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Imperium and the City of God: Augustine on Church and Empire

  • Gillian Clark (a1)


In early fifth-century Roman Africa, Augustine faced pagan opponents who thought that the Roman empire was at risk because Christian emperors banned the worship of its gods, and that Christian ethics were no way to run an empire. He also faced Christian opponents who held that theirs was the true Church, and that the Roman empire was the oppressive power of Babylon. For Augustine, Church and empire consist of people. Everyone belongs either to the heavenly city, the community of all who love God even to disregard of themselves, or to the earthly city, the community of all who love themselves even to disregard of God. The two cities are intermixed until the final judgement shows that some who share Christian sacraments belong to the earthly city, and some officers of empire belong to the heavenly city. Empire manifests the earthly city's desire to dominate, but imperium, the acknowledged right to give orders, is necessary to avoid permanent conflict. Empire, like everything else, is given or permitted by God, for purposes we do not know.


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1 Augustine, Ep. 136.2. All translations are my own. ‘Our traditions of government’ is one possible translation of reipublicae mores, but both Latin words have a wide range. Mores, ‘the way things are done’, covers both ‘custom’ and ‘morality’. Res publica, often translated ‘commonwealth’, means literally ‘common concerns’, hence ‘government’, or ‘the country’ in the political sense: see further Schofield, Malcolm, ‘Cicero's definition of res publica’, in Powell, J. G. F., ed., Cicero the Philosopher (Oxford, 1995), 6383.

2 Marcellinus was tribunus et notarius: see Jones, A. H. M., The Later Roman Empire, 284–602: A Social, Economic and Administrative Survey, 3 vols (Oxford, 1964), 2: 572–5, on this status; and Shaw, Brent, Sacred Violence: African Christians and Sectarian Hatred in the Age of Augustine (Cambridge, 2011), 496505, on the use of tribuni et notarii in African disputes where local officials were reluctant to intervene.

3 On the dispute, usually called the ‘Donatist controversy’, see Miles, Richard, ed., The Donatist Schism: Controversy and Contexts (Liverpool, 2016).

4 On the conference, see Neil McLynn, ‘The Conference of Carthage Reconsidered’, ibid. 220–48.

5 For historical reasons, the district around Carthage was called Africa proconsularis and its governor held the prestigious title ‘proconsul’.

6 Augustine, Confessiones 6.11.19.

7 Ibid. 6.6.9.

8 Augustine, Ep. 132, 135, 137; on this exchange, see Rebillard, Éric, Christians and their Many Identities in Late Antiquity: North Africa 200–450 CE (Ithaca, NY, 2012), 81–2.

9 Augustine, Ep. 136.3.

10 There are many fuller accounts of this development. For a brief account, with further bibliography, see Clark, Gillian, Christianity and Roman Society (Cambridge, 2004).

11 Augustine, De consensu evangelistarum 1.22.30.

12 The relevant laws are excerpted in Codex Theodosianus 16.10.10–11 (391/2).

13 Eusebius, De vita Constantini 3.15. For arguments that Eusebius was nevertheless not a triumphal optimist, see Johnson, Aaron P., Eusebius (London, 2014); Johannessen, Hazel, The Demonic in the Political Thought of Eusebius of Caesarea (Oxford, 2016). On Eusebius in comparison with Augustine, see Van Nuffelen, Peter, Orosius and the Rhetoric of Empire (Oxford, 2012), 186206.

14 Jer. 16: 19–20; Augustine, De consensu evangelistarum 1.26.40.

15 Augustine, Ep. 199.12.46; this letter to Bishop Hesychius is mentioned at De civitate Dei 20.5.

16 Rebillard, Éric, ‘Religious Sociology: Being Christian in the Time of Augustine’, in Vessey, Mark, ed., A Companion to Augustine (Chichester, 2012), 4053.

17 For the arguments, see Mark Edwards, ‘The Donatist Schism and Theology’, in Miles, ed., Donatist Schism, 101–19; and for their effect on Augustine's understanding of the Church, Alexander Evers, ‘Augustine on the Church (Against the Donatists)’, in Vessey, ed., Companion to Augustine, 375–85.

18 Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos 54.16.

19 See further van Bavel, Tarsicius, ‘Church’, in Fitzgerald, Allan D., ed., Augustine through the Ages: An Encyclopedia (Grand Rapids, MI., 1999), 172–3.

20 Augustine, De civitate Dei 1.33; on ‘Christian times’, see Markus, R. A., Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St Augustine, 2nd edn (Cambridge, 1988), 2244.

21 Heather, Peter, Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe (Oxford, 2010).

22 See the review-discussion by Van Nuffelen, Peter, ‘Not Much Happened: 410 and All That’, JRS 105 (2015), 322–9.

23 Jerome, In Ezechielem, prologue.

24 Van Nuffelen, ‘Not Much Happened’.

25 Augustine, Sermones 81.9.

26 Vergil, Aeneid 1.278–9. On late antique education, see Kaster, Robert, Guardians of Language: The Grammarian and Society in Late Antiquity (Berkeley, CA, 1988).

27 Augustine, Sermones 241.5.

28 Vergil, Aeneid 6.851–3.

29 For example, Orosius, Historiae adversus paganos 6.1.5-8; see Van Nuffelen, Orosius, 194–7.

30 Augustine's friend Alypius asked Paulinus in 394 to lend the Chronicle for copying; Augustine first cited it in Quaestiones in Exodum 2.47, begun in 419 at the earliest, and mentioned the ‘chronicle of Eusebius and Jerome’ in De civitate Dei 18.31.

31 Grafton, Anthony and Williams, Megan, Christianity and the Transformation of the Book (Cambridge MA, 2006); Mosshammer, Alden A., The Chronicle of Eusebius and Greek Chronographic Tradition (Lewisburg, PA, 1979).

32 For Persian rule, see Augustine, De civitate Dei 4.7.

33 Orosius, Historiae adversus paganos 5.2.1.

34 Augustine, Ep. 138.

35 For the topics to be covered, see Augustine, De civitate Dei 1.35–6; for urgent matters intervening, idem, Retractationes 2.69.

36 Augustine, De civitate Dei 1.35, 5.16.

37 Augustine, De catechizandis rudibus 31–2; for the theme in Augustine's writings, see further O'Daly, Gerard, Augustine's City of God: A Reader's Guide (Oxford, 1999), 62–6.

38 Augustine, De civitate Dei 14.28. Augustine borrowed the phrase libido dominandi from the historian Sallust, another author well known to Latin-speaking schoolboys: Sallust, Catilinae coniuratio 2.2, cited by Augustine, De civitate Dei 3.14.

39 Vergil, Aeneid 6.853.

40 See further Conybeare, Catherine, ‘The City of Augustine: On the Interpretation of civitas, in Harrison, Carol, Humfress, Caroline and Sandwell, Isabella, eds, Being Christian in Late Antiquity: A Festschrift for Gillian Clark (Oxford, 2010), 139–55.

41 Discussed further in Clark, Gillian, ‘Pilgrims and Foreigners: Augustine on Travelling Home’, in Ellis, Linda and Kidner, Frank, eds, Travel, Communication and Geography in Late Antiquity (Aldershot, 2004), 149–58.

42 Augustine, De civitate Dei 1.35.

43 Discussed further in Clark, Gillian, ‘Deficient Causes: Augustine on Creation and Angels’, in Marmodoro, Anna and Prince, Brian, eds, Causation and Creation in Late Antiquity (Cambridge, 2015), 220–36.

44 Augustine, De civitate Dei 19.17.

45 Ibid. 12.22; 19.5.

46 On ‘Augustinian realism’, see TeSelle, Eugene, Living in Two Cities: Augustinian Trajectories in Political Thought (Scranton, PA, 1998).

47 Atkins, E. M. and Dodaro, R. J., eds, Augustine: Political Writings, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought (Cambridge, 2001), xvii–xxv. Shaw, Sacred Violence, 496–505, discusses transient local governors, whose term of office usually ran from April to April, and who were unlikely to know much about Africa.

48 Augustine, De civitate Dei 19.6. For Augustine's own experience, see Neil McLynn, ‘Administrator: Augustine in his Diocese’, in Vessey, ed., Companion to Augustine, 310–22.

49 Markus, Robert, ‘Saint Augustine's Views on the “Just War”’, in Sheils, W. J., ed., The Church and War, SCH 20 (Oxford, 1983), 113.

50 Cicero, De re publica 3.35, cited by the grammarian Nonius Marcellus, De compendiosa doctrina 3.800.

51 Atkins, Margaret, ‘Old Philosophy and New Power: Cicero in Fifth-Century North Africa’, in Clark, Gillian and Rajak, Tessa, eds, Philosophy and Power in the Graeco-Roman World (Oxford, 2002), 251–69.

52 Augustine, De civitate Dei 5.12.

53 Ibid. 5.17.

55 Ibid. 5.12.

56 Ibid. 19.7.

57 Ibid. 21.

58 Augustine, Ep. 10*, probably written in 428. I thank the peer reviewer who suggested this example.

59 Hadrianus was prefect of Italy and Africa in 401–5 and again in 413–14: Jones, A. H. M., Martindale, J. R. and Morris, J., eds, The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire, 3 vols (Cambridge, 1971–92), 1: 406 (Hadrianus 2).

60 Augustine, Ep. 10*.6.

61 Augustine, De civitate Dei 19.26.

62 Ibid. 7.

63 Ibid. 18.2.

64 Ibid. 4.6.

66 Ibid. 16.17, 18.2.

67 For fratricide, see ibid. 3.6; wars for territory, ibid. 3.10; wars with kindred peoples, ibid. 3.14; foreign injustice, ibid. 4.15.

68 Cicero, De re publica 3.24.

69 Ibid. 3.26–7.

70 Augustine, De civitate Dei 4.3.

71 Ibid. 4.4.

73 Ibid. 4.6

74 Ibid. 5.13.

75 Ibid. 5.15; see Matt. 6: 2.

76 Ibid. 5.17.

77 Ibid. 4.33, 5.21.

78 Ibid. 18.1.

79 Ibid. 18.27.

80 ‘[C]ondita est civitas Romana velut altera Babylon et velut prioris filia Babylonis per quam Deo placuit orbem debellare terrarum et in unam societatem rei publicae legumque perductum longe lateque pacare’: ibid. 18.22.

81 Discussed further in Clark, Gillian, ‘Fragile Brilliance: Augustine, Decadence, and “Other Antiquity”’, in Formisano, Marco and Fuhrer, Therese, eds, Décadence: ‘Decline and Fall’ or ‘Other Antiquity’? (Heidelberg, 2014), 3552.

82 Augustine, De civitate Dei 3.30; contrast Orosius, historiae adversus paganos 6.20.

83 Psa. 46: 9, Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos 71.10–11; see also Markus, Saeculum, 52.

84 Augustine, De civitate Dei 5.24–6.

85 Ibid. 12.8, 5.26.

86 Ibid. 2.21.

87 Kempshall, Matthew, ‘De re publica in Medieval and Renaissance Thought’, in North, John and Powell, Jonathan, eds, Cicero's Republic (London, 2001), 99135, discusses medieval and early modern attempts to argue for a church-guided state.

88 Kent, Bonnie, ‘Reinventing Augustine's Ethics: The Afterlife of City of God’, in Wetzel, James, ed., Augustine's City of God: A Critical Guide (Cambridge, 2012), 225–44.



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