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Augustine the African

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Augustine the African

Augustine was born in Tagaste (modern Souk Ahras, Algeria) in 354 and died almost seventy-six years later in Hippo Regius (modern Annaba) on the Mediterranean coast sixty miles away. In the years between he lived out a career that seems to moderns to bridge the gap between ancient pagan Rome and the Christian middle ages. But to Augustine, as to his contemporaries, that gap separated real people and places they knew, not whole imaginary ages of past and future. He lived as we do, in the present, full of uncertainty.

Augustine's African homeland had been part of Rome's empire since the destruction of Carthage five hundred years before his birth. Carthage had been rebuilt by Rome as the metropolis of Roman Africa, wealthy once again but posing no threat. The language of business and culture throughout Roman Africa was Latin. Careers for the ambitious, as we shall see, led out of provincial Africa into the wider Mediterranean world; on the other hand, wealthy Italian senators maintained vast estates in Africa which they rarely saw. The dominant religion of Africa became Christianity--a religion that violently opposed the traditions of old Rome but that could not have spread as it did without the prosperity and unity that Rome had brought to the ancient world.

Roman Africa was a military backwater. The legions that were kept there to maintain order and guard against raids by desert nomads were themselves the gravest threat to peace; but their occasional rebellions were for the most part short-lived and inconsequential. The only emperors who ever spent much time in Africa were the ones who had been born there; by Augustine's time, decades had passed without an emperor even thinking of going to Africa.

Some distinctly African character continued to mark life in the province. Some non-Latin speech, either the aboriginal Berber of the desert or the derelict Punic the Carthaginians had spoken, continued to be heard in dark corners. In some of the same corners, old local pagan cults could still be found. When Augustine became a Christian clergyman, he found Africa rent by an ecclesiastical schism that had its roots at least partly in the truculent sense of difference maintained by the less-Romanized provincials of up-country Numidia, near the northern fringes of the Sahara.

So a young man like Augustine could belong irretrievably to the world Rome had made, but still feel that he was living on the periphery of that world. Augustine set out to make himself more Roman than the Romans and to penetrate to the center of the culture from which he found himself alienated by his provincial birth. But that was only the beginning of his story.

Augustine was born on 13 November, A.D. 354, in Tagaste, a town large enough to have its own bishop but too small for a college or university.[[1]] His parents, Patricius and Monica, belonged to the financially imperilled middle class. They were well enough off to have educational ambitions for their son, but too poor to finance those ambitions themselves. The fourth century was an age of mixed marriages at this level of society, in which devout Christian women like Monica were often to be found praying for the conversion of their irreligious husbands. Her prayers were not unavailing; Patricius accepted baptism on his deathbed. Though Patricius offered no direct impulse towards Christianity for his son, he must not have been much more than a passive obstacle.

Of Augustine's childhood we know only what he chooses to tell us in the highly selective memoirs that form part of the Confessions. He depicts himself as a rather ordinary sort of child, good at his lessons but not fond of school, eager to win the approval of his elders but prone to trivial acts of rebellion, quick to form close friendships but not always able to foresee their consequences. He studied Latin with some enthusiasm but never loved Greek. While he was leading what he wants us to think was a rather conventionally boisterous adolescence (it is best to imagine him in a crowd of conformists, but edging towards the quieter fringes of the crowd), his parents were worrying about paying for his education. Finally, with the help of an affluent family friend, they managed to scrape together enough to send him to the nearest university town a dozen miles away, Madaura, the home of the famous second-century sophist and novelist Apuleius, which was the second city in the life of the mind in Africa.

After a time at Madaura, the youth's talents made Carthage inevitable. There he seems to have gone at about the age of seventeen. Not long after, his father died and his mother was left with modest resources and nothing to tie her to Tagaste. Augustine himself quickly set up housekeeping with a young woman he met in Carthage, by whom a son was born not long after. This woman would stay with Augustine for over a decade and, though we do not know her name, he would say that when he had to give her up to make a society marriage in Milan "his heart ran blood" with grief as she went off to Africa--perhaps to enter a convent. The son, Adeodatus, stayed with Augustine until premature death took him in late adolescence.

So far the conventional outward events of Augustine's young manhood. His intellectual life was a little more remarkable. The education he had received in Tagaste and Madaura had made him a typical late Roman pedant, with a comprehensive knowledge of a few authors (especially Cicero and Vergil) and a taste for oddities of language and style.[[2]] Only at Carthage did his education show any signs of breaking the usual molds, but even then only in a conventional way. In the ordinary course of the curriculum, he had to read a work of Cicero's called the Hortensius.[[3]] This book, since lost and known only from fragments quoted by Augustine and other ancient writers, was a protreptic, that is, a treatise designed to inspire in the reader an enthusiasm for the discipline of philosophy. Through all his other vagaries of interest and allegiance, until the time of Augustine's conversion to Christianity Cicero would remain the one master from whom the young African learned the most; Augustine is in many ways the greatest of Cicero's imitators in point of Latin style.

The zeal for philosophy led first in what may seem a strange direction. Fired with the love of wisdom from his reading of the quintessential Roman politician, Augustine immediately joined a religious cult from Persia that had planted itself in the Roman world as a rival of Christianity: Manicheism. This sensual but sensitive young man, brought up around but not exactly in Christianity, took his Ciceronian enthusiasm



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