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date: 25 May 2018

Augustine of Hippo, S.

The Oxford Dictionary of Late Antiquity
Gillian ClarkGillian Clark

Augustine of Hippo, S. (Aurelius Augustinus) (354–430) 

Bishop of Hippo, Africa (395–430). Augustine’s many books, letters, and sermons became a major influence on Western Christian theology. They also illuminate social and intellectual life, and imperial and church administration, in Africa and Italy. Augustine’s life has been used to show how rhetorical skill and patronage could take someone from a modest provincial background to an imperial capital; how people left the service of city and Empire for an ascetic life; and how bishops needed rhetorical and administrative skill, contacts, and understanding of law and politics.


Augustine’s Confessions (397), begun soon after the author became a bishop, includes some account of his early life as he imperfectly remembers it. He was born at Thagaste, a small inland town in Numidia, to Monnica, a devout Christian, and Patricius, who had enough land to serve on the local city council. At school in Madauros Augustine excelled in Latin grammar and struggled with Greek. Confessions shows the lasting influence of the Latin classical curriculum: Terence, Sallust, Cicero, and Vergil. A richer neighbour, Romanianus, helped to fund Augustine’s higher education in rhetoric at Carthage, capital of Africa Proconsularis, where he found a partner and they had a son, Adeodatus. Cicero’s Hortensius (now lost) inspired him with love of wisdom, and he began to study the Bible. But he found its style inferior, and so became a Manichaean ‘Hearer’ because he thought their teaching was profound. He taught literature and rhetoric, then moved to Rome, where in 384 the Praefectus Urbi Symmachus sent him as public professor of rhetoric to Milan, where the Emperor Valentinian II was establishing his residence. There Augustine’s understanding of God was transformed by Neoplatonist philosophy and by the preaching of Ambrose, Bishop of Milan. Augustine had hoped for a post in the imperial civil administration, and separated from his partner to arrange a suitable marriage, but he came to think that the duties of marriage and career were not compatible with Christian commitment. Aged 32, he resigned his post. He was baptized at Easter 387, and decided to go back to Africa for a life of prayer and study as servus Dei with learned and ascetic friends in his family home. He was delayed a year at Ostia, as political conditions had made it hard to find a ship, and during this time his mother died, but in 388 he returned to Africa.

Confessions offers no further narrative, but the Retractationes (‘Revisions’ of 426/7) gives an annotated chronological list of the 252 books Augustine had written since his preparation for baptism. He did not have time to list his letters (some 300), of which he kept copies, or his sermons (some 400), which were transcribed from shorthand copies made as he preached and sometimes revised, so new discoveries are still possible and dating is often uncertain. Possidius, a fellow bishop, described in his Life of Augustine the household community at Thagaste, Augustine’s ordination (against his will) first as priest and then as bishop of the coastal town of Hippo Regius, and his activity in his diocese and in the debates of the North African churches. Hippo was under siege by the Vandals when Augustine died in 430.

Classics, rhetoric, philosophy, and scripture

In Confessions Augustine denounced his classical education for instilling false values, the ‘pride of the schools’, and because it aimed at worldly success, not moral formation. As professor of rhetoric at Milan he gave panegyrics in praise of political figures which he and his audience knew to be untrue. But in Christian Teaching (De Doctrina Christiana, begun c.395) he argued that rhetoric can convey truth, that Christian scripture can teach rhetorical techniques, and that Christians can find value in pagan writings, especially in Platonist philosophy. The ‘Platonic books’ Augustine read at Milan were probably excerpts, translated into Latin from the Greek, from Plotinus and Porphyry. He thought then that the liberal arts train the soul for ascent to God, but he came to believe that Christian scripture was more ancient, consistent, profound, and accessible than any other tradition of wisdom. He contrasted Christian preaching, free to all, with the obscure debates of philosophers and their students. Augustine’s sermons typically start from the Bible readings his audience had just heard, and explain for people of all educational levels what the text says and what it teaches about theology and behaviour. He could not read the Old Testament in the original, but regarded the Greek Septuagint version as authoritative. Augustine’s Greek was good enough to help him interpret Latin translations of the Old and New Testaments, but probably not good enough for easy reading of Greek theology and philosophy.

The work of a bishop

Augustine spoke with feeling about the ‘bishop’s burden’ of administration, arbitration (episcopalis audientia) in the bishop’s court, and, most important of all, responsibility for preaching God’s word. His rhetorical skill prompted many requests for preaching and writing, and he engaged in long controversies which sometimes involved local and imperial politics. Manichaeans held that there is an evil power opposed to God, and that much of the Bible, especially the Old Testament, is inauthentic, misleading, and morally objectionable. Augustine, no longer a Manichaean, held that Evil is not a separate power but a falling away from Good, and that Jewish law, history, and prophecy foretell Christ. Conflicts with Donatists sometimes led to violence. The Donatists held that Church and clergy must be free from sin, so theirs was the true Church, because their clergy had not betrayed the faith in the Great Persecution a century earlier. Augustine held that no one is free from sin and that the Church contains both good and bad. Pelagians, according to Augustine, were overconfident in human freedom and the human capacity to do right, and did not recognize the constant need for God’s grace: Pelagius argued that God has not created us incapable of following his commands.

Augustine’s largest work City of God (Civ. Dei, 413–26) brings together his reflections on human life and on the Bible. It began as a response to claims by pagans that Alaric and the Visigoths had been able to sack Rome in 410 because Christians had denied the civic gods of Rome the worship that was their due. Augustine used Rome’s standard authors, and Varro on Roman cult, to show that Rome’s gods did not deserve worship. Platonists, he said, came closest to Christianity, but still allowed worship of many gods, and had too much pride in reason. The City of God, whose history can be traced as a thread from the Creation to the present through the narrative of the Bible, is the community of humans and angels who love God even to the exclusion of self. Its opposite is the Earthly City, the community of humans and rebel angels who love themselves even to the exclusion of God (Civ. Dei, XIV, 28). We shall not know who belongs where until the end of time. Everyone inherits from Adam the tendency to follow their own way, not God’s. This pride in oneself caused the Fall away from God; sexual desire is not its cause but its consequence, and shows how the body does not respond to reason. The Roman Empire is an example of the earthly City which wants its own way, but the two Cities are not equivalent to Church and State. Some churchgoers are citizens of the earthly City, some opponents of Christianity are future citizens of the City of God, and Christians who hold state office must fulfil their responsibilities. Augustine thought that state power is necessary, because without agreement on who gives and who takes orders, the human urge towards domination causes conflict at all levels of society, from household to city to nation. The authorized power may need force to protect its people against criminals and aggressors, and its agents are morally justified in following orders to hurt or kill provided that their motive is to maintain peace. Augustine did not invent Just War theory, but reaffirmed the Roman view that aggressive war is unjust, war in defence of country or allies is just.

Augustine valued marriage as the closest human bond, which provides commitment, children, and a symbol of Christ’s relationship with the Church. But he thought that the best way of life is a celibate single-sex community without personal property, as in his clergy house at Hippo. This reduces domination and possessiveness, and strengthens love of neighbour. His advice for such communities became the Rule still followed by the Order of S. Augustine.

Gillian Clark


PLRE II, Augustinus 2.

Augustine is omitted from PCBE 1.

Both Augustine’s own oeuvre and the bibliography of works about him is immense.

ed. A. D. Fitzgerald OSA, Augustine Through The Ages: An Encyclopedia (1999).Find this resource:

ed. C. Mayer, Augustinus-Lexikon (1986–, in progress). Handbook with entries in German, English, and French.Find this resource:

ed. K. Pollmann and W. Otten, Oxford Guide to the Historical Reception of Augustine (2013).Find this resource:

Further resources are to be found on these websites: (from the Zentrum für Augustinus-Forschung in Würzburg, containing comprehensive lists of editions and translations)

Augustine’s Works (CPL 250–386):

Augustine through the Ages provides comprehensive lists of critical editions, and translations in the major series, of books, letters, and sermons.

Searchable electronic texts are available in:

Corpus Augustinianum Gissense, ed. C. Mayer (1995 and updates), with bibliography.Find this resource:

CETEDOC Library of Christian Latin Texts (CLCLT).

Migne’s Patrologia Latina 32–47 reprinted the texts established by Jean Mabillon and the Benedictine Congregation of St.-Maur in 1679–1700 and therefore lacks the subsequent discoveries of letters and sermons. It is available at

Modern editions of many texts are available in the series CSEL, CCSL, and (with FT) in the Bibliothèque Augustinienne (1936–).

Other editions include:

ed. (with comm.) J. A. Gibb and H. J. Montgomery, The Confessions of Augustine (1908, 21927).Find this resource:

ed. (with comprehensive comm.) J. J. O’Donnell, Augustine: Confessions, 3 vols. (1992).Find this resource:

Critical edition: ed. M. Skutella et al., Confessiones (51981).Find this resource:

ed. A. Kalb and B. Dombart, De Civitate Dei libri XXII (51981).Find this resource:


New annotated English translations are in progress in the series The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century (New City Press, New York). Works available include:Find this resource:

City of God, 2 vols., tr. W. Babcock, notes by B. Ramsey (2012); Confessions (tr. M. Boulding, rev. edn. 2012); Expositions of the Psalms, tr. M. Boulding, 6 vols. (2000); Letters, tr. R. J. Teske, 4 vols. (2001–5, including the Divjak letters); Revisions, tr. R. J. Teske (2010); Sermons, tr. E. Hill, 11 vols. (1990–); The Trinity, tr. E. Hill (1991).Find this resource:

The translations in the NPNF series (Series 1, vols. 1–8, 1886–8) are based on the Oxford Library of the Fathers edited by J. Keble, J. H. Newman, and E. B. Pusey. They are available through

Among the many other translations of Augustine’s works are:

ET H. Chadwick, Saint Augustine: The Confessions (1991).Find this resource:

ET R. W. Dyson, The City of God Against the Pagans (1998).Find this resource:

A small selection of letters, ed. (with ET) J. H. Baxter, St. Augustine: Select Letters (LCL 239, 1930).Find this resource:

Readers’ guides

G. Clark, Augustine: The Confessions (new edn., 2005).Find this resource:

R. H. Barrow, An Introduction to St. Augustine’s City of God (1950).Find this resource:

Gerard O’Daly, Augustine’s City of God: A Reader’s Guide (1999).Find this resource:


G. Bonner, St Augustine of Hippo: Life and Controversies (1986; rev. 2002) covers theological debates.Find this resource:

Brown, Augustine is a classic biography; the revised edition of 2000 has an important epilogue on newly discovered letters and sermons.

J. Burnaby, Amor Dei: A Study of the Religion of St. Augustine (new edn., 1991).Find this resource:

C. Harrison, Augustine: Christian Truth and Fractured Humanity (2000) considers Augustine’s theology in its Late Antique social context.Find this resource:

S. Lancel, St Augustine (1999, ET 2002) covers theology and African archaeology.Find this resource:

S. G. MacCormack, The Shadows of Poetry: Vergil in the Mind of Augustine (1998).Find this resource:

O. Perler, Les Voyages de saint Augustin (Études augustiniennes, 1969) charts Augustine’s movements.Find this resource:

J. M. Rist, Augustine: Ancient Thought Baptized (1994) considers philosophy.Find this resource:

B. Stock, Augustine the Reader: Meditation, Self-Knowledge, and the Ethics of Interpretation (1996).Find this resource:

F. van der Meer, Augustine the Bishop: The Life and Work of a Father of the Church, tr. B. Battersahe and G. R. Lamb (1961) catalogues Augustine’s fulfilment of his official responsibilities.Find this resource: