Augustine, Saint (Aurelius Augustinus, St. Augustine of Hippo)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Augustine, Saint (Aurelius Augustinus, St. Augustine of Hippo)

Augustine, Saint (Aurelius Augustinus, St. Augustine of Hippo) (354-430) Numidian philosopher and theologian

Three years after the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in A.D. 410, a priestly visionary and student of Latin philosophy, Aurelius Augustinus of Tagaste, Numidia (present-day Algeria), looked beyond the failures of Rome's 69 emperors to a celestial utopia. The son of Monica, a Christian, and of Patricius, a Roman civil servant, St. Augustine of Hippo, as he was later called, studied at a Numidian school in Madaurus (present-day M'Daourouch, Algeria). At age 15, he completed a self-study of Cicero's writings and speeches. In A.D. 371, a benefactor paid for Augustine's tuition to an academy of rhetoric at Carthage in Tunisia. After teaching in Rome and Milan, he began questioning his own licentious behavior, a process he later related in an AUTOBIOGRAPHY, Confessiones (Confessions, A.D. 398). This classic personal narrative outlines his atonement, search for salvation, and conversion to Christianity. During the last decades of Roman imperialism, Augustine admits, “I was storm-tossed by a confused mixture … swept over the precipices of desire and thrust into the whirlpools of vice” (Augustine 2001, 25-26). The prayerful tone of his self-castigation served anti-Roman pietists as a model of contrition.

As the Roman world collapsed, Augustine sided with Christianity, and he rose to the ecclesiastical position of bishop of Hippo (present-day Bone, Algeria) in 396. He admired the movement that replaced Roman arrogance and soullessness with the charity and otherworldliness embodied in the life of Jesus and championed by the evangelist PAUL of Tarsus. In De civitate dei contra paganos (Concerning the City of God against the Pagans, A.D. 426), Augustine refutes a pervasive fear that the collapse of the Roman hegemony would precipitate an end to the world. In chapter 9 of the first book, he consoles the faithful, “In this universal catastrophe, the sufferings of Christians have tended to their moral improvement, because they viewed them with the eyes of faith” (Augustine 1984, 14). In his critique of imperialism, the Eternal City of Rome gave the impression of solidarity, but the Christian City of God repudiated earthly glory and conquest with a truly unending paradise.

Augustine maintained equanimity in his view of imperialism. In chapter 12 of Book 5, he declares that “the true God deigned to help the Romans in the extension of their empire; for in his control are all the kingdoms of the earth” (196). He summarizes the passage of power from Julius Caesar to Augustus through Nero, Vespasian, Titus, Domitian, and Julian. Of the divine blessing on Constantine, the first Christian emperor, the text assures readers that God directed Rome's advance from paganism to righteousness. Augustine concludes his spiritual guidebook with a description of God as a giver of the elements, nature, and human life and a bestow- er of divine right to govern: “Among those gifts is dominion … and this God bestowed in accordance with his government of temporal affairs” (223). In the philosopher's perspective, the spiritual vacuum that marked Rome's last centuries provided a suitable milieu for the rise of God's utopia.


Augustine. Concerning the City of God against the Pagans. Translated by Henry Bettenson. London: Penguin, 1984.

----- . The Confessions of St. Augustine. Translated by Rex Warner. New York: Signet, 2001.

Mitchell, Stephen. A History of the Later Roman Empire, A.D. 284-641: The Transformation of the Ancient World. London: Blackwell, 2006.