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Saint Augustin by Louis Bertrand


Augustin fell ill just after he got to Rome. It would seem that he arrived there towards the end of August or beginning of September, before the students reassembled, just at the time of heat and fevers, when all Romans who could leave the city fled to the summer resorts on the coast.

Like all the great cosmopolitan centres at that time, Rome was unhealthy. The diseases of the whole earth, brought by the continual inflow of foreigners, flourished there. Accordingly, the inhabitants had a panic fear of infection, like our own contemporaries. People withdrew prudently from those suffering from infectious disorders, who were left to their unhappy fate. If, from a sense of shame, they sent a slave to the patient's bedside, he was ordered to the sweating-rooms, and there disinfected from head to foot, before he could enter the house again.

Augustin must have had at least the good luck to be well looked after, since he recovered. He had gone to the dwelling of one of his Manichee brethren, an auditor like himself, and an excellent kind of man, whom he stayed with all the time he was in Rome. Still, he had such a bad attack of fever that he very nearly died. |I was perishing,| he says; |and I was all but lost.| He is frightened at the idea of having seen death so near, at a moment when he was so far from God -- so far, in fact, that it never occurred to him to ask for baptism, as he had done, in like case, when he was little. What a desperate blow would that have been for Monnica! He still shudders when he recalls the danger: |Had my mother's heart been smitten with that wound, it never could have been healed. For I cannot express her tender love towards me, or with how far greater anguish she travailed of me now in the spirit, than when she bore me in the flesh.| But Monnica prayed. Augustin was saved. He ascribes his recovery to the fervent prayers of his mother, who, in begging of God the welfare of his soul, obtained, without knowing it, the welfare of his body.

As soon as he was convalescent, he had to set to work to get pupils. He was obliged to ask the favours of many an important personage, to knock at many an inhospitable door. This unfortunate beginning, the almost mortal illness which he was only just recovering from, this forced drudgery -- all that did not make him very fond of Rome. It seems quite plain that he never liked it, and till the end of his life he kept a grudge against it for the sorry reception it gave him. In the whole body of his writings it is impossible to find a word of praise for the beauty of the Eternal City, while, on the contrary, one can make out through his invectives against the vices of Carthage, his secret partiality for the African Rome. The old rivalry between the two cities was not yet dead after so many centuries. In his heart, Augustin, like a good Carthaginian -- and because he was a Carthaginian -- did not like Rome.

The most annoying things joined together as if on purpose to disgust him with it. The bad season of the year was nigh when he began to reside there. Autumn rains had started, and the mornings and evenings were cold. What with his delicate chest, and his African constitution sensitive to cold, he must have suffered from this damp cold climate. Rome seemed to him a northern city. With his eyes still full of the warm light of his country, and the joyous whiteness of the Carthage streets, he wandered as one exiled between the gloomy Roman palaces, saddened by the grey walls and muddy pavements. Comparisons, involuntary and continual, between Carthage and Rome, made him unjust to Rome. In his eyes it had a hard, self-conscious, declamatory look, and gazing at the barren Roman campagna, he remembered the laughing Carthage suburbs, with gardens, villas, vineyards, olivets, circled everywhere by the brilliance of the sea and the lagoons.

And then, besides, Rome could not be a very delightful place to live in for a poor rhetoric master come there to better his fortune. Other strangers before him had complained of it. Always to be going up and down the flights of steps and the ascents, often very steep, of the city of the Seven Hills; to be rushing between the Aventine and Sallust's garden, and thence to the Esquiline and Janiculum! To bruise the feet on the pointed cobbles of sloping alley-ways! These walks were exhausting, and there seemed to be no end to this city. Carthage was also large -- as large almost as Rome. But there Augustin was not seeking employment. When he went for a walk there, he strolled. Here, the bustle of the crowds, and the number of equipages, disturbed and exasperated the southerner with his lounging habits. Any moment there was a risk of being run over by cars tearing at full gallop through the narrow streets: men of fashion just then had a craze for driving fast. Or again, the passenger was obliged to step aside so that some lady might go by in her litter, escorted by her household, from the handicraft slaves and the kitchen staff, to the eunuchs and house-servants -- all this army manoeuvring under the orders of a leader who held a rod in his hand, the sign of his office. When the street became clear once more, and at last the palace of the influential personage to whom a visit had to be paid was reached, there was no admittance without greasing the knocker. In order to be presented to the master, it was necessary to buy the good graces of the slave who took the name (nomenclator), and who not only introduced the suppliant, but might, with a word, recommend or injure. Even after all these precautions, one was not yet sure of the goodwill of the patron. Some of these great lords, who were not always themselves sprung from old Roman families, prided themselves upon their uncompromising nationalism, and made a point of treating foreigners with considerable haughtiness. The Africans were regarded unfavourably in Rome, especially in Catholic circles. Augustin must have had an unpleasant experience of this.

Through the long streets, brilliantly lighted at evening (it would seem that the artificial lighting of Rome almost equalled the daylight), he would return tired out to the dwelling of his host, the Manichee. This dwelling, according to an old tradition, was in the Velabrum district, in a street which is still to-day called Via Greca, and skirts the very old church of Santa Maria-in-Cosmedina -- a poor quarter where swarmed a filthy mass of Orientals, and where the immigrants from the Levantine countries, Greeks, Syrians, Armenians, Egyptians, lodged. The warehouses on the Tiber were not very far off, and no doubt there were numbers of labourers, porters, and watermen living in this neighbourhood. What a place for him who had been at Thagaste the guest of the magnificent Romanianus, and intimate with the Proconsul at Carthage! When he had climbed up the six flights of stairs to his lodging, and crouched shivering over the ill-burning movable hearth, in the parsimonious light of a small bronze or earthenware lamp, while the raw damp sweated through the walls, he felt more and more his poverty and loneliness. He hated Rome and the stupid ambition which had brought him there. And yet Rome should have made a vivid appeal to this cultured man, this aesthete so alive to beauty. Although the transfer of the Court to Milan had drawn away some of its liveliness and glitter, it was still all illuminated by its grand memories, and never had it been more beautiful. It seems impossible that Augustin should not have been struck by it, despite his African prejudices. However well built the new Carthage might be, it could not pretend to compare with a city more than a thousand years old, which at all periods of its history had maintained the princely taste for building, and which a long line of emperors had never ceased to embellish.

When Augustin landed at Ostia, he saw rise before him, closing the perspective of the Via Appia, the Septizonium of Septimus Severus -- an imitation, doubtless, on a far larger scale, of the one at Carthage. This huge construction, water-works probably of enormous size, with its ordered columns placed line above line, was, so to speak, the portico whence opened the most wonderful and colossal architectural mass known to the ancient world. Modern Rome has nothing at all to shew which comes anywhere near it. Dominating the Roman Forum, and the Fora of various Emperors -- labyrinths of temples, basilicas, porticoes, and libraries -- the Capitol and the Palatine rose up like two stone mountains, fashioned and sculptured, under the heap of their palaces and sanctuaries. All these blocks rooted in the soil, suspended, and towering up from the flanks of the hills, these interminable regiments of columns and pilasters, this profusion of precious marbles, metals, mosaics, statues, obelisks -- in all that there was something enormous, a lack of restraint which disturbed the taste and floored the imagination. But it was, above all, the excessive use of gold and gilding that astonished the visitor. Originally indigent, Rome became noted for its greed of gold. When the gold of conquered nations began to come into its hands, it spread it all over with the rather indiscreet display of the upstart. When Nero built the Golden House he realized its dream. The Capitol had golden doors. Statues, bronzes, the roofs of temples, were all gilded. All this gold, spread over the brilliant surfaces and angles of the architecture, dazzled and tired the eyes: Acies stupet igne metalli, said Claudian. For the poets who have celebrated it, Rome is the city of gold -- aurata Roma.

A Greek, such as Lucian, had perhaps a right to be shocked by this architectural debauch, this beauty too crushing and too rich. A Carthage rhetorician, like Augustin, could feel at the sight of it nothing but the same irritated admiration and secret jealousy as the Emperor Constans felt when he visited his capital for the first time.

Even as the Byzantine Caesar, and all the provincials, Augustin, no doubt, examined the curiosities and celebrated works which were pointed out to strangers: the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus; the baths of Caracalla and Diocletian; the Pantheon; the temple of Roma and of Venus; the Place of Concord; the theatre of Pompey; the Odeum, and the Stadium. Though he might be stupefied by all this, he would remember, too, all that the Republic had taken from the provinces to construct these wonders, and would say to himself: |'Tis we who have paid for them.| In truth, all the world had been ransacked to make Rome beautiful. For some time a muffled hostility had been brewing in provincial hearts against the tyranny of the central power, especially since it had shewn itself incapable of maintaining peace, and the Barbarians were threatening the frontiers. Worn out by so many insurrections, wars, massacres, and pillages, the provinces had come to ask if the great complicated machine of the Empire was worth all the blood and money that it cost.

For Augustin, moreover, the crisis was drawing near which was to end in his return to the Catholic faith. He had been a Christian, and as such brought up in principles of humility. With these sentiments, he would perhaps decide that the pride and vanity of the creature at Rome claimed far too much attention, and was even sacrilegious. It was not only the emperors who disputed the privileges of immortality with the gods, but anybody who took it into his head, provided that he was rich or had any kind of notoriety. Amid the harsh and blinding gilt of palaces and temples, how many statues, how many inscriptions endeavoured to keep an obscure memory green, or the features of some unknown man! Of course, at Carthage too, where they copied Rome, as in all the big cities, there were statues and inscriptions in abundance upon the Forum, the squares, and in the public baths. But what had not shocked Augustin in his native land, did shock him in a strange city. His home-sick eyes opened to faults which till then had been veiled by usage. In any case, this craze for statues and inscriptions prevailed at Rome more than anywhere else. The number of statues on the Forum became so inconvenient, that on many occasions certain ones were marked for felling, and the more insignificant shifted. The men of stone drove out the living men, and forced the gods into their temples. And the inscriptions on the walls bewildered the mind with such a noise of human praise, that ambition could dream of nothing beyond. It was all a kind of idolatry which revolted the strict Christians; and in Augustin, even at this time, it must have offended the candour of a soul which detested exaggeration and bombast.

The vices of the Roman people, with whom he was obliged to live cheek by jowl, galled him still more painfully. And to begin with, the natives hated strangers. At the theatres they used to shout: |Down with the foreign residents!| Acute attacks of xenophobia often caused riots in the city. Some years before Augustin arrived, a panic about the food supply led to the expulsion, as useless mouths, of all foreigners domiciled in Rome, even the professors. Famine was an endemic disease there. And then, these lazy people were always hungry. The gluttony and drunkenness of the Romans roused the wonder and also the disgust of the sober races of the Empire -- of the Greeks as well as the Africans. They ate everywhere -- in the streets, at the theatre, at the circus, around the temples. The sight was so ignoble, and the public intemperance so scandalous, that the Prefect, Ampelius, was obliged to issue an order prohibiting people who had any self-respect from eating in the street, the keepers of wine-shops from opening their places before ten o'clock in the morning, and the hawkers from selling cooked meat in the streets earlier than a certain hour of the day. But he might as well have saved himself the trouble. Religion itself encouraged this greediness. The pagan sacrifices were scarcely more than pretexts for stuffing. Under Julian, who carried the great public sacrifices of oxen to an abusive extent, the soldiers got drunk and gorged themselves with meat in the temples, and came out staggering. Then they would seize hold of any passers-by, whom they forced to carry them shoulder-high to their barracks.

All this must be kept in mind so as to understand the strictness and unyielding attitude of the Christian reaction. This Roman people, like the pagans in general, was frightfully material and sensual. The difficulty of shaking himself free from matter and the senses is going to be the great obstacle which delays Augustin's conversion; and if it was so with him, a fastidious and intellectual man, what about the crowd? Those people thought of nothing but eating and drinking and lewdness. When they left the tavern or their squalid rooms, they had only the obscenities of mimes, or the tumbles of the drivers in the circus, or the butcheries in the amphitheatre to elevate them. They passed the night there under the awnings provided by the municipality. Their passion for horse-races and actors and actresses, curbed though it was by the Christian emperors, continued even after the sack of Rome by the Barbarians. At the time of the famine, when the strangers were expelled, they excepted from this wholesale banishment three thousand female dancers with the members of their choirs, and their leaders of orchestra.

The aristocracy did not manifest tastes much superior. Save a few cultivated minds, sincerely fond of literature, the greatest number only saw in the literary pose an easy way of being fashionable. These became infatuated about an unknown author, or an ancient author whose books were not to be had. They had these books sought for and beautifully copied. They, |who hated study like poison,| spoke only of their favourite author: the others did not exist for them. As a matter of fact, music had ousted literature: |the libraries were closed like sepulchres.| But fashionable people were interested in an hydraulic organ, and they ordered from the lute-makers |lyres the size of chariots.| Of course, this musical craze was sheer affectation. Actually, they were only interested in sports: to race, to arrange races, to breed horses, to train athletes and gladiators. As a pastime, they collected Oriental stuffs. Silk was then fashionable, and so were precious stones, enamels, heavy goldsmiths' work. Rows of rings were worn on each finger. People took the air in silk robes, held together by brooches carved in the figures of animals, a parasol in one hand, and a fan with gold fringes in the other. The costumes and fashions of Constantinople encroached upon the old Rome and the rest of the Western world.

Immense fortunes, which had gathered in the hands of certain people, either through inheritance or swindling, enabled them to keep up a senseless expenditure. Like the American millionaires of to-day, who have their houses and properties in both hemispheres, these great Roman lords possessed them in every country in the Empire. Symmachus, who was Prefect of the City when Augustin was in Rome, had considerable estates not only in Italy and in Sicily, but even in Mauretania. And yet, in spite of all their wealth and all the privileges they enjoyed, these rich people were neither happy nor at ease. At the least suspicion of a despotic power, their lives and property were threatened. Accusations of magic, of disrespect to the Caesar, of plots against the Emperor -- any pretext was good to plunder them. During the preceding reign, that of the pitiless Valentinian, the Roman nobility had been literally decimated by the executioner. A certain vice-Prefect, Maximinus, had gained a sinister reputation for cleverness in the art of manufacturing suspects. By his orders, a basket at the end of a string was hung out from one of the windows of the Praetorium, into which denunciations might be cast. The basket was in use day and night.

It is clear that at the time that Augustin settled in Rome this abominable system was a little moderated. But accusation by detectives was always in the air. And living in this atmosphere of mistrust, hypocrisy, bribery, and cruelty -- small wonder if the Carthaginian fell into bitter reflections upon Roman corruption. However impressive from the front, the Empire was not nice to look at close at hand.

But Augustin was, above all, home-sick. When he strolled tinder the shady trees of the Janiculum or Sallust's gardens, he already said to himself what he would repeat later to his listeners at Hippo: |Take an African, put him in a place cool and green, and he won't stay there. He will feel he must go away and come back to his blazing desert.| As for himself, he had something better to regret than a blazing desert. In front of the City of Gold, stretched out at his feet, and the horizon of the Sabine Hills, he remembered the feminine softness of the twilights upon the Lake of Tunis, the enchantment of moonlit nights upon the Gulf of Carthage, and that astonishing landscape to be discovered from the height of the terrace of Byrsa, which all the grandeur of the Roman campagna could not make him forget.

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