image of Augustine reading

Week 5: Augustinus: Confessiones.

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Background Information

Augustine was born in 354 in the city of Thagaste in Numidia (now Souk-Ahras in Algeria, northern Africa). This made Augustine a slightly younger contemporary of Jerome, who had been born perhaps 15 years earlier, sometime around 340.

Like Jerome, Augustine was trained as a rhetorician in Carthage, and he taught in Rome and in Milan (northern Italy). Unlike Jerome, Augustine converted to Christianity later in life. In fact, as you will read this week in his Confessions, Augustine converted to Christianity in 386, when he was in his early thirties and living in Milan. (In terms of chronology, this as just a few years before the emperor Theodosius would actually outlaw pagan religious practices throughout the Roman empire in 391.) After his baptism, Augustine then studied under Bishop Ambrose of Milan and was soon appointed Bishop of Hippo in 396 (like Carthage, Hippo was a city on the coast of North Africa). Augustine spent the remainder of his life in Hippo and died there in 430. At the time of Augustine's death, the city was under siege and shortly afterwards fell to the Vandals.

Augustine represents an extraordinarily important source for those interested in the establishment of Christianity, in the formation of medieval Europe, and also in the history of ancient Greece and Rome. Augustine was a deeply learned man and he had access to major works of ancient scholarship which have since been lost, notably Varro, who is a major source for Augustine's accounts of the Greeks and the Romans in De civitate dei. We will be reading selections from De civitate dei next week.

Unlike Jerome, was very utterly a man of the West and wrote in highly rhetorical Latin, even when narrating the intimate details of his personal life as he does in the Confessions which you will be reading from this week. Augustine's Latin is not "vulgar" Latin, and you will probably find it much more difficult to read than the selections from the vulgate Bible that you read over the past few weeks. In fact, Augustine quarreled with Jerome (see his letters) about Jerome's translation of the Bible following the Hebrew texts. Augustine clearly preferred a Latin that was closer to the classical Latin tradition, and you will find that his Latin is strikingly different from the Latin of Jerome's Bible translation.

You will read two sections from Augustine's Confessions this week. In the first section, Augustine desribes - with great regret - an act of theft he committed in his youth: he and some friends stole the pears from a neighbor's pear tree. Although Augustine has many other regrets about the "wild life" he spent as a young man, he devotes considerable attention to this theft of the pears; it is one of the most famous scenes from the Confessions. Then, you will read Augustine's own description of his moment of a conversion: an intense and mysterious event in his life, when he was prompted by a voice to "Tolle lege", pick it up and read. You will find out just how this happened, reading the story in Augustine's own words.

Modern Languages 4970 / MRS 4903: Medieval Latin. Spring 2003 Online Course at the University of Oklahoma. Visit for more info.
Laura Gibbs, University of Oklahoma - Information Technology © 2003. Last updated: December 29, 2002 7:12 PM