11/05/2018

AUGUSTINE ON THE POLYMORPHISM OF ROMAN IDENTITY

Richard Corradini

November 1, 2018 | Richard Corradini | HI Research Blog |

In Augustine of Hippo’s (354-430) dramatic cosmos Rome was a place full of dichotomies. As a vital icon the capital symbolised a complex semantic field that incorporated lots of aspects − political and historical notions of the Roman Empire, antique literature, grammar and rhetoric, philosophy and erudition, the social and intellectual center of the known world. Romanization, the process that was supposed to guarantee social cohesion between different groups was mainly a code of symbolic means. The multi-cultural world in which Augustine lived provided polymorphic concepts of identity that were processually related to each other partly in coincidence and harmony, partly in diversification, contradiction, competition, and opposition.

Thus, the Church Father had to confront tensions within his own complex range of identities: he was a cosmopolitan member of the Roman society, a philosophically trained heir of Roman elite culture, a rhetorically educated political agent who was prepared by his father for office in the Roman administration, a former Manichean, a member of a Romanized north African-Mediterranean elite family, who spoke lingua Latina and Punica, a brilliant preacher, and a Catholic bishop of a town in Africa proconsularis, who had to care for his flock and to fight hard controversies against heretics. Accordingly, Augustine’s romanitas itself, as a part of his self-identification, was polymorphic, versatile, ambiguous, inconsistent and conflicting. His decentralised perspective was multi-focal and hybrid, and mixed different models of group identification, including Romanness, which acted mainly as a highly elaborated mode of social consensus and communication, and thus as an intellectual vanishing point. Lots of Augustine’s texts, including his monumental book on the City of God (De civitate dei), finished in 426 AD, do not only thematize Roman history, society, and civilization, but are essentially based on Roman rhetoric, literature and erudition. Moreover, when Augustine polemicizes against Roman polytheism, he necessarily participates in the late antique discourse of cultural multiplexity that is the basic intellectual framework and religious cosmos in which he operated. In his view romanitas is the vehicle of this multiplexity that had to be substituted by the tempora christiana. The rhetorical aim of the City of God was the impassioned plea that the nostalgia for Rome has to be substituted by the nostalgic desire for God’s eternal empire.

W.H.C. Frend argued that the Roman civilisation in the African provinces never gained a dominant role and stood much more as a facade, made visible through ubiquituous, but superficial imperialistic symbols such as the worship of emperors (Frend, Donatist Church, 35-6). Although, or perhaps exactly because of this instance, Roman culture provoked discourses of dissent and opposition, including the complex politics of the different churches.

All the more, the sack of Rome by Alaric’s Goths in 410 was a big challenge for this concept of the tempora christiana, which had only just been invigorated exactly via the combination of Christianity with a late Roman imperial ideology that was essentially based on the fragile success of colonialistic power. The many social groups that participated in the colonial discourse of the Roman Empire were caught in a mutually paradoxical logic of differentiation, and at the same time assimilation. Augustine had no better option than to defend Christianity through the imaginary and suggestive reconstruction of a Roman past via Roman rhetoric, grammar, dialectic, and historiography – key dispositive elements of Roman self-definition.

Immediately after the invasion of Rome Augustine addressed himself to the public in a series of sermons, epistles and books which document the complex reactions to the sentiment that the world had changed. The monuments of Rome, he preached, were nothing but spolia, monuments, made of stone and wood, vacuous symbols of the Roman past that will be destroyed by man like Troy, and moreover, will be burned by fire at the end of time. Rome did not exist because of an eternal idea of Rome, or because the pagan gods protected it; Rome existed because of the Romans (Sermo 81. 9, De civitate dei 20. 23).

Thus, Augustine meets a kernel of Roman identity, namely the self-confidence of being a Roman citizen, and transformed it radically. He contrasts the self-evidence to be a Roman with the necessity to deny secular identities in order to gain religious identity (Sermo 105). This religious identity, which the bishop emphatically evokes is not just a spiritual, but also a social one as it refers to the basic decision of every human being to be just or injust. Justice is the putty that coheres the citizens of the city of God.

Augustine tried to offer an inherent perspective on romanitas: by telling Roman history, he wanted to demonstrate that the alliance of the Romans with their gods is a mala fides that did not help, but damaged and corrupted their society (De civitate dei 2. 23). His critique of romanitas is focused on the fundamental instability and superficiality of Roman culture and ethic standards. According to the Church Father the libido dominandi is the fundamental ethical flaw of the Romans, which first became visible after the fall of Carthage and led to an immense decline of the virtutes. The core moral virtues, such as iustitia, probitas, honestas, ordo and felicitas, were necessary for the existence and success of the state. To prove that, Augustine frequently quotes Cicero’s Scipio and Quintus Ennius, an author of the Roman Republic, too, who mourn the mores antiqui and the citizens that long ago had kept Roman society together. But these mores have faded away after the destruction of Carthage, and superbia, libido dominandi and superstitio have drastically undermined the Roman virtues, so that only the name of the republic remained (De civitate dei 1. 30, 5. 12 and 15).

Augustine clearly critisizes the Roman colonial system and its ideological discourse for being a narcissistic mission of subjecting and civilizing the barbarians. The process of civilizing was mainly based on the attempt of the Romans to impose a standard of values and virtues above provincial values. Following Homi Bhabha’s definition, according to which the ‘objective of colonial discourse is to construe the colonized as a population of degenerate types on the basis of racial origin, in order to justify conquest and to establish systems of administration and instruction’ (Bhabha, ‘Difference’, 198), it becomes clear that Augustine wanted to substitute this discourse by the Christian projective model of hierarchy based on God’s law. Thereby he subverted a kernel of Roman civilisation that tried to disseminate its unilateral discursive propositions of power and dominance.

The Church Father combined his Christian concept in a very sophisticated and eloquent way with the complex Roman-Ciceronian understanding of iustitia in order to beat the ideology of the Roman state with its own weapons. Relying on Cicero’s definition of a res publica as a res populi, he denied the Romans the right to legitimately call their state a res publica, as is is neither based on the mores such as justice nor on viri boni. In order to prove his judgement Augustine projects the Ciceronian concept of the res publica, which was related to the Roman political system, onto a holistic notion of Roman statehood. According to Cicero a res publica is a commonwealth and requires common interests and an obligatory legal system. Yet the believe in these common interests no longer existed among Roman society. Avarice, egoism, greed, and self interest characterise the decisions of the political elite, and have replaced the original idea of public welfare, guided by justice. But when a state is not iuris consensu sociatus, a ‘multitude “united in fellowship by common agreement as to what is right”’, whose actions are based on justice, then this assemblage is not a state, but a collection, ‘only a multitude of some kind, not worthy of the name of a people.’ (De civitate dei 19. 21).

According to Augustine, who re-used and re-shaped the models of the decline of Roman society, propagated by Roman intellectuals such as Vergil, Cicero, and Sallustius, the deviant condition of the Romans is already perfectly prefigured by Romulus’ homicide, continued by a long chain of civil and fratricidal wars. Therefore, it becomes clear that the Romans never really have experienced the Vergilic aurea saecula. Augustine deconstructed the (pagan) Roman historical identity until it could survive merely as a vehicle of universal salvation history. By doing so, he proposed a reconstruction of its identity that promised continuity and coherence by the transformation of the Roman patria into the patria caelestis.

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