At first, the importance that Augustine gave to the idea of Rome might seem odd, yet an understanding of his era quickly establishes that this importance was generally upheld by all citizens of the Roman Empire. For the people of Augustine’s time, whether pagan or Christian, the word Rome meant more than the city of that name. Attached to the word was the presumption, established during the experience of the previous centuries, that the city would never be captured or sacked.
For pagans, and to some extent for Christians, this was a spiritualizing of Rome in which emotionally and psychologically it was accorded a divine character – it was sensed as being eternal, and being the protector of its citizens. If the gods of Rome and its Emperors were divine, Rome itself was also seen likewise. In fact, Roma was worshipped as one of the official gods of the state. Military generals in far corners of the Roman Empire sometimes had statues of Roma in their shrines, and it was partly for this divine personification of the city on the Tiber River that they fought their battles. The sack of Rome by Alaric – who was not a pagan, but an Arian Christian - and his Visigoths on 24th August 210 AD (the first foreign penetration of the city in 800 years) was thus a great psychological blow to those who lived in Rome and those elsewhere who revered it.
The psychological blow was more lasting than the actual physical blow because, Alaric, with his respect for the Christian religion, moved out of Rome after only three days there. The contemporary ecclesiastics recorded with wonder many instances of the Visigoths' clemency: Christian churches saved from ravage; protection granted to vast multitudes both of pagans and Christians who took refuge therein; vessels of gold and silver which were found in a private dwelling, spared because they "belonged to St Peter"; and the city itself was not put to the torch.
In Augustine’s day there was still an expectation that Rome would last until the end of time, hence the sack of Rome had somewhat of an “end of the world” fear attached to it. At Hippo in North Africa, Augustine was moved to make a prompt verbal response to Rome’s invasion, as his town prepared to accept refugees who fled from Rome in the hope of moving out of harm’s way.
Probably before the end of the year 410 (i.e., no more than four months after the sack of Rome), Augustine preached the first of four sermons (all of which still exist) that proposed a new interpretation of the idea of Rome for Christians. In this Sermon 81, Augustine highlighted the distinction between the Latin words, pressura (affliction) and scandalum (a stumbling block). He saw the invasion as an affliction, but not as a stumbling block that should have humanity criticizing God’s ways. He used the image of the human body growing old: “Do not attach yourself to the aged world, but become young in Christ.”
Tackling directly the common expectation that Rome would never fall, Augustine spiritualized the notion by saying that the material wood and stone of Rome might fall away, because these were formed by human hands and hence would perish. But the noblest spiritual values associated with Rome would last if carried on in the heart and will of people. Augustine was directly involved with the pain and anguish of refugees from Rome and other parts of Italy. In one of these four sermons, he noted, “Tidings of dreadful events have reached our ear: accounts of defeat, conflagration, pillage, murder, tortures. It is true; we have heard about these outrages. We have deplored all of them; often we have wept, and we have hardly been able to console ourselves.” (De urbis excidio 2: PL 40, 718).
Sermon 81 ends with an appeal for the congregation to offer hospitality to the refugees who have fled from Rome to North Africa. He says that in this way they will overcome the destruction of Alaric that the pagan world saw as a scandalum (stumbling block). As he would later develop further in Book IV, 7 of de civitate Dei (“City of God”), the ideal is the transition of the civitas Romana (“Roman city”) into the civitate Dei (“City of God”). He saw in the sack of Rome a punishment from God.Even so. Augistine did not think that this wol;d mean the end the Roman world, which he saw as having a mission planned by God that he would outline as De Civitate Dei. In other words, the Roman world would be the vehicle for propagating Christian values.
Thus, in spite of the markedly ascetical character of his argument, Augustine looks hopefully forward not only with trust in God’s providence but also with a genuinely Roman belief in the historical mission of the Roman empire. Augustine’s other three sermons on this topic were preached soon after Sermon 81, Sermon 105 especially so. Another one of them on the feast of Sts Peter and Paul on 29th June 411, and all of them within twelve months of the sack of Rome.
These other three sermons incorporate slightly different aspects and concerns about the topic, but equally as ascetical, hope-filled and exhorting about the trials of life being taken on board as Christians continue their daily prayer to the Lord of “Thy Kingdom come.” (Continued on the next page.)For further reading"You were always there" - Providence in the Confessions of Saint Augustine. This is the title of a lecture by Brian Lowery O.S.A. (Prior and Director at Convento Sant’Agostino, San Gimignano, Tuscany, Italy). He delivered this lecture at Saint Kieran's Church, Manly Vale, Australia on 12th September 2003.It is reporodced on this Augnet website: click here.AN2127