This is the first of over twenty pages on "Augustine’s era,” including twelve individual pages on Augustine’s contemporaries. Use the vertical navigation bar at the left of this page to access the other pages in this section.
What was North African Christianity like in Augustine's time? In broad terms, what generally was the political and ecclesiastical environment in which Augustine was called to minister? Historically speaking, Augustine lived in Roman Empire during a time of its serious decline and disintegration. The Empire was strained by perpetual warfare as it defended its borders in the North and the East; as a result, taxation was heavy. At Adrianople in the year 375, only twenty years after the birth of Augustine at Thagaste in 354, Gothic tribes entered the imperial regions in force.
In the year 410, when Augustine had been Bishop of Hippo for fourteen years, Alaric and his Visigoths captured Rome. This event doubly shocked everyone in the Empire because it was the first time that the capital city had fallen in seven hundred years. In 428, two years before Augustine died there, the Vandals surrounded the fortified city of Hippo. They succeeded in destroying it months after he died. And finally in 476 the last section of the Western Empire at Ravenna left Italy entirely, and moved east to Constantinople.
Militarily, politically and economically, imperial Rome had collapsed. It, too, needed rescuing by new spiritual, moral and intellectual forces, and by a new uniting and empowering community. These came, although slowly, from the small Christian church. The church historian and author Peter Brown noted that by about the year 400 AD the Christian Church of Rome was distinguished from all other religions in the Roman Empire by being privileged, and by the fact that its rivals were repressed in varying degrees.
The Church united the inheritance from Greece and Rome with new biblical and theological formulations. The legacy of Augustine was to be a major intellectual and theological contributor to the civilisation in Europe in these centuries that followed. In fact, it has been said that in a practical sense the Middle Ages began with Augustine. In some ways, the ecclesiastical situation around Augustine was as sombre as the political situation. Fifty years before his birth, Donatism began literally to halve the church in North Africa, such that each town had a Catholic bishop and a competing Donatist bishop. (In the diocese of Hippo which Augustine led, the Donatists actually outnumbered the Catholics loyal to Rome.)
When Augustine was a new bishop in regional North Africa at the very end of the fourth century, the Christian religion was not yet dominant in the Roman world. In 404, the Catholic Church was still struggling to define itself against strong paganism. The port of Carthage was still guarded by shrines of Neptune. Classical statues still stood in all the public places, and had remained the objects of worship to pagans and of occult fascination even to some Christians. Intellectuals still viewed the prospect of conversion to the Christian faith with evident distaste.
Augustine experienced these "growing pains" of the Christian church even in Hippo - possibly, the more so. Not long before Augustine had arrived in Hippo, Catholics there had barely been tolerated, and all of the city officials were Donatists. Additionally, Donatists were so strong in the countryside that a catholic priest could find few places there to live in safety. In his Life of Augustine, Possidius, a fellow-bishop and a lifelong friend of Augustine's, wrote that Augustine was labelled by Donatists as "a seducer and destroyer of souls, and could lawfully be slain in defence of religion, with the certainty of obtaining a complete remission of one's sins by committing so laudable an act."
In the second half of the thirty-four years that Augustine lived in Hippo, Pelagianism was the divisive challenge Augustine faced. Topics of contention included human sexuality and the doctrine of predestination. In the year 429, by which time Augustine was a venerable seventy-three years of age, North Africa was invaded by the Vandals, another barbarian tribe from Europe. The Vandals were heretical Arian Christians, but Augustine in his failing seventy-third year of life was in no position to challenge them.
And, as it happened in any case, they were using the force of arms, rather than the force of argument. The Vandals besieged the city of Hippo mid-year in the 430; Augustine fell ill during August. He died on 28th August 430, and thus was spared seeing the Vandals overrun Hippo in 431. The classical old world order had passed, and Augustine proved hugely influential role in moulding the world that was to replace it, the Christian civilization of Medieval Europe.
The Roman Empire and the Christian Religion. One section covers the era of Augustine. http://facstaff.bloomu.edu/hickey/to%201650%20week%207%20lecture.htm AN1401