Life and works
Life At the time of Jesus, Judaism was gaining converts throughout the romanized Mediterranean. Christianity inherited this proselytizing habit, through Paul; and gradually the new religion, imbued with Jewish culture and morality but disowned by the nation of its founders, established churches in every part of the Roman Empire. Within a couple of hundred years systematic Christian thinkers had appeared, Clement and Origen at Alexandria, Irenaeus-also a Greek-at Lyons, Tertullian at Carthage. Growth in numbers made Christianity visible enough by the middle of the third century to attract centrally directed persecution under the emperor Decius in 250-1, revived more fiercely in the Great Persecution of Diocletian and his successors in 303-312. But then, in an instant, came triumph, with the conversion in 312 of Constantine the Great (c.274-337) and his defeat of the rival western emperor Maxentius later in the same year. From that turning point there was to be no lasting retreat, and ‘the religion of Constantine achieved, in less than a century, the final conquest of the Roman empire’ (Gibbon, Decline and Fall, vol. 3, p. 215).*
Aurelius Augustinus (354-430) was born during this conquering century, the fourth of the Christian era, the first of Christian government. His birthplace was Thagaste, a hill town in the north African province of Numidia, now Souk-Aras in Algeria, about fifty miles inland and south of Hippo Regius (later Bône, now Annaba in Algeria), where, as bishop, he was to spend the second half of his life. In the year of his birth Constantius II, sole survivor of Constantine’s three sons, ruled an increasingly turbulent empire. Alamans and Franks were ranging unchecked in Gaul; from the east the emperor’s cousin Gallus, fresh from suppressing a variety of disturbances-revolt in Galilee, Isaurian pirates, food riots in the great metropolis of Antioch-was recalled to court and executed. The north African provinces themselves-that is, the northern seaboard now comprising Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco-had for long been prey to bands of Circumcellions, dispossessed brigands who were suspected of being employed by the schismatic Donatist church there against the minority Catholics. Yet people did not think of these various troubles as terminal. The empire had always been a melting pot of races and cultures. In Africa Berber-speaking country people, some still worshipping the grim local god who went under the Latinized name of Saturn, mixed uneasily with Greeks on the coast (among them Valerius, Augustine’s predecessor as bishop) and with scattered upperclass Latin-speakers. Everyone knew that civilization was only skindeep.