Let’s begin our biography, our life of Augustine. We begin with his place and time. The world of Augustine encircled the Mediterranean Sea: Spain and Portugal to the west; France, Switzerland, and the British Isles to the north; Greece, Turkey, and Israel to the north and to the east; Italy extending right into the sea, the boot poised to kick a soccer ball, also known as Sicily; and stretching all along the south, Egypt and the coast of Africa. Augustine is from Africa.
Now, that’s the modern designation, as are all of those country names I just listed. In the 300s and 400s, this was all Rome. All of these peoples were Roman or were to be considered Roman, and all of these places were part of the far-flung Roman Empire. Augustine was born in what was called Numidia. The Roman province of Numidia is modern-day Algeria. His hometown was Thagaste. It was originally a village of nomadic Berbers, and back in the 200s and 100s BC, during the Punic Wars, Rome took control of this vast area.
As Augustine was born, Rome reached its zenith. But as Augustine lived, Rome declined. And as Augustine died, Rome fell.
Thagaste was two thousand feet above sea level. It was surrounded by mountains that were another thousand feet or so, and it was a very fertile plain. It was, in fact, the most fertile land in North Africa. It was a great place to settle and farm. Corn and olives were the primary harvests. It had a great economy. One historian noted that Thagaste became a retirement destination for Roman soldiers.
Did you ever wonder where the lions and bears and tigers used in the Roman amphitheaters came from? They were caught in the mountains and in the plains around Augustine’s hometown of Thagaste. One hundred and seventy miles away to the east was the massive city of Carthage. It was bustling with people and trade. As a city, it was second only to Rome, and sixty miles or so to the north was Hippo Regius. That city would come to play a significant role toward the end of Augustine’s life. Augustine’s father was Patricius, a Roman pagan. His mother was Monica, a devout and sometimes mystical Christian. We’ll learn much more about her as our book unfolds.
Augustine had siblings, but we know very little about them. He had at least one brother, Navigius, and at least one sister, and he likely had more brothers and sisters. But we don’t know much about them at all. Augustine was born on November 13, 354. This was a full generation of post-Constantine Rome, one generation after Constantine’s “conversion.” Did you notice the quotation marks I put around that word? Now, that’s important. This was the Christian era at the end of the Roman Empire. Of course, alongside of Christianity, Plato’s philosophy and the schools that followed him ruled the roost. That’s important.
It was a time of doctrinal advance. Augustine lived right in between the Nicene Creed of 325 and the Chalcedonian Creed of 451. That’s important. He also lived during the time of heresies. They were springing up all over the place. That too is important.
If you were to ask a young Augustine playing in the streets of Thagaste, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” he would answer, “I want to be famous.” He thought that the fame he desired would be all about him, that he would be at the very center. Augustine was at the center of Augustine’s life. Augustine’s ambition was Augustine. Let’s see how that worked out for him.