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Saint Augustin by Louis Bertrand


Carthage did not offer only pleasures to Augustin; it was besides an extraordinary subject to think about for an understanding so alert and all-embracing as his.

At Carthage he understood the Roman grandeur as he could not at Madaura and the Numidian towns. Here, as elsewhere, the Romans made a point of impressing the minds of conquered races by the display of their strength and magnificence. Above all, they aimed at the immense. The towns built by them offered the same decorative and monumental character of the Greek cities of the Hellenistic period, which the Romans had further exaggerated -- a character not without emphasis and over-elaboration, but which was bound to astonish, and that was the main thing in their view. In short, their ideal was not perceptibly different from that of our modern town councillors. To lay out streets which intersected at right angles; to create towns cut into even blocks like chessboards; to multiply prospects and huge architectural masses -- all the Roman cities of this period revealed such an aim, with an almost identical plan.

Erected after this type, the new Carthage caused the old to be forgotten. Everybody agreed that it was second only to Rome. The African writers squandered the most hyperbolical praises upon it. For them it is |The splendid, the august, the sublime Carthage.| Although there may well be a certain amount of triviality or of patriotic exaggeration in these praises, it is certain that the Roman capital of the Province of Africa was no less considerable than the old metropolis of the Hanno and Barcine factions. With a population almost as large as that of Rome, it had almost as great a circumference. It must further be recalled that as it had no ramparts till the Vandal invasion, the city overflowed into the country. With its gardens, villas, and burial-places of the dead, it covered nearly the entire peninsula, to-day depopulated.

Carthage, as well as Rome, had her Capitol and Palatine upon Mount Byrsa, where rose no doubt a temple consecrated to the Capitolean triune deities, Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, not far from the great temple of AEsculapius, a modern transformation of the old Punic Eschmoum. Hard by these sanctuaries, the Proconsul's palace dominated Carthage from the height of the acclivity of the Acropolis. The Forum was at the foot of the hill, probably in the neighbourhood of the ports -- a Forum built and arranged in the Roman way, with its shops of bankers and money-changers placed under the circular galleries, with the traditional image of Marsyas, and a number of statues of local celebrities. Apuleius no doubt had his there. Further off was the Harbour Square, where gathered foreigners recently landed and the idlers of the city in search of news, and where the booksellers offered the new books and pamphlets. There was to be seen one of the curiosities of Carthage -- a mosaic representing fabulous monsters, men without heads, and men with only one leg and one foot -- a huge foot under which, lying upon their backs, they sheltered from the sun, as under a parasol. On account of this feature they were called the sciapodes. Augustin, who like everybody else had paused before these grotesque figures, recalls them somewhere to his readers.... Beside the sea, in the lower town and upon the two near hills of the Acropolis, were a number of detached buildings that the old authors have preserved the names of and briefly described. Thanks to the zeal of archaeologists, it is now become impossible to tell where they stood.

The pagan sanctuaries were numerous. That of the goddess Coelestis, the great patroness of Carthage, occupied a space of five thousand feet. It comprised, besides the actual [Greek: hieron], where stood the image of the goddess, gardens, sacred groves, and courts surrounded with columns. The ancient Phoenician Moloch had also his temple under the name of Saturn. They called him The Old One, so Augustin tells us, and his worshippers were falling away. On the other hand, Carthage had another sanctuary which was very fashionable, a Serapeum as at Alexandria, where were manifested the pomps of the Egyptian ritual, celebrated by Apuleius. Neighbouring the holy places, came the places of amusement: the theatre, the Odeum, circus, stadium, and amphitheatre -- this last, of equal dimensions with the Colosseum at Rome, its gallery rising upon gallery, and its realistic sculptures of animals and artisans. Then there were the buildings for the public service: the immense cisterns of the East and the Malga, the great aqueduct, which, after being carried along a distance of fifty-five miles, emptied the water of the Zaghouan into the reservoirs at Carthage. Finally, there were the Baths, some of which we know -- those of Antoninus and of Maximianus, and those of Gargilius, where one of the most important Councils known to the history of the African Church assembled. There were likewise many Christian basilicas at the time of Augustin. The authors mention seventeen: it is likely there were more. That of Damous-el-Karita, the only one of which considerable traces have been found, was vast and richly decorated, and was perhaps the cathedral of Carthage.

What other buildings there were are utterly lost to history. It may be conjectured, however, that Carthage, as well as Rome, had a septizonium -- a decorative building with peristyles one above the other which surrounded a reservoir. In fact, it is claimed that the one at Rome was copied from Carthage. Straight streets paved with large flags intersected around these buildings, forming a network of long avenues, very bright and ventilated. Some of them were celebrated in the ancient world either for their beauty or the animation of their trade: the street of the Jewellers, the street of Health, of Saturn, of Coelestis, too, or of Juno. The fig and vegetable markets and the public granaries were also some of the main centres of Carthaginian life.

It is unquestionable that Carthage, with its buildings and statues, its squares, avenues and public gardens, looked like a large capital, and was a perfect example of that ideal of rather brutal magnificence and strength which the Romans obtruded everywhere.

And even while it dazzled the young provincial from Thagaste, the African Rome shewed him the virtue of order -- social and political order. Carthage, the metropolis of Western Africa, maintained an army of officials who handled the government in its smallest details. First of all, there were the representatives of the central power, the imperial rulers -- the Proconsul, a sort of vice-emperor, who was surrounded by a full court, a civil and military staff, a privy council, an officium which included a crowd of dignitaries and subaltern clerks. Then there was the Propraetor of Africa who, being in control of the government of the whole African province, had an officium still larger perhaps than the Proconsul's. After them came the city magistrates, who were aided in their functions by the Council of the Decurions -- the Senate of Carthage. These Carthaginian senators cut a considerable figure: for them their colleagues at Rome were full of airs and graces, and the Emperors endeavoured to keep them in a good-humour. All the details of city government came under their supervision: the slaughter-houses, buildings, the gathering of municipal taxes, and the police, which comprised even the guardians of the Forum. Then there were the army and navy. The home port of a grain-carrying fleet which conveyed the African cereals to Ostia, Carthage could starve Rome if she liked. The grain and oil of all countries lay in her docks -- the storehouses of the state provisions, which were in charge of a special prefect who had under his orders a whole corporation of overseers and clerks.

Augustin must have heard a good deal of grumbling at Carthage against this excess of officialism. But, all the same, so well-governed a city was a very good school for a young man who was to combine later the duties of bishop, judge, and governor. The blessings of order, of what was called |the Roman peace| no doubt impressed him the more, as he himself came from a turbulent district often turned upside down by the quarrels of religious sects and by the depredations of the nomads -- a boundary-land of the Sahara regions where it was much harder to bring the central government into play than in Carthage and the coast-towns. To appreciate the beauty of government, there is nothing like living in a country where all is at the mercy of force or the first-comer's will. Such of the Barbarians who came in contact with Roman civilization were overcome with admiration for the good order that it established. But what astonished them more than anything else was that the Empire was everywhere.

No man, whatever his race or country, could help feeling proud to belong to the Roman city. He was at home in all the countries in the world subject to Rome. Our Europe, split into nationalities, can hardly understand now this feeling of pride, so different from our narrow patriotisms. The way to feel something of it is to go to the colonies: out there the least of us may believe himself a sovereign, simply from the fact that he is a subject of the governing country. This feeling was very strong in the old world. Carthage, where the striking effect of the Empire appeared in all its brilliancy, would increase it in Augustin. He had only to look around him to value the extent of the privilege conferred by Rome on her citizens. Men coming from all countries, without exception of race, were, so to speak, made partners of the Empire and collaborated in the grandeur of the Roman scheme. If the Proconsul who then occupied the Byrsa palace, the celebrated Symmachus, belonged to an old Italian family, he whom he represented, the Emperor Valentinian, was the son of a Pannonian soldier. The Count Theodosius, the general who suppressed the insurrection of Firmus in Mauretania, was a Spaniard, and the army he led into Africa was made up, for the most part, of Gauls. Later on, under Arcadius, another Gaul, Rufinus, shall be master of the whole of the East.

An active mind like Augustin's could not remain indifferent before this spectacle of the world thrown open by Rome to all men of talent. He had the soul of a poet, quick to enthusiasm; the sight of the Eagles planted on the Acropolis at Carthage moved him in a way he never forgot. He acquired the habit of seeing big, and began to cast off race prejudices and all the petty narrowness of a local spirit. When he became a Christian he did not close himself up, like the Donatists, within the African Church. His dream was that Christ's Empire upon earth should equal the Empire of the Caesars.

Still, it is desirable not to fall into error upon this Roman unity. Behind the imposing front it shewed from one end to the other of the Mediterranean, the variety of peoples, with their manners, traditions, special religions, was always there, and in Africa more than elsewhere. The population of Carthage was astonishingly mixed. The hybrid character of this country without unity was illustrated by the streaks found in the Carthaginian crowds. All the specimens of African races elbowed one another in the streets, from the nigger, brought from his native Soudan by the slave-merchant, to the Romanized Numidian. The inflow, continually renewed, of traffickers and cosmopolitan adventurers increased this confusion. And so Carthage was a Babel of races, of costumes, of beliefs and ideas. Augustin, who was at heart a mystic, but also a dialectician extremely fond of showy discussions, found in Carthage a lively summary of the religions and philosophies of his day. During these years of study and reflection he captured booty of knowledge and observation which he would know how to make use of in the future.

In the Carthage sanctuaries and schools, in the squares and the streets, he could see pass the disciples of all the systems, the props of all the superstitions, the devotees of all the religions. He heard the shrill clamour of disputes, the tumult of fights and riots. When a man was at the end of his arguments, he knocked down his opponent. The authorities had a good deal of trouble to keep order. Augustin, who was an intrepid logician, must have longed to take his share in these rows. But one cannot exactly improvise a faith between to-day and to-morrow. While he awaited the enlightenment of the truth, he studied the Carthaginian Babel.

First of all, there was the official religion, the most obvious and perhaps the most brilliant, that of the Divinity of the Emperors, which was still kept up even under the Christian Caesars. Each year, at the end of October, the elected delegates of the entire province, having at their head the Sacerdos province, the provincial priest, arrived at Carthage. Their leader, clad in a robe broidered with palms, gold crown on head, made his solemn entry into the city. It was a perfect invasion, each member dragging in his wake a mob of clients and servants. The Africans, with their taste for pomp and colour, seized the chance to give themselves over to a display of ruinous sumptuosities: rich dresses, expensive horses splendidly caparisoned, processions, sacrifices, public banquets, games at the circus and amphitheatre. These strangers so overcrowded the city that the imperial Government had to forbid them, under severe penalties, to stay longer than five days. A very prudent measure! At these times, collisions were inevitable between pagans and Christians. It was desirable to scatter such crowds as soon as possible, for riots were always smouldering in their midst.

No less thronged were the festivals of the Virgin of Heaven. A survival of the national religion, these feasts were dear to the hearts of the Carthaginians. Augustin went to them with his fellow-students. |We trooped there from every quarter,| he says. There was a great gathering of people in the interior court which led up to the temple. The statue, taken from its sanctuary, was placed before the peristyle upon a kind of repository. Wantons, arrayed with barbarous lavishness, danced around the holy image; actors performed and sang hymns. |Our eager eyes,| Augustin adds maliciously, |rested in turn on the goddess, and on the girls, her adorers.| The Great Mother of the Gods, the Goddess of Mount Berecyntus, was worshipped with similar license. Every year the people of Carthage went to wash her solemnly in the sea. Her statue, carried in a splendid litter, robed with precious stuffs, curled and farded, passed through the streets of the city, with its guard of mummers and Corybants. These last, |with hair greasy from pomade, pale faces, and a loose and effeminate walk, held out bowls for alms to the onlookers.|

The devotion to Isis was yet another excuse for processions: the Serapeum was a rival attraction to the temple of the Heavenly Maiden. If we may trust Tertullian, the Africans swore only by Serapis. Possibly Mithras had also worshippers in Carthage. Anyhow, the occult religions were fully represented there. Miracle-working was becoming more and more the basis even of paganism. Never had the soothsayers been more flourishing. Everybody, in secret, pried into the entrails of the sacrificial victims, or used magic spells. As to the wizards and astrologists, they did business openly. Augustin himself consulted them, like all the Carthaginians. The public credulity had no limits.

On the opposite side from the pagan worship, the sects which had sprung from Christianity sprouted. True, Africa has given birth to but a small number of heresies: the Africans had not the subtle mind of the Orientals and they were not given to theorizing. But a good many of the Eastern heresies had got into Carthage. Augustin must have still met Arians there, although at this period Arianism was dying out in Africa. What is certain is that orthodox Catholicism was in a very critical state. The Donatists captured its congregations and churches; they were unquestionably in the majority. They raised altar against altar. If Genethlius was the Catholic bishop, the Donatist bishop was Parmenianus. And they claimed to be more Catholic than their opponents. They boasted that they were the Church, the single, the unique Church, the Church of Christ. But these schismatics themselves were already splitting up into many sects. At the time Augustin was studying at Carthage, Rogatus, Bishop of Tenes, had just broken publicly with Parmenian's party. Another Donatist, Tyconius, published books wherein he traversed many principles dear to his fellow-religionists. Doubt darkened consciences. Amid these controversies, where was the truth? Among whom did the Apostolic tradition dwell?

To put the finishing touch on this anarchy, a sect which likewise derived from Christianity -- Manicheeism -- began to have numerous adepts in Africa. Watched with suspicion by the Government, it concealed part of its doctrine, the most scandalous and subversive. But the very mystery which enveloped it, helped it to get adherents.

Among all these apostles preaching their gospel, these devotees beating the drum before their god, these theologians reciprocally insulting and excommunicating one another, Augustin brought the superficial scepticism of his eighteenth year. He wanted no more of the religion in which his mother had brought him up. He was a good talker, a clever dialectician; he was in a hurry to emancipate himself, to win freedom for his way of thinking as for his way of life; and he meant to enjoy his youth. With such gifts, and with such dispositions, he could only choose among all these doctrines that which would help most the qualities of his mind, at once flattering his intellectual pretensions, and leaving his pleasure-loving instincts a loose rein.

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