Augustine, City of God V.16 

That the city of Rome is for its citizens a useful precursor to the even greater benefits of God’s heavenly kingdom

Name of the author: 
413 CE to 427 CE
Literary genre: 
Rhetorical treatise
Title of work: 
City of God

For an introduction to Augustine and the City of God, please see the commentary on II.16.

The above passage is taken from the fifth book of the City of God. The principle theme of this book is the reason for the success and survival of the Roman empire, which Augustine addresses briefly outright in the preface to the book, stating that the answer to the question of Rome’s prosperity is felicity. However, this is not Felicity the goddess, as she does not exist (this is again repeated in our passage quoted above), but rather refers to a gift from God, who bestows his blessings upon humankind. As such, the Roman empire was greatly blessed, but why was God willing for this to be the case considering all its immoral conduct (which Augustine has detailed at length previously in the City of God)? The answer, as we shall see in the discussion that follows, is in part that Rome is utilised by God as an example for Christians for how to devote themselves fully to their “fatherland” (patria) which in the case of Christians, is the heavenly city of God (termed above as the superna patria). The first eleven chapters of the book offer a discussion of fate, free will, and providence, and the crux of the argument is that humanity is not influenced by anything fatalistic, with various incarnations of astrology and divinations suitably critiqued. 

In V.11, divine providence is presented as something which orders and structures human life, including politics. It is here that Augustine’s consideration of Rome’s success begins. He draws significantly on Sallust for his discussion of Roman imperial achievements, such as Sallust’s claims that the early Romans were desirous of praise and glory. This allowed the evolution of power and dominion, which was frequently won through war. In V.12, Sallust’s triad of glory-honour-power (gloria-honor-imperium) is cited as summing up Rome’s ambitions (see Sallust, Conspiracy of Catiline XI.2; Peter Brown argues that Sallust’s history of the decline of the Roman Republic was “the authoritative history of the period,” which Augustine turned into a religious history by arguing in the City of God that Rome, ignorant of Christ, became wrapped up in purely human concerns. See Augustine of Hippo, p. 310. See also City of God II.19, where Augustine quotes Sallust, Histories I.16; also, Peter Iver Kaufman, “Augustine’s Dystopia,” p. 71-72, on Augustine’s use of Sallust to weigh Roman success against its ultimate judgement by God). From chapter thirteen onwards, Augustine’s focus turns to eschatology and the notion of the “two cities,” of heaven and of earth, with Roman virtue compared unfavourably with that of Christianity due to the desire for glory and fame getting in the way of love for God, which citizenship of the heavenly city depends on (see also the discussion of this theme in Augustine’s Letter 138.17; for an overview of the chapters of book five outlined here, see Gerard O’Daly, Augustine’s City of God, p. 97-98). This said, the Roman empire does have an important role, and as our passage states, those who truly belong to the heavenly city can gain benefits from Rome while they are on earth.

Turning now to the present passage, Augustine continues this discussion of Rome’s power and success, but “contrasts the riches of Rome with the treasury of the City of God” (Paul Weithman, “Augustine’s Political Philosophy,” p. 248). Augustine begins by comparing the “reward of the saints” who have suffered for the city of God during their earthly life with those of the “lovers of this world.” Here, Augustine refers to martyrs and other Christians who have been punished in one way or another by those opposed to God (the deaths of Christians at the hands of Roman authorities will be in mind here). The great advantage of the rewards of these “saints” (sancti) is that it is eternal (sempiternus), not temporal. The eternal city (civitas) of God sees no birth or death in the manner of the earth, and therefore duly recompenses those who have suffered for it (even if this meant giving up one’s life). A notable feature of this passage is the designation of the members of the city of God as “pilgrims”: “we receive the pledge of faith while on our pilgrimage (peregrinor).” The citizens of the heavenly city, then, are really only temporary visitors, resident aliens of the earthly city. This is a significant theme throughout Augustine’s works, and one which develops variously in his writings. In the present context of the City of God, however, it is an important feature of Augustine’s understanding of how the earthly and heavenly cities relate to one another. They are interconnected because the members of the latter are present for a while in the earthly city. All human beings have the potential to be citizens of the heavenly city if they accept Christ and make God their central focus. Christians are then understood to live in this world as foreigners, or pilgrims (peregrini), always maintaining focus on returning to their true home, the heavenly city. Those who are solely focused on the earthly city, and do not know or actively reject God, are under the false impression that the earth is their true home, and this nullifies their claim to citizenship in the heavenly city (for a recent study of Augustine’s use of the pilgrimage image, see Sarah Stewert-Kroeker, Pilgrimage, especially p. 15, 46-47, 54 on the City of God). Moreover, as Martin Claussen argues, in the City of God, where near universal Roman citizenship was a reality post Caracalla’s edict of 212 CE (cf. V.17.1), Augustine seeks to separate the Christians from everyone else just as they had been separate in their earlier history, where they were aliens (for this ideology in earlier Christian writings, see, for example, John 18:36; Philippians 3:18-21; Epistle to Diognetus). In Claussen’s words, “By describing Christians as peregrini, Augustine is able to give them a fictive corporate legal identity, with a definite status and unique character” (Claussen, “Peregrinatio,” p. 48).

Next, Augustine asserts that the heavenly city differs from the earthly in that efforts (industria) are not spent on enriching the public treasury (aerarium) at the expense of private riches, because there will be a “common treasury” (thesaurus communis) containing truth (veritas). This essentially emphasises that the heavenly city does not have material wealth at its centre, unlike the earthly city. One might expect that Augustine would relate Rome to the earthly city here in a negative way, due to her concern with expansion and growth, which included the accrual of wealth. However, what Augustine actually does is present Rome not as simply seeking to make its own citizens richer through the empire’s prosperity, but as also providing a service to the citizens of the heavenly city. Namely, that the citizens of the heavenly city, whom are residing temporarily on earth, can look to Rome’s example, where her citizens are fully devoted to her growth and prosperity. Their devotion, however, is purely for the sake of human glory, whereas the citizens of the superna patria, the “supernal country/fatherland” have a greater focus for their love, which is distinctly more worthy. Indeed, elsewhere, Augustine recognises that Rome’s heroes, even though they were misguided, were examples that Christians could look to for true devotion to their fatherland (see also V.13 and V.18). In V.15, he argues that God granted the Roman heroes temporal glory due to their ancestral virtue (on the idea of “civic virtues” which enabled the successful building of a prosperous empire, see the commentary on Augustine’s Letter 138.17). However, “the reward of the saints” is eternal; if the citizens of Rome loved their city, the citizens of heaven should love theirs even more so. In Jennifer Herdt’s words, “Christian love for the City of God is to surpass and outdo pagan love for the earthly city, such that pagan examples become a legitimate object of spectation and emulation if not a perfect exemplar” (“The Theater of the Virtues,” p. 123). The earthly city’s goals are ultimately only in and of itself; there is nothing further, nothing eternal to look forward for its citizens (see Claussen, “Peregrinatio,” p. 58). In the aftermath of the sack of Rome, this message would be particularly pertinent – all that the Romans had built was in the end subject to decay and destruction. The so-called “eternal city” of Rome was anything but eternal, and while the empire and its devoted citizens were useful examples for Christians of how to love one’s patria, they really ought to direct their focus elsewhere, to the heavenly city where eternal life was assured.

Bibliographical references: 

“Augustine’s Dystopia”

Kaufman, Peter Iverarticle-in-a-bookAugustine’s City of God: A Critical GuideJames Wetzel55-74“Augustine’s Dystopia”CambridgeCambridge University Press2012

“Augustine’s Political Philosophy”

Weithman, Paularticle-in-a-bookThe Cambridge Companion to Augustine David Vincent Meconi , Eleonore Stump231-250“Augustine’s Political Philosophy” CambridgeCambridge University Press2001
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