Catherine Conybeare looks at some correspondence between Augustine and a school teacher.This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is picture1-1.jpg

The earliest known portrait of Augustine, from a sixth-century fresco in the Sancta Sanctorum of the Lateran palace, Rome

Augustine of Hippo (354-430), renowned theologian, Roman orator, and all-round pillar of the Western European intellectual tradition, was African. He spent all but five years of his life in what are now Algeria and Tunisia. How did the relationship between African and Roman play out in the course of his life? I am currently writing a book, Augustine the African, that explores exactly this question.

Here, I look at an exchange of letters between Augustine and an African grammaticus – a schoolteacher – to show just how complicated the question is to answer. A disclaimer: the antagonistic tone of the exchange in no way reflects the correspondence between myself and the person who commissioned this essay – my own former grammaticus, John Godwin. But then, we are not jostling for cultural space in late Roman power structures.This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is picture2-1.jpg

Relief of a school scene from Neumagen (Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Trier): Photo: C. Raddato, 2016. https://www.flickr.com/photos/41523983@N08/29656302165CC BY-SA 2.0.

Augustine was a product of two worlds: the African one of his family and upbringing; and the Roman one of his education and early career. He was born, brought up, and educated in Numidia and in Africa Proconsularis, and since these were Roman provinces, it is tempting to frame his ‘two worlds’ as an opposition between the cosmopolitan and the provincial. But it is not that simple.

Augustine abandoned the pinnacle of his secular career, a position at the imperial court in Milan, in 386; he scarcely refers to it thereafter, and when he does, it is only with distaste. He sailed back to Africa in 388, just before his thirty-fourth birthday, and he was never to set foot in Italy again. Romanness became, for him, no longer a career choice; but it remained indelible.

But Africanness too was indelible for Augustine. It was not just a matter of geography: it was a matter of home. Africa was the place of his origins, of his intellectual formation, of his family connections and his father’s grave. It was the place to which his long-time companion returned after she was dismissed from his household; it was the place in which Augustine envisaged that he could ‘most usefully’ serve God.

Two letters exchanged soon after Augustine returned home to Africa shows just how complicated and entangled his loyalties could be. Augustine’s biographer Possidius tells us that the exchange is between Augustine and a grammaticus called Maximus in the town of Madauros, modern M’Daourouch in Algeria. Augustine himself had studied literature and rhetoric in Madauros in his early adolescence, and Maximus may well have been one of his teachers.

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Roman baths at Madauros (photo: J.J. O’Donnell 2001 at https://faculty.georgetown.edu/jod/algeria/madauros-scenes.html)

The first of these letters (Letter 16 in the Augustinian corpus) is from Maximus. Its subject is pagan monotheism, and Maximus seems to be trying to find common ground with Augustine’s monotheistic Christianity. Yes, writes Maximus, there are many statues of ‘life-giving divinities’ in the forum; but there is ‘one highest god without beginning,’ and ‘we call on his powers ... by many names ... for God is the name common to all religions.’ In a similar vein of striving to find unity amid difference, the letter closes with the sentence, ‘May the gods preserve you, through whom all of us mortal beings on earth honour and worship the father common to the gods and ourselves – in a thousand ways, with harmonious discord (concordi discordia).’

Augustine responds much more in discord than in harmony. The penultimate sentence of his letter says to Maximus, ‘you should know from the catholic Christians, whose church is actually established in your town, that there is no worship of the dead, that in short nothing made and created by God is adored as a divinity – but only the one God himself, who made and created everything.’

So far, so predictable. But enclosed within the contested monotheisms of these letters, a very different contest is played out. This is a contest around hierarchies of language. And it plays out along fault lines rather different from the clear opposition of paganism to Christianity.

In the second paragraph of Letter 16, Maximus turns to a related topic, on which he might have expected to secure Augustine’s sympathy. It concerns the tombs of the martyrs that are, in his opinion, cluttering up the forum in Madauros and drawing the attention of the citizenry away from their temples and their ancestors.

For who could endure that Miggin should be preferred to Jove the hurler of thunderbolts, Sanamis to Juno, Minerva, Venus and Vesta, and – how unspeakable! – Namphamo the arch-martyr to all the immortal gods?

These, complains Maximus, are ‘names hateful to gods and men alike’. He concludes, ‘at this point it pretty much seems to me that the battle of Actium has started again, in which Egyptian gods dare to brandish weapons that will scarcely last against the gods of the Romans.’ Maximus sympathizes with Rome at the expense of Egypt and, by extension, North Africa more generally.

Augustine refuses to countenance this complaint. But the grounds on which he dismisses it are not those we might expect. Instead of arguing that it is fitting that people should pay more attention to the tombs of the Christian martyrs than to those of their ancestors, he immediately interprets the discussion as being about the ‘hateful names’: ‘as to the fact that you gathered together some Punic names of the dead ... I don’t know whether I ought to refute you or to pass over it in silence.’ The hateful names have become Punic names: names native to the region in which both men make their home. Augustine reminds Maximus that ‘you too have Eucaddires among your priests and Abaddires among your deities.’ He goes on to say, ‘you couldn’t have forgotten yourself so far that, as an African person writing to Africans (ut homo Afer scribens Afris), and even though we are both situated in Africa, you should think that Punic names should be criticized’, and adds with disgust, ‘you must be ashamed to have been born here, where the cradles of this language are still warm’ – that is, where Punic is a living language. Augustine mocks the names and purviews of individual Roman gods, and concludes this section, ‘and yet you despise Punic names like someone over-devoted to the altars of the Romans.’This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is picture4.png

Madauros ((photo: J.J. O’Donnell 2001 at https://faculty.georgetown.edu/jod/algeria/madauros-scenes.html)

The phrase ut homo Afer scribens Afris is justly famous among those who reflect on Augustine’s relationship to Africa. Augustine claims common ground – quite literally – with his correspondent; and, unlike his correspondent, he takes care to put Africa before Rome, even as he also puts Punic before Latin.

Maybe Maximus is trying to be more Roman than the Romans. But he is not, in any twentieth or twenty-first century sense, a provincial. He lives in North Africa. But he is also an integrated part of the Roman power structure that was wielded through education. The importance of Latin literacy for social advancement in the late Roman empire can scarcely be overstated. The importance of the link between an accomplished Latinity and one’s gentlemanly status was also paramount. A range of literary allusion, starting above all with Virgil, proved one’s place in the elite; the composition of Latin prose both elegant and – where the need arose – forcefully persuasive sealed that place. I need hardly point out that this letter exchange takes place in educated Latin, not in Punic. Virgil is duly quoted. Are these not two cosmopolitan men in conversation? How deep are the divisions here?

But I have passed over one paragraph in the letter of Maximus. It begins:

But I beseech you, wisest of men, that with the power of your eloquence entirely removed … and laying aside for a bit the dialectic that tries with all its strength to leave nothing certain for anyone, please demonstrate who that god might be, whom you Christians claim for yourselves as your own...

The grammaticus from Madauros is in no way playing here on sophisticated claims of Romanness. He is, it appears, terrified of Augustine’s powers of argument. And it is ironic that he lays himself open to the trap of being accused – as a homo Afer scribens Afris – of betraying his own social group. This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is picture5.jpg

Detail from the Neumagen School Scene (Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Trier) (https://rlp.museum-digital.de/index.php?t=objekt&oges=5769)

This begins to make sense of the exceptionally awkward first couple of sentences in the letter, which seem both to exceed and to disappoint the mores of late antique letter-writing. I quote in Latin, with an English translation, and then comment on their oddities:

avens crebro tuis affatibus laetificari et instinctu tui sermonis, quod me paulo ante iucundissime salva caritate pulsasti, paria redhibere non destiti, ne silentium meum paenitudinem appellasses. sed quaeso, ut, si haec quasi seniles artus esse duxeris, benignarum aurium indulgentia prosequaris.

(Eager frequently to be delighted by your addresses and by the inspiration of your speech, because you struck me most pleasantly a little earlier with wholesome love, I did not desist from returning the like, in case you should call my silence repentance. But I beseech that, if you thought these things were – as it were – an old man’s limbs, you should pursue them with the indulgence of kindly ears.)

It is conventional in the mores of late antique epistolary exchange to begin with an allusion to the motive for writing – often, simply the wish to continue the correspondence. Thus far, Maximus’ approach is unexceptionable. But ‘affatibus’ is overblown, a poeticism, and it is underscored by the overemphatic use of the adverb ‘crebro’. Then, despite all the apparent pleasure and harmony suggested by the superlative ‘iucundissime’ or the use of the Christianizing term ‘caritas’, Maximus inserts a revealing verb to describe the previous encounter with Augustine – ‘pulsasti’, ‘you struck me’. Pello is always a violent verb: Maximus is already feeling under attack, but ‘non destiti’, ‘I have not stood down’ – he is standing his ground. The ground he is standing is not just one of religious belief; it is one of language. Striving to keep his language elevated, he uses the elaborate word ‘paenitudo’, and the showy pluperfect subjunctive ‘appellasses’ instead of the more correct imperfect ‘appellares’. ‘quaeso ut’, at the beginning of the next sentence, is an archaism, and again suggests a certain linguistic grandiosity. Then, at the end, the juxtaposition of limbs (or more literally joints) and ears is clumsy, even absurd; the phrase ‘seniles artus’ seems, with the distancing ‘quasi’, to take us back into the arena of wrestling or boxing in which Maximus has been ‘struck’ but has not ‘stood down’. His aged limbs will return thrust for thrust.

This combination – of aggression and defensiveness; of high-flown language and of language slightly misused or misjudged – continues in the rest of the letter. Augustine’s response is humiliating: he pretends the whole thing is a joke, and that Maximus has chosen to be ‘witty rather than well-prepared’ – which could also mean, ‘equipped for battle’. From the first words of his letter – ‘are we doing something serious, or do you want to joke?’ – he sets the tone, and each of Maximus’ claims is undermined as ostensibly objects of his wit. There is no surer way of undermining an opponent than not to take him seriously. At the end, Augustine demands, ‘why should I mock your gods, when everyone understands that they are being subtly mocked by you?’

But the strategy of humiliation through pretending the whole communication is a joke is not Augustine’s only weapon. His own language repeatedly invokes the vocabulary of sophisticated Roman culture and hints that Maximus is in thrall to it. The adjective facetus is a case in point. Maximus has mocked Punic names to show his humanitas and his lepor; Maximus has comitas; he has subtilitas. All of these were qualities traditionally sought after by the literate Roman elite: Catullus and his epigones play repeatedly with these notions. They were arguably what Maximus, as a grammarian, was in the business of inculcating – and they were also the basis of the shared culture with Augustine on which his letter, however awkwardly, presumes. But Augustine here repudiates that culture utterly; and, while showing off his superior grasp of the Latin classics and Latin prose style, he yet substitutes a vigorous pride in being African and in the Punic language.

No clear pattern of dominance and resistance is being played out; no case study of centre versus periphery. The terms are far more complex than that. The powerful elite in late antique North Africa were indisputably Roman; but there are so many shades in that Romanness, and so many ways in which Africanness or more local Africanisms can be claimed or repudiated, that each encounter needs to be read in the sort of detail that I have essayed here to begin to build up a picture of what is at stake. And I have not even begun to address the different flavours of Christianity that form their own eddies and countercurrents in this already turbid stream of identity. That will have to wait for Augustine the African.

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Catherine Conybeare is Leslie Clark Professor in the Humanities at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. She has written several books including The Routledge Guidebook to Augustine’s Confessions (2016); her most recent book, co-edited with Simon Goldhill, is Classical Philology and Theology: Entanglement, Disavowal, and the Godlike Scholar (2020). Augustine the African is under contract to Liveright in the US and Profile Books in the UK.