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The City of God is an enormous encyclopedia of learning, in which Augustine presents a comprehensive survey of Greek and Roman learning, re-interpreted within a Christian framework (the "city of God," which is the true home of Christian women and men, as opposed to the cities of earthly rulers). Augustine probably began writing his De civitate dei around the year 413, when he was already near 60 years old. He finished the book approximately ten years later. What prompted Augustine to undertake this project? No doubt he was shaken, as was Jerome, by the Visigoths' invasion of Rome (under the leadership of Alaric) in 410.
The ancient Greeks and Romans were people with a great interest in the mysterious and the supernatural. This was an important topic for Christian writers, as they struggled to distinguish the supernatural wonders that they found in Christianity from traditional pagan beliefs and practices. In the first reading from Augustine, we will read his discussion of the use of magic by Numa, the legendary king of Rome. Numa was supposed to have been the second king of Rome, following the founding of the city of by its first king, Romulus. Whereas Romulus was credited with founding the city of Rome, it was Numa who built the civic and religious foundations of the city, establishing many of the important priestly orders and divine rituals. According to various ancient sources, Numa received his instructions for these innovations from a water goddess named Egeria (Numa is specifically said to have had night-time encounters with Egeria and in some sources they are said to have been married).
Augustine also discusses the use of magic by Pythagoras, the Greek philosopher and mystic who lived during the 6th century B.C.E. (so about one thousand years prior to Augustine). Pythagoras is best known today for his theorem about right triangles, but in the ancient world Pythagoras was at the center of a wide-ranging cult of supernatural beliefs and practices. The followers of Pythagoras were vegetarians who believed in the reincarnation of souls. Pythagoras himself was supposed to have possessed various miraculous powers, such as the ability to fly, to predict earthquakes, to speak the language of animals, and to manifest his body in two places at once.
In this discussion of magic, Augustine is greatly indebted to the testimony of Varro, who is one of Augustine's most important sources throughout the City of God. Varro was an extremely prolific scholar of the first century B.C.E., although most of his works have since been lost. For many of Varro's books, all we know about their contents comes from Augustine's references and polemics in the City of God.
In the second reading for this week, Augustine discusses supernatural creatures and monstrous human beings, such as the Cyclops who have a single eye in the center of their face; the Antipodes who live on the opposite side of the world and are upside-down from us; the Cynocephali, or "Dog-Heads", made famous by the dog-headed Saint Christopher; the Sciopodi, or "Umbrella-Feet" people with a giant foot like an umbrella; and the Hermaphrodites, who combine the body parts of men and women. Augustine is skeptical about these phenomena, but he recognizes that belief in these monstrous creatures was extremely popular and widespread.
Finally, in the third section of the reading, you will be introduced to the concept of allegory, a systematic symbolic mode of thought which dominated the Middle Ages. The word allegory goes back to the Greek tradition: it means "speaking in a way that is different (allo-) from the way people speak in public (in the marketplace, or agora)." In an allegory, there is a series of symbolic equations which interact with one another by means of a narrative or other kind of complex arrangement.
In the allegory that you will read in Augustine, there is an equation between the creation of Eve by being brought forth out of the side of Adam when he was sleeping, and the creation of the Church by being brought forth out of the side of Christ, when he was "sleeping" on the Cross. These allegories can become extremely intricate (as you will see!). At the same, allegories are not usually completely consistent, which is sometimes troubling to modern readers. Next week, when you read the encyclopedia of Hrabanus Maurus, you will learn much more about the medieval art of allegory.