Historical Context for City of God by Augustine
Augustine’s City of God is arguably the first magnum opus of Christian philosophy. The work covers, among other topics, theodicy, civil and natural theology, the history of creation, philosophy of history, eschatology, and martyrdom. Completed by the year 426 (CE), City of God took Augustine at least a decade to write.
City of God is, in at least some broad sense, a response to the trauma of the Visigoth attack on Rome in 410. Up to that point, the Roman Empire had dominated Mediterranean civilization for nearly a thousand years. When the Visigoths, led by Alaric, sacked and plundered Rome, its citizens were deeply shocked and devastated. The city’s walls had not been breached in eight hundred years. Not only a calamity for the city’s citizens, the attack was symbolic of a crumbling empire.
Many Romans interpreted the sack as punishment for abandoning the traditional gods and goddesses in favor of the new state religion, Christianity. Augustine wrote City of God in part to rebut this notion. He endeavored to show that the Christian God, far from being blameworthy, is actually a source of solace and strength.
To do this, Augustine puts forth two main arguments in City of God. The first speaks directly to those who had criticized the Christian God for failing to protect Rome and its citizens. Augustine points out that Christianity actually did offer protection, since many refugees from the attack used Christian basilicas as safe havens from the invaders. For Augustine, this is at least some evidence of God’s mercy and compassion.
The second argument is that Romans had not lost anything of genuine value in the attack. Rome, Augustine argues, is quintessentially a city of man. It is ephemeral, earthly, and – like all other cities – destined to eventually pass away. The City of God, on the other hand, is stable, eternal, and the source of ultimate consolation. It is the city under God’s command, and hence the city that will ultimately come to triumph.
Written by Patrick Comstock, Program in Philosophy and Education, Teachers College, Columbia University
J.J. O’Donnell, ‘The Next Life of Augustine’, in R. Markus et al (eds) The Limits of Ancient Christianity, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999, p. 215-231
James J. O’Donnell maintains an extensive site on Augustine: http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/jod/augustine/
Possidius’ Life of Augustine is online here: http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/possidius_life_of_augustine_02_text.htm
The classic modern biography is that by Peter Brown, the revised edition of which takes account of the newly discovered letters and sermons: Augustine of Hippo: A Biography. Rev Ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000