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Italian Civilization
Andrea Fedi
HUI216 (Spring 2008)
14.1 St. Augustine (354-430)
• He was born in Thagaste (now Suk Arras,
Algeria), and died in Hippo (South of the
modern Bona)
• Was he a Berber?
• St. Monica was St. Augustine's mother. She was a
Christian, while St. Augustine's father was a pagan
• In Chapt. 11-12 of book 9 of St. Augustine's
Confessions, we can read about the circumstances
of her death, in Milan, in the year 387, and we learn
more about the relationship between mother and
son. You can read the passage, if you want, at
14.1 St. Augustine (354-430): the Manicheans,
St. Ambrose
• Augustine was influenced by the Manichean heresy
• Manicheans emphasized the battle of good vs. evil,
considered two almost equal powers
• The temptation to embrace a dualistic vision of the universe, where
everything is so reassuringly black and white, where two powerful
forces such as Good and Evil fight over the control of human history,
has always been very strong
• That simplification presupposes reasons to be Christian that appear
easier to understand and, most importantly, easier to represent in
the routines of daily life. It is less complicated to think of oneself as a
soldier fighting a constant battle against sin and sinners, in life and
in society, than it is to find God's call and also meaningful, creative
ways to infuse one's faith in the diverse fields and activities of life
• Augustine taught grammar and rhetoric in Thagaste,
Carthage, Rome, then Milan (385)
• In Milan he met Ambrose, the city's bishop. From him he
learned about the allegorical interpretation of the Bible and
of life in general
14.1 St. Ambrose and the allegorical
interpretation of the Bible
• The allegorical interpretation is based on the
assumption that the Bible was directed by God to the
Church in general, not just to a single group in a
specific place, or to a community that lived during a
certain time
• Everything in it has always meaning, and nothing is
ever out of date or inapplicable to the present
• God is constantly speaking to his creatures through his book
(and through reality (nature and history)
• The Christian has simply to uncover the hidden truth that is
relevant for his/her own individual experience
• In the explanation of the Bible, Ambrose and the
Fathers of the Church move constantly from the literal
and historical interpretation of the text to a variety of
allegorical interpretations HUI216
14.1 St. Ambrose and the allegorical
interpretation of faith and life
• Both the Bible and human life are seen as having
multiple layers of signification: through the Bible and
through all kinds of events God is communicating with
each individual
• "In allegorical exegesis the sacred text is treated as a
mere symbol, or allegory, of spiritual truths. The literal,
historical sense, if it is regarded at all, plays a relatively
minor role, and the aim of the exegete is to elicit the
moral, theological or mystical meaning which each
passage, indeed each verse and even each word, is
presumed to contain" (J.N.D. Kelly)
• An example from the Old Testament: the allegorical interpretation
of the episode of Jonah in the belly of the whale does not take
away from the reality of Jonah's experience, and yet at the same
time that story is read also as a prophecy of Jesus' death and
resurrection, the belly symbolizing the tomb in which his body
rested for three days
14.1 St. Augustine: the conversion
• 386: after a friend's visit, St. Augustine goes into
his garden. He hears a child's voice repeating
"Tolle, lege" ["Take up and read"]. He picks up St.
Paul's epistles, and opens it at Rom. 13
• In line with the allegorical interpretation of reality, we
have to assume that the child's voice is really that of the
neighbor's son, and yet those words are also spoken to
Augustine by God, indirectly, because nothing ever
happens by chance
• Reality is in itself a book with multiple meanings, multiple
levels of signification: everything has a literal and a
historical meaning, but also speaks of something else
• Of course this view is somewhat distant from our modern
reasoning, and medieval literature, where allegory is
present everywhere, can be difficult to read and easy to
misunderstand or to oversimplify
14.1 St. Augustine: after the conversion
• St. Augustine's Confessions
• Contains autobiographical chapters, which
constitute probably the first modern autobiography
(as a history of the heart, not just a journal of
material events)
• Easter of 387: he is baptized by Ambrose
• Back in Africa he becomes a priest, then the
Bishop of Hippo
14.1 Benozzo
Gozzoli, San
(Tuscany): "Take up
and read" (1465)
14.1 Benozzo
Gozzoli, San
(Tuscany): "The
baptism of St.
Augustine" (1464)
14.2 Augustine on grace and salvation, on the
sack of Rome
• Often based on St. Paul's teachings
• Central is the idea that without the grace of God one
cannot be saved
• Free will vs. predestination: see the following article from the
Catholic encyclopedia:
• Even Martin Luther belonged to the Augustinian order
• De civitate Dei (413-26): on God and the Roman
• The City of God was written in the years following the
sack of Rome by the Visigoths (410 CE)
• St. Augustine decided to provide a systematic
examination of Roman history
• He explains how God intervened in the development of
the Roman Empire (under which Jesus was to be born)
14.2 St. Augustine on God and the Roman
• Romans were able, in his view, to maintain unity, peace
and stability so that humankind would be ready to accept
the gospel
• Augustine defends the Christian faith from the
accusations of those who saw in the sack of Rome a sign
of the weakness of the new God accepted by the
Romans, a God who seemed unable or unwilling to
protect the city and its inhabitants, in spite of the fact that
the majority of them had converted to Christianity during
the previous 100 years
• Augustine's ideas on the relationship between Roman
and Christian history, and the pages he devoted to
praising the virtues of the Romans, especially those from
the age of the Republic, ended up promoting the
acceptance of Greco-Roman civilization in medieval
14.2 How St. Augustine read the classics
• A passage that Prof. Donnell likes to quote often,
shows how much Augustine believed in the
fundamental harmony existing between GrecoRoman philosophy, specifically Platonism, and the
Christian faith. It is a paragraph from the 7th book
of the Confessions, in which Augustine explained
how he found the words of the prologue to the
gospel of St. John inside the book written by a
disciple of Plato
• 7.9.13 Thou procuredst for me…certain books of the
Platonists, translated from Greek into Latin. And therein I
read, not indeed in the very words, but to the very same
purpose, enforced by many and diverse reasons, that In
the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with
God, and the Word was God...
14.2 How St. Augustine read the classics
• ...the Same was in the beginning with God: all things
were made by Him, and without Him was nothing
made: that which was made by Him is life, and the
life was the light of men, and the light shineth in the
darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not.
• And that the soul of man, though it bears witness to
the light, yet itself is not that light; but the Word of
God, being God, is that true light that lighteth every
man that cometh into the world.
• … But, that He came unto His own, and His own
received Him not; but as many as received Him, to
them gave He power to become the sons of God, as
many as believed in His name; this I read not there.
14.2 Why Augustine read and valued the
• It is undeniable that many of the Scriptures in the New
Testament clearly show the influence that Greek
culture already had on some of the authors of those
texts, namely St. John, the apostle Paul and, to a
certain extent, Luke
• Paul and Luke certainly had studied in schools and
with teachers that were familiar with principles of Greek
philosophy as well as of classical rhetoric
• In the case of John, very little we know for sure about
his education, but that he had read books written by
the disciples or followers of Plato or even those written
by Plato himself there is no doubt, and biblical studies
have pointed out that he was also a master in the use
of rhetorical devices such as irony
14.2 Why Augustine read and valued the
• So it doesn't seem unreasonable that St. Augustine
had recognized and that he valued the influence of
classical philosophy on the Scriptures
• This discovery must have shown him the way to
reconcile values and ideas of the Greeks and the
Romans with the new Christian ideology, which was
originally, by virtue of its roots, essentially different
from anything ever conceived in Greek or Roman
• Finally we cannot overlook the fact that St. Augustine
had been first a brilliant student and then for many
years in teacher of rhetoric, one of the disciplines that
really define classical culture
14.3 St. Augustine: metaphors that he
popularized and that are still popular among
• Life itself is like a book, or a divine scripture
• everywhere we turn our eyes there are signs
• the world can be read as an endless allegory
• Life is a journey, or a pilgrimage
• the final destination (Heaven or Hell) is much more
important than the single steps or the path taken to get
• The city of God vs. the city of man
• 1) the ideal community of the saints and believers
• 2) the society of those overly concerned with earthly
values, like the community created by Cain, the first
biblical city, after he had killed his brother; or the one
founded by Romulus, another who had murdered a
• heaven vs. earth = spirit vs. body
14.4 The 4 Latin
doctors of the
Church, in a
Ambrose, Jerome,
14.5 The Temporal Reward Which God Granted
To The Romans (from St. Augustine's The city
of God, 5.15)
• With regard to those to whom God did not
intend to give eternal life with His holy
angels in His own celestial city..., if He had
also withheld from them the terrestrial glory
of that most excellent empire, a reward
would not have been rendered to their good
arts, -- that is, their virtues, -- by which they
sought to attain so great glory
• Compare to the episode of Limbus in Dante's
Inferno, in The Divine Comedy
14.5 Examples of the extraordinary virtues of
the ancient Romans, from The city of God
• ...another Roman chief, Torquatus, slew his son, not
because he fought against his country, but because,
being challenged by an enemy, he through youthful
impetuosity fought, though for his country, yet
contrary to orders which his father had given as
• and this he did, notwithstanding that his son was
victorious, lest there should be more evil in the
example of authority despised, than good in the glory
of slaying an enemy
• if, I say, Torquatus acted thus, wherefore should they
boast themselves, who, for the laws of a celestial
country, despise all earthly good things, which are
loved far less than sons?
14.5 Examples of the virtues of the Romans:
• If Mucius, in order that peace might be made with King
Porsenna, who was pressing the Romans with a most
grievous war, when he did not succeed in slaying
Porsenna, but slew another by mistake for him,
reached forth his right hand and laid it on a red-hot
altar, that Porsenna, terrified at his daring, and at
the thought of a conspiracy of such as he, without any
delay recalled all his warlike purposes, and made
• if, I say, Mucius did this, who shall speak of his
meritorious claims to the kingdom of heaven, if for it he
may have given to the flames not one hand, but even
his whole body, and that not by his own spontaneous
act, but because he was persecuted by another?
Bol, Titus
His Son
14.5 Rubens,
Mucius Scaevola
and Porsenna
(1620, Budapest)
14.5 The virtues of the Romans, from The city
of God
• These despised their own private affairs for the sake
of the republic, and for its treasury resisted avarice,
consulted for the good of their country with a spirit of
freedom, addicted neither to… crime nor to lust
• By all these acts… they pressed forward to honors,
power, and glory; they were honored among almost
all nations; they imposed the laws of their empire
upon many nations; and at this day, both in literature
and history, they are glorious among almost all
• There is no reason why they should complain against
the justice of the supreme and true God, they have
received their reward
14.6 Christianity and Roman civilization
• The mission of the Roman empire in Dante's The
Divine Comedy
• The Roman Republic in Dante's The Divine Comedy
• when Dante, the protagonist of the Comedy, reaches the
center of the earth, where Satan is, he finds there the three
worst sinners in human history: while the first, Judas, is an
obvious choice, the other two, Brutus and Cassius (who had
conspired to kill Julius Caesar), can only be understood in the
context of the deep appreciation of classical civilization by
medieval intellectuals, appreciation which was shaped and
fostered by scholars such as St. Augustine
• The preservation of Roman/Greek culture
• architecture and terminology: duomo (dome), cathedral
(<throne), basilica, curia, romanesque
• the use of Latin by the Church
14.6 St. Augustine and medieval culture
• Augustine, with a few others, was instrumental in
convincing the Christian community that GrecoRoman civilization, in its greatest manifestations,
was largely compatible with Christian ideology
• Therefore Medieval society was based on the
combination of the Roman heritage and Christian
• Original Greco-Roman elements found their ways
in religious poems, such as those written by St.
Francis of Assisi and by Dante
• Theology and classical philosophy
• the philosophical theories of Aristotle and Plato were often
use to confirm and explain, or even to provide the
foundation of Christian theology
14.6 The Christian Church and Roman culture
• The Christian church borrowed ideas and
practices from Roman culture
• from the Roman arts and architecture, the
typology and the terminology for different kinds
of Churches
• from the Roman government and administration,
the attires of priests and bishops
• just consider some of the mosaics in Ravenna, [6th
century CE]
• in this image,,
priests are on your right and members of the court are
on your left: notice the many similarities
14.7 Conclusions
• By suggesting that the success of the Roman
Empire was part of God's plan, and that it was not
by chance that Jesus was born under Roman
authority, Augustine established the premise for the
preservation of Greek and Roman culture in an
integrally Christian society such as that of the
Middle Ages
• It is true that classical culture was at times and in
different places ignored or misunderstood during
the Middle Ages, but it is a fact that, among other
things, the Church itself invested valuable
resources in the construction and the maintenance
of libraries that included scores of classical texts
14.7 Conclusions
• Medieval scholars and theologians may have at times
attacked or rejected classical philosophers and pagan
poets, but they seldom questioned their importance, a
fact that seems almost natural now, but which was
extraordinary in ancient times, considering how many
civilizations have come and gone leaving so few traces
(other than those rediscovered thanks to modern
• The fact that a poet like Dante, more than 800 years after
the fall of the Roman Empire, could give so much
relevance in his Divine comedy to its culture and its
representatives is a real paradox, one that Augustine is at
least partially responsible for
• see for example the treatment of the Roman Empire in the sixth
Canto of Paradise,