Historical Context for Confessions by Augustine
Aurelius Augustinus (‘Augustine’) lived through a period of religious and political upheaval, and spent an immensely productive lifetime at the center of innumerable personal, philosophical, religious and political controversies. When Alaric and the Visigoths swept through Rome in 410, he assumed the incredible task of making theological sense of the disaster in his massive work, City of God. His combative letters and vehement treatises, which crisscrossed the Empire in his lifetime and enjoyed a large readership, attest to his central position in the most important debates of his age. A constant stream of letters and sermons, dictated from his home in Hippo Regius (a Roman colony in North Africa, now in Algeria), equally demonstrate his standing in his parish as judge and administrator, sometimes interceding to civil authorities on behalf of prisoners. (More such sermons and letters were found as recently as 1975 and 1990; it is often said that, due to the size of his surviving corpus, we know Augustine better than any other ancient figure, except Cicero). When his pupil Possidius came to compose a biography of his master (which still survives), he spent little time detailing his master’s ideas; instead, he wanted to highlight for posterity all of the manifold controversies and personal dangers faced by Augustine throughout his life. So we hear, for example, about terrorists called Circumcellions from the so-called Donatist heresy, who launched raids on Catholic churches with a crude tear gas made of lime juice and vinegar, and allegedly laid an ambush to kill Augustine himself. Finally, Augustine lived to see the catastrophic invasion of Africa by the Vandals, and Possidius gives a vivid picture of the struggle to assemble and safeguard his works amidst the general destruction. Possidius’ biography also appends a letter in which Augustine encourages anxious bishops not to flee, so as to provide a ‘place of refuge’ for the displaced. The psychological conflicts depicted in the Confessions are intense, but also largely interior and personal. It is salutary, then, to remember that Augustine was far from detached from the political upheavals that marked the period in which he lived.
Written by James Uden (Classics, Columbia University)
Sources consulted: 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.