Augustine and Manicheism

Here’s a brief article that summarizes Manicheism and Augustine’s original attraction to the sect.

Augustine and His World (Part One)

I wrote in an earlier post about the similarities I saw between life 21st-century America and the late Roman Empire.  People living in cities in the late Empire enjoyed many modern-ish conveniences and were surprisingly cosmopolitan.

But, the world of Leona and Aurelius Augustine was also a unique culture, which inevitably formed the future saint.  In this post, I examine the state of Christianity in North Africa while Augustine was growing to maturity.

In general, the native North Africans had never adopted the Romans gods. The cult of Mithras had its adherents, but most North Africans of Augustine’s era were either Christian or still worshipped the old Berber high gods like Ammon or Dea Caelestis.

North African Christians were generally more legalistic and rigid than Christians elsewhere. They were warm, passionate argumentative people compared to the cool, self-controlled Romans.  This led to literal Biblical interpretation and to the bitterness of their schisms.

Augustine would later be instrumental in establishing Christian orthodoxy, but in his youth the rising church was anything but united.  In North Africa in particular, sects and heresies abounded.  As I portray in my book, Donatists and Caecelians clashed bitterly and often violently.  The schism between the two sects went back to the Diocletan persecution.  Certain priests compromised during the persecution; others went to their deaths defending the faith.  80 years later, North African Christians were still fighting about that.  And then there were the quasi-Christians.  Hoping to ride on the coattails of the rising Christian church, basically pagan sects like the Manicheans adopted some of the tenets and language of Christianity to gain adherents – including, for a short time, Augustine himself.

Faith-centered conflict infected even Augustine’s home.  His mother, the future Saint Monica, was a devout Christian.  Although his father, Patricius, accepted baptism on his deathbed, he was a casual pagan for most of his life.

I wonder if this over-heated atmosphere of conflict had a negative impact on Augustine’s opinion of Christianity.  Certainly, the literalism of the North African Church was a turnoff for him.  He could not accept Christianity until Ambrose and Simplicianus taught him to interpret the Old Testament allegorically.

People accepted Christianity for many complex reasons in the 4th century.  I tried to convey that my book.  Some joined the church as a path to power, or because all their friends had joined.  Augustine came under pressure from both his friends and his mother.  But, in my conception of him, he would never have accepted the faith unless he were truly convinced.  I think he had to escape the legalistic, bitterly conflicted atmosphere of North Africa to come to that conviction.


Modern Dialog in The Saint’s Mistress

Even in some of the positive reviews of The Saint’s Mistress, reviewers question my use of modern-sounding dialog.  I did that deliberately, even though I knew it would be a controversial choice and might set a few readers’ teeth on edge.

I was working on the book during the financial meltdown of 2008-9, and the atmosphere of crisis and impending catastrophe felt to me eerily like what my characters must have experienced as the Roman Empire was slowly collapsing around them.  I began to notice many similarities between our 21st-century culture and the 4th-5th-century world I was writing about.

People living in cities in the wide-ranging Roman Empire in the 4th or 5th century had fast food and disposable containers.  They had theaters and restaurants, and followed their sports as avidly as we do ours:  chariot racing, gladiatorial contests.  The rich had indoor plumbing and central heating.  In a large city like Carthage, my characters would have heard dozens of languages and dialects, and seen people of many races, from all over the Empire and outside it.

Like 21st-century Americans, the people I wrote about were living under the government of the richest, most powerful state the world had ever known. Like us, they lived in a society that was already class-stratified and was becoming more so.  Like our army, theirs was stretched thin, constantly fighting little wars against people they saw as barbarous.  Christianity was riven by the arguments of multiple fanatical sects, each convinced that they had a monopoly on the truth.

Their world was crumbling, just as ours seemed to be in 2008.

In short, they were disconcertingly like us.  They were living lives very much like our modern lives, in the very last decades when that was possible, before the Dark Ages descended.  I wanted to convey that in my book.  I wanted my characters to feel like people you would see at a hockey game or in a restaurant in 21st-century America.

Anyway, even in Latin, my main character in particular would have spoken casually, not in the kind of formal language we often hear in books and movies about her era.  Casual Latin hasn’t survived in written literature to my knowledge, and none of my readers would understand it anyway.  So, it seemed to me that the most powerful way to convey the modern sort of life Leona would have lived and the casual language she would have used, was to have her speak in casual, modern English.  I knew it was a risky decision, and I’ve had one painfully negative review based on my choice of language alone, but I still think it was right.


Quote of the week: A thought for the coming new year

Sunrise image

Saint Augustine on the Meaning of Christmas

Gerard_van_Honthorst_001 (1)“Nothing was so necessary for raising our hope as to show us how deeply God loved us. And what could afford us a stronger proof of this than that the Son of God should become a partner with us of human nature?”

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