Possidius was a convert from paganism. It would seem that the association of Possidius with Augustine began about the year 390 in the monastery for men that Augustine established in Hippo. In his Life of Augustine, Possidius wrote, "I lived in close friendship with him for forty years." He assisted Augustine against the heretical movements of Donatism and Pelagianism. He attended the African church councils of his day, and twice travelled to Italy to defend the church.
Along with Augustine and Alypius, Possidius was among the seven Catholic bishops chosen to represent the 266 Catholic bishops of the region at the famous debate in Carthage. The debate was between the Catholics and Donatist heretical church in the year 411 A.D. Possidius became Bishop of Calama (a town later renamed Guelma) in Numidia, North Africa, in or about the year 397, and remained there until the invasion of the Vandals in 437. He seems to have established a monastery there, after the example of Augustine. In about the year 401, Augustine wrote his Letter 245 to Possidius, in reply to questions from Possidius about morality and church law. The contemporary Donatist bishop of Calama was Crispinus. Among the heathens there was a certain Nectarius, with was a correspondent with Augustine. At a council of bishops, held at Carthage, Possidius challenged Crispinus, the Donatist Bishop of Calama, to a public discussion which the latter declined.
above): The main picture is a street in Guelma, Algeria (where Possidius was the bishop) that in the French colonial period was named Rue Saint Possidius ("Street of St Possidius.") The inset is a photo of the former Place Saint Augustine ("St Augustine Square") in the same town.Shortly afterwards one of Crispinus's clergy, bearing the same name as his bishop, attempted to assassinate Possidius. For his safety he was obliged to leave his city for some time. Legal proceedings were instituted against Bishop Crispinus, who refused to punish his presbyter. He was proved to be a heretic and was heavily fined, but at the intercession of Possidius the fine was not exacted. Possidius successfully disarmed some of his enemies by his charity. In 407, Possidius served, with Augustine and five other bishops, on a committee appointed to adjudicate upon some ecclesiastical matter, the particulars of which are not known. In 408 he nearly lost his life in a plot stirred up by the pagans at Calama. In 409 he was one of four bishops deputed to go to Italy to obtain the protection of the emperor against the Donatists. He was one of the seven bishops chosen to represent the Catholic party at the "Collatio" of 411.
In 416 he assisted at the Council of Milevum, where fifty-nine Numidian bishops addressed a synodal letter to Pope Innocent I, asking him to take action against Pelagianism. He joined with Augustine and three other bishops in a further letter to Innocent on the same subject, and was at the conference between Augustine and the Donatist Emeritus. After the destruction of the town of Calama by the Vandals, Possidius moved to Hippo. Possidius was thus at the side of Augustine when he died at Hippo. In the terrible months that preceded and followed that death, Possidius worked briskly to ensure that the books and papers of Augustine would survive the attack on Hippo, and remain available for future ages. He worked his way through the library of Augustine, and wrote a complete list of the works of Augustine, called the Indiculum.
It listed more than the titles of the formal writings of Augustine (as Augustine himself had done in when he wrote his Rectractationes in 427). It also included brief titles of the sermons and letters that lay on the library shelves. Possidius eventually attached this list to the end of his book, Life of Augustine, which he wrote in about the year 438, which was eight years after Augustine died. The book was not published immediately, for it refers to the city of Carthage being taken by Genseric in the year 439. The list is a more detailed register of the sermons of Augustine than any list that Augustine himself had compiled.
Photo (above): Guelma has one of the best-preserved ancient Roman ampitheatres anywhere in the world. This would have been in use when Possidius was the local bishop there.The Life of Augustine is the only known written work by Possidius, and is the only quasi-contemporary biography of Augustine that was recorded into history and that has survived until today. Its structural framework was influenced by Classical secular biography and by previous writings on the early saints of the Church. Over and beyond the Augustinian bibliography it contains, the Life of Augustine by Possidius is also a valuable work for reporting what Possidius himself saw during the last days of Augustine on earth. In this he has provided later historians with valuable information. Few other authors have included as much of their life story in their own writings as Augustine did, yet the words about him by his friend Possidius give a slightly different - although not contradictory - insight into Augustine. The words of Possidius offer a simple, modest and accurate description that truly captured the spirit and the virtues of Augustine in special ways that the words of Augustine about himself did not achieve.
Possidius provided the image of a model Augustine who, through his monastic and pastoral commitment, combated heresy and helped realize the peace and unity of the Church. He was writing of Augustine, who was his close friend, yet portrayed him for the ages more as a Father of the Church, a great contributor to Christian thought and practice. The theme stressed is the triumph of the Church through the thought and actions of Augustine. Possidius wrote that the peace and love of God’s Church increased through Augustine’s work. The order in which he presents the material is typical of a style of classical biography, especially those of the Latin saints. In a relatively brief Chapter One, Possidius gave scant attention to Augustine’s birth, early education and conversion, as this was not central to his theme of Augustine as a Father of the Church. In Chapter Two of Vita S. Augustini (“Life of Saint Augustine”) by Possidius, there is a report of Augustine’s abandoning his role in rhetoric at Milan and preparing for baptism.
Chapter Three covers Augustine’s return to Africa, and Chapter Four tells of Augustine’s being propelled to priesthood by an eager congregation at Hippo. Chapter Five examines Augustine’s life in a community at Hippo as soon as he became a priest. This involved his founding of his monastery for clerics in the church grounds at Hippo (and not either a hermitage in the countryside and/or a hermitage in Hippo, as some fourteenth-century Augustinians and Augustinian Canons Regular wrote.) Chapter five begins, "Augustine founded a monastery within the church compound, and began to live with the servants of God according to the custom and way of life established by the holy apostles: essentially, that no one in that society would possess anything of their own, but everything would be held in common, and that [goods] would be distributed to each on the basis of need; which he had previously done when he returned from across the sea to his homeland."
Possidius continued to emphasize Augustine's monasticism and its influence on the growth of the Church. Augustine having been made bishop, and with the progress of true doctrine increasingly winning out over heresy, "serving God in the monastery under and with St. Augustine, clergy of the Church of Hippo began to be ordained.... from that monastery, which began and grew through that memorable man, the peace and unity of the Church first asked with great desire and then received clergy and bishops, which continued thereafter." Possidius himself knew of at least ten monks whom Augustine sent forth, and who then founded similar monasteries. Thus, Augustine's influence, way of life and teaching spread throughout Africa and beyond. In a way that led to speculation by Augustinians and others in the late Middle Ages, Possidius did not say that this was the first community founded by Augustine in Hippo; possibly he expected that, with his not saying otherwise, this was self-evident.
When he became a bishop about five years later, Augustine continued to reside in this community, at least for as long as his life as a bishop did not interfere too much with the community’s routine and equilibrium. Possidius makes absolutely no mention that Augustine composed his monastic Rule, and this ever afterwards has allowed doubts – generally thought to be groundless – about authenticity of the Rule as having come from Augustine’s hand.Possidius then focused on Augustine’s theological battles against the Manicheans, Donatists, Arians and Pelagians. He then reported Augustine’s writing of his Retractationes (“Retractions”), and his death and burial. The chronological approach adopted by Possidius then slackens, and the remainder of Life of Augustine offers a description of Augustine's mores (habits and behaviour). Possidius gave a detailed description of Augustine's daily life as a monk, including information on his dress, eating habits — noting especially his view on the health benefit of drinking wine in moderation - and admonitions against associations with women, all of which became standard in later medieval accounts.
Yet on two points Possidius gave less than clear-cut answers, which opened the door to imagination, manipulation and creation when these two issues became the center of heated controversy in the Middle Ages: the foundation of Augustine's first monastery and the composition of his Rule. As mentioned above, Possidius expressly tells of Augustine founding a monastery upon becoming presbyter. He does not, however, indicate that this was Augustine's first such foundation. Although he writes that in this monastery Augustine, "began to live with the servants of God according to the custom and way of life established by the holy apostles," the verb 'began' is ambiguous, since after expositing just what such a life entailed based on Acts 4:32-35, Possidius adds the phrase, "which he had previously done when he returned from across the sea to his homeland." Such a formulation gave later authors the leeway to claim, at least implicitly, that Augustine had previously lived as a monk, if not having already established a monastery himself well before having been made presbyter.
Such ambiguity could have been avoided had Possidius mentioned Augustine's authorship of a monastic Rule, which was to become the second major pillar in the later debates. Indeed, Possidius' silence on this issue has contributed to the controversies surrounding the authenticity of the Augustinian Rule to the present day. In his book Possidius also describes Augustine's way of dealing with cases brought before him the the episcopal court; his political activism with secular authorities re injustice and the reduction of sentences upon convicted persons (justice and peace); his attendance at church councils; his rules re style of dress and table behaviour; almsgiving; management of church finances; instruction of the clergy; precautions against scandal; visitation of widows and orphans, the sick and the dying.
Possidius then details Augustine's own death, and offers a personal tribute in conclusion. The Life of Augustine is clearly focused to portray Augustine as the monk-bishop who tirelessly worked to refute heresy. The circumstances of Augustine's production of his anti-heretical writings receives detailed notice. Possidius also refers to Augustine's own annotated list of his written works, the Retractationes ("Retractions"). The Life of Augustine is not a literary masterpiece, but is important in showing Possidius' response to the unique circumstances of post-Augustinian Africa: the crisis of the Vandal invasions and subsequent rise of Arianism. Nor is it an exposition of Augustine as a theologian; in that capacity, the Life of Augustine offers almost nothing to posterity. The Life of Augustine is certainly accurate in the parts of it that can be cross-checked.
The admiration of Possidius for Augustine in his book by is very evident. To give one example, though a great number of Augustine's sermons survive, thanks to the work of stenographers present when he preached, the study of them must be but a pale shadow of the experience of listening to him in his church at Hippo. Possidius wrote: "Those who derive profit from reading his religious writings will recognise how great a priest he was. But I believe they had the greater benefit who were privileged to see him in the church and to listen to his preaching, and especially those who knew how he lived among men." (Vita Aug. 31)
Possidius was eventually driven from North Africa to Apulia, Italy, by the Arian Vandals who overran Africa and persecuted the Catholic clergy who were in union with Rome. The date of his death is uncertain. The world owes a great debt of gratitude to Possidius. He may have listed the works of Augustine out of friendship, but in doing so he also has proved a great friend of Christian theology ever since. Although always considered so by the Order of Saint Augustine, Possidius was officially confirmed as a saint of the Church by Pope Clement X on 19th August 1672. On that day the Pope issued a document named Alias a Congregatione, which also officially declared Alypius, a companion of both Augustine and Possidius, as a saint.
Possidius, "The Life of Saint Augustine," trans. F. R. Hoare, in Soldiers of Christ: Saints and Saints' Lives from Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Ed. Thomas F. X. Noble and Thomas Head. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995.
The Life of Saint Augustine by Possidius. US$7.95 in the year 2005 (paperback, 140 pages). This publication contains the first biography of Augustine, written by his good friend and disciple, Possidius, bishop of Calama. He provides us with an account of the life and conduct of Augustine, starting from his return to Africa after his conversion. Cardinal Michele Pellegrino wrote the introduction, which is a lengthy treatise on the contribution of Possidius in writing this biography. The notes, also written by the late Cardinal, help to give the reader the background of various situations during the lifetime of Augustine. Augustinian Press, Villanova University, Pa., 19085, United States of America. Out of print, but check for second-hand copies on Amazon and other websites.
Life of Augustine by Possidius. Roger Pearse has scanned and placed online H.T. Weiskotten’s English translation (1919) of Possidius’ Latin text: Sancti Augustini Vita scripta a Possidio Episcopo (“Life of Augustine by Bishop Possidius”). http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/possidius_life_of_augustine_02_text.htm
Further informationClick here for information about Possidius being considered a saint in Augustinian tradition.Links
Possidius. By the Midwest Augustinians, Chicago. http://midwestaugustinians.org/st-possidius
Possidius. This comes from the Book of Augustinian Saints (Augustinian Press, Villanova, Pennsylvania, 19085, United States of America, in the year 2000). It was produced by the late John Rotelle O.S.A., without whom the world would have been sorely lacking in contemporary Augustinian publishing. http://osa-west.org/?s=possidius
Possidius. His entry in the first edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12318a.htm
The Life of Augustine - by Possidius. Translated from the original Latin, this web page is written in the Italian language. http://www.augustinus.it/vita/possidio.htm
Guelma, Algeria. A colloction of photographs of this town that had Possidius as its bishop. A blog. http://www.pierre-le-cycliste.fr/blog/?p=29 AN1419