Augustine of Hippo by Peter Brown

Brown, Peter. Augustine of Hippo: A Biography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.

Born in Thagaste in 354 and buried in Carthage in 430, Augustine of Hippo’s life was more than the “rich thought” he put to paper or the theological legacy present-day Christians still seek to understand; his life, as Peter Brown attempts to capture, was a life of constant flux in an “age of rapid and dramatic change.”[1] In his work, Augustine of Hippo, Brown attempts to “seize that crucial area where external and internal changes touch each other.”[2] His initial efforts received the attention of New York Review of Books, American Historical Review, London Times Literary Supplement, and New York Times Book Review. Today, most of the many reviews of Augustine of Hippo identify Brown’s work as some of the best on the man called Augustine. Brown—presently Philip and Beulah Rollins Professor of History at Princeton University—specializes in the medieval and late antiquity periods.[3] Some of his other books include The World of Late Antiquity (1971), The Cult of the Saints (1982), The Body and Society (1988), Power and Persuasion in Late Antiquity: towards a Christian Empire (1992), Authority and the Sacred: Aspects of the Christianization of the Roman World (1995), The Rise of Western Christendom (1996, 2003), and Poverty and Leadership in the Later Roman Empire (2002).[4]

            Where most summaries start at the beginning, this one will start at the end. Turn to the bibliography and one will find a commanding list of references including books written in English, Latin, German, and French. Brown supports his findings and ideas with the strong frame work of previous scholarship; and he informs his readers, “that many authors to whom I constantly refer, are for me far more than names, whose views support or complement my own: they are the giants on whose shoulders I have been honored (sic) to perch.”[5] Brown organizes his book into five periods of Augustine’s life and within each period he addresses themes of the period rather than dredging along a strict time line. For example, in Part I he discusses Monica, Augustine’s mother, and her influence upon him, which can been seen in his later life. In Part II one thematic focus is upon Augustine’s effort to write Confessions; and in Part IV an engaging investigation of Augustine’s conflict with Pelagianism. Life to death is still covered, but Brown, through this method, is able to capture the subtlety of change and the causing factors rather than simply reporting the dry facts, from one to the next, as many other biographers are so tempted.  
            Having been this reviewer’s first biography of the life of Augustine, the format of dealing within themes initially was challenging. The lack of a typical overarching view of the time line and a solid understanding of where Brown was going next meant that certain aspects of the theme are lost on the reader. For example in the chapter titled “Monica” (found in Part I), Brown writes, “Whenever one of her sons went astray, ‘She acted as if she was undergoing again the pangs of child-birth.’”[6] And a little later, the reader learns that young Augustine slipped out in the middle of the night to avoid facing his mother’s guilt.[7] However, not understanding the time line or what their future might look like left many unanswered questions on the matter of the mother-son relationship, only some of which are answered in subsequent chapters.
            Although the lack of strict adherence to a typical time line seems challenging at first, the advantages are quickly realized. By working in themes, Brown is able to provide a deeper look at the aspects of life that brought about change, and how that shaped Augustine’s behavior and thought. It is extremely easy to imagine Augustine writing by candlelight in a high tower isolated from the world, but as Brown’s work demonstrates, Augustine lived in a volatile world, full of physical and theological hostilities and hardships. Through this vantage point, it becomes easier to understand the influences of Manichaeism or friends or growing wiser through change or moving through self-reflection.
            A final point of strength found in Brown’s work is his many references and citation style. To allow for a smoother reading, Brown removed the clunky format so readily found in academic work. The referenced data blends with Brown’s own words like a woodcrafter’s dovetail joint. At one point for example, Brown seamlessly writes, “For the first time in his life, Augustine was acclaimed as a truly international figure by another: conditorem antiquae rursus fidie. He had ‘set up anew the ancient faith.’”[8] With only a simple superscript and a highly abbreviated footnote, each page reads like one found a novel, one page after another.

            Augustine of Hippo is an interesting work capturing the life of Augustine instead of just a chronological list if facts and happenings. Brown’s expertise rises to the surface through what he chooses to spend pages addressing and what he leaves to the shelves of other Augustine biographies. While this was only my first biography on Augustine, other reviews have left me with the thought that few (if any) biographies have captured Augustine in such a way as to come alive in the mind of the reader. After reading Brown’s book, I am now driven to learn more about the Forth Century the man I felt I met reading Augustine of Hippo.

Brown, Peter. Augustine of Hippo: A Biography. Berkeley, Calf: University of California Press, 1969.
Princeton University, “Department of History: Peter Brown,” (accessed February 27, 2010).

[1] Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (Berkeley, Calf: University of California Press, 1969), 9.
[2] Ibid, 9.
[3] Princeton University, “Department of History: Peter Brown,” (accessed February 27, 2010).
[4] Ibid.
[5] Brown, 10.
[6] Ibid, 30.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid, 363. 

*I have no material connection to this book.  This post was, in its entirety or in part, originally written in seminary in partial fulfillment of a M.Div. It may have been redacted or modified for this website.