[Second in a series on the Middle Ages. The first is here.]
If the Middle Ages saw the victory of barbarism and the triumph of Christianity, then alongside Attila the Hun (406-453), who gave energy to barbarian conquests and migrations, another figure who just predates that era, and shaped Christianity, was Saint Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo (354-430).
You might say that Augustine, like Attila, came from the fringe of the Roman world. He was born in Africa—or, more precisely the Roman Province called Africa. I show that region in the inset map. Today it comprises, moving west to east, northern Algeria, Tunisia, and a strip of coastal Libya. Rome had acquired that province by the conquest of Carthage. The little red tip on this map pointing to Italy marks the Gulf of Tunis, and Carthage was located on its shore. Augustine came from a small town to the west of Carthage, called Thagasta in those days, today called Souk Ahras. And—after his you might say academic career ended—which took him to Carthage, then Rome, and finally to Milan, he returned to Africa again and settled in Hippo, now called Annaba and, these days, a city with a population of 257,000.
The next map shows these places, with Google’s A marking Tunis (Carthage). The distances here are 59 miles (by modern road) from Thagasta to Hippo and 189 miles from Hippo to Carthage. Augustine went to what we’d now call boarding school at 11 to a place just south-west of Thagasta then called Madaurus (today M’ Daourouch) some 57 miles from Thagasta (not shown on the map). His African region, therefore, was just about the same as the distance from Chicago to Detroit.
The first image I am showing next is a residential area of Souk Ahras (Thagasta) today, taken from Google Maps. That city, today, has a population of 157,000 people, and it has all sorts of very impressive structures and lots of cars, but here we see, polka-dotting the area, the white of many, many satellite dishes. The second image is of a more urban view. Some things remain the same; others change…
The period from 385 to 390 represents Augustine’s conversion to Christianity. He was born into a Christian household but, during his studies in Carthage, he had been strongly attracted to Manichaeism, best described as a late-blooming offshoot of Mazdaism, characterized by a radical dualism: two forces in the cosmos, Good and Evil, battling for supremacy. Manichaeism made claims to be more rationally founded—and supported by experience—which was most likely what drew Augustine; but in practice the followers of Mani exhibited ambiguous moral behavior which began early to cause Augustine second thoughts. His Manichean connections, however, were useful in furthering his early academic ambitions.
Augustine returned to Africa in 388 and, three years later was ordained a priest. His preaching tours in his region rapidly earned him a high reputation so that in 395 he became the Bishop at Hippo. The last thirty-seven years of his life he spent as a Churchman, growing in reputation by means of his books—the most important of which was his Confessions, completed in 397.
Augustine’s contact with the barbarian phenomenon of his time came as he neared, and then reached, the end of his life. In 410 Alaric, whose career began by invading Greece (where he accepted the capitulation of Athens), took Rome and emptied it of anything worth carrying. The loss of life there was modest—despite the fact that this last and this time successful of several Visigothic attempts at taking Rome had in part been triggered by a Roman massacre of some 30,000 Gothic dependents (wives and children). This by way of giving a flavor of those times.
The capital, by then, was Ravenna, but Alaric’s triumph had a major and very depressing impact on the Western Roman world. Augustine was then inspired to write his second most famous book, The City of God. It was a major and successful expression of Christ’s words: “My Kingdom is not of this world.” It refocused the mindset of his time. The Empire might be doomed, but the City of God would ultimately triumph.
In the last year of Augustine’s life, the Vandals, who had passed through Spain but had had major trouble establishing themselves there, moved in a body (approximately 200,000 strong) into Africa and arrived at the gates of Hippo in 430. Augustine was already ill. The siege lasted and—just after Augustine died—was lifted again. The Vandals came back later; this time they succeeded in capturing the city and burning it down. The only structure they saved was Augustine’s church and his library. Was that, perhaps, an omen about the future?