Saint Augustine’s Confessions is a book about the early life and conversion to Christianity of Augustine of Hippo, one of the most famous Christian scholars of antiquity. The book starts off with a description of childhood, then moves on to describe Augustine’s quest for knowledge both among the Manichees and through study of the traditional liberal arts, including oratory and rhetorical skills. An intensely personal account by design, Augustine reveals his internal struggle as he reminisces about the loss of his childhood friend, whose name he does not reveal, as well as his struggles with sexuality and his doubts about the nature of God. Essentially, the book is meant to show Augustine’s path from a confused childhood to a position of solid conviction in the Catholic faith, but Confessions can also be used as a source of historical information. This essay will examine the first seven chapters of Confessions to discover what it implies about the late 4th and early 5th century Roman society that shaped Augustine’s life.
One of the more interesting things that can be discerned from the book is the potential for mobility available in Roman society, both in terms of physical and social movement. Of course, Augustine’s case is not indicative of the norm, but he was able to advance from being the son of a modest family in Tagaste (in modern day Algeria) to being a well-respected and socially connected professor of rhetoric in Milan, before his conversion, which is related in chapters outside the scope of this essay. Augustine’s reasons for leaving his home village were originally related to study opportunities and a need to leave a place that reminded him strongly of the death of a childhood friend. His ability to travel within the empire for education purposes is interesting because it implies that there was a system in place that allowed for the boarding and education of students during his time. His ability to rise through the ranks of society based on his intellectual abilities shows that class distinctions were not set in stone and he specifically mentions that many Roman offices were available to anyone with the right amount of money. In a modern context, this has a negative connotation, and perhaps it did in Augustine’s time as well, because in his writing he felt the need to explain that as a system it allowed the state access to needed revenues and acted as a pathway to success for those born to lower classes.
In his writing, Augustine mentioned that not all families were willing to support their children’s education outside of their local towns, even when they were better-off economically than Augustine’s own family. Augustine did not go into detail about this point, but it leaves the reader wondering what motivations a family might have for not wanting to promote the education of their children at all costs, as Augustine’s did, when it might lead the family to greater success. If the story about Alypius and the responsibility of a “house” for a crime is any indication, the Roman family unit probably shared equally in success as well as culpability for crimes and failures. Was it a cultural expectation that children would follow in the footsteps of their parents, leading to a lackadaisical attitude towards aggressive social advancement, or was the lack of interest in education outside of Tagaste something specific to that locality?
Much of Augustine’s writing in Confessions deals with education, because he wrote about both his time as a pupil and as an educator. His writing makes it clear that corporal punishment was a well-used form of discipline that acted as a motivator for children to pay attention to their studies. The fact that Augustine and, presumably, other children endured caning as a punishment and prayed for respite instead of abandoning school indicates that there was some measure of compulsion in attendance, either from families or from the state. Also, unless the phrase was added by the translator, the inclusion of the “three Rs” as a figure of speech (reading, writing, and arithmetic) shows that areas of study for primary school students in the late 4th century were fairly consistent with modern education standards. His later education reveals a break with modern ideals about the purpose of studying the liberal arts, however. According to Augustine, forming logical arguments that revealed the truth about a matter were of secondary importance to style and delivery. Eloquence and the ability to convey a sense of conviction were more important than being able to logically argue a truth.
Similarly related to education, student culture in Roman society is revealed through Augustine’s writings. Bullying was alive and well in the 4th century. Schoolyard gangs even had nicknames, like “The Wreckers”, who would find “shy and unknown freshmen… to persecute…by mockery…to feed their own malevolent amusement.” Augustine dealt with this group as a student by staying on friendly terms with them, but refused to participate in their mockery and acts of vandalism. Augustine wrote that in Carthage, students would burst into a classroom and purposely disrupt it with “mad behavior.” Later, as an adult, Augustine complained of a practice common among Roman students, who would sit with a teacher for a number of classes and then transfer en masse to another instructor to avoid making payment.
Augustine’s writing reveals quite a bit about religion during the late 4th and early 5th centuries in the Roman Empire, most obviously because the book is about his journey to conversion to Catholocism, but the first seven chapters of the book also discuss the Manichees and give an example of religious syncretism among professed Catholics. Augustine wrote that he spent nine years as a follower of the Manichee religion and through his writings, we can see that it was institutionally similar to the Catholic Church, including having Bishops, but professed very different concepts of God. The instance of religious syncretism that Augustine took time to mention was his mother’s practice of tomb veneration through the offering of plates of fruit and the ritual sipping of wine at the burial sites of Catholic martyrs. Augustine mentioned that his mother was not alone during these ceremonies, so the practice must have been widespread. I also make this conjecture based on the fact that in later centuries, and continuing up to the present, Islamic scholars in the Middle East have been condeming the same practice among Muslims regarding veneration of the tombs of saints, martyrs and especially Sufi pirs.
This brief selection of information from the first seven chapters of Saint Augustine’s Confessions shows how historical information about an author’s society can be revealed by analyzing that author’s work, even when recording historical information is not the main purpose of the work. This essay examines the chapters on their own, but by comparing what Augustine wrote to other available information, one could further the process of reconstructing Roman society and elaborate on the circumstances surrounding Augustine’s life and conversion to Catholocism.