Ancient History & Civilisation


The conversion of Augustine, even more famous than that of Constantine, belongs in an entirely different context. Augustine was born at Thagaste, a small town in Numidia, in 354. Almost everything that we know about his life comes from his own writings, above all from the autobiographical Confessions, which he completed in 397, shortly after he had become bishop of Hippo Regius, a bustling harbor town seventy kilometers from his birthplace. The climactic moment of his narrative is the famous episode in a garden in Milan, when the thirty-two-year-old Augustine, already confronting a crisis in his personal and professional life, chose to renounce secular ambition and a marriage that had been planned for him (Conf. 6.13.23), in favor of baptism, sexual renunciation, and a life in the church, serving God.

This was not a conversion in the style of Constantine. Augustine traces his own journey in terms of his intellectual and psychological development. This had begun with a schoolboy passion for literature, especially Vergil, a training in rhetoric, nine years devoted to Manichaeism as a “hearer” (Conf. 5.6.10), a growing interest in philosophy, especially Neoplatonism, and, in the final months before the conversion, a reflective engagement with Christianity, which had been stimulated by the inspiring sermons of Ambrose who was then presiding over the church at the heart of the western empire in Milan (Conf. 5.13.23). Augustine's own career path was a glittering success story, all the more compelling for the fact that Augustine's account of it allows his readers to see the price that he paid for his achievements. Put in modern terms, he had won prizes for public speaking at school (Conf. 1.17.27), but his father Patricius, a townsman of slender means (tenuis municeps), could barely afford to send him to further education at Madauros, and Augustine had had to intermit a year for lack of funds (Conf. 2.3.6). He was probably only able to continue at the important center of Carthage (Conf. 3.1.1) thanks to the subvention of a wealthy neighbor Romanianus. He studied for four years in the African capital. Within eighteen months his father had died, and he himself began to cohabit with a woman, with whom he was to live for fifteen years, and who soon bore him a son (Conf. 4.2.2). His intellectual training was as an orator, but his quest for spiritual enlightenment led him to Manichaeism. On graduation in 375 he returned to Thagaste to teach for a year (Conf. 4.1.1, 2.2), before being offered the chance to teach rhetoric in Carthage itself. He remained there for eight years, finding the students as unruly and provoking as when he had been one of them. So when the opportunity to go to a higher post, greater financial rewards, and a better class of student presented itself at Rome, he seized the chance with the help of contacts, engineered by friends who had preceded him, and the support of his hometown patron, Romanianus (Conf. 6.8.13). In doing so he risked, as he was all too conscious, a perilous breach with the greatest influence on his life so far, that of his devout and determined mother Monica (Conf. 5.8.15, 6.1.1). A year in Rome proved a trial and a disappointment. Augustine suffered from poor health, there was intense competition for students, and his private pupils did not pay their fees (Conf. 5.12.22). Luckily he had not lost his oratorical gifts, and when Manichee friends drew his attention to a competition, organized by the city prefect Symmachus, to find an official rhetorician for the imperial city at Milan, Augustine delivered a suitably accomplished piece on a prescribed theme and was selected for the post (Conf.5.13.23). Thus, at just over thirty years of age, he had arrived on the threshold of a major career in imperial service.

Augustine's Confessions are a priceless record of a young man's qualities and ambition, and a tribute to the extraordinarily fluid social structures of the later Roman Empire. With solid family backing and a willingness to exploit contacts, a young man of exceptional ability had brought himself to the notice of the richest senator of the western empire, and the emperor himself. But such a dizzy ascent exacted its toll. A professional rhetor was a political servant of the regime and candor was not at a premium:

How unhappy I was, and how conscious you made me of my misery, on that day when I was preparing to deliver a panegyric on the emperor! In the course of it I would tell numerous lies and for my mendacity would win the good opinion of people who knew it to be untrue. (Conf. 6.6.9, trans. Chadwick)

The moral conflict was sharpened for Augustine by the fact that he and a group of friends around him were immersed in Platonic philosophy, which inspired its followers to truth and honesty.23 Augustine made the final step in the company of a group of friends who had made the same journey as he had – serious young men, who were all conscious of the need to make a choice between family life and secular achievements, and ascetic Christian devotion. Augustine withdrew to an estate outside the city, resigned his teaching responsibilities after due notice (Conf. 9.2.2, 5.13), and in the company of his mother and of another catechumen, Alypius, prepared himself with devotional reading to be baptized by his bishop, Ambrose.

Augustine's conversion was that of one of the rising stars of the western Roman Empire. It was not a move from paganism to Christianity. Both his parents were Christians. If Patricius was more noted for the breach than for observance of the faith, he was nevertheless a catechumen being prepared for the baptism which he received on his death bed (Conf. 2.3.7, 9.9.22). Monica, known to us from Augustine's painfully intimate diary of their relationship and the lengthy portrait of her in Confessions book 9, is for us one of the most extraordinary Christian figures of the fourth century.24 Mother and son are depicted as presenting two complementary faces of Christian devotion; she, barely literate, he at the intellectual cutting edge of late Roman society. Their faith is fused in an extraordinary shared vision of divine bliss, which they achieved during the last days of her life at Ostia. Augustine describes the vision as a revelation achieved by dialogue and introspection:

Our minds were lifted up by an ardent affection towards eternal being itself. Step by step we climbed beyond all corporeal objects and the heaven itself, where, sun, moon, and stars shed light on the earth. We ascended even further by internal reflection and dialogue and wonder at your works, and we entered into our own minds. We moved up beyond them so as to attain to the region of inexhaustible abundance where you feed Israel eternally with truth for food. There life is the wisdom by which all creatures come into being, both things which were and which will be. (Conf. 9.10.24, trans. Chadwick)

The concept of this ascent to transcendence was clearly Neoplatonic. In his life of Plotinus, the greatest of the Neoplatonic philosophers, his pupil Porphyry wrote,

And it is said that he was tireless, guarding the purity of his soul and always hurrying on to the divine, which he loved with the whole of his soul; also that he made every effort to be released, “to escape from beneath the bitter wave” of the present “blood-gorged life.” Thus it was that the god who has neither shape nor form, and is set above intellect and all that is intelligible, appeared to this daemonic man as time after time he drove himself on towards the first and transcendental god with his own reflections and according to the ways set forth by Plato in the Symposium. I, Porphyry, testify that I once drew close to this god and was united with him, being in my sixty-eighth year. To Plotinus, at any rate, the “goal ever near” was shown, for his end and goal was to be united with and close to the god above all. This goal he achieved four times, while I was with him, not virtually but in unspeakable actuality. (Porphyry, Life of Plotinus 23, trans. Edwards)

Augustine during his early life had taken the opportunity to probe into the range of religious and cultural choice that the western empire had to offer: the flamboyant virtuoso culture of Latin rhetoric; the recondite (and usually illegal) faith of the Manichean elect; and the highly speculative world of learning offered by Neoplatonism, which had first become accessible to Latin speakers through the translations of Marius Victorinus, made a generation earlier (Conf. 8.2.3). Members of his circle took astrology sufficiently seriously for Augustine to be tempted to dabble himself (Conf. 7.6.8–10). Both the home environment in which he grew up and the social circles of his early adult years offered him and his contemporaries a wide range of religious choice.25 Within Christianity itself there was room both for devout and casual believers.

The Confessions are not simply a narrative of one man's conversion. The books present us with a spectrum of believers and unbelievers, and of social contexts which range from the secular hedonism of Carthage to reclusive meditation at Cassiciacum. Augustine's own story is interwoven with that of his younger alter ego, Alypius, another man of Thagaste, who had come to Rome to study law. There he obtained a minor treasury post, became addicted to gladiatorial games and the circus at Rome, and attached himself to Augustine, sharing his interest in the Manichees and attending his classes in rhetoric. He accompanied Augustine to Milan to take up a legal position, but also opted out of secular life to be baptized at the same time as Augustine. Both returned to Africa to become bishops. A third member of this tight group of friends, Nebridius, was baptized soon afterwards, returned to Africa, and persuaded his entire family to follow his example (Conf. 9.3.6).

An inspiration from the previous generation was the pagan Platonist, Marius Victorinus, lionized in cultural circles and tutor to the sons of senators in Rome. As a Platonist, Victorinus had publicly defended the pagan cults, which were both prominent and highly controversial in the 350s, but, first privately, and then publicly in church, he pronounced the Creed. In 362 he made a point of resigning his post as a philosopher when Julian's edict banned Christian teachers (Conf. 8.2.3–5.10). Augustine heard the story of Victorinus from the old priest Simplicianus, who had baptized Ambrose himself in 374. It was a narrative artfully told to coax intellectuals who were impressed by sophisticated Neoplatonism into accepting the apparent commonplaces of Christianity.

Another African Christian, Ponticianus, who was attached to the court, introduced Augustine and Alypius to the world of Christian asceticism and the monastic movement. This had been inspired by the life of the Egyptian hermit, Antony, which circulated in the West in two recent Latin translations. There were monasteries outside Milan too, set up by the encouragement of the bishop Ambrose, and Ponticianus told the story of two imperial agents at Trier, another imperial center, who had read the book and promptly decided to adopt the ascetic life themselves, persuading their fiancées to do the same (Conf. 8.6.14–15). Ponticianus himself had taken a moderate approach, keeping his secular post, while opting for baptism and a life of chastity.

Augustine's conversion was from a non-committal lukewarm Christianity to a passionate and life-consuming conviction, and to asceticism, and it took place among a group of upwardly mobile friends who were already making their mark in court circles. It should not by any means be taken as representative of the period in general. A large proportion of the inhabitants of Italy and the Latin-speaking western provinces was still pagan at this date. Augustine's own letters, written when he was bishop of Hippo, cannot disguise the number of non-Christians in proconsular Africa and Numidia.26 The same was true in much of Gaul and northern Italy.27 The public life of the municipalities of the Roman West throughout the lifetime of Augustine was resolutely secular.28

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