What Would Augustine Say?

From the days of Herodotus, in the fifth century before Christ, when in Book 1 of his Histories he had two sixth-century men, Solon of Athens and Croesus of Lydia, meet who chronologically could not have met, it has been appropriate for historians to consider what might have been.1 Without denying ultimate divine control, such speculation acknowledges human free will; as Andrew Roberts put it, “God might not play at dice Himself, but at least he permits us to.”2 And, as Saint Peter wrote, God gives us grace, and we are stewards of it (1 Pt 4:10).

What follows takes its cue from a classicist, Arnaldo Momigliano, noting some sixty years ago that in The City of God, Saint Augustine of Hippo never mentioned a prominent Roman historian, Ammianus Marcellinus.3 After all, Ammianus, as he is often simply called in English, was a pagan and wrote negatively about Christianity, so he seems to be a natural antagonist for Augustine. Unlike with Solon and Croesus, their careers overlapped, Augustine being in his forties when Ammianus died, so it becomes a useful thought experiment to consider what they would have said to one another, in particular regarding monastic pioneers of the Egyptian desert.

For all his criticism of Christianity, Ammianus was silent about monasticism, and with no mention of Ammianus in The City of God, other works by Augustine are fair game. So, here we can juxtapose a passage from Ammianus’ historical writing with a homily by Augustine. An imagined encounter between these two men presents an approach for Christians today who face criticism about the value of religious life and what sort of people it can attract.

Ammianus and Native Egyptians

In the late fourth century, Ammianus Marcellinus wrote in Latin a history of Rome, the Res Gestae, and the parts that survive give a chronicle of his own era. Ammianus was an officer in the Roman army and admired the Roman emperor known to Christian history as Julian the Apostate. Not surprisingly, in a lot of his history Ammianus related the strategy and tactics of Roman military campaigns, and for modern historians of the later Roman Empire, Ammianus’ narrative continues to be an invaluable source of information about imperial intrigue and martial endeavors.

However, in Book 22 Ammianus inserted a long digression about Egypt. Much of it consists of travelogue, and the Penguin Books translation omits most of it. In the scheme of things, Ammianus’ account offered very little that was new regarding Egypt’s starkly majestic geography or its colossal structures such as the Pyramids. All the same, what attracted Ammianus to Egypt was its sophisticated culture and its ancient religion. For him, Egypt, with its centuries of Greek influence, meant mathematics and medicine, monumental architecture, and above all, the great city of Alexandria. That metropolis’ temples and its great library were for Ammianus the epitome of what was best about what even in his day was considered antiquity. In contrast with Alexandria’s priests, scholars, and sages, the common people of that region failed to impress him favorably.

While cutting out most of Ammianus’ Egyptian travelogue, the Penguin translation does include his description of the ordinary Egyptians. “The people of Egypt,” Ammianus reported, “are for the most part swarthy and dark, and have a gloomy cast of countenance. They are lean and have a dried-up look, are easily roused to excited gestures, and are quarrelsome and most persistent in pursuing a debt. It puts a man to the blush if he cannot exhibit a number of weals [welts] incurred by refusing to pay tribute. And nobody has yet been able to devise a torture harsh enough to compel a hardened robber from that country to reveal his name against his will.”4

It is worth keeping in mind that from these simple, sunburned people came the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Also worth remembering is that flights into the Egyptian desert seem to have begun as ways to evade paying taxes, or tribute, as the Penguin translation puts it. “What most struck Ammianus in the native character,” wrote Ronald Syme, “was contentiousness and recalcitrance.”5 As Ammianus may well have sniffed, these hardy folks were not the types to attend full-dress military receptions at villas along the Nile or literary or philosophical seminars at the Library of Alexandria.

Augustine on Egyptian Christians

While for Ammianus the native Egyptians were something on the order of riff-raff, for Augustine they were the wave of the future. In a hypothetical meeting, Ammianus and Augustine might agree to disagree, but only because they could clearly express their respective views. Their conversation would be part of humanity’s ongoing debate over the merits of the old and the new: Ammianus saw Egypt as representing all that was worth keeping from the past; Augustine saw Egypt as a place where old things were being made new.

In 411 or 412, around the time he was beginning work on The City of God, Augustine delivered a homily in Hippo on John 10:11–16. Near the end of that homily on Christ as the Good Shepherd, Augustine addressed a biblical interpretation put forth by the Donatists. They were a rigorist and separatist Christian sect in Augustine’s bailiwick, in the Roman province of Africa, what is today roughly modern Tunisia and parts of Algeria and Libya. In their view, the Good Shepherd grazes His flock, that is, Christ’s true Church, only in that province of Africa. For proof, Augustine said, they cited the Song of Songs, “Tell me, you whom my soul loves, where you pasture your flock, where you make it lie down at noon” (Sg 1:7).

To a Donatist, the place of lying down at noon is in the south and therefore refers to none other than the Donatists’ own province of Africa. It was, they could say, pretty much due south of Rome. To Augustine, that reading of the text was farfetched at best, but for the sake of argument, he allowed it in order to make his own decisive point. As though addressing any Donatists who might have been present, he spoke about those southern regions and the Church.

“There you are, I accept that Africa is in the south,” Augustine granted, “although Egypt is more to the south, under the midday sun, than Africa. People in the know realize to what extent this shepherd grazes his flock in Egypt; those who don’t know should find out how big a flock he is gathering together there, what a vast number of holy men and women he has there, who turn their backs completely on the world. That flock has grown so big that it has driven out all heathen superstitions from that country.”6

Since the second half of the third century, the Egyptian desert to the west of the Nile’s delta and also the territory well to the south, near the great bend in the Nile, had been home to thousands of Christian hermits and monks and nuns. In a pattern that has recurred throughout Christian history, people sought out hermits for advice and to learn how to live like a hermit. In other cases, beginning in southern Egypt with Saint Pachomius, monastic communities began by moving into the abandoned adobe buildings of what in the arid western regions of the United States would be called a ghost town. In a now famous phrase from Saint Athanasius, the desert had become a city.7

That new city in the desert, a city of monastic men and women, contrasted with old secular cities such as Alexandria. Alexandria arose from the massive ambition of Alexander the Great, the son of a king and aspiring to be the ruler of the world; moreover, by the time he died, in his early thirties, he had been acclaimed as a god. The desert’s monastic city developed as people desired to follow the hidden life of a carpenter of Nazareth, who died in his early thirties and was also the King of Kings, and, indeed, the Son of God. As Boniface Ramsey has summed it up, for fifth-century Christians such as Augustine, “Egypt was transformed from the land of idolatry and pharaonic oppression into a paradise of spiritual perfection.”8


When Arnaldo Momigliano noticed that in The City of God Augustine never mentioned Ammianus Marcellinus, he also noted that in that work Augustine’s main target was Marcus Varro, a Roman author contemporary with Cicero. The way Momigliano saw it, Augustine looked past latter-day authors such as Ammianus, back to the first century before Christ, to take on a pagan scholar to whom all later pagan writers were indebted. Augustine’s professional training in ancient rhetoric had steeped him in the pagan Latin classics; by definition, authors in his own day had yet to stand the test of time.

While at his desk Augustine grappled with the pagan writings of Varro, in his pulpit he confronted the erroneous exegesis of the Donatists. Rather than argue with the Donatists over who were the real Christians in the province of Africa, Augustine turned his attention east and further south. In so doing, he offered a counterpoint that could well apply to Ammianus’ vivid depiction of swarthy, wiry, uncouth Egyptians. For whatever backwardness or even menace Ammianus saw in them, those native Egyptians had heard of Saint Antony, had maybe even heard read to them Saint Athanasius’ biography of him. That life story of one of their own had inspired many of them to follow Antony’s example and seek out a life of Christian holiness in the desert.

Whether today’s Western civilization is going the way of the Roman Empire remains a question beyond the scope of this brief essay. In any event, the contrasting, even conflicting, points of view represented by Ammianus and Augustine are still with us in our day. Where Ammianus saw gritty rabble with seditious tendencies, Augustine saw the sturdy raw material for establishing a Christian society.

  1. Aubrey de Sélincourt, The World of Herodotus (London: Secker and Warburg, 1962), p. 89. Solon visited Lydia in the 580s and died around 560 B. C.; Croesus was born around 595 and became king of Lydia in 560.
  2. Andrew Roberts, “Introduction,” What Might Have Been: Leading Historians on Twelve “What Ifs” of History, ed. Andrew Roberts (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2004), p. 14.
  3. Arnaldo Momigliano, “Pagan and Christian Historiography in the Fourth Century A. D.,” in The Conflict between Paganism and Christianity in the Fourth Century, ed. Arnaldo Momigliano (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), pp. 98–99.
  4. Ammianus Marcellinus, The Later Roman Empire (A. D. 354–378), ed. and trans. Walter Hamilton (London: Penguin Books, 1986), p. 254. For the full text of Ammianus’ Egyptian digression, see volume two of the Loeb Classical Library edition of his Res Gestae.
  5. Ronald Syme, Ammianus and the Historia Augusta (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), p. 29.
  6. The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, ed. John E. Rotelle; Sermons III/4 (94A–147A) on the New Testament, trans. Edmund Hill (Brooklyn, NY: New City Press, 1992), p. 391.
  7. See Derwas J. Chitty, The Desert a City: An Introduction to the Study of Egyptian and Palestinian Monasticism under the Christian Empire (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1966), p. 5; see also Peter H. Görg, The Desert Fathers: Anthony and the Beginnings of Monasticism, trans. Michael J. Miller (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), p. 25.
  8. Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers, revised ed. (New York: Paulist Press, 2012), p. 158.
Daniel J. Heisey, OSB About Daniel J. Heisey, OSB

Daniel J. Heisey, OSB, is a Benedictine monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey, Latrobe, Pennsylvania, where he is known as Brother Bruno. He teaches Church history at Saint Vincent Seminary.