of its North African Provinces. Its influence was quite strong in the cities and larger towns, but lost its vigor the further one moved out into the country. There the native North African people held sway, suspicious of any foreign challenge to their historic practices and filled with hatred for the "aliens" from across the sea who took their crops and imposed impossible levies on their possessions. Symptomatic of the power of this native spirit was the success of Donatism, a vigorous faction within North African Christianity. Part of its strength, it would seem, came from its identification as a "North African" thing ... an ultra-conservative interpretation of salvation doctrine that struck a resonant chord in the rigid native mind.
The life of Augustine thus spanned a tumultuous time in the history of the
western Empire and the western Church. In the late fourth century it seemed that the North
African Church would be torn apart by religious civil war. In the early fifth century it
seemed possible that western civilization itself would come to an end. It is no wonder
that in 398 Augustine would observe to a friend that on every border and in every province
peace depended on the sworn oaths of barbarians. (Letter 47, 2) As he lay dying
listening to the Vandals attacking his beloved Hippo, he looked back over the violence of
his times and ruefully observed that one could not be called particularly wise if they
were overcome with amazement when things of wood and stone fell apart and people who are
mortal eventually died. (Possidius, Life of the Bishop Saint Augustine, 28)
4. The Religious Environment:
The North African people were greatly attracted by mystery. The world of the unseen was just as real to them as the world of the seen. Few if any had a problem with whether God (or gods) existed. The only question was what the divine was like. Daily life was a continuing ritual aimed at placating and worshipping innumerable unseen spirits. Magic to control the present and astrology to learn the future were accepted tools for protecting one's existence. It is no great wonder that mystery cults such as Manichaeism found a fertile field among the North Africans. There was special veneration of the dead, a veneration which in Christian times was converted to a deep reverence for those who had died for the faith. The border between the living and the dead was very thin and in the perilous times of the 4th and 5th century it was a line that was easily crossed. At the same time there was a pessimism about what one could do to make life better. Fate and chance ultimately ruled one's life.
When Augustine was born Christianity was a major force in the Roman Provinces of North Africa. Yet there still remained a healthy residue of the native mystery cults as well as the pagan rites imported with Rome. Christianity had appeared in North Africa by the second century. It had survived the persecutions of the third century and had produced such giants as Tertullian and Cyprian. By the time of Augustine Christianity was the approved religion of the Empire, but in North Africa it was split into two factions: the Roman Catholic and the Donatist. The Donatist faction represented a conservative, rigorist element in Christianity. They claimed to be the only "pure" Christianity since none of their group came from the despised "Traitors" who had denied their faith in the midst of the persecutions. They followed the Cyprian principle that there can be no salvation outside the Church and the Church was for those who remained faithful after Baptism. Augustine, who was of the liberal faction, was to spend much of his early years as a Bishop in battle with the Donatists, ultimately winning the day by getting their position rejected by the Pope and proscribed by the Emperor.
In dealing with his own congregation over forty years Augustine had to take
into account their passion for the mysterious and their tendency towards fatalism. He
spoke frequently against such practices as Astrology and Magic. He preached Divine
Providence, rather than fate and chance, as the ruling force in life. He complained about
their superstitious worship of the martyrs and their tendency to use the feast days as an
excuse for debauchery. He attempted to center their enthusiasm on Christ and to channel
their passionate nature into a warm and enduring love for God and all humans, even
enemies. In this he was not completely successful, on one occasion having to remonstrate
them for participating in the lynching of an unpopular public official. (Cf. Sermon
302) He could not change the hard conditions of their life nor their passionate
nature nor their exuberant taste for life. But he did have some success in calling on
their generosity to help the poor, in substituting hope in providence for fear of fate,
and in encouraging them not to stop loving but only to love in some sort of orderly
Augustine was born in 354, the third child of Monica and Patritius. He had an older brother, Navigius, and at least one sister. Monica his mother was almost certainly a Berber and his father was probably a mixture of Berber and Roman ancestry. Monica was a fervent Catholic Christian while Patritius remained a good-natured pagan for most of his life, perfectly willing to let Monica take care of the religious training of the children. From her Augustine learned about Christianity as a child. He was, however, never baptized. This was in accord with the normal practice of the day of putting off Baptism until the adolescent days of sowing wild oats were over. There is some indication that Augustine was still intermittently going to Christian exercises in his late teens, but it seems clear that he was far from serious about any religion in those days, consumed more by ambition and bodily desires.
Augustine grew up in middle class surroundings. Patritius had a small family estate and worked as a minor government bureaucrat, a position of some respect but little income. He was able to provide the necessities of life for his family but he had trouble providing funds for the education of the children. It would seem that Augustine was the only one provided with much of a formal education. Patritius and Monica shared a common dream that their precocious child would bring honor to the family by being successful in some noble career.
The child gave promise of such success. He was very bright and ambitious and headstrong. As a child he wanted to have his own way and cried loudly when he did not get it. He did well at his studies but did not like school all that much. He had an insatiable desire to know things but he also liked to play ball and to go to shows and for these last ventures he was beaten often. He did not seem to relish being a child. When he was in his 40's he was able to look back and thank God for the good things he experienced in his growing up (Confessions, 1.20) but he also ruefully observed that any sensible person, given the choice between doing it over again or dying, would surely choose death. (City of God, 21.14)
Since the boy Augustine had strong Berber roots, he may have been of swarthy complexion (although O'Meara is of the opinion that it is unlikely that he was any darker than the average Roman of the day). We do know from his physical remains that he was not very tall. He seems that he was somewhat physically frail. A stomach ailment almost killed him when he was a boy and a terrible fever (perhaps malaria) brought him close to death again when he was in his 20's. He did survive for 76 years but throughout his life he was plagued with asthma, a bad stomach, insomnia, and recurrent fevers. His weak lungs were a factor in his decision to give up teaching when he was still a young man (though this did not stop him from preaching at length without benefit of microphone for forty years in his cathedral church at Hippo). When he was 56 exhaustion did force him to take time off in the country, but he continued with his preaching and teaching and writing thereafter till shortly before his death 20 years later.
Perhaps because of his ailments, Augustine did not have much faith in the medicine of his day. (Cf. Commentary on Psalm 102, 5) Little wonder that he had so much to say about facing up to death. Its possibility was his constant companion, especially as he grew older.
Still, his sometime physical disability did not lessen the vigor of his mind. The young Augustine quickly outgrew the schools in Tagaste and, with the financial support of a family friend (Romanianus), he was shipped off to the neighboring town of Madauros to study grammar and literature. He was in his early teen's, away from home for the first time, and he went a little crazy. He lied to his teachers, stole small things to bribe his way into classmate games, and then cheated and quarreled so that he could win. For all of that he learned easily and was pronounced "a boy of great promise." (Cf. Confessions, 1.19 & 16)
When he was sixteen the money for his education ran out and he was forced to spend a year at home in idleness while his father tried to scrape together the funds to send him on to higher studies in Carthage. Neither his father nor his mother seemed terribly upset by his adolescent frivolity during the idle year. Patritius saw it as a sign of his son's growing "macho" manhood and Monica hoped that it was a way of "getting evil vapors out of his system." She did warn him about any actions (e.g. fornication and adultery) that might jeopardize his future, but there is some hint that he listened politely and then did what he wanted to do. Certainly he traveled with a bad crowd. Augustine admits that he was not the worst of them but he pretended to be the worst by boasting lies about fictional exploits. (Confessions, 2.3) All in all it was a bad year. Augustine wasted his time, Patritius worked overtime, and Monica worried each day about the possible disasters that could destroy her son. The whole family sighed with relief when the funds were accumulated to send Augustine off to Carthage for his "higher education."
At Carthage the seventeen year old Augustine continued his education and his wild behavior. He came in contact with another gang of rowdies (the "Wreckers") dedicated to disrupting classrooms and making life unpleasant for new students. Though Augustine did not approve nor participate in all of the gang's activities, he did value their friendship and lived with them. (Confessions, 3.3) He made good progress in his studies while indulging his passion as much as he could. He describes himself at this time in his life as being
... in love with loving and it was even more delicious when I was able to enjoy the flesh of my love. Confession, 3.1
He did carry on the pretense of religion by going to church sometimes but (as he suggests) his main reason for going was to see girls. (Cf. Confessions, 3.3) He was in fact leading a double life, trying to act in a refined and sophisticated manner while being driven by his physical passions. (Confessions, 3.1) In this pretense he was eminently successful. He was perceived as a young man guaranteed a fine future in public service as long as he did not make some terrible mistake.
It seemed to those around him that he made such a mistake when he fell in love. There is no record of the woman's name but apparently she was the daughter of a freed slave. Formal marriage would thus have been an obstacle to Augustine's career plans, but Augustine apparently truly loved her. He lived with her for eleven years (an extraordinary commitment for those days) and by her had a son, Adeodatus. This ended his leisurely academic life. Now he had to find work to support his family while still pursuing his studies. He was nineteen.
It was about this time that the direction of his academic interests changed. While still pursuing his career in rhetoric, he now (through the influence of Cicero's book Hortensius) became excited about philosophy and its claim to wisdom. From being a manipulator of words he now dreamed of understanding reality. At first he turned to the Bible for answers but found that the stories and language that had so entranced him as a child at the knee of Monica seemed crude and unsophisticated now that he was a student of literature. Like many of his compatriots among the intelligentsia of Carthage he turned to Manichaeism, that mysterious cult from the East that promised both an easy explanation for the wild passions of humans and the phenomena of nature. Augustine was to remain connected with this sect for nine years, at the very end attached more by its political advantage than by any deep-seated conviction.
In 375 Augustine was forced to leave Carthage and return to Tagaste to find work. He was by this time a truly dedicated and proselytizing Manichaean and Monica initially refused to have anything to do with him. Eventually she relented, but Augustine was not destined to stay long in Tagaste under any circumstances. A friend of his died and so overcome was he with grief that fled back to Carthage to escape the places of Tagaste that brought back painful memories of shared experiences. (Confessions, 4.4)
For eight years (376-84) he tried to support his family and further his career in Carthage. It was a difficult period in his life. He was becoming increasingly doubtful about the truth of Manichaeism. For a time he was intrigued by astrology and the writings of magicians but turned away from them also. At 26 he wrote his first book, but no one bought it, a truly depressing experience for one who believes that they have mastered the nature of truth. He was always able to get enough students to support his family, but he found the Carthaginian scholars disruptive. With his weak voice and his tendency to be distracted, Augustine was fair game for young stalwarts more interested in love and wine than logic and wisdom. Indeed, Augustine discovered that there were very few denizens of Carthage with whom he could hold an intelligent conversation. The leaders of the Manichaeans were no better than the novices in providing answers. All in all it was not a propitious place to be, either to pursue his career or to develop his mind. He decided to leave North Africa and go to Rome. Monica was dead-set against his plan. By this time Patritius had died and she had taken as her remaining life-work the conversion of her wandering son. She was certain (considering his past history) that to be alone in pagan city without the protection of family and friends would destroy him. But Augustine had made up his mind and tricked his mother into believing that he would stay while instead he left on the evening tide.
Augustine arrived in Rome without money or a job in 383. He became deathly ill and only survived through the kindness of Manichaean friends. While he had begged for baptism when he was near death as a boy, now as a young man the thought never entered his mind. He thought as a Manichaean, not as a Christian, and was dependent financially and emotionally on his Manichaean companions. Indeed, it was through the recommendation of the Manichaean Symmachus, Prefect of Rome, that in 384 Augustine reached the pinnacle of his secular career. He was appointed professor of rhetoric for the city of Milan, the city of the Imperial Court.
By this time he had given up all belief in the Manichaean doctrines. For a time he lived as a skeptic but found that wanting too. He still had a residual belief in Christ and an intuition that there was something more to being human than being a body. This intuition was confirmed through the influence of the Neoplatonist, Plotinus. Through his reading of the "Platonists" he was able to perceive the intellectual validity of asserting the existence of a world of spirit and of a human soul within which one could possibly even survive death. However, his belief in spirit still did not mean that the spirit controlled his earthy passions. He seemed to have all other aspects of his life under control. His new position in Milan gave him the assured income necessary to support his family. Soon he was joined in Milan by his wife, his son, his mother Monica, his brother Navigius, and assorted cousins and friends.
Meanwhile Augustine was faced with a difficult personal decision. He had reached a point where his career demanded a proper marriage into a respected Roman family. Such a marriage would bring both added finances and added influence at the imperial court. Augustine's love of eleven years was an obstacle. She consented to return to Africa (leaving Adeodatus with Augustine), and Augustine, with the encouragement of his mother (who hoped that the stability of marriage might be a step towards her son's baptism) became engaged to a young daughter of a noble family. However the girl was too young for an immediate marriage and Augustine was unable to wait. He himself describes what happened:
I could not wait patiently for the required two years. I was not a lover of marriage. I was a slave of my lust. And thus I began an affair with another woman. Confessions, 6.15
Both intellectually and morally he was still a distance from conversion to Christianity. He was in a period of vacuum. The only thing he knew for sure was that he was unhappy. He had nothing to substitute for his long-held Manichaeism but the dream of going off somewhere to seek wisdom with like-minded people. He and some friends took steps to form such a philosophic community but the plan fell apart when they suddenly realized that those who were married would never get the necessary permissions from their wives. (Confessions, 6.14)
Looking at Augustine's life from the outside it seemed that he was about to achieve his goals. But as his professional life became more ordered, his spiritual life had become more and more torn. Under the influence of Ambrose's preaching he was coming to see that the spiritual meaning of the Sacred Scriptures was not as simplistic as he had thought. However the moral challenge of Christianity to change his life was still beyond him. It took almost thirty years for him to come to believe in Catholic Christianity. It took him three more years before he could muster the strength to act on it. Finally, when he was 33 the conversion of his will occurred. He made the decision to give up his bad habits and try to live a moral life. In the Spring of 387 he and his son Adeodatus were baptized by Ambrose in Milan. The first part of his restless journey was over.
Augustine spent the last forty years of his life trying to be true to his baptism. He returned to North Africa in 388 and set up a small community of dedicated Christian laymen in Tagaste. Its purpose was the study of Scripture and mutual service while living a life somewhat withdrawn from the hurly-burly of the world. This peace and quiet was not to last very long. In 391 he made the "mistake" (as he calls it) of going to Hippo to interview a candidate for his little community. Seeing him in the church one day, the people demanded that he be ordained their priest. He accepted on the condition that he could continue his community there in Hippo. This he did and from that community he began his service of the people of Hippo. In 395 he was consecrated their bishop and in that position he spent the last 35 years of his life.
They were years of intense activity filled with preaching to his own people every day and teaching through his writings the world of Western Christianity. In the course of those thirty years he combatted (more or less in succession) the powerful challenges of Manichaeism, Donatism, Pelagianism and (at the very end of his life) Arianism. He tried to describe how God works in the individual soul through his Confessions and how God works in history through his City of God. In his voluminous correspondence and smaller books he commented on the events of the day and how a human is meant to cope with them. He tried to understand the origin of the universe through his commentaries on Genesis and tried to understand the destiny of humans through his commentaries on the writings of St. Paul and St. John.
In the midst of these intellectual battles, Augustine witnessed the growing spread of the barbarian invasions which seemed to threaten civilization itself. Rome fell in 410 and soon after the Vandals invaded North Africa. Augustine lived with their threat through the last years of his life, and as he lay dying he could hear the pounding of the barbarian armies at the gates of his beloved Hippo. To a person without faith it could easily have seemed that a lifetime of effort had been wasted. But Augustine was a person of faith and hope and with such support he was able to die happily despite the turmoil in the world outside. His death occurred in 430 in his monastery at Hippo. His contemporary biographer, Possidius, describes the scene as follows:
He died with his body intact. He could still see and hear and his mind was clear to the very end. As we looked on and prayed for him he passed in sleep into the land of his ancestors, well-nourished in good old age.
Possidius, Life of the Bishop St. Augustine, 31
* Note: This summary of Augustine's life and the environment in which he lived is taken from the introduction of my book: Augustine's World: An Introduction to His Speculative Philosophy (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1996)
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