Saint Augustine's Secularization of Rome

During one of his many journeys between Carthage and his own see of Hippo, in the summer of 404 Augustine was the visiting preacher in a small town in North Africa. Pagans were present in the congregation to hear him. He treated them to a reminder of the Church’s triumph in the Roman world: now the persecutors of Christians were conquered—“the Church grew from its own blood, the persecutors have been overcome, the victims of persecution have triumphed.” He continues,

The promises and prophecies of the Scriptures are being fulfilled, it is wonderful; let them sit up and note the marvellous things that are happening before their eyes, the whole human race streaming together to honor the Crucified. Let the few who have so far remained aloof hear the strepitus mundi, the world’s roar acclaiming the victory of Christianity (Dolbeau Sermons 25).

Such celebration of the Christian triumph was not uncommon in Augustine’s preaching and writing in the late 390s and the early 400s. Augustine was not alone. The edict Cunctos populos (“It is our will that all peoples ruled by our government shall practice that religion”) issued by Theodosius I and his imperial colleagues in 380 was emblematic: the religious legislation gained momentum in the 390s. In Augustine’s Africa the climax came in 399 with the arrival of imperial officials in Carthage to destroy the temples and break up the idols.

The generation of Romans that had reached adulthood in these decades could not easily escape a sense that they were witnessing a momentous turning point in the history of Christianity as well as of the Roman Empire. These were the “Christian times,” the time of the abandonment of the old gods and the turning of the Roman world to Christianity. Their response to what was happening was neither simple nor uniform.

Most Christians shared the euphoria expressed in Augustine’s sermon. Bishops like Ambrose of Milan thought they could discern the signs of the times in the flow of events; they saw the new order of Christianity superseding the ancient Roman traditions, the mos maiorum. They were not all as impatient or as energetic in the pursuit of their aims as Ambrose, but they saw themselves as participants in a transformation of the Roman into a Christian world and were impatient for its completion. Their view of the Christian Empire was widely held among preachers and writers and was shared, we must suspect, by the majority of Christians. A new world was taking shape around them and faced them with the necessity of adjusting themselves to their new condition.

A great deal in the Church’s development in the fourth century can be understood only within the context of an identity crisis brought on by the Church’s readiness to assimilate the social order and the culture of the Roman world. In my book The End of Ancient Christianity I tried to indicate how late Roman Christians sought to allay their anxieties over the gulf that seemed to have opened between the triumphant Church of the post-Constantinian Empire and its predecessor, the Church of the martyrs. The great need felt by Christians of the post-Constantinian age was for restoration of a lost continuity with the age of persecutions. It was met by three developments: a huge extension of the cult of martyrs, a new interest in the Church’s past, and, especially, the growing appeal of asceticism. These were the principal means which helped the Christian community to convince itself that it was still identical with the Church of the martyrs.

It is important not to mistake these devices of self-reassurance for rejection of, or protest against, the novelty of the Church’s recent establishment. Protest and rejection were confined to dissident sects on the fringes of Catholic orthodoxy, which were not recognized by the imperial authorities and were sometimes actively repressed by them. Such dissenting groups found it easier to claim the legacy of the persecuted Church in the new Christian Empire; they preserved their sect status in the new order of things. For the Catholic Church, recovering its links with the past was a far harder task: it had to annex its past from more plausible claimants such as the Donatists and to create the necessary means for doing so. A great deal of effort—spiritual, intellectual, liturgical—was invested in the task of reassuring itself that the newly privileged Church was still the same as its persecuted progenitor.

The cult of the martyrs, the ecclesiastical histories, and the ascetic movement were the Church’s chief devices for reconciling itself to living in and with a world which it had assimilated and which it was coming to influence and to dominate. By these means mainstream Catholics sought to reassure themselves that triumph did not have to mean betrayal. Appearances notwithstanding, they still were the Church of the martyrs, heirs of their heroic past, distinct in the world around them if not quite foreign to it.

The general acceptance of the new imperial order did, of course, give rise to a variety of anxieties, especially in times of tension and conflict with the imperial “establishment,” and Christians’ wholesale assimilation of pagan Roman culture and lifestyles brought unease and opposition in some quarters. Except, however, in dissenting groups on the edges of Catholic orthodoxy, the general dispensation of a Church favored by the powers, recognized by legislation, and sharing Roman lifestyles and culture went unquestioned. Even Augustine was swept off his feet by the prevailing mood of triumphant euphoria.

But only for a few, short years. My view that his jubilant endorsement of the tempora christiana was short-lived has not gone unchallenged, and it needs revising in the light of the criticism it has received, but I continue to think it substantially correct. In the years just before and after AD 400 Augustine’s voice had come to be merged in the “world’s roar” (Ennar. in Ps 6.33) acclaiming Christ’s victory (that he had spoken of in the sermon I quoted at the beginning). In these few years he is often celebrating the fulfilment of the prophecies now, very speedily (valde velociter), in our time, in these “Christian times,” when God is calling the kings of the earth to his service; the idols have been, or are being, uprooted and the nations gathered from the ends of the earth to the worship of Christ. “The whole world has become a chorus praising Christ” (De cons. ev. 1.32.50-34.52). But within a few years of preaching to the people of the little town of Boseth, Augustine’s enthusiasm abated.

One reason for the cooling of his enthusiasm about the “establishment” of Christianity under the regime of Theodosius and his successors may have been of a practical kind. He had been made aware in his daily dealings with officials that bishops often had little clout and that the influence they could wield on the conduct of affairs was severely limited. The dominance of Christianity in Roman society had in practice not been fully achieved by any means. Bishops could not always count on getting their way; they had to reckon with a deeply entrenched tradition of resistance, often by officials who were still pagan in their allegiance.

The paganism that he encountered in his dealings with officials would not, however, have been the sole reason for Augustine’s diminished enthusiasm for the Theodosian establishment. By the year 413 he had embarked on writing the City of God, in which he came to formulate the one sustained critique of the prevailing “dominant narrative” of the Empire’s Christianization. In that great work of his old age Augustine took stock of this narrative as it had come to be constructed by pagans and by Christians respectively: a narrative of failure as seen from the one side, of triumph as seen from the other.

It is the Christian narrative we are concerned with here. In Augustine’s time this had firmly settled into its mold shaped by a variety of traditions of discourse. The most fundamental to Augustine’s, as indeed to any Christian, understanding of history was the New Testament’s time scheme. I have studied Augustine’s account of sacred and secular history at tedious length in my Saeculum and can be brief here. Christians had always known that with the coming of Christ the world entered a new age. The prophets and the biblical writers had singled out one strand in the world’s history, the narrative of Israel, culminating in the story of Jesus.

In him the promise and the prophecies were fulfilled. The Christian Church was henceforth the new chosen people until the final return of the Savior to gather his faithful into his Kingdom. This stretch of time, the “sixth age” as they reckoned it, between Incarnation and parousia was of unknown duration (Augustine was among those most insistent on this); its content and its direction were unpredictable. We have no divinely authorized prophets or evangelists to interpret for us in the perspective of the history of salvation the significance of events in this last, the sixth, age—none to single out an identifiable strand as part of our salvation history. God was, of course, active in all history, as he had been outside the particular and narrow strand of narrative which constituted the salvation history between Creation and Incarnation; of course, he would continue to act in all history, and nothing would be remote from his providence.

But nowhere outside the Bible could the Church be bound to an authoritative insight into the meaning of any historical event or process in the scheme of salvation. God’s purposes might occasionally be disclosed to some later prophet quasi privatim, as Augustine would say, (De vera rel. 25.46) “personally;” but the revelation of his purposes in the public history of salvation was closed. In the sacred history the rest of this “last age” is a blank.

These immense simplicities of their faith were, however, confused for Christians by the momentous events of the fourth century. The miraculous triumph of their religion had somehow come to subvert the sense of the homogeneity of this “sixth age.” Eusebius had come close to speaking of Constantine in messianic terms, clothing the emperor’s conversion with a significance in the sacred history: it became a landmark to divide these last times.

The era inaugurated by Constantine, followed within two generations by the official imposition of Christian orthodoxy on the Empire, was greeted by euphoric Christians as the time of the fulfillment of ancient prophecies. Pagans, too, were conscious of a new era: for them, a time of foreboding and disaster. These were the “Christian times” (tempora christiana). In the confrontation of pagan with Christian in the decades around 400 this slice of history became the subject of polemic and indeed gained sharper definition (notably in the polemic of Augustine’s City of God) in consequence.

Augustine had, like everyone else, come under the spell of the exhilaration over Christian triumph and, as we have seen, echoed the general sentiments of his contemporaries. In some of his earlier works, the contemporary history of Christianization and victory over paganism had been drawn into the framework of the sacred history. But all this was reversed in his City of God. This work was an uncompromising rejection of any claim to knowing the duration of this last age or the direction of its future course. Between the Incarnation and the parousia history was, in Augustine’s final view, totally “secular,” containing no signposts to sacred meaning, no landmarks in the history of salvation. In terms of their ultimate significance, in relation to salvation or damnation, history remained opaque to human scrutiny: “In this world the two Cities are inextricably intertwined and mingled with each other, until they shall be separated in the last judgment” (Civ Dei 1.35). The bond that linked the Roman Empire and Christianity was now a contingent historical fact, which might at any future time be dissolved, even reversed. The Empire had no specially privileged place in God’s providence either as an instrument of or as an obstacle to the achievement of His purposes. There was nothing intrinsically sacred about it; it was a res publica among others.

The contrast with the dominant Christian narrative could hardly be sharper. Rufinus, for instance, from whose appendix to Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History Augustine had learned most of what he knew about the post-Constantinian Church, had presented his narrative within a framework of the victory of Christianity over superstitio and idolatry; the story was a record of mirabilia dei. Augustine’s radical agnosticism about God’s purposes in human history undermined all such certainties. There could be no assurance of conclusive victory; the Theodosian achievement stood under a final question mark. The workings of God in the future, as in the present, remained inscrutable.

Augustine’s mature reflection has been said by Peter Brown:

To protect the merciful opacity of human affairs. In declaring the saeculum to be largely opaque to human scrutiny, Augustine protected the richness of human culture from the hubris of those who wanted to relate every aspect of the world around them directly to the sacred (Augustinian Studies 32 [2001]).

To assert the autonomy of the secular was to resist any hostile takeover of this middle ground between sacred and profane from either side: either to include it in the sacred—by Christian or by pagan—or to repudiate it as irredeemably profane or demonic. Augustine’s views on these subjects had grown from a need to evaluate in a Christian perspective a whole cultural and political tradition which had been the vehicle of pagan religious values. Already in the mid-390s, as a young bishop, Augustine had struggled in his De doctrina Christiana to define the value of the secular disciplines. He could not accept that they were indissolubly linked (as the emperor Julian, among other late-fourth-century pagans, wished to claim) to pagan religion and were thus, from a Christian point of view, to be rejected. Many Christians had clung to them, sometimes without anxiety, sometimes despite acknowledged but unresolved tension.

In his De doctrina Christiana Augustine had made the case for the legitimacy, indeed the necessity, of adopting the secular disciplines—that is, the established components of the syllabus of current Roman education—for the purposes of a Christian education, in subordination to and integrated into a study of Christian wisdom, based on a scriptural foundation, carried out in faith. This was a particular case of his more general distinction—also stated in that same work—that among human institutions only those that are essentially linked to demonic practices are to be rejected (these we may call the profane); of the rest, some may be superfluous and extravagant, others convenient and necessary for human purposes and of value when utilized within a life ordered by love of God (De doctr. Christ. 2.25.38).

In Augustine’s classification of human institutions these come close to what I think of as the secular. Augustine’s trichotomy could well be reckoned as the charter for what Charles Taylor has labelled in A Catholic Modernity?, after the Jesuit missionary in China, the “Ricci project”: the project of adapting Christianity to an alien culture “involves the difficult task of making new discriminations: what in the culture represents a valid human difference, and what is incompatible with Christian faith?”

In the City of God Augustine’s perspective was wider, but an analogous model enabled him to concede value to social structures and cultural forms of non-Christian origin. Among the tangled roots of that “great and arduous work” (Civ. Dei, preface) was the need Augustine felt to show, both to Christians and to their non-Christian fellows, that Christians had a stake in the Roman res publica.

That was the overriding concern in his correspondence with the pagan aristocrat Volusianus and the Christian official Marcellinus at the moment when he was setting out on the great project of the City of God. In this interchange we can observe the creation of a shared space in which both the bishop, on the one side, and the civil official, on the other, are allowed the freedom to act on their own proper principles—a space that is at the same time a territory in which each of the two parties can allow the other to occupy its own distinct and proper position.

This is the emergence of the secular in action. In the course of writing the work Augustine would need to define the intermediate place in which was situated the res publica, somewhere between two extremes: on the one side, the sacredness claimed for it by the Christian rhetoric of Empire in a tradition of Eusebius (still highly visible in his own day, shaping, for instance, the poetry of Prudentius or the histories of Rufinus and Orosius), as well as by the pretensions to a sacred destiny given it in the ancient Virgilian literary tradition that still held educated imaginations in its grip; and, on the other side, a refusal to acknowledge a legitimate concern for the destinies of Romania or a dismissal of its claims on Christian loyalties. As in the De doctrina Christiana, here again Augustine wanted to establish a sphere in which pagan and Christian both had a stake. This was the saeculum—not a third City between the earthly and the heavenly, but their mixed, “inextricably intertwined” state in this temporal life.

From the beginning, Augustine’s objective was to define a civil community in a way which would enable Christians to give full weight to its claims on them, no less than on its pagan citizens and functionaries, while at the same time deflating the more grandiose, quasi-divine, claims made for it, either by pagans or by Christians. The long and winding argumentation of The City of God brought Augustine in Book 19 to “place” this social and political entity in its proper relation to the heavenly City. Well known though they are, it is as well to quote the crucial paragraphs of Augustine’s statement:

The heavenly City, while on its earthly pilgrimage, calls forth its citizens from every nation and every tongue. It assembles a band of pilgrims, not caring about any diversity in customs, laws, and institutions whereby they severally make provision for the achievement and maintenance of earthly peace. All these provisions are intended, in their various ways among the different nations, to secure the aim of earthly peace. The heavenly City does not repeal or abolish any of them, provided that they do not impede the religion in which the one supreme and true God is taught to be worshipped (Civ. Dei 19.17).

So the heavenly City, too, uses the earthly peace in the course of its earthly pilgrimage. It cherishes and fosters, as far as it can without compromising its faith and devotion, the orderly coherence of men’s wills concerning the things which pertain to the mortal nature of man; and this earthly peace it directs to the attainment of heavenly peace.

Political institutions, social practices, customs—are all radically relativized. In so restricting their sphere, Augustine is at the same time asserting their autonomy within their restricted sphere. In a Christian perspective, they are neutral; they can be used rightly, directed to the enjoyment of eternal peace by members of the heavenly City, or wrongly, directed to the enjoyment of lesser goods, the earthly peace (Civ. Dei, 19.14). In the most general terms, for Augustine political discourse is concerned, not with the ultimate realities of human fulfillment and salvation, but with what, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s language, we might call the “penultimate.”

A well-brought-up and properly modest historian might be wise to stop at this point. My conclusion that in the City of God Augustine took the measure of the Roman past in relation to his vision of history and deflated its pretensions to a sacred destiny—sacred in both the pagan and the Christian viewpoints—while, at the same time, vindicating its secular role is not now likely to be very controversial. If, however, we ask about the implications of Augustine’s views, we enter deeper waters and controversy. Although much has been written about Augustine’s “political thought,” it would be generally agreed that he had little interest in anything we might call by that name.

Nevertheless, when dealing with a thinker of his stature, it is hardly satisfactory to stop here. For anyone who has spent much time in the close presence of Augustine’s writings, it is very hard to treat his text in its frozen fixity, without engaging in the kind of problems that concerned him. Almost inevitably, the reader is drawn into a dialogue of some kind with Augustine—a dialogue that will also be a conversation with one’s own past self, with colleagues and teachers of one’s own and earlier generations; and one that is likely to continue with every reading and rereading of Augustine’s text. Much of Western theology as well as of political thought has in fact been, at least in part, such a long-drawn-out conversation. It is one from which I cannot, as a modern Western European, stand aside. The questions which exercised Augustine are the great fundamental questions about human social existence. He has something to say to us, no less than to his contemporaries. To understand what he is saying to us, we need to listen carefully to what he says to them, but we cannot stop there.

Broadly speaking, two types of social thought have claimed the authority of the Augustinian tradition and have claimed to interpret it in modern terms. One is that of the secular liberalism which would seek to sever any direct relation between religion and the public realm. The other is the opposite of this: the tradition which would see the public sphere as founded on or tied in one way or another to Christianity. I deal with the first, the “secularist,” interpretation of Augustine in my book Christianity and the Secular. Here I start with the second of these ways of reading Augustine, historically by far the more influential and important way, which held sway during most of the centuries between Augustine’s death and at least early modern times and has been revived in our own days.

At the heart of this way of thinking is the radical equation of the secular with sin. John Milbank, to take a modern example of this venerable tradition of interpreting Augustine, writes in Theology and Social Theory:

This civitas [the civitas terrena] as Augustine finds it in the present, is the vestigial remains of an entirely pagan mode of practice, stretching back to Babylon. There is no set of positive objectives that are its own peculiar business, and the City of God makes usus of exactly the same range of finite goods, although for different ends, with “a different faith, a different hope, a different love” [Civ. Dei 18.54]. For the ends sought by the civitas terrena are not merely limited, finite goods, they are those finite goods regarded without “referral” to the infinite good, and, in consequence, they are unconditionally bad ends. The realm of the merely practical, cut off from the ecclesial, is quite simply a realm of sin (406).

Although some of the assumptions behind this statement are very open to question, a great deal in Augustine’s thought points in this direction. There is certainly a sense in which Augustine was committed to the view that only in the Church, and indeed only in the Church as it will be in its final, eschatologically purified state, can justice properly speaking be realized. The claim that classical political theory is relocated by Christianity as thought about the Church has solid foundations in Augustine’s thought: especially in his mature thinking as it developed under the overwhelmingly anti-Pelagian concern that had come to be pervasive in it.

This would give some support to the view of the Church as the exemplary community espoused by theologians who like to describe themselves as “radically orthodox.” Paul Lakeland says that according to theologians of this persuasion, “The fullness of the gospel demands . . . something like a premodern understanding of the integrity of the Christian community” (Postmodernity, 43)—what in common usage would be meant by “Christendom.” In such a view no sound political theory can be constructed except within the framework of a Christian “ontology” or worldview.

If true justice is dependent on true piety, as Augustine undoubtedly held, then it is certainly true that Augustine could not envisage any community other than the Church as capable of realizing the political objectives of the res publica. For if justice (iustitia) in the full-blooded sense given it by Augustine is an essential constituent of the notion of “what is right” (iuris consensus), then evidently “where there is no true justice there can be no ius either” (Civ. Dei 19.21.1), and, as Augustine concludes, that true justice,

Is found only where the one true God alone rules by grace over a society which obeys Him and sacrifices only to Him, in all of whose members the body is subject to the soul, the vices to reason in observance of the right order; in that city the whole community and people, like the individual just man, live in that faith which works by love, that love whereby man loves God as He is to be loved and his neighbor as he loves himself (Civ. Dei 19.23.5).

Augustine not only accepts the conclusion but insists on the impossibility of true justice being attained, even by just and pious believers, except by humility, with the help of God’s grace.

This holds for true or perfect virtue, virtue which avails a person for salvation. But Augustine’s polemic against the virtues of pagans should not induce us to believe that all acts of virtue, to be virtuous, need to be perfectly virtuous, that justice can be real only when perfect. Even though, as he has just told us, true or perfect justice, like the true or perfect virtue which procures salvation, can be possessed only by those who have true pietas, he nevertheless leaves no doubt that an imperfect but useful virtue can be found among citizens of the earthly City (see: Civ. Dei 5.19).

The same goes for justice: an imperfect or relative version of justice may be found in all sorts of places, although its full realization will only be in the eschatologically purified Church. Here on earth justice may be achieved, but it will always be necessarily an imperfect justice. A just society is a penitent society (Civ. Dei 19.27). Being imperfectly just is not the same thing as being unjust.

Conceding Augustine’s principle that all that is not of grace is sin, does it necessarily follow, as has been alleged in Hollerich’s reading of Milbank’s understanding of Augustine, that there is no “neutral public sphere in which people can act politically without reference to ultimate ends”? Two separate points need to be cleared up in answering this question. First, it is evident that for Augustine individual persons will necessarily have their own ultimate ends, to which all their actions, in whatever sphere, are referred, and on which their salvation or damnation depends.

There is nothing exceptional about a public sphere in this respect. Acting politically is, like acting in any other sphere, never morally indifferent. On Augustinian premises, it is bound to be either sinful or not. If it is not sinful, then it depends for its goodness on grace and all that is involved in the life of grace: “that faith which,” as Augustine put it in the text just quoted (Civ. Dei 19.23.5), “works by love.” The second point raised by the question concerns the “neutral public sphere.” When we ask whether there is a “neutral public sphere in which people can act politically without reference to ultimate ends?,” the answer, as I have just said, must be no, because people cannot act intentionally in any sphere without reference to ultimate ends.

But it is important to note that the implication of this is not that there is no “neutral public sphere” but that there is no morally indifferent action within it. It is not necessary to think of such a sphere as the sum of a multiplicity or a fabric woven of many actions by many people; indeed, it makes little sense to do so, and I am sure this is not how Augustine thought of it. He seems to have thought of it in much less personal terms, as what we might call practices, customs, institutions. They may be the cumulative effect of long sequences of human action, shaped by collective behavior over many generations, routinized or institutionalized over time. They have come to form a complex which now helps to shape and condition human action and behavior, but they determine it no more—and no less—than a language determines what we say in it.

In this respect there is a close parallel between the way Augustine treats the constituents of secular culture in the De doctrina Christiana and the way he thinks of acting within the framework of existing social and political institutions. Indeed, in that work, Augustine says something to this effect more or less explicitly (De Doct. Christ. 2.35.38). As with the curriculum of the established educational system, and, generally, with established practices, customs, and institutions, members of the two Cities make use of the same finite goods, although for different ends, with “a different faith, a different hope, a different love” (Civ. Dei 18.45). This is the principle which allowed Augustine to deny any sharp break separating the ancient structures and culture of the classical city from the Christianized Roman society of his day.

Of course the direct link between polis and virtue was now severed. The polis could no longer serve as its members’ educator in justice and the instrument of perfecting human life; that role was now abrogated, taken over by the Church. But the Church, expressing its social character in its sacramental life, continued to exist within the boundaries of the (ancient) civic community, within the conditions provided by it for its ecclesial life. That secular framework demanded acknowledgement of its function and value, while at the same time it needed to be critically distanced and assessed within a Christian perspective.

From all this I must conclude that any reading of Augustine that denies the legitimacy or value of secular political or social structures and of the established practices of a secular culture in a Christian perspective is a misreading. This conclusion, however, should not be taken to justify the opposite type of claim to Augustinian support, that of a secular liberalism that severs any relation between religion and public authority and upholds an open, pluralistic, and religiously neutral civic community.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This excerpt is adapted from Robert A. Markus's Christianity and the Secular. It is part of an ongoing collaboration with the University of Notre Dame Press. You can read our excerpts from this collaboration here. All rights reserved.

Featured Image: Master of the Legend of St. Augustine, Scenes from the Life of St. Augustine, 1490; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Robert Markus

Robert Markus was Professor of Medieval History at Nottingham. He was an extremely influential scholar who helped to create the concept of Late Antiquity. Professor Markus was especially known for this work on Augustine of Hippo and Gregory the Great.

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