St. Augustine and the End of the World

The Sack of Rome


The year is 410. The day is August 24. Alaric, leader of the Visigoths, has Rome, the center of the known world, under siege.

This is the third time he has besieged Rome. The previous two times, he was left after being paid off. This time is different. This time the money has not come.

And so, for the first time in 800 years, Rome falls to an enemy. The barbarians, pour through the gates and loot it for three days. The city’s great buildings are ransacked. The mausoleums of past Roman emperors are raided and their ashes scattered to the wind. The city is devastated, and many Romans is taken captive. Jerome, voicing what many feel, wrote, “My voice sticks in my throat. The City that took the whole world captive is itself taken.”

There is one notable exception to the devastation. Alaric, who considered himself a Christian, left the churches alone, and made sure that his troops did the same.

City of God

Tens of thousands of refugees fled Rome, and many of them made their way to Hippo, where they were welcomed by St. Augustine. They needed answers for why this great tragedy had befallen the Eternal City, and a response to pagan critics who blamed its embrace of Christianity for its decline. Augustine provided those in the form of his great work City of God. It is by far his longest work, and was written in many pieces over the course of more than a decade. Where Confessions laid out Augustine’s theology of individual salvation, City of God lays out his theology of history.

Remember how horrified you were to see Augustine advocate state suppression of the Donatists? Why was that? Because we believe in a doctrine of separation of church and state. By now, it will probably not surprise you to learn that even this idea has its origins in Augustine’s thought.

In reply to those critics who charged that Rome has fallen because it had Christianized, Augustine countered that Rome had in fact not truly converted. Rather, he posited, there exist two overlapping kingdoms in the world: the City of God, and the City of the World (alternately called the City of Man).

Accordingly, two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by the love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self. The former, in a word, glories in itself, the latter in the Lord. For the one seeks glory from men; but the greatest glory of the other is God, the witness of conscience. The one lifts up its head in its own glory; the other says to its God, “Thou art my glory, and the lifter up of mine head.” In the one, the princes and the nations it subdues are ruled by the love of ruling; in the other, the princes and the subjects serve one another in love, the latter obeying, while the former take thought for all.

Augustine traces the origin of the two cities back through the Bible, all the way to the original rebellion of Satan and his angels. This rebellion continues with Adam and Eve, who join the City of the world when they are seduced by Satan into loving themselves more than God. The split is reiterated with the story of Cain and Abel.

Of these two first parents of the human race, then, Cain was the first-born, and he belonged to the city of men; after him was born Abel, who belonged to the city of God. For as in the individual the truth of the apostle’s statement is discerned, “that is not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural, and afterward that which is spiritual,” whence it comes to pass that each man, being derived from a condemned stock, is first of all born of Adam evil and carnal, and becomes good and spiritual only afterwards, when he is grafted into Christ by regeneration: so was it in the human race as a whole.

Accordingly, it is recorded of Cain that he built a city, but Abel, being a sojourner, built none. For the city of the saints is above, although here below it begets citizens, in whom it sojourns till the time of its reign arrives, when it shall gather together all in the day of the resurrection; and then shall the promised kingdom be given to them, in which they shall reign with their Prince, the King of the ages, time without end.

Of course, you remember How the story of Cain and Abel ended. Cain’s jealousy of Abel’s relationship with God caused him to commit fratricide. In the same way, the City of Man is at war against the City of God, which Augustine continues to trace down through scripture. He even ties this idea in with Rome’s founding myths. According to legend, Romulus killed his twin Remus before himself founding the city of Rome, once again placing Rome firmly in the “City of the World” category.

The City of the World has its uses, according to Augustine, but even at its best it just serves to suppress the crime and more blatant effects of sin. The City of God is what we were truly made for. Most importantly, all works of man, and all the civilizations they build will ultimately die; only the City of God is eternal.

The Heavenly City outshines Rome, beyond comparison. There, instead of victory, is truth; instead of high rank, holiness; instead of peace, felicity; instead of life, eternity.

Augustine’s Death

While Augustine lay on his death bed in 430, the Vandals made their way into Africa, and laid siege to Hippo. He spent his final days in prayer and penitence, reading the penitential psalms and convinced that the end of the world was at hand. Not long after his death, his own city of man did fall. The Vandals burned down Hippo, leaving only Augustine’s cathedral and library intact.

This seems like a downer, but looking back I consider it somewhat comforting. The end of the Roman world turned out not to be the end of the world. Western civilization carried on, and even surpassed the rest of the world in spite of all of that. We look around the world today and we see a lot of things going wrong. History reminds us that though things are bad today, things have been bad before. The grass withers and the flowers fade, but the word of our God stands forever.

Now What?

If you want more Augustine, he has plenty of writings to choose from. The massive City of God is his most famous and important work, but there are lots of others. On Christian Doctrine is another popular (and fairly short) work of his. If you want to further explore the Pelagian controversy that we touched briefly upon, his Anti-Pelagian Writings have been collected together into a volume of their own. If you’re interested in the free will aspects of that debate, he has a separate work titled On Free Choice of the Will. If you liked his work on time, you may be interested in his work The Literal Meaning of Genesis. This is just a small sampling; there are many other tracts, sermons and books that he authored.

Augustine did change his mind. Significantly, he later went back over his past work, revising and even abandoning some of his ideas in his Retractions.

So go pick up an old book and get to reading!