The problem of the gulf between the rich and the poor people in Hippo is a regular theme in the preaching of Augustine, because that was a local economic reality. Ancient North Africa lay directly south of Italy across the Mediterranean, with only a narrow stretch of water separating it from Sicily. Its chief city was Carthage, a Phoenician colony that was one of the early competitors of Rome for control of the Western Mediterranean. Shipping between North Africa and Italy thrived, largely through Ostia, the port of Rome. By the second century of the present era, production centres of African red slip ware (quality Roman pottery) owned by notable Roman families, were exporting ceramic vessels to all parts of the Roman Empire.
During the time of Augustine, from 356 to 430, North Africa was still a rich agrarian region in spite of the political troubles of the empire. Hippo Regius was the ancient name of the modern city of Annaba, Algeria. It was a major city in Roman Africa. Captured by the Vandals under King Geiseric after an attack of eighteen months in 431, it was the capital of the Vandal kingdom between 431 and 439. It returned to Roman rule in 534 and remained so until 698, when it fell to the Saracens. The later history of Hippo was under its modern name (in the next paragraph).
Annaba is a city in the north-eastern corner of Algeria near the river Wadi Seybouse and the border with Tunisia. Annaba, which was called Hippo Regius during Roman times, was probably established by the Phoenicians in the twelfth century before Christ. Hippo was an African centre of the early Christian religion. Augustine of Hippo was bishop there from 396 until 430. The city today has Christian, Muslim, and Roman buildings. In 2013 the Local Government District of Annaba contained 640,000 inhabitants, about half of whom are city-dwellers. Annaba (Bone) lays claim to being the fourth largest city in Algeria, and has a fine harbour.
The local economy is quite diversified. It is the main port for mineral exports in Algeria. As excellently explained by the late Tarsisius van Bavel O.S.A., Roman North Africa was originally state property, and was then given in huge tracts to wealthy Roman families as absentee landowners. North Africa supplied much of the grain and olive oil consumed in Rome. It was produced by the labour of poor tenant farmers and seasonal workers.
By the time of Augustine, the protection of individual rights of the weak within the Roman Empire had in effect ceased. This was because the authority and status of the Empire had greatly declined. Augustine assumed the role of a political activist in order to protect those on the margins of society (the marginalised), defend the rights of the poor. Government officials were often corrupt and not interested in the poor. They levied high taxes on those least able to pay them, hence the frequently unemployed seasonal workers - the harvesters of the grain, the tillers of the soil and those tending the olive trees - were victims of exploitation, and lacked political power.
Furthermore, the increasing invasions of North Africa by the Vandals made life and safety more uncertain, and the presence of the Donatist schism further destabilised society by being against the Roman Christian church and even Roman civic presence. Political decline was closely followed by economic decline and a loss of respect for the law. The wealthy families became richer, and the poor sold themselves as slaves as at least being a way of having guaranteed employment and at least some protection against starvation. These poor people were at the mercy of the landowners, some of whom went as far as placing workers in prison, and even executing them. In former times the Roman Empire had appointed persons as defenders of the rights of the poor. The Council of Carthage of the Catholic Church in the year 401 had petitioned the Emperor for the reintroduction of this practice, but without success.
Destroyed by the Vandals in the fifth century, Annaba was rebuilt by the Arabs. It was subsequently occupied by Italians, Spaniards, and Genoese before being captured by the French in 1832. The French Government departed at the time of the civil war in Algeria soon after 1950. Major industries include an iron and steel complex, railway workshops, and aluminium and chemical works. Iron ore, phosphates, and other minerals, extracted in Tbessa to the southeast, are exported, as are wine and cork.
For Annaba photos, past and present go to: http://www.algerieautrefois.com/Ressources/Bone/FichiersBone/BonePict.php
Francais: (This web page is written in the French Language.) Souk Ahras: ville natale de Saint Augustin. http://www.djamila.be/Documents/soukahras.htm Annaba. History of Annaba. http://looklex.com/e.o/annaba.htm
Annaba. A travelor’s blog. http://gottaloveconstantine.com/algeria-2/world-class/algeria-4/128-annaba