To pinpoint a specific moment in time when our dramatic epoch came into existence is one of the most difficult questions posed to the historian. Do we begin in 376, when tribesmen fleeing from Hunnic invaders entered the empire? Or 476 when the idea of the western empire ceases to bear any practical significance? One may even argue that Rome never truly fell, but rather evolved into the Byzantine Empire which collapsed in 1453; or the Holy-Roman Empire which was dissolved in 1806; or the Papacy, which continues to this day. This is just the tip of the iceberg of problems involved in telling such a story as whilst many histories of the Middle Ages begin with the end of a former world, one in which Rome falls to barbarians and a periodic collapse of civilisation ensues, the medieval world should be understood as being deeply connected to its predecessor. As such, the likes of Sallust or Suetonius are, for example, as influential to the twelfth century as the Alexiad. With this in mind, if we reframe our perspective around one of the greatest and well-known contemporary saints and church fathers to the fourth century, then we will be able to understand the transformative evolution between the classical past and medieval future. In light of this, rather than diving into the heart of the empire, our story begins on its outskirts, at Hippo in modern-day Algeria, where in the face of violence and destruction at the hands of pagans, a theologian and philosopher was contemplating and constructing one of the most influential early medieval texts that would shape the future of Christianity.
Born in 354 to an aristocratic family in the dense forests and arid mountains of Thagaste, now Souk Ahras in Algeria, Augustine entered into a world which was a melting pot of culture, ethnicity, and religion. His mother, Monica, was a devout Christian whilst his father, Patricius, was a staunch Pagan who only sought conversion to Christianity on his deathbed. This, combined with a hybridised culture of North African Berber heritage with Romanised administration, meant that Augustine stood at the conflicting intersection of theological and cultural tensions which would dramatically collide within this lifetime. Nevertheless, in order to understand the mind of Augustine and how he perceived the changing world around him, we have to look no further than to his early life to see the seeds of conflict being sown.
He admits in The Confessions that his early life was marked by pagan beliefs and sinful practices. His pious mother, who is the patron saint of marital hardships and victims of abuse, endured repeated violence from Patricius who indulged in drink and promiscuous sexual pleasures. As such, Augustine grew up in a heavily divided household and claims to have inherited some of his fathers habits. At the age of 17 whilst studying at Carthage, he drank, stole, enjoyed sexual exploits, and sought to indulge in his desires through his hedonistic lifestyle. He also read a great deal of Cicero, which he described as having a lasting impression and developed his enthusiasm for philosophy. Much to his mother’s disappointment, however, Augustine also flirted with pagan beliefs and adopted Manichaeism, a highly influential belief system which arose from North Africa in the 270s and contained elements of Christianity and Zoroastrianism. The basis of this ideology was that the world was a battlefield between God and Satan, and humans are merely caught in between this and could only escape through meditation and asceticism. During his residency at Carthage, Augustine also fell deeply in love with a young woman. Being of a lower class, his mother discouraged the relationship and warned Augustine of his sexual desire and pursuit of sex outside marriage. Augustine continued despite his mother’s disapproval, and his mistress gave birth to a boy, Adeodatus, in 372. Like Augustine, Adeodatus was regarded as extremely intelligent by his contemporaries.
Between 372 and 384, Augustine and his family moved from Carthage to Rome, and then on to Milan to teach grammar, philosophy, politics and Latin. During this time, however, he became increasingly disenchanted by Manichaeism, primarily due to its belief that humans were absolved from evil and simply lived alongside it. Instead, Augustine believed that if God gave humans the ability to decide their actions and deeds, otherwise known as free will, that evil was inevitable. There is no doubt that this conclusion was influenced by his abusive father and early life, but it is important to note that Augustine would have also been aware of, and influenced by, the emerging conflicts across the Adriatic and beyond the Balkans.
In the plains of modern-day Ukraine, Romania, and Moldova, a mass exodus of fleeing refugees were gathering at the frontiers of the Empire’s borders. The source of this crisis arose from a series of conflicts against the Goths and Alans by Hunnic tribes which led to their defeat and displacement. Travelling from the Steppe to the Balkans, the Huns were a mysterious nomadic tribe with little archeological footprint but known to the Alans and Goths as unclean spirits and offsprings of witches. Due to their enhanced tactics on horseback and incredibly deadly use of archery which could pierce armour at 100m, they slaughtered thousands and decimated the various villages of the Goths. In response to this, refugees fled their homes and sought out the Roman borders of the Balkans to be protected. For the Romans, however, the decision to act or not would be flutter of the butterfly’s wing which would cause the hurricane of their downfall.
In 376, the Balkans was thus caught in a migrant crisis along the river Danube. Whilst it is difficult to know how many refugees there may have been, it can be said with a degree of certainty that numbers were in their ten-thousands. The task of dealing with this epidemic was given to the Eastern Emperor Valens (‘Eastern’ as the empire was so vast it was split and ruled by two emperors). Set with a moral and practical conflict between accepting thousands of foreign refugees or refusing them to be slaughtered by the Huns, Valens had to also contend with public order, food supply, and the potential for disease to run rampant. Favouring the idea of cheap immigrant labour and foreign military auxiliaries, Valens opted in 376 to accept only some of the Goths to settle in Thrace so long as military obligation was given. It was estimated that 15,000 – 20,000 Goths then crossed the Danube to be rehomed in an event which Valens believed to be a victory. Nevertheless, whilst this program of resettlement for Goth refugees within the empire may have superficially seemed positive, exploitation and violence quickly turned it bitter, and questions of responsibility quickly arose.
Although welcomed into the Balkans, this was partly through gritted teeth as previous wars fought between the Romans and Goths from 367 – 369 had left a lingering spitefulness. It may be suggested too that the economic sanctions levied on the Goths combined with their losses from such wars resulted in a weakened state which left them open to a Hun invasion. As such, the Roman officials coordinating this program, Lupicinus and Maximus, took advantage of starving families to send child slaves in return for dog meat. Equally, alongside abusing the Goths, they failed to uphold Valens’ condition that only the Goths were allowed in. Because of this, Thrace became a rich tapestry of thousands of different tribal inhabitants, most of whom were illegal. Although Valens believed that the infrastructure of the Romans could maintain these refugees, food supply quickly ran dry due to conflicts between the Romans and Persians in the East.
Starved, demoralised, and angered, the Goths took it upon themselves to ease their struggle by undertaking a series of plundering skirmishes on Thracian estates. Overpowering the Roman armies stationed in the Balkans, the Goths and Alans combined forces to invade the surrounding areas, coming as close as the walls of Constantinople itself. Through corruption, neglect, and exploitation, Valens had thus let a pressing migrant issue become a vast internal crisis which threatened the integrity of the empire. Attempting to rectify the situation, Valens marched at the head of an army to Adrianople where a large cohort of around 10,000 Goths had gathered under the command of Thervingian Gothic chieftain, Fritigern.
Although an encampment had been established on arrival, Valens, underneath the hot August sun, decided to push further outside of the fortified encampment to meet the Gothic army who were setting alight the surrounding the plains. The Goths, attempting to outsmart the Emperor, sent envoys to seek a truce whilst they secretly lay the grounds for a potentially devastating tactical trap. Exhausted and depleted after hours of unsuccessful negotiations, the Roman army decided to charge the Goth barbarians. During the violent and bloody battle, the Romans, who had believed the Goth army to be only 10,000 strong at best, quickly realised the extent to which they were wrong. Column upon column of barbarians set upon the depleted Romans successively for what seemed to be an eternity. Just as it was believed that enough Roman blood had been spilled, the trap that had been set during the negotiations then was released, and a hidden detachment of Goth cavalry away from the Roman scouts charged the closely packed Roman army and Valens was overwhelmed by Goth warriors. The wounded Eastern Roman Empire, without its emperor, was now laid open to onslaughts of invaders.
Whilst the frontiers of the empire were crumbling, the 380s would prove to equally push Augustine to his limits, and it was during this time that the spark for Christianity grew within him. Whilst at Milan, Emperor Theodosius I, the successor to Valens, passed the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 which declared that Christianity was to be the only legitimate religion within the empire, gradually putting to an end the hybridised melting pot of theology Augustine had grown up with. Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, was a strong supporter of Theodosius and his tightening grip on pagan beliefs as a result of the migrant crisis. Though Augustine was not a particularly strong Christian, Ambrose played a strong role in leading Augustine to re-evaluate his life and change his ideology. Augustine wrote, "That man of God received me as a father would, and welcomed my coming as a good bishop should." This bustling relationship, however, was cultivated in-part through a series of devastating setbacks. The adoption of Augustine by Ambrose as a spiritual father was the result of Augustine’s actual father passing. Around the same time, Augustine was then forced to forsake his beloved mistress of 15 years and mother of his beloved son as Monica, Augustine’s mother, betrothed him to a young girl of a higher class. Of this, he wrote that "my mistress being torn from my side as an impediment to my marriage, my heart, which clave to her, was racked, and wounded, and bleeding." In 382, Theodosius tightened his grip further by issuing a decree that all Manichaean monks were to be put to death, further pushing Augustine away from his past philosophical and theological interests. In a time of desperate need during his crisis of belief, Augustine writes in his Confessions that, at the age of 31 in 386, he heard a child’s voice call out to him to “take up and read”. Turning to a random page in St. Paul’s writings, he read Romans 13: 13–14: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.” This resonated with the sinful life that Augustine had lived until now, one which was marked by lustful desire, drunkenness, theft, fornication, and immorality. As such, he writes in his Confessions:
Belatedly I loved thee, O Beauty so ancient and so new, belatedly I loved thee. For see, thou wast within and I was without, and I sought thee out there. Unlovely, I rushed heedlessly among the lovely things thou hast made. Thou wast with me, but I was not with thee. These things kept me far from thee; even though they were not at all unless they were in thee. Thou didst call and cry aloud, and didst force open my deafness. Thou didst gleam and shine, and didst chase away my blindness. Thou didst breathe fragrant odors and I drew in my breath; and now I pant for thee. I tasted, and now I hunger and thirst. Thou didst touch me, and I burned for thy peace.
The Confessions of St Augustine, consisting of 13 books written in the late 390s, though autobiographical, provides us with an incredible insight into the mind and contemplation of a man who finds God and Christianity in a deeply dark time, both in his own life as we have seen and geopolitically. As such, a reader may find incredible, and even somewhat relatable, discussions about anxiety, insecurity, free will, and causality amongst other philosophical topics. Nevertheless, by 387, both Augustine and his son were baptised by Ambrose in Milan. In the following year, however, the final piece of straw which broke the camel's back occurred. Whilst returning to Africa, both Augustine’s mother and son, the loves of his life, successively pass away, leaving Augustine as the only remaining member of his family. It is reasonable to say that his fascination with contemplating evil on earth arose from the collapse of his beloved family unit within the greater setting of the crumbling empire.
The result of these tragedies was a complete surrender to Christianity. He converted the family home into a monastery, sold his patrimony, and gave his money away to the poor. In 391, he became an ordained priest at Hippo and began preaching thousands of sermons. He is known to have also preached against Manichaeism and other pagan beliefs he had once endorsed. That being said, the style in which he preached was heavily influenced by the ideas of Neoplatonism, a philosophical movement created by Plotinus (c.204-70), a follower of Plato. Neoplatonism distinguished the physical world from the intangible world of ideas, believing that evil could only reside in the physical world as it was imperfect, changeable, and perishable. Therefore, the physical world was an imitation of the perfection of the eternal, a concept which Augustine continuously refers to within the City of God when reflecting on the crumbling empire.
Whilst the stability of Augustine’s life was deteriorating and leading him towards reforming his life, Emperor Theodosius, who had inherited the empire in a major crisis after a heavy defeat at the hands of heathen barbarians, was equally rectifying former mistakes. In order to recover a degree of stability, Theodosius implemented stern measures of conscription, punishments for desertion, and reinforced units with non-Roman auxiliaries – some of which were Goths. As a result of this, a series of minor successes were achieved, but a major life-threatening illness forced Theodosius to retreat and reduce the war progress. Believing stability in the region was attained, he requested baptism and proceeded to move his court to Constantinople in 380. In the following year, Athanaric, a Gothic leader, visited the court and offered submission to the emperor. Though a propaganda victory, Theodosius saw that the Goths could not be completely defeated and exiled from the region. Whilst minor victories continued to be achieved within Macedonia and Thessaly, an incursion of Sciri and Huns across the Danube threatened the stability of the Balkans once more. Negotiations thereafter took place in 382 to allow the Goths to settle in the region and provide military service for Rome. They were, however, able to remain autonomous under their own leaders which enabled them to remain strong and unified. Nevertheless, in 388, Theodosius was able to defeat the rival self-proclaimed Western Emperor Magnus Maximus at the Battle of Poetovio in 388. The recovery of the western lands following this battle made Theodosius the de facto ruler of the Western Empire in 389, further aiding in installing a degree of stability into the empire. Theodosius thus became the last emperor to rule the Roman Empire as a whole which enabled stability to be instilled.
Thereafter, in order to maintain public order, he adopted a moderate policy towards non-Christians. Whilst he supported the preservation of temples, appointed pagans to high offices, and allowed pagan practices, he turned pagan holidays into workdays, banned animal sacrifice, divination, and apostasy, and issued a number of laws against paganism. He is also responsible for abolishing the Olympic Games, believing that the worship of Zeus was a pagan abomination. Despite this, however, he took care to ensure the pagan population (which was still the majority by the fourth century) was not discontent with his reign. Archaeological evidence, as well as the hybridisation of language, culture, and religion within society and individuals like Augustine, suggests that paganism saw a slow decline rather than being the victim of a pious ‘crusade’ by Theodosius. If Augustine’s meandering between belief systems throughout his life is any testament to this, the relationship between paganism and Christianity within the empire even until the 380s can be understood through a lens of coexistence.
The remaining years of his reign until 395 were relatively stable. With the death of Theodosius, however, the Empire returned to its co-ruler split and Honorius was appointed as Emperor of the Western half whilst his brother, Acadius, ruled the east. From hereafter does the timer towards the collapse of the empire begin to increase rapidly. Honorius was young when he succeeded as emperor, and thus relied on the military prowess and leadership of Stilicho, one of the most powerful men in the Western Roman Empire and, like Augustine, a product of cultural and religious hybridity within the empire as he was part-Vandal and part-Roman. At the time of Stilicho’s rise to power, the events of the Gothic migrant crisis were seemingly in the past. Yet the causes of the crisis were still prevalent and on the resurgence as the Huns were once again migrating in the 390s.
Though the Huns originated in Northern China, in over 4 decades from 380s to 420s, they had travelled over 1,700km in great numbers to Europe, scattering the various tribal inhabitants in the process. Whilst in the 370s, they had displaced the Goths, now in the 390s, it was the Alans, Vandals, and Burgundians to name just a few. The Huns, however, were not entirely a nuisance as this time many opted to provide their military knowledge to the Stilicho, who had various Huns within his personal bodyguards. Nevertheless, the great Hun surge during this period caused widespread panic amongst Romans and tribes alike. As such, the Roman borders were continuously battered by conflicts as well as migrant calamities from 405 to 410. These forces were in no small number either, in 405 along the alpine border, a Gothic king called Radagaisus appeared with a migrant hoard of 100,000, a fifth of whom were warriors. Through a series of successful battles, he forced his way into Italy ensuing panic in Rome. Stilicho, who was in command of the armies tasked at repelling these tribal invaders, had the manpower to do so took too long in gathering his hired Alan and Hun mercenaries, forces stationed in the Rhineland, and Italian armies. 6 months after the initial invasion did the Roman armies under Stilicho finally assemble, and in the meanwhile Radagaisus was able to conquer and pillage as far south as Florence. Nevertheless, Stilicho was able to decimate their armies, capture Radagaisus, and free Italy from its periodic crisis. Although this was a victory, pulling resources and men from regions across the empire left large vulnerable gaps along the borders. Unlike a war with a single king whereby a relatively small area emerges as the battlefield, this war was being fought against multiple kings, across multiple battlefields, in multiple principalities. Within a year, in 406, Vandals, Alans, and Sueve poured into the undefended borders of Gaul and Britain. In the process, hundreds of Christians and Churches were attacked and ravaged by the barbarians, famine ensued, and blood ran through the streets.
A contemporary to Augustine and fellow saint, Jerome (340-420), writes about the ‘Fate of Rome’ which details the sheer number of tribes entering the Roman borders:
“A few of us have hitherto survived them, but this is due not to anything we have done ourselves but to the mercy of the Lord. Savage tribes in countless numbers have overrun all parts of Gaul. The whole country between the Alps and the Pyrenees, between the Rhine and the Ocean, has been laid waste by hordes of Vandals, Sarmatians, Alans, Gepids, Saxons, Burgundians, Allemanni and--alas! --even Pannonians.”
He continues by recalling the countless cities which have fallen to invasion or famine:
The once noble city of Moguntiacum has been captured and destroyed. In its church many thousands have been massacred. The people of Vangium after standing a long siege have been extirpated. The powerful city of Rheims, the Ambiani, the Altrebatae, the Belgians on the skirts of the world, Tournay, Spires, and Strasburg have fallen to Germany: while the provinces of Aquitaine and of the Nine Nations, of Lyons and of Narbonne are with the exception of a few cities one universal scene of desolation. And those which the sword spares without, famine ravages within. I cannot speak without tears of Toulouse which has been kept from failing hitherto by the merits of its reverend bishop Exuperius.”
What seemingly is most distressing to Jerome and contemporaries is that unlike previous wars within their lifetime, this is being fought within their borders:
“Yet who will hereafter credit the fact or what histories will seriously discuss it, that Rome has to fight within her own borders not for glory but for bare life; and that she does not even fight but buys the right to exist by giving gold and sacrificing all her substance? This humiliation has been brought upon her not by the fault of her Emperors who are both most religious men, but by the crime of a half-barbarian traitor who with our money has armed our foes against us.”
The so-called ‘half-barbarian’ being referred to may be Stilicho who, as we know, was half-Vandal and hired foreign mercenaries to fight. Nevertheless, Jerome’s writing emphasises the aura of fear from the Romans and contains a great deal of insecurity about the uncertain future of the empire. From this point onwards, the collapse of the Roman empire began to exponentially increase. The Roman armies of Britain entered a state of mutiny, and in 406, two leading officers of the army, Marcus and Gratius, proclaimed themselves emperor before being murdered by their men. In 407, Constantine III gained control of the British armies and declared himself as leader of the western empire and withdrew all military forces to Gaul to aid in the war efforts. In 408, the Huns, whom this European crisis is attributed to, made a direct attack on the lower Danube. Henceforth, the whole empire was under attack.
A regular nuisance to the Romans and Stilicho was Alaric, King of the Visigoths. Unlike many other invaders, Alaric was a Christian and led a warband of Goths and other tribes within the Roman army. Nevertheless, in c.395, he betrayed his Roman commanders to become king of a collective coalition of tens of thousands known as the Visigoths. In 401-2, and 403, Alaric attempted to invade Italy, only to be triumphed each time by Stilicho. Alaric, however, in 408, joined the mass onslaught of invaders in Gaul to get his piece of the pie. Co-ordinating an attack on Ravenna, he sent word to Honorius’ court to negotiate the payment of 3,000lbs of silver in order for him to not invade. Stilicho, as Jerome tells us, gave in to his demands believing that his forces were already too far stretched. The senate, like Jerome, were deeply displeased by Stilicho’s progress, and used his Vandal heritage in a racially charged campaign to accuse him of having an alliance with Alaric. Equally, Honorius cancelled the silver payments to Alaric which resulted in an attack on Ravenna 6 months later.
Failing to eradicate the incoming plague of barbarians or defeat the disease of political opponents in the senate, Stilicho was unable to keep afloat. A coup ensued in 408 leading to several of Stilicho’s officers being murdered, and three months late, Stilicho himself was captured, imprisoned, and executed for treachery. Alaric, after hearing that his strongest rival and obstacle to the rich spoils of Italy had perished at the hand of his own people, took advantage of the opportunity to strike. Within weeks, the Visigoths marched deep within Italy, and their numbers grew exponentially as the xenophobic campaign of the senate forced foreign roman auxiliaries to switch their allegiance. For many, the abuse and violence towards foreigners and migrants within the empire transformed the expedition from plunder to a war on racial oppression. As such, with a personal vendetta, Rome – the eternal city, the beating heart of the empire, the centre of civilisation – became a fitting target to wound and shatter the institution that had abused and mistreated so many.
In November of 408, the city was under siege by Alaric. Holding the city ransom for all its gold, he halted the supply of food to its 750,000 citizens to starve them into submission. The impossible task of feeding this many mouths quickly became futile, and after just two months the court at Ravenna promised 5,000lbs of Gold and 30,000lbs of silver to Alaric along with other provisions on the condition that he would withdraw and enable the city to continue its importation of food supplies. Now 24 years old and contending with the migrant crisis for most of his life, Honorius realised he had no other option but to follow the method Stilicho had once undertaken and had been put to death for. As such, he paid Alaric off. Meanwhile in Gaul, the usurper Emperor Constantine III was gathering support within the crippled roman landscape. As St. Jerome writes, economic strife, famine, disease, and harsh conditions laid waste to the land, and meant that even if the barbarians could be overcome, the following years to come would be marked by crises upon crises.
Accepting the terms and withdrawing from Rome, Alaric sought to gain a new proposition which would make him wilfully retreat from Italy altogether. Given that the four decade long journey of the Goths to Rome was due to the loss of a homeland as a result of the Huns, Alaric pleaded to Honorius to allow him and the Visigoths to settle in Southeast Europe, specifically within the plains and highlands along the Adriatic coast which today comprise of Croatia, Austria, and Slovenia. Another, more surprising, condition of the settlement program was that Alaric would be given high military office and to become the successor of none other than Stilicho. This proposition of friendship, alliance, and resettlement shows the true core belief of the so-called primitive barbarians which the records of history has placed on the various Visigothic, Alans, Gepids, Goth, and Burgundian tribes. Rather than plunder and violence, at the end of the day, it was all about finding peace, stability, and most of all – a home.
Whilst this may seem a sensible solution to the problem of a migrant crises, Honorius disagreed with outrage. He refused Alaric’s offer and dared him to take what he believed was therefore his. As such, in 409, Alaric invaded and sieged Rome for a second time. Unlike the first siege, Alaric assumed a far more aggressive strategy. A Senatorial assembly which included Pope Innocent I, pleaded to Honorius to take Alaric’s deal as Ataulf, Alaric’s brother, was on his way with another army with the intent of joining the siege. Refusing, Alaric threatened Honorius with deposition and intimidated the senate in nominating an alternative emperor, Priscus Attalus, a pagan-Greek who had taken up Christianity later in life like St. Augustine. Alaric then embarked on a propaganda campaign throughout Italy whereby the inhabitants were to show support for Attalus, or fear being put to the sword. With the unstoppable force of Alaric came the immovable object that was Honorius who, after all this, continued his staunch position of refusing Alaric’s demands. To say this was a misjudgement is an understatement. In august of 410, Alaric gave up on Attalus and the settlement program and instead, charged for Rome. Within two days, on the 24th of August, the Salarian gates of Rome were opened by treacherous citizens, and a hoard of barbarians sacked the eternal city.
This devastating news quickly spread through the Mediterranean, and over the next three years Augustine dedicate his time to producing The City of God, a highly influential 22-book series (of which, the first 5 are dedicated to the sack of Rome) which, as he describes, is to “defend the City of God against those who prefer their own gods to the Founder of that City.” Though primarily about religion, beneath the moral preaching, readers can discover a theologian who was highly anxious and insecure about the future of his faith and nation. It must have been a daunting period for Augustine; his dedication to Christianity emerged from a period of great loss and desperation and now the very heart of the empire was being destroyed by a Christian-leader at the head of a pagan army. His insecurities about the future of his faith is shown by his refusal to accept defeat. Whilst St. Jerome writes a chilling narrative about the attack on home soil, destruction of cities, and rampant spread of disease and famine, St. Augustine downplays the impact of the migrant crisis and siege in book II, saying, “let us help them [Augustine’s critics] to recall the many similar and various disasters which overwhelmed the Roman State before Christ’s incarnation.” In other words, commenting that Rome has suffered such attacks before, such as Caesar crossing the Rubicon, and it survived and endured – this event will be no different, and it certainly wasn’t the fault of Christ. In fact, Augustine takes this postulation further in book IV by commenting that Rome only endured this time because of Christ himself. This is a peculiar take on an event which many other contemporaries view as a devastating catastrophe. Nevertheless, it must be remembered that Christianity, though popular, was still relatively small in the greater religious melting bot of Europe, Asia, and North Africa. As such, with critics attacking Christ for not protecting the eternal city against invading barbarians, Christianity was as under siege as Rome itself. This is why Augustine goes to great lengths and effort to wield the narrative, a campaign which many may have witnessed or been aware of from the attack on the World Trade Centre on September 11th, 2001.
I say this because the xenophobic campaign of the senate, loss of central political control, and an attack on home soil is what makes this event highly comparable to 9/11. The attack not only changed the identity of America on a global scale, but also had a significant impact on a domestic level. This was demonstrated by the racialisation of the Arab American and Muslim community expressed in the American public attitude. The Bush Administration constructed a particular narrative of ‘good vs evil’ – a theme which is highly prevalent in St Augustine’s life and construction of City of God which arose from his former Manichaean and Neoplatonist beliefs. This is particularly important as Stuart Croft, in his book “Culture, Crisis and America's War on Terror” writes that “crises often mark the origins of a particular discourse, and a discourse that emerges with credibility in a crisis – in a sense which gives that crisis meaning.” In this regard, the defence of the nation and ‘good vs. evil’ narrative utilised by Bush with the aim of controlling the meaning and subsequent legacy of 9/11 may have been the same pursuit which Augustine sought to achieve in writing the City of God – with the legacy of the Christianity in lieu of the United States.
The true mind and intentions of Augustine are, of course, unknown, which makes such a remark difficult to verify, but the emphasis on minor events whilst missing out others entirely shows that Augustine was carefully cherry-picking information and choosing his battles. To further absolve Christianity from being responsible for the sack of Rome, he repeatedly refers to an event whereby “the enemies of Christianity were spared by the barbarians at the sack of Rome, out of respect for Christ.” During the siege, it is recorded by many contemporaries including Orosius, St. Jerome, and Augustine that many Roman citizens (both pagan and Christian) took refuge in Christian shrines, namely the Basilica of St. Peter and Basilica of St. Paul. Augustine repeatedly refers to this event to defend Christianity and say that these Roman pagans should be more grateful of their survival through the Christian God: “The barbarians spared them for Christ’s sake; and now these Roman’s assail Christ’s name”. Following this, Augustine remarks that mercifully sparing the inhabitants within their church, is an event unexampled in history. Historians have since shown that this observation by Augustine was not necessarily true as Alexander showed mercy to the inhabitants at Tyre and Agesilus showed clemency after Coronea. It should also be pointed out that Augustine leaves out in his narrative that the Basilica Aemilia and the Basilica Julia were burned. Nevertheless, it shows in the following years after the sack of Rome that the Christian empire entered a crisis of belief with accusations against Christ that Rome had lost God’s favour. In order to combat this, Augustine then refers to the fall of the “conquered” Greek/Roman gods which only survived through Aeneas, a man. As such, to put your faith in the old Gods is “to rely on defaulters, not divinities.” This is particularly interesting as whilst Christianity is not as endangered as the Hellenistic religion in Virgil’s Aeneid, Augustine is playing the role of Aeneas in attempting to keep the first of Christianity alight. This insecurity surrounding the threats against Christianity is a theme which we will come to see throughout Medieval History as new belief systems and events endanger the integrity of Christianity.
This topic of ‘Good vs. Evil’ is a prominent feature of The City of God but not necessarily in the same xenophobic outlet as Augustine’s contemporaries. Instead, his perspective on this event is as a battle of faith rather than culture, race, or nationalism. As we saw with St Jerome, there was a racial undertone within his narrative when he describes Stilicho as a “half-barbarian traitor”. Augustine, however, criticises Romans as much as he does the Goths. In book I, even though for the majority of his life Augustine was pagan, he attacks non-Christian Romans, saying that “many of these [pagans] correct their godless errors and become useful citizens. But many are inflamed with hate against it and feel no gratitude for the benefits offered by its Redeemer.” As such, the purpose of war is for “God to correct and chasten the corrupt morals of mankind”. This is a highly aggressive religious attack which polarises the conflict into a Christian vs. Pagan, as opposed to Roman vs. various tribal communities. This is especially interesting because Alaric who besieged Rome was Christian, yet Augustine places the responsibility for evil and destruction equally on Roman pagans. He also combines all pagan faith systems, no matter now different, whether it be Hellenism or Manichaeism, under one group of evil doers. This scapegoat against the non-believer once again absolves Christianity and the institution of the Roman empire by shifting responsibility and redirecting the narrative onto a question of faith and morality. It is therefore no surprise that readers will see that the once melting pot of faith and culture will now gradually become more polarised and segregated. The consequence is that this narrative and the sack of Rome played a key role in changing the fluidity of society into a binary format under Christianity.
It is for this reason that Augustine’s City of God is unbelievably influential over the coming millennia as each time Christianity endures turmoil, contemporaries refer to the defences and absolutions made by Augustine to justify the current threats. He would also come to influence St. Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin in their theological contemplations and influence the political thought and order of kings and popes – especially in the relationship between church and state. As such, although Augustine died in 430 when the walls of Hippo were under siege from Vandal invaders and an epoch of empire and civilisation is collapsing beneath his feet, his Confessions and City of God stand as foundations of the new age we will come to know over the coming chapters. Whilst many in the past have regarded this time as the Dark Ages, we shall see that the ideas and contemplations of Saints and Church Fathers like Augustine spur on a bustling theological and philosophical golden age.