All roads lead to Rome: The rescue of Augustine’s library in the 5th century AD

By Shari Boodts

Saint Augustine (354-430) is one of the most influential thinkers of the Western World. His answers to life’s profound questions shaped Western civilization to an unparalleled degree. How did the Middle Ages come to know this great Father of the Church? How did his large oeuvre survive the nearly sixteen centuries since his death? This is the second in a series that looks over the shoulder of medieval readers to discover how they shaped Augustine’s legacy, and created an image of the man that has endured to our times.

The Conversion of St. Augustine by Fra Angelico

The years just after a great and powerful man dies are a delicate time when it comes to safeguarding his legacy. Possidius, Augustine’s close friend and biographer, writes that Augustine’s death, on 28 August 430 AD, was a peaceful one, but it happened during a time of political upheaval, foreign invasion, and religious controversy, with the troubles right at the doorstep of Hippo Regius, Augustine’s episcopal see in North Africa.

The Roman Empire had been groaning under the onslaught of barbaric invasions for decades and could withstand the pressure no more. In 429 AD the Vandals crossed into the prosperous province of Roman North Africa. They started an occupation and established a Vandal kingdom in 439 AD that would endure just shy of a hundred years. The year 476 AD, just a few decades after Augustine’s death, traditionally marks the fall of the Western Roman empire, when emperor Romulus Augustulus was deposed by Odoacer.

The Christian religion, the most likely candidate for the title of most powerful institution now that the Roman Empire was falling apart, was still suffering from growing pains. Heresies such as Donatism, Arianism, Pelagianism, gained significant traction and were heavily, sometimes violently debated among the bishops. Augustine himself was an instrumental figure in grounding the Catholic faith. His death was untimely in this regard. In 430 AD he was still involved in the aftershocks of a battle against Pelagius, who claimed that human free will could act without the help of divine grace.

So, it’s safe to say that the circumstances were not favorable for the intact survival of Augustine’s oeuvre. And yet nearly everything he wrote after his conversion to Christianity in 386 AD survived these turbulent times. The only exception are Augustine’s sermons, which were less easily gathered in one place, due to their abundance (he is estimated to have preached some 6000 sermons over the course of his lifetime) and oral character. And even then, we still preserve over 800 of them.

The earliest known portrait of Saint Augustine in a 6th-century fresco, Lateran, Rome

How did Augustine’s writings take their first, crucial steps in a centuries-long journey? How did they succeed in defeating the odds?

They succeeded because somewhere around the year 440 AD, during the papacy of Leo the Great, Augustine’s library was rescued from the occupied city of Hippo, taken across the Mediterranean, and given a new home in Rome.

This daring mission was made possible by two facts, both of which were crucial for Augustine’s early transmission.

1. Soon after his death, in 431, Pope Celestine I confirmed Augustine’s doctrinal authority. In a letter addressed to the bishops of Gaul, Celestine gave a clear stamp of approval to Augustine’s collective oeuvre, saying that “never even a whisper of sinister suspicion tainted his name” and that “he has always been, by my predecessors as well, esteemed as one of the greatest masters.” It was among the bishops of Gaul that the semi-Pelagianism controversy called into question Augustine’s rigid stance on the topic of free will and divine grace. Though Celestine’s energetic defense of Augustine’s orthodoxy had a specific target audience, the reach of his remarks was far wider. His letter was quoted repeatedly by medieval authors commenting on Augustine’s unparalleled authority.

This papal eulogy indicates the motivation for Augustine’s contemporaries to safeguard his writings. But what about the means? Here we must tread further into the realm of conjecture.

2. The clue lies with Possidius. In his biography he writes of the religious community Augustine founded in his home in Hippo. In the early days of his conversion, Augustine’s ambition was to live a life of intellectual and spiritual contemplation in a community of like-minded Christians. When it turned out that he was to take on a much more public and prominent role as bishop, he took his vision with him and founded a monastery at Hippo. Promising men were mentored at Hippo and several of his disciples became bishops in other North-African cities – Possidius himself became bishop of Calama in or around 397 AD. After his death this close-knit group organized his library and kept the whole together, even editing works that were left unfinished upon Augustine’s death. It is among these devoted, well-connected men that we most likely find the means of the transfer of Augustine’s works to Rome.

Roman ruins at Hippo Regius – photo by Dan Sloan / Wikimedia Commons

Once in Rome, Augustine’s writings became available to authors like Prosper of Aquitaine and Eugippius of Castellum Lucullanum, who could acquire a thorough knowledge of his works before traveling back home. Several monasteries and cities such as Lérins, Vivarium, and Arles managed to gather sizeable collections of Augustine’s writings in their local libraries. Still, it was almost certainly the concerted effort of transporting the whole of Augustine’s library from Hippo to Italy that ultimately saved his legacy. All roads lead to Rome, and from Rome, the treasure-trove of Augustine’s thought could make its way into the Middle Ages.

In these early centuries the fate of Augustine’s oeuvre is clouded in mist, recoverable only through indirect references and conjecture. However, we won’t have to travel much further through time to encounter manuscripts of Augustine’s writings that have made it to the 21st century. These oldest manuscripts will be the topic of next month’s column.

Shari Boodts is a postdoctoral fellow at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium. You can learn more about Shari at her website or page.

Further reading: J.-P. Bouhot, ‘La transmission d’Hippone à Rome des oeuvres de Saint Augustin’, in D. Nebbiai-Dalla Guarda, J.-F. Genest (eds.), Du copiste au collectionneur. Mélanges d’histoire des textes et des bibliothèques en l’honneur d’André Vernet (Bibliologia 18), Turnhout, 1998, 23-33 and F. Dolbeau, ‘La transmission des oeuvres d’Augustin et l’évolution intellectuelle de l’Occident médiéval’, Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 89,4 (2013), 229-252.

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