Augustine’s De Civitate Dei and Late Antiquity: the waning of Western imperia and identity in the 4th and 5th c. AD

“What is clearer proof of Roman wickedness than the sight of many nobles, to whom Roman citizenship should be valued as a splendid and dignified state, so distraught by their nation’s savagery that they no longer wish to be Romans? Hence even those who do not flee to the barbarians are forced to become barbaric ... far and wide they migrate either to the Goths, the Bagaudae or other tribes wherever they be in power … preferring to live as freemen under a veneer of captivity than as captives under the guise of liberty …the title of Roman citizen, at one time both greatly valued and dearly bought, is now repudiated and evaded.” – Salvian of Marseilles, On the Governance of God, V, 5.

“Nothing is more radically false than to set up some supposedly abstract standard of the desirable and condemn the past in light of it.” - E.H. Carr, What is History? (128)
Life and Times of a Last Roman:

As a notable man of letters, educated in Milan and a polished rhetorician, Augustine exchanged news with men throughout the Mediterranean world. Though he lived in North Africa most of his life, he was kept keenly aware of the transformation underway throughout the Latin West. The Germans and Gauls, by now, had been either crushed or co-opted, but a new menace was about to stir. For nearly a thousand years, the literate class of the ancient world had been apprehensive about the mysterious nomads of the eastern steppes – whether they called them Scythians, Sarmatians or Melanchlaeni.1 By 375 C.E., to these passing threats were suddenly added one far more malevolent and unremitting: the Huns. These riders in fury burned the villages of the Goths north of the Black Sea, and sent a whole nation in fearful flight. 2

Augustine was still only a teenager, and a pagan at that, when the final convulsions of the Roman world began. The Gothic king, Athanaric (Ermanarich), sworn to defend the eastern frontier, watched in dismay as his entire guard of horsemen vanished in a storm of arrows and dust while trying to hold the banks of the Dniester. The empereor Valens, elsewhere preoccupied with Isarian bandits troubling the roads of Antioch, knew nothing of the dire threat on his borders or the grim chain of events they would trigger. The Visigoth ruling clan retreated to the woods of Transylvania, while some 200,000 refugees made for the Danube River in hopes of crossing into Roman Moesia. In 376, the evacuation order was granted, and the frontier towns of Abricium, Sistova, Nicopolis and Viminacium flooded with starving families.3

This calamity, properly handled, might have actually strengthened the Empire; instead, it brought swift distress. Local imperials and townsfolk bilked the refugees for whatever they had, selling them dog meat or worse in exchange. Desperate fathers took up arms and began to pillage, only to have Valens order a Gallic/Armenian legion into the towns to stop the looting. On the plain of Salices, just south of the Ister, the Visigoth rebels and Roman cohorts met, signaling the outbreak of full-scale insurgency (Ammianus, 31, 7).

All this horror is reviewed three decades later as Augustine pens his work, De Civitate Dei, knowing full well a vast army of Vandal horseman are on the march for his own hometown. Even then, in his first chapter, he is quick to point out the barbarians are well-known to be far more merciful than any legionnaire. Roman machtpolitick, from the razing of Carthage to the extermination of the rebel Gauls, had shown the state would suffer no dissent, internally bred or externally found. Unfortunately, that impunity invited disaster, just as Scipio foresaw. Desperation, insecurity and hunger will eventually outweigh any martial threat; then even the most powerful state may as well have no border. On the 8th of August, 378, that glitch in imperial policy killed an emperor and thousands of his elite soldiery on the dusty fields outside Adrianople.

The failure of Rome to respect the despair of her enemies, even once the Goths were bought off with craggy lands of Thrace and Dacia, accelerated the chaos. Over the next decade, bleak winters pushed the Huns to even more extreme banditry, driving wave after wave of northern tribe south. The new king, Alaric, realized the threat and that his own people needed more land and grain. Finally they pushed for Greece, and the cities of once-golden Hellas were made to give grain and treasure. But not blood. Alaric explicitly stated, reported by Claudian in his Gothic Wars (479) he wanted only to keep his peoples alive until he found either “a home for his family or a grave for himself”.

The migrations set off a torrent of panic throughout Rome – the senators and equestrians largely fled to Sicily or Africa, while the artisans and craftsmen headed for smaller villages (where taxes were manageable) or private service on the villas of the rich. Many headed for Hippo and Carthage, where Augustine found converts and pagans alike praying for deliverance. Alaric settled his people in Verona for a few years, for food, and to the Senate it seemed the worst was over: Getarum nationem in omne aevum domitam declared a new triumphal arch. All Goths are under our Power. Two years later, a host of Vandals, Suevi and Burgundians marched out of Dacia and across the Roman frontier without the least resistance. Rome now spent more on circuses, games, theaters and dancing girls, than on her walls, and by 407, Roman Gaul was lost. Two years later, the province and peoples of Britannia were also let go (Claudian tells us 33 towns, though 28 are reported by Gildas).

Whose swords spared Rome the Huns?

More than a few sources, Jordanes, Orosius, Salvianus, noted in the fifth century, that the Gothic tribes at least were great proponents of Roman civilization, to the point where many peoples found them more just and law-abiding than actual Latin folk. The ancient republic had lived so long because its people had rejected luxury and were willing to subordinate personal gain to the common good. The Visigoth tribes still lived this way, wished only landed settlement in relative safety and stability. In fact, many who in their youth had dreamed of overthrowing Rome, grew to realize the rule of law and peace were the one great good in life, and so the Gothic princes like Ataulphus swore to defend the empire with Gothic swords. 4 They drove the Vandals and Suevi from Spain, and not long after saved Gaul from Attila, avenging the earlier ruin of their homesteads. And even when they arrived in Rome, Orosius (VII, 39), Jordanes (30), Augustine (VII) and Isidore all agree no temples were sacked or civilians harmed. During a six day operation, gold, silk, scarlet and pepper were the chief spoils sought. Meanwhile, the Vandals and Suevi who dislodged the administrators of Spain were actually seen as liberators, so corrupt had Roman Galicia been. Better free though poor under the barbarian, than forever taxed, sued and segregated by Romans, wrote Orosius (VII, 43).

Augustine’s City Of God
“Our once almighty Roman state is feeling its age. Rome has had her turn, like all the empires of the past, like all things.” – Orosius, Historiarum adversus Paganos Libri, II, xi, 14.

“Whatever ideas books may have given us of the greatness of that people, their accounts of the more flourishing state of Rome fall infinitely short of the picture of its ruins. I am convinced there never ever existed such a nation, and I hope for the happiness of mankind there never will again.” – Edward Gibbon, letter to his father, Rome (Oct. 9, 1764)
A telling episode in the life of Augustine, which outlines his thinking, was the Pelagian Controversy. A young Stoic philosopher, preoccupied with justice and leading the good life, Pelagius asserted “everything good and evil is done by us, not borne with us.” It was effectively a refutation of original sin and predestination, not dissimilar from the protests of Lutheranism but voiced a millennium earlier. Augustine promptly had these writings banned and Pelagius named a heretic. He unleashed equal ire against Donatist, Arian and Manichean alike – as a founding father of a monastery and later bishop of a city, competing orthodoxies did anything but please him. After all, Augustine was an unwavering supporter of Christian institutions and sacraments, believing these were the unique and only devices though which God had chosen to assist and redeem his believers. This conviction tended to color Augustine’s view of dissenters, especially those with quibbles about the doctrinal underpinnings of the faith. For him, the otherworldly state of Heaven was the only Eternal City, not the pitiful pseudo-Olympian Rome.

Augustine’s masterwork, De Civitate Dei was written between 412 and 426 – and though his childhood home, Tagast, and his bishopric, Hippo, would be spared much of the coming calamity, he knew too well most of the Roman provinces were in turmoil and terror. He witnessed the mass exodus of wealthy Romans to estates in Africa, Sicily and elsewhere, and heard the panicked condemnations. He took it upon himself to set the record straight, for posterity, before full memory of what the empire had truly been vanished. Overall, Rome was found wanting in this final judgment. Augustine casts his gaze from the warm, windy shores of Africa, north to the Latin shore, and sees a destructively unjust world power toppled from its pedestal. This criticism was hardly unique, patriots such as Sallust, Cicero and even Tacitus had concluded the empire to be cruel and corrupt. What was new in Augustine was the earnest assertion that the whole world, Romans most of all, might be better off politically, legally and spiritually without the perpetual war of the Pax Romana.

For the start, Book and Chapter One, we find the bishop of Hippo defending the Christianized Goths who, though Arian schismatics, spare Rome the torch on account of the very faith the empire so cruelly persecuted, “thus were saved many who knowingly shouted down the Christians.” In the same book, third chapter, he harshly criticizes the Romans for keeping the antique gods of Hellas alive too long. Ancestor worship and emperor cults had only fractured their piety still further, to a point where the commonweal and core of Republican values had been completely subverted. (II, 21) Finally, in this third book, Augustine complies a harrowing list of all the vicious wars, pestilences and calamities visited upon the Roman people, even when they were at their most worshipful of their pagan gods.

We find the crucial point for Augustine, it seems, was the overwhelming violence and repression necessary to sustain the political power of the empire, a constant cruelty quite irreconcilable with any notion of republican justice:
…you can in no way prove that there is any real joy in men living amid the horrors of war, perpetually wading in blood … the happiness arising from such conditions is a thing of glass … one can never shake off the horrible dread that it may suddenly shatter into fragments. (IV, 3)
This is hardly the characterization of the great Roman peace we would expect, especially from an administrator in the provincial service, but Augustine is clearly taking aim at many of the empire’s pretensions. Rome could easily have used its might to win new states by compact and alliance, rather than conquest, but this would have meant less glory. While Augustine is being somewhat idealistic here, his point is well-based: the pursuit and presumption of Roman victory had made her intransigent, sacrificing peace and order for pomp and destiny. (V, 17) Or, as Augustine rightly concludes, “the power to reach domination by war is not the same as the power to remain in perpetual control.” (XV, 4)

To many later self-styled Latins, this sounds harsh, signaling a prudish laughter as Rome slid from greatness to gutter to grave. That is a superficial impression, however; what he was attempting to do with City of God was restore some much needed nuance, and intercultural appreciation, to the still-haughty Romans of his day. He recalls that before the Mediterranean had been Latinate it had been Hellenic, and before that Cretan and Phoenician. Myth, poetics, politics, science and language had been much adapted and borrowed from one culture to the next. The Roman Way, however, dispensed with and denied any real legacy, simply imposing its law and language on whichever nation it encountered from the very outset of the empire’s hegemonic growth : “But at what Cost! There is one war after another, unrest rises everywhere, and great slaughtering of men always follows. All this – for Peace?” (XIX, 7) . In the end, in perhaps his most damning passage, Augustine concludes the noble Republic had always been an illusion, and that injustice, slavery, slaughter and repression had marked Roman rule from the very outset. So that while the learned provincial denies his faith had any hand in the empire’s ruin, as a Christian Roman, Augustine sheds no tears for the fall of that great city.

Vandals like a dream
“The Christian barbarians were not conditioned to pagan culture – further, they knew it to be irreligious. They must, nonetheless, have turned their heads to stare at the mighty objects, the tremendous richly wrought, sometimes crumbling monuments to a perished and wicked civilization … the streets they trod were haunted by alien gods, whose broken habitations loomed sinisterly over them … hinting at horizons more mysterious than those they knew.” – Rose Macaulay, The Pleasure of Ruins (London, 1953), 167.

“Do not act as if you would live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.” - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (IV, 35)
According to ProcopiusHistories (III, 3) and Paul the Deacon’s History of the Lombards (X, 13), the Vandal invasion of Africa was a result of their exile from Visigothic lands, as well as funded and organized specifically by the Roman general Boniface. It was a countermove to bolster his own troops in Africa after he was summoned to Rome to answer charges of conspiracy. Soon, the Vandal and Alan tribes of Hispania were marching boldly across the provinces of Mauritania and Africa and besieged Carthage. Augustine died surrounded by a sea of Vandal adventurers in Hippo, on the third month of the siege, 439 CE, at age 76.

“Our enemies defend us, so we Might better Rob ourselves”

Having your foes man the walls is foolishness second only to paying them to rob you, but in the course of the late empire, both policies were actually pursued out of desperation. As J. M. Roberts ably summarizes, the chief purpose of taxation was to pay men to die defending the walls of distant frontiers. Over time, this became massively expensive and unsuccessful, no conquest or tribute was rich enough to support the war machine and when the burden shifted to taxpayers, rich and poor alike began to abscond. As a result, trade languished, cities fell into despair and the elite retired to their rural villas. By 382, decades prior to the calamity at Adrianople, the Visigoth tribes (Tervingi) are being called foederati (confederates) by Theodosius and are settled in Thrace to bolster the very Roman legions they’d been battling for two centuries. Zosimus said (Historiae, IV, 31),
“all distinction between Roman and barbarian had broken down. The troops of both were all completely intermixed with one another in the ranks … even the register of soldiers was no longer updated … and the conclusion of the barbarians was that the Roman State was grossly mismanaged, inviting attack.”
That same year, the Vandals and Alans broke across the Rhine into Gaul and Britannia was abandoned by the legions. Three years later they established their own tribal chiefdom in Spain. Then came Africa, and finally in 455, they despoiled Rome itself, though by this point there may have been little left. Constantine had perhaps foreseen the city’s fate, perhaps not, but he’d moved many of Rome’s treasures, artwork and learning to Constantinople. By 458, Majorian has to issue edicts forbidding citizens from selling off public works, marbles or ornaments to private collectors or foreign parties – but the disintegration continued.5

No Fall at All
“The spectator who casts a mournful view over the ruins of ancient Rome is tempted to accuse the memory of the Goths and Vandals for the mischief which they had neither leisure, nor power, nor inclination, to perpetuate…the destruction which undermined the foundations of those massy fabrics was prosecuted, slowly and silently, during a period of ten centuries.” – Edward Gibbon, History of the Decline…, XXXVI, 485.

“The Roman World went laughing to its grave.” – Salvianus, De Gubernatione Dei, VI, 69.
Arnold Toynbee asserts in Study of History that Gibbon mistakenly emphasized the historical significance of Rome and religion. Instead, Toynbee sees the empire’s collapse as little more than a ‘monumental symptom’ in the death of Hellenic culture, the true catastrophe lying under the rubble of Latin rule. Toynbee argues Athenian democracy bound its own hands by expanding, colonizing by force, and finally ending an imperialist state. In short, he saw the Peloponnesian War as the deathblow to Hellenism; Rome’s fall was but its echo, six centuries distant. This is just the sort of heady interpretive leap Toynbee liked to make, and why a whole generation of historians cursed him.

A more focused and compelling argument explaining the breakdown during this period was proposed by Samuel Dill in his outstanding Roman Society in the Last Century of the Western Empire. He argued earlier barbarian uprisings were met successfully in the third and fourth centuries for three reasons: 1. local governments in the provinces were still responsive and well-funded, 2. elite, affluent citizens still lived or held a stake in frontier lands or common towns, 3. recruitment into the army was still stable and imperial roadways still maintained.

By the Gothic uprising of the fifth century, however, it is clear effective provincial authority had vanished or been hopelessly corrupted, slaves rather than recruits are made to soldier, the gilded classes all but abandoned or pocketed from state and society, public arms, grain, buildings and roads gutted for private gain. 6 When a society keeps its own leaders from taking up the sword, but arms its poorest and slaves with promises of freedom and bounty, there you have a state bound for ruin.7 Finally, though hardly surprising as the ship of state drifted, several imperial administrations passed massive tax cuts for the richest land and farm-holders, in both Italy and Africa; this despite the fact tax evasion and bribery of auditors was already rampant among the well-heeled.8
Sources and Notes:
1 Herodotus, IV, 9; Zosimus, IV, 21. The Scythians were invariable portrayed as cannibalistic, horse-worshipping demoniacs, wielding curved blades and bows, as were the Melanchlaeni (‘Black Cloaks”). If you’ve ever wondered why Death rides a black horse, wields a farm-implement and is dressed in a dark gown – the communal root of that fearsome image begins with the writings of these urbanites.
2 Zosimus, IV, 20; Procopius. Historia Misc. V; Jordanes, History and Deeds of the Goths, 24.
3 Ammianus Marcellinus, XXXI, 3-5; Zosimus, IV, 10; Jordanes, 25-26.
4 Salvianus, Gubernatione Dei, I, 10; V, 15. Orosius, VII, 43.
5 Cf. G.E.M. Ste Croix, Class Struggles in the Ancient Greek World…, Oxford, 1981; J.M. Roberts, History of the World, London: Pelican, 1985, p. 285-9; Macaulay, Pleasure of Ruins (1958), 169.
6Cf. Theodosian Code. XV. 15, 1; VII. 13, 16-17.
7 On the collapse of the state postal and road system, see Theodosian Code. VIII, 5, 53-65; desertion from military and civil service was also widespread, to avoid taxation and strain, XII, 1, 50; finally, the sell-off of public structures, marbles and buildings occurred throughout the provinces, IX, 17, 5.
8Theodosian Code. XI. 28, 2; XI. 26. 2.