Tag Archives: city of god

Discover fifth-century politics I: The West to Honorius’ death (423)

The last post in the main thread of my Discover Late Antiquity series of posts addressed fifth-century religion and literature. I managed to forget Sedulius, whose Carmen Paschale would be a good recommendation for this time of year, available online in a partial English translation by George Sigerson (1922) or for purchase in toto by Carl P. E. Springer (2013). Anyway, today’s journey into the wonderful world of Late Antiquity is about ‘history’ as most think of it — society, politics, the military, etc., as opposed to the intellectual and religious history discussed last time.

The fifth century is a big deal: Sack of Rome (2x), Romans leave Britain, big church schisms, Fall of the (Western) Roman Empire, all sorts of Byzantine politics in the eastern court, and so on and so forth.

Here’s a quick, breathless, political run-though from 395 to 423 in the West; the next post will take us from 423 to the close of the century. Hopefully these posts can orient you if you want to start learning more about Late Roman history.

In 395, Theodosius I ‘the Great’ died. The Roman Empire was divided at his death between his sons, Honorius in the West, Arcadius in the East. This division was to persist until the cessation of effective Roman rule in the West, ca. 476, when the Roman Empire was reduced to the eastern Mediterranean.

Persian cameo commemorating the defeat of the Emperor Valerian

Persian cameo commemorating the defeat of the Emperor Valerian

I must emphasise that in 395, the empire was not at the edge of collapse. True, Valens had been killed and the Roman army thrashed at Adrianople in 378, but Rome had survived other, similar things in the 200s, such as Valerian at Edessa vs Shapur I, which I discussed in my post on the third century. The networks of trade were open, the lawcourts were in operation, and, despite some troubles, no one imagined that things were within 80 years of everything falling apart. Nonetheless, there were non-Roman peoples from across the Danube living within Roman territory in 395. These groups were also major constituents of the Roman military at the time.

Two barbarians who help show us how things might (not) work: Stilicho & Alaric. Both of these men are leading military contingents on Theo I’s behalf in 394 against the usurper Eugenius. Stilicho in 395 was made guardian of Honorius, Alaric was left out to dry.

StilichoFirst, then, Stilicho. As you can see on the left, he and his Roman wife Serena — possibly the niece of Theodosius — look very Roman. Flavius Stilicho was likely of Vandal descent, but that fact tends only to be brought forward in hindsight by either his enemies or by historians trying to paint a picture of barbarian dominance of weak emperorlings. His career is pure Roman: 387, he went as ambassador to the Sassanian Shah, Shapur III; in 390, he took his first Roman military command in battle against Visigoths, and from then on, he was on campaign on behalf of the Empire against her various foes—Huns, Alans, Sarmatians. In 395 he takes over guardianship of Honorius, but also wants power in the East over Arcadius.

Furthermore, the Balkan provinces of Illyricum were transferred to the Eastern Empire—Stilicho wanted them back, and he used his own soldiers to attempt this as well as provoking Alaric against the East. Nonetheless, he was not really a traitor, so when called upon to rein in Alaric and also to surrender his troops, Stilicho did so. In 400 he held the consulship. He was shortly in constant campaign against barbarians or the eastern empire, defeating Alaric in Italy in 402, until finally his own scheming caught up with him and he was accused of treason and executed along with his son, supporters, and many of the barbarian troops he had raised in 408. Stilicho’s scheming and that of his enemies serves as a reminder of how short-sightedness can ruin large enterprises. He was an able general, but no one trusted him enough, and he was too interested in his own inter-Roman disputes to hold things together, anyway.

Alaric, in 394, was fighting with Theodosius I against Eugenius and Arbogast as commander of the combined Gothic-barbarian force. He could have been a Stilicho. Instead, famously in 410 he sacks Rome.

Alaric spends his time either historically invisible, ravaging Roman territory in response to failures of the Roman government to respect him or his demands, or fighting on behalf of Rome. Most important for us, however, is that in 408 Stilicho was removed from power on suspicion of treason. Stilicho had been Alaric’s support in the Roman administration, giving him official command and recognition. Suddenly, his main ally was dead as were his ally’s supporters and their families, including many of Stilicho’s barbarian recruits. Alaric found himself and his army outside the normal machinery of Roman life, and in 408 they marched on Rome and received 5000 lb gold, 30,000 lb silver, 4000 silk tunics, 3000 scarlet coloured skins, 3000 lb pepper from the Senate to prevent their sacking the city. In 409, Alaric once again besieged Rome and installed his own puppet as emperor. This was still not enough, so in 410 he was back, still discontented, still making unmet demands from the Roman government. So he sacked Rome.

Not a contemporary picture of the sack of Rome

Not a contemporary picture of the sack of Rome

This is the most famous sack of Rome, in the wake of which Augustine wrote his masterpiece The City of God and Orosius, Seven Books of History Against the Pagans. The Eternal City, Roma aeterna, Roma invicta, had fallen to a foreign enemy for the first time since the Gaulish troops from northern Italy invaded in 387 BC—that’s 797 years. Not even Hannibal had taken Rome. There may have been military disasters within and beyond the provinces, and provincial cities may have at times fallen to the enemy, such as Colchester to Boudicca in AD 61, or the utter abandonment of Dura Europos in the 250s. But Rome herself? An unthinkable thought. An idea never to be entertained. Rome was the centre of the world. She was the capital of a great invincible empire. No one could capture her. Could they?

After Stilicho, Honorius was still under the persuasion of other forces at court in Ravenna, each of them vying for his own power and position, and none of them looking at the long-term peace and prosperity of the Empire. Because Honorius’ rule had such a long minority, under him and his brother Arcadius in the East, the religious aspect of imperial activity became more important than before. The emperors became conspicuously pious, not just in the building of churches and mausolea but also in their attendance at religious functions. Their own role began to take on an aura of the religious.

423, Honorius dies. There had been problems, illustrated by Stilicho and Alaric, but certainly not limited to them. There had been the Gallic usurper Constantine III. Troops left Britain never to return. Much of Spain fell under control of different barbarian groups—however, unlike Britain, there was still impetus to regain imperial control of Spain, and various imperially-sponsored armies campaigned there, whether federated barbarians or more regular Roman troops. Africa, the breadbasket of the West, was still intact, along with Italy and Gaul. From 413-421, in fact, a general named Constantius put the western empire back on the offensive. Things were looking good. Weren’t they?

Well, no. But that’s a story for next time.

Best book I read this year?

A friend posted an article on Facebook from the New York Times where the 15 Bookend columnists shared the best books, new or old, they’d read this year. ‘But who are these people?’ he wondered. ‘What about friends whose opinions I actually care about?’

I was thus tagged.

Pulled out the list of fun books. Scanned it. Dracula? Frankenstein? Some souvenir guidebook to a place I’d been? The Day of the Triffids? Well, it had to be —

Paradise Lost, by John Milton. Why? Because it’s basically pure awesome. Once you get into it, that book swallows you whole and sends you on a journey through heaven, hell, and Eden bouncing along in English blank verse never wanting to do anything else. Here’s my ‘epic review’.

But then, the work list. Shorter. Less fun, although often great and profound and whatnot. A quick glance leaves me without a question —

City of God, by St Augustine of Hippo. It, too, is basically pure awesome. So much depth of thought and intricacy and bewildering everything in that book. Here’s my initial thoughts review.

But what about all those other books?

I had to mention The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov. Here’s a book that runs on a concept I’d never heard of before — the idea of generating energy by transferring particles between parallel universes. And, as always, the story was interesting and the characters captivating.

After Asimov, Masterharper of Pern by Anne McCaffrey. Maybe not actually the best Pern book I read this year, since this year I reread Dragonflight. But it is a very good book with a compellling tale and the most captivating of all Pernese characters as its protagonist — Masterharper Robinton.

Finally, Discourse Particles in Latin by Caroline Kroon. This is not a book one recommends to friends, I admit. But it was thorough, well-researched, clearly set out, and it has had an impact on the way I read Latin. An important book, to say the least. My review of it here.

In the end, since I read so much, this was an impossible task.

What was the ‘best’ book you read this year?

First thoughts upon finishing City of God

City of GodCity of God by Augustine of Hippo

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is simply an initial reaction book review. Further and deeper thoughts will follow on a blog somewhere…

I have finished reading City of God. It is a massive book. It took me a year plus a few months to achieve this, albeit sometimes going weeks without peaking inside. This is one of the largest works from antiquity, and it’s basically an education in a volume — history, the theory of history, theology, biblical scholarship, pagan religion, philosophy, political philosophy, moral philosophy, Christian apologetics, and more, are all treated in this one, giant, compelling (at times, admittedly, dry) volume.

Augustine ostensibly sets out in this book, On the City of God Against the Pagans, to demonstrate the falsehood of polytheistic traditionalists’ arguing that Christianity was the cause of Rome’s sack at the hands of Alaric in 410; at least, that’s what we always say Augustine sets out in this book. If it is, he clearly decided that the only way to do it was to set forth the ‘two cities’ — the City of Man and the City of God, describing each, its origins, and its history, as well as dealing with the polytheist detractors head-on with his reading of Livy that observes that Rome had many disasters when she observed the pax deorum, and that many bad men prosper, so Christianity can’t be to blame for 410.

Augustine’s discussion of Roman history is a joy to read, for it presents us with an alternative reading — God allowed Rome to prosper for his own designs, not due to anything Rome had done. This runs counter to the vision of history abroad amidst many both of the pagans and of the Christians who imagined history as ‘good men prosper while bad men fail.’

This book will also throw you headlong into the Christian reading of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, as Augustine sets forth the parallel histories, from Adam to the reward of the saints in glory at the bodily resurrection. Here you are immersed in the story of Scripture but also always surrounded by how Augustine’s keen intellect read and interpreted the text, seeking out its meaning meticulously. Modern scholars may disagree with Augustine’s conclusions at times, but his keenness in seeking out the truth and working through difficult bits of the Bible will be eternally laudable.

City of God is not for the faint of heart. It is, as I say, large. It is also, figuratively speaking, heavy. You will have to think your way through this book. You will probably forget some of it as you move on to later parts. But its contribution to so much western theology and philosophy makes it worth the effort. If you want to think hard about history, theology, philosophy, if you want to exercise your brain and consider why the world is as it is, if you want to enter into the world of one of antiquity’s greatest minds, if you want to see what an ancient tour-de-force in philosophy looks like, if you want to understand the fourth and fifth centuries — you should read this book.

View all my reviews

Augustine and the lesser gods of ancient Rome

Ara Pacis Augustae (13-9 BC)

Ara Pacis Augustae (13-9 BC)

I am auditing a class on St Augustine of Hippo, most especially to get my mind around his Christology so I can comment on Leo’s intelligently. Nonetheless, all sorts of other interesting things are arising on the way (so far, no Christology, in fact), such as his discussion of Roman gods in City of God, Book IV.

In this book of his monumental work (the introduction to my volume [Penguin Classics] calls it the last great work of classical Latin; I, of course, am not so sure),  Augustine is attacking the ‘official’ and common religion of the Roman world through a frontal assault upon the divinities of the Roman world themselves. The usual anti-pagan polemic about the lascivious mythology surrounding the gods (as old as Justin Martyr of the 2nd century) comes up, as do discussions of more sophisticated visions of deity such as Jupiter is all the gods or a vision of pantheism/panentheism (apparently a Stoic thing).

Along the way, he mentions multitudinous divinities for the many aspects of life, from birth to death, and everything in between. He gives a catalogue of all the many divinities involved in the growing and harvesting of crops. He discusses so many gods that the list is exhausting — but by no means exhaustive. What Augustine has tapped here is the rich vein of the numinous that Romans traditionally find everywhere.

The English word numinous is from the Latin numen. A numen is the spirit of a thing. Not necessarily the spirit as a disembodied, metaphysical soul, although that can be the numen. More like the energy or force or power that lies behind and within something, that is associated with it. Before it became coalesced with Greek visions of deity — something that is almost complete by Virgil’s Aeneid — this was the primary encounter with the ‘spiritual’ that Romans had.

Everything was numinous. Beings we may call ‘less divinities’ were everywhere — the divinity/spirit of the hearth (Vesta), the divinity/spirit of all fire (Vulcan), the divinity/spirit of warfare (Mars), the divinity/spirit of water (Neptune), the divinity/spirit of abundant harvest (lots of choices, e.g. Ceres), the divinity/spirit of marriage (Juno), the divinities/spirits of the household (Penates), the divinities/spirits of the household who are ancestors (Lares), the divinity/spirit of the heavens & rain (Jupiter). And so forth.

In oldest Roman religion, these divinities were not always fully hypostasised personalities like their Greek counterparts Hestia, Hephaestos, Ares, Poseidon, Demeter, Hera, Zeus. Vesta is both the spirit of the hearthfire and the hearthfire. The Vestal Virgins keep her fire burning both as a ritual that is symbolic of the goddess and as a way to keep the goddess herself burning. The numinous is all around the ancient Roman.

And since the numinous is everywhere, watching your every move, you perform your rituals very carefully. You walk backwards spitting beans out of your mouth on the right day at the right hour to keep the Penates of your household happy. If you screw up, you start over again or risk the displeasure of the Penates. This is why, when we look at sculptures of the Emperor Augustus as a priest, he has his head covered. They would cover their heads with their togas like that when performing sacred rituals to prevent anything in their peripheral vision from distracting them from their task at hand.

This ritualistic element persists throughout all of Roman paganism, to the bitter end. Even upper-class Neo-Platonists who believe that there is only the One Who is Good, or Stoics who believe only in the World Soul, will engage in these rituals that are the lifeblood of Roman religion.

Augustine’s listing of them may be tiresome, but it is part of his attack on the entire Roman pagan metaphysical artifice. If these gods are not worthy of belief, then why sacrifice to them at all? Why call the One ‘Jupiter’ if you don’t believe any of the stories about Jupiter?

I think that having so many numina around made things difficult for the average, thoughtful Roman once their religion began to be Hellenised, let alone by Augustine’s age, as mentioned above. If these are individuated hypostaseis who live not in the temples but on Mt Olympos or in the heavens, why make statues or tend fires or sacrifice bulls? It seems a bit strange. And so they move along into Stoicism or Epicureanism or some form of Platonism.

Roman religion. The undercurrents of its pre-Hellenistic roots are visible even in St Augustine. Go read some classics.