Aged in his fifties in the year 410, Augustine was shattered emotionally by the attack of Rome. Without directly mentioning the event, he encouraged his hearers at Hippo to accept testing by God's Will. He began to write his City of God soon afterwards as his personal, ecclesiastical and social response to the situation.
Augustine and his readers were aware that the attack on Rome by Alaric was not the first such attack upon northern Italy, but only the first one that actually succeeded in invading Rome. Alaric himself first invaded in 401 but was defeated near Verona in 403. And then in 405 and early 406 invaded northern from the Great Hungarian Plain by the pagan King Radagasius, until he was captured and executed near Florence.
Augustine noted that Radagasius' army was much larger than that of Alaric and, had it been successful, would have treated Rome more harshly than Alaric, who, instead of settling in Rome, withdrew after only three days there. Even so, in 410 Pagans and Christians blamed each other for the most recent disaster. Adding to the tension for the Christians was the fact that the Visigoths, though not Catholic, were nevertheless Christians. (Actually, it was due to the respect of the Goths for the Christian religion that their attack was not worse than it was. They departed Rome after only three days.)
Pagans expostulated, "If the empire had not gone over to the Christian religion those horrible invasions would never have happened." These pagans were referring to the year 381, when the Christian religion had supplanted the ancient religion of the Romans as the official state religion. They claimed that Rome had gained world supremacy due to the favour of the ancient gods. When Rome officially accepted the Christian God and turned from its own gods, the gods were said to have withdrawn their protection and allowed the Visigoths to sack Rome in order to demonstrate their anger at being replaced by the Christian God. A more serious allegation levelled at Christians was that they were disloyal to the Roman state because their primary allegiance was to their God. (The response of Augustine to these assertions are to be found in the following pages of Augnet.)
After the sack of Rome, even Christians had questioned in anxiety, "Why were the righteous also suffering?" "Where was the kingdom of God on earth that had been prophesied?" Augustine had direct contact in Hippo with refugees who had fled from Rome in 410. He wrote the City of God as a kind of literary farewell for pagan Roman culture and as a defence of the Christian faith. The book received its title from Psalm 87:3: "Glorious things are spoken of you, O City of God."
As already mentioned above, one motivation of Augustine for writing his City of God was to refute the allegations that the fact that Rome had become Christian had caused its invasion in the year 410. In the City of God Augustine showed that Rome had suffered through numerous other catastrophes long before the Christian religion ever became the state religion of the Empire. Actually, it was due to the respect of the Goths for the Christian religion that their attack on Rome had not been far worse than it was. They had departed after only three days. Against those who claimed that Christians could not be loyal Roman citizens due to their higher allegiance to God, Augustine reminded them that the Old and New Testament Scriptures actually commanded Christians to obey the civil authorities. And Augustine answered the accusation that the Christian religion had weakened the defence of the Rome by asserting that this overlooked that the real cause of its collapse was its moral bankruptcy that had spawned a society where justice was no longer valued. Augustine quoted the Roman historians as themselves recognising the brutality at the very root of the nation, right from the very beginning of Rome with the murder of Romulus by his brother Remus. In contrast, Augustine proposed that the virtues of the Christian faith were most consistent with good citizenship.
The City of God was born of the concern of Augustine for the moral and social disintegration of the Classical culture. In this book, Augustine primarily took the approach of promoting the cure rather than of offering yet another diagnosis or description of the sickness. And the cure he proposed was simply that the Church adhere to its essential calling by preaching the Gospel and by implementing it.
The sack of Rome In the year 410 was a disaster for which the Classical Roman consciousness was unprepared. Throughout the Empire people panicked. Pagans blamed the tragedy on the Christians. Rome had not been sacked in seven hundred years, and there was the fable of Roma Aeterna, Rome the Eternal City. The Christians had predicted the end of the world, the pagans said, and by refusing to offer sacrifices to the ancient Roman pagan gods, Christians had turned these gods against Rome. Pagans also accused Christians of undermining the empire by refusing to serve in the army. Even Christians expressed anxiety. Why were the righteous also suffering? Where was the kingdom of God on earth that had been promised?
The City of God was a response by Augustine to the crisis of the Roman Empire in the same manner that the book by Plato called The Republic was a reaction to the crisis of the Athenian polis. But whereas Plato expressed hope that a state founded on rational principles could remedy the abuses of Athenian society, Augustine maintained that the worldly city could never be the central focus and hope of a Christian. Augustine said that perfect government could not happen on earth, but that it belonged only to heaven.
He wrote that the attack of Rome in the year 410, therefore, should not upset Christians greatly, for the Christian faith belonged to the kingdom of the spirit and could not be identified with any particular kingdom on earth. He state that the collapse of Rome did not diminish the Christian religion, for the true Christian was a citizen of a "heavenly city" that could not possibly be pillaged by evil men, but would endure forever. Compared to heavenly city of God, the decline of Rome was unimportant. The welfare of the Christian religion was not to be identified with the material progress of Rome, or even with its very existence.
Augustine provided comfort to Christians worried by the fall of Rome. He said that both the decay and the prosperity of Rome meant nothing in comparison with the happiness that awaited them in the "city of heaven." They were told that the Christian religion was measured neither by the successes nor by the failures of Rome.
In the year 427 Augustine reflected upon his writing of City of God years previously, and wrote in his Retractions: "When Rome was devastated as a result of the invasion of the Goths under the leadership of Alaric, the worshippers of the many false gods, began, in their attempt to blame this devastation on the Christian religion, to insult the true God with more bitterness and sharpness than usual. Therefore, fired with a zeal for the house of God, I determined to write my book, City of God, against their lies and errors."
After thirteen years of writing, Augustine had produced the City of God, which made Augustine a historian of Rome. Yet Peter Brown, a late twentieth-century biographer of Augustine, challenged the notion that the writing of the City of God depended entirely on the sack of Rome. He wrote, "The City of God cannot be explained in terms of its immediate origins. It is particularly superficial to regard it as a book about the sack of Rome."
The historian and author Peter Brown continued, "Augustine may well have written a book On the City of God without such an event. What this sack effected, was to provide Augustine with specific, challenging audience at Carthage. In this way the sack of Rome ensured that a book which might have been a work of pure exegesis for fellow Christian scholars, became a deliberate confrontation with paganism." (Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000, page 311)
Professor James O'Donnell, a recent Augustinian scholar of Georgetown University, Washington D.C., lamented that over the centuries the City of God had generally been incorrectly read and misused. He wrote, "Augustine had set out in the City of God to propose to his readers a view of the role of humanity in the world that differed materially on every main principle from that which had underpinned Greco-Roman antiquity…. It was the fate of the Christian religion in his own time and in centuries after to make the task of realising that view more difficult for itself by following the perilous paths of fame and power. The union of church and empire - a constant dream of the Western Middle Ages, a depressing reality for the Eastern - obscured the practical value of the doctrines of Augustine. This led many devout readers of Augustine to share the hollow optimism of their contemporaries, insecure in the hope that the association of religious and secular power would lead by a tranquil path to the establishment of a strong and secure position for the city of heaven in the world here below."(Continued on the next page.)
Augustine and the City of God. Augustine began writing City of God as a defence against those who blamed the Christians for the fall of Rome, but then devoted the remainder of the work to expounding a Christian interpretation not only of contemporary events, but also of the entire sweep of human history… For five pages in 1996 by Mike Bone of Boston University, United States of America in the Dictionary of Modern Western Theology. http://people.bu.edu/wwildman/bce/augustine.htm
Augustine, The Fall of Rome, and the City of God. A scholarly coverage by Sanderson Beck in the middle section of this large web site.http://www.san.beck.org/AB11-AugustineandRome.html AN2128