Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.09.29 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.09.29

P. G. Walsh, Augustine: ‘De Civitate Dei’ Books XIII and XIV. Edited with an Introduction, Translation and Commentary. Aris & Phillips classical texts.   Liverpool:  Liverpool University Press, 2016.  Pp. 218.  ISBN 9780856688775.  £50.00.  

Reviewed by Gillian Clark, University of Bristol (

Peter Walsh (1923-2013), an excellent classical and medieval Latinist and translator of a wide range of texts, published in 2005 his text and translation, with commentary, of Augustine City of God books 1 and 2. He called it ‘this pioneering edition … with the possibility of other volumes to follow’ (vi), and untypically for Aris & Phillips Classical Texts, other volumes did follow. The series offers texts which might be studied by high school and college students of Greek and Latin, such as Euripides and Xenophon, Cicero and Sallust. The envisaged reader is evidently not a beginner, but does not expect a full academic commentary. The series offers an affordable paperback of a short complete work, or of one or two books of a longer work, with text, facing translation, brief introduction, and commentary which is succinct, but fuller than that allowed in most annotated translations. It is worth noting that in recent years some translation series, for example Ancient Christian Writers, have increased their annotation in response to the needs of readers, and that William Babcock’s two-volume translation of City of God, in the series ‘The Works of St Augustine: a translation for the 21st Century’ (New York City Press, 2012), offers a full introduction and generous annotation. Volumes in the Bibliothèque Augustinienne provide Latin text (noting differences between two major editions), French translation with notes, and an extensive introduction and notes complémentaires. But, as the new publishers of Walsh’s volumes say, this is the only edition of these books in English which provides a text and commentary.

Who, then, are the envisaged readers, and what help do they need? Are they reading, or teaching, these books as set texts (in Classics, in Theology, in Early Christian Studies?), or consulting Walsh for information on a passage or a theme? How much do they already know, and how easily can they follow up ‘see further’? These are never easy questions to answer, and they have prompted lively debate on the methods and assumptions of classical commentary (see Christina Kraus and Christopher Stray, eds, Classical Commentaries: Explorations in a Scholarly Genre, OUP 2015).

City of God has 22 books, each, with the exception of the very long Book 18, about the length of a chapter in a present-day academic work. After his ‘pioneering edition’ Walsh published Books 3-4 (2007), 5 (2009), 6-7 (2010), 8-9 (2013), 10 (2014) and 11-12 (2015). The volume under review reaches 13-14, and 15-16, the point at which Walsh’s work ended, is advertised for July 2017. By 2005, late antiquity was securely part of Classics, but late ancient texts were rarely part of the classical curriculum. So City of God was an unexpected addition to the Aris & Phillips series, even though Augustine wrote it in the classical Latin which was instilled by late ancient education, and even though, knowing that non- Christian readers did not accept the authority of Judaeo-Christian scripture, he cited the classical authorities they were taught to respect. For medieval and early modern readers, City of God, especially books 1-10, was a treasure-house of citations from lost classical works: the Antiquitates of Varro, Cicero de re publica, Seneca de superstitione, Porphyry de regressu animae. Commentators in this period, including Vives who was commissioned by Erasmus, said that readers were already well informed on Christian scripture and theology, but needed help with the classical references which predominate in Books 1-10 and Book 18. J.E.C.Welldon (like Augustine, a teacher before he was a bishop) is credited with the first English commentary (1924), but much of it is not in English, because he assumed readers like himself: classically trained clergy needing little more than references to Greek, Latin and Hebrew texts with which they were already familiar. It is likely that present-day readers need at least as much help with Augustine’s exegesis and theology, which predominate in the second part of City of God, as with the classical material.

In a letter (1A*) written when City of God was finished, Augustine explained how the books should be bound, in two codices or in five, in accordance with the structure. Books 1-10 refute those who think that many gods should be worshipped, for blessings in this life (books 1-5) or for blessings after death (books 6-10). Books 11-22 expound the origins, course, and due ends (four books for each) of the two cities to which all rational beings belong: the city of God, whose citizens are all angels and humans who love God, and the earthly city, whose citizens are all angels and humans who love themselves. Books 13-14, the second half of the four books on origins, conclude (14.28) with Augustine’s fullest and most quoted definition of the two cities (Walsh does not remark on this). In Books 11-12 Augustine discussed the creation of the universe, the creation of angels and how some turned to themselves instead of to God, and the creation of human beings; he worked chiefly with exegesis of scripture, but gave some attention to rival philosophical theories of the making of the universe. The next question is the fall of humanity, which brought into the world death, sexual desire, and sexual shame. Books 13-14 are therefore concerned with topics of universal interest: how it all went wrong, death and afterlife, body and soul, emotion and sex, including Augustine’s speculations (14.23) on how the human race would have reproduced if Adam and Eve had not sinned.

The series does not offer new critical editions, and Walsh follows the standard text of Dombart and Kalb (ed. 4, 1928-9, often reprinted), noting in the commentary any small divergences. Vincent Hunink, reviewing Books 8-9 in BMCR 2013.10.46, suggested that the annotation could include discussion of textual matters, but in practice there are few specifically textual problems. Walsh’s translation is, as always, lucid, accurate, and pleasing to read. Inevitably, there are some debatable choices. Why, for instance, translate non enim potestas sed egestas edendi ac bibendi talibus corporibus auferetur (13.22) as ‘it is not their chosen option [my italics], but the need to eat and drink which will be relieved in such bodies’? Is ‘depression’ the best translation for tristitia (14.5 and elsewhere), when Augustine is concerned with surges of emotion as well as settled states? Voluntas (14.6 and elsewhere) is conventionally, but questionably, translated ‘will’, and this highlights the question of the needs of readers. The commentary does not alert them to the one page (209) of Addenda, which include a warning that Augustine’s use of voluntas was always ambivalent, and a comment that ‘emotions are quite simply acts of the will’ does not mean ‘emotions are a matter of self-control’. But Walsh does not discuss what ‘all emotions are nothing more than voluntates’ does mean, or observe that some scholars think that ‘will’ is not a helpful translation because ‘will’ as a faculty is a later concept (see Sarah Byers, Perception, Sensibility and Moral Motivation in Augustine, CUP 2012). No commentator ever answers all the questions, but this example points to a general need for fuller annotation and for guidance to recent resources.

Walsh would perhaps have returned to this volume in the light of comments from the publisher’s readers or of his own work on later books. The material he left demonstrates his wide-ranging classical scholarship and his familiarity with Christian scripture and tradition. It has been seen through the press by the classicist Christopher Collard, who has published in the same series. He says (iv) that his ‘role has been that of copy-editor’ and that he has ‘corrected only slips’. This is an understandable policy, but it leaves some puzzles for readers, especially if they have not used earlier volumes in the sequence. What, for instance, is the significance of the two asterisks on p. 4, three lines down? Do the Abbreviations and Bibliography list only the works which are cited in this volume? The answer to the second question is ‘no’, because Walsh’s practice was to offer only a brief list of titles relevant to a specific volume. For general guidance he referred readers to the works listed in the preface of Corpus Christianorum series Latina, vol. 47 (Brepols 1955) and in Gerard O’Daly’s invaluable City of God: A Reader’s Guide (OUP 1999). The latest work listed in this volume was published in 2000, and some much older works are not now easy to find, or assume a high level of classical or theological knowledge. Peter Brown’s classic Augustine of Hippo is listed as 1967, without mention of the second edition (2000) which adds chapters on new discoveries and approaches. Notable absences from the Bibliography include John Rist, Augustine: Christian Thought Baptized (1994), and the many on-line and print resources for the study of Augustine which have appeared since the turn of the millennium. The patristic scholar Isabella Image contributes an appendix on Books 13-14 in the context of the Pelagian controversy; she could also have been invited to update the bibliography, and Peter Walsh’s scholarship could have been made more accessible for new generations of readers less expert than himself. He worked to the very end of a long life, and he is remembered with respect and affection.

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