St. Augustine: A Gallery of Augustine’s Influences
Augustine’s mother, Monica, has to rank as one of the most well-known matriarchs in Christendom’s history. She lived with her husband, Patricius, whom Augustine describes as a “poor free man” and a minor official in the North African town of Thagaste. Patricius was a pagan, worshiping the Punic gods of the region, but Monica was a devout Christian. However, her name is derived from that of a Punic god, Mon, so we might guess that she came from a pagan family and was a convert to Christianity.
Monica bore two sons and probably several daughters. She suffered through Augustine’s growing pains, relentless in her determination to see that “the son of so many tears” would become a good Christian. She always clung to her belief—encouraged by a dream—that before she died she would see Augustine convert to Christianity.
When he took his professorship in Milan, Monica joined him there and set about finding him a high-society wife. In Milan, she attended the church of Bishop Ambrose; she may have seen in Ambrose a model of what Augustine could become—a successful politician-turned-churchman. Monica was overjoyed when Augustine told her of his conversion—it was quite literally a “dream come true.” After his conversion, she seems to have managed the retreat house that Augustine set up in Cassiciacum with his close friends.
On their return to North Africa, Augustine and Monica and the friends with them were waylaid in Ostia. While there, Augustine relates, he and Monica shared a “vision of eternal wisdom,” a foretaste of the life to come. Nine days later she died. Augustine and his brother buried her in Ostia; recently a fragment of her burial inscription was found there.
Augustine’s closest and most enduring friendship was with Alypius. Son of a leading family in Thagaste, Alypius was younger than Augustine, and was a student of his in Thagaste and in Carthage. Alypius moved to Rome shortly before Augustine did, and later the two were together in Milan.
Augustine credits Alypius for his decision not to marry. Alypius had an “innate love of virtue,” and admired the Manichees for their chastity. He followed Augustine into Manichacism and later to Christianity. Alypius was present in the garden of Milan at Augustine’s conversion, accompanied him on his post-conversion retreat to Cassiciacum, and was baptized by Ambrose along with Augustine and Augustine’s son.
Vignettes of Alypius appear often in Augustine’s Confessions, attesting to a genuinely close friendship. A lawyer by trade, Alypius later became the bishop of Thagaste. Solemn, courteous and obstinate, he has been described as Augustine’s “alter ego.”
Two important people in Augustine’s life remain largely unknown to us: his concubine and his son.
Around the time of his father’s death, Augustine took himself a concubine—a common and accepted arrangement in that day. For at least 14 years the two lived together, and parented a son they named Adeodatus. But when Monica joined Augustine in Milan, she had plans for a career—advancing marriage for her son, so she insisted that he send his concubine away. So she went back to Africa, leaving Adeodatus with Augustine and Monica.
She vowed as she left “never to give herself to another man.” Augustine must have loved her; he speaks of their mutual love, and the sad separation when she was “torn from my side.” But he never reveals her name.
Adeodatus remained with his father, and was baptized with him on Easter of 387. Augustine reports that his son’s talent was a source of awe to him, and once wrote Adeodatus that “you are the only man of all men that I would wish to surpass me in all things.”
But such was not to be. Adeodatus died around 390, not yet 20 years old.
If one particular person can be said to have been instrumental in the conversion of Augustine, it would probably be Ambrose, bishop of Milan.
When Augustine first came under his influence, after being appointed professor of rhetoric in Milan, Ambrose had been bishop for 11 years.
Disillusioned with the Manichaean philosophy, Augustine was impressed by Ambrose’s learned, up-to-date sermons, and the eloquent and convincing manner in which he defended the Old Testament against Manichaean criticisms.
According to Augustine, Ambrose welcomed him as a father would, being both kind and generous to him. After Augustine’s conversion, Ambrose baptized him.
A contemporary, Basil of Caesarea, described Ambrose as “a man eminent for intellect, illustrious lineage, prominence in life, and power of speech, an object of admiration to all of his world.”
However, Ambrose was perfectly capable of exerting a strong will when necessary, even when it meant going against the power of imperial Rome. In one case, Ambrose excommunicated the emperor Theodosius after he ordered what was basically a general massacre of 7,000 people in Thessalonica. The emperor eventually submitted to Ambrose’s spiritual authority, performing public penance on Christmas Day in 390. Later the emperor would assert, “I have known no bishop but Ambrose.”
Conservative churchmen criticized Ambrose for starting a craze for hymns; and in truth, one of his claims to literary fame is as the founder of Latin hymnody and rhyming stanzas for congregational singing.
Valerius was the elderly bishop of Hippo who recognized the newly converted Augustine s talent and used group pressure to coerce Augustine into becoming a priest. When he saw Augustine in the congregation one day, he began preaching about the urgent need for priests. The congregation mobbed Augustine, and ordained him by force. For the next five years, Valerius nurtured Augustine in the ministry. Augustine soon took over the preaching, and in 395 was made cobishop with Valerius. He died in 396, and Augustine succeeded him as bishop.
Among the group of bright young men that gathered around Augustine upon his return to Africa was Possidius. Though not as brilliant as Alypius, Possidius is perhaps better known because he recorded most of what we know about Augustine.
When the members of Augustine’s monastic band dispersed, becoming bishops throughout North Africa, Possidius went to Calama.
In 429–430, as the Vandals pillaged their way across North Africa, Possidius fled the ruins of Calama and ran to Hippo, a fortified city, where he joined Augustine. He appears to have been a secretary of sorts during Augustine’s last days, handling correspondence and cataloguing his mentor’s works. Very possibly it was Possidius who made sure the library of Augustine was saved from the flames of the Vandals. In succeeding years, Possidius, eking out a living among the ruins of North Africa, wrote the first biography of Augustine. He wrote of his friend as “Bishop Augustine . . . a man predestinated . . . brought forward in our time . . . a man among those who have gained their end, who have persevered up to the day of their death.”
Among the most distinguished of Augustine’s correspondents, Jerome was one of the 4th-century church’s greatest biblical scholars. Of the Latin fathers, he alone knew Hebrew. He finished his Latin translation of the Bible, known as the Vulgate, or common version, around 400 a.d. It is still approved today as the authoritative Latin text.
Jerome spent four years in Syria as a hermit. He later became secretary to Bishop Damasus of Rome. Eventually he settled in Bethlehem, and remained there in monastic retirement for the last 35 years of his life. His circle of disciples included several noble Roman ladies. He maintained a correspondence with churchmen and women throughout the Roman empire.
Augustine considered Jerome one of the most learned men alive, and began corresponding with him specifically to discuss a point concerning Jerome’s translation of Galatians. Unfortunately the letter got held up in Rome, where the contents were eagerly spread about. The letter itself was nine years in reaching Jerome, who concluded that it had all along been intended for public consumption.
“It is a sign of youthful arrogance,” he wrote Augustine, “to try to build up a reputation by assailing prominent figures.” They continued corresponding, Jerome alternately resentful and suspicious, and polite and affectionate. Although Augustine was disturbed by Jerome’s readiness to take offense, he was still courteous and tactful, and the correspondence continued for 25 years, until Jerome’s death in 420.
When Augustine began seriously considering the claims of Christianity, he started meeting regularly with Simplicianus. This wise old philosopher was counselor to Bishop Ambrose. In fact, it is likely that Ambrose assigned his trusty Simplicianus the task of leading Augustine on the road to conversion.
Simplicianus used Neo-platonism, a philosophy compatible with both paganism and Christianity, to meet Augustine halfway. Augustine later wrote that Simplicianus “seemed to me a good servant of Thine; and Thy grace shone in him.” When Ambrose died, it was Simplicianus who succeeded him as bishop.
By the Editors
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #15 in 1987]
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