BMCR 2020.04.47

Augustine. Confessions. Books V-IX

, Augustine. Confessions. Books V-IX. Cambridge Greek and Latin classics . Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. xii, 358 p.. ISBN 9780511841873. $31.99 (pb).

The Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics (hereafter CGLC) series has released a new text and commentary for the middle books of Augustine’s Confessions, Augustine: Confessions Books V-IX (edited by Peter White), a follow-up to Gillian Clark’s text and commentary for Confessions I-IV in the CGLC Imperial Library (Cambridge University Press 1995). This volume comes as part of renewed interest over the last few decades in the teaching of Augustine in Latin curricula in classics departments. Accordingly, the text and commentary are both welcome additions to the library of philological commentaries on Augustine, especially for Latinists seeking to introduce Augustine to advanced undergraduates and graduate students generally raised up on earlier Classical Latin.[1]

I begin with a brief summary of the contents of Augustine Confessions 5-9 and of the present volume. I then move on to appraisal. As the purpose of the CGLC series is mainly pedagogical, my comments herein address the merits of this volume as a teaching document.

Confessions 5-9 contains the continuation of, and dramatic conclusion to, the autobiographical content of the Confessions, following on Augustine’s infancy and youth in North Africa described in Conf. 1-4, and directly preceding the discourse on memory contained in Conf. 10 and the commentary on Genesis 1.1 in Conf. 10-13.

The events of Conf. 5-9, though momentous in the life of Augustine, happen in rapid succession and in a short period. They cover only 382/3 CE to 387 CE, when Augustine was 28 and 33, respectively.

In 382/3, coming to doubt the tenets of the Manichaean sect of which he was a part, Augustine leaves Carthage for a professorship in rhetoric in Rome and then Milan. There he attends the sermons of Ambrose, under whom he eventually studies and who turns him to intensive study of the doctrines of Catholic Christianity. At 32 Augustine finally converts to the full doctrine of the Catholic religion on the urging of Simplician; at 33 Augustine renounces rhetoric, is baptized, and shares a beatific vision with his mother, Monica, before she passes.

To these short years Augustine devotes 5 books in the original Latin. For this CGLC edition, White has used the Confessions text compiled by James J. O’Donnell (1992), with reference to the Corpus Augustinianum Gissense online text edited by Cornelius Mayer.[2] White elucidates them expertly in his commentary, which runs 266 pages to the 63 pages of the Confessions included here. The commentary is a wealth of philological, historical, literary, and philosophical background to Augustine’s Confessions and the Late Antique world in which they were written.

In particular, White makes a much welcome contribution to the commentaries (especially those aimed at classroom use) with extensive elucidation on Augustine’s use of the Vetus Latina in his allusions to and interpretation of Scripture. The Vetus Latina is the name used to denote the disparate, nonstandard Latin translations of the Bible before Jerome’s standard Biblia Vulgata (on which Jerome labored in the same decade that Augustine wrote his Confessions). Augustine’s use of Scripture can deeply confuse a Latin reader more familiar with the standard biblical Latin of the Vulgate. For this commentary, White draws on the online database developed by the Vetus Latina Institut at Beuron, and maintained by Brepols.[3]

In addition to the commentary, White includes a 13-page introduction, an extensive Works Cited (which itself serves as an excellent introduction to the last century of scholarship on Augustine), and two helpful indices.

In his introduction, White includes two particularly helpful sections for the initiate into Augustinian Latin: one on the more technical aspects of the ‘Latinity’ of the Confessions and the other on the rhetoric and style found therein. I will spend a few moments on each, as both are helpful for any instructor looking to add Augustine to their teaching repertoire.

First, as White notes, Augustine presents special challenges for the Latin teacher: on the one hand, Augustine is more classical in his syntax and diction than most medievalists expect, employing a largely Ciceronian vocabulary and an eclectic “grand” style borne out of Classical Latin; but, on the other, his deviations from Cicero’s grammar—or even from how Cicero might arrange the words of a sentence—in both his own rhetorical style and in that of the Vetus Latina can confuse rule-bound Classical Latin learners.[4]

As regards grammar, in Augustine we have, most notably, indirect statement preceded by quod and either indicative or subjunctive verbs, quo used more commonly to express purpose than ut, and non in place of ne in negative commands (in anticipation of medieval conventions).[5] But outside those innovations, the Latin Augustine uses is largely consonant with Cicero’s, evidence, one would think, of Augustine’s early career as professor of rhetoric at Milan. Still, his diction can stray far from classical authors. For this, White provides a helpful listing of Early Church Latin terminology and phraseology to expect in Augustine on pp. 4-6, many of which terms are neologisms in the Latin language from Koine Greek.

The mish-mash of the Confessions finds expression too in its style and rhetorical flourish: As White aptly notes, Augustine’s shifting between the resonances of the Vetus Latina psalms in one sentence, to the grand style of Cicero in the next is “wild”, even violent, for the reader of Classical Latin, especially an ancient one. Beyond just the marked differences in vocabulary and style, Augustine also employs metaphors not known to Greek and Roman letters, again well-summarized by White: For example, “the mountain, the desert, the sea, the pearl, and the cross” (6) are all biblical allusions and imagery with which we might be familiar, but which were decidedly not for many Greeks and Romans. The Confessions, then, by any measure, are a strange, “exotic” document for any reader raised up on Cicero, Horace, and Virgil.

This leads me to my principal criticism of the volume as a teaching tool, taking into account both the intended audience (students of both classics and patristics) and the limitations (most likely) set by the CGLC series.

As White notes, the Confessions present a unique challenge. They draw a wide audience for their enduring drama and ideas and for the very reason that Augustine writes between the end of Antiquity and the beginning of a very different world in the Middle Ages. But, as we have seen, this makes for a difficult reading situation for many students, many of whom reside more in one age than another.

In working with White’s text and commentary, I thought a lot about how a student might use it. The Latin itself, in keeping with the style of the CGLC series, is absent any apparatus criticus, contains no textual notes whatsoever on the Latin itself, and presents on the page with no endnotes. For Augustine’s Latin especially, for the reasons mentioned above, this makes for jarring reading.

To note but one powerful example, Conf. 5.3.5 contains some 10 unique allusions to the Vetus Latina, making for, in White’s words, a “dense web” of Scriptural quotation and compressed philosophical argument.[6] White’s commentary elucidates them admirably. But for a student reader it can be overwhelming to continually find Augustine’s Latin producing pages of commentary revealing biblical allusions not more readily apparent on the page of Latin itself.

Older editions of the Confessions, like the 1934 Skutella edition in the Bibliotheca Teubneriana, aid the reader by extensive use of an inter-literal word-spacing system, indicating immediately whether the word or phrase in question has an allusive quality. This, I think, facilitates quicker sight reading, deeper reading in general, and less interruption via page-flipping. Without such a system, I fear, too much of the biblical resonance of Augustine’s Latin is kept below the surface, resulting in a disjointed reading experience.

Sadly, new print copies of the Teubner Augustine are prohibitively expensive. One potential workaround is the open access lending system of the Open Library: for example, the Skutella Augustine is available via Trent University for a free, two-week digital library loan.

Despite this concern, I fully expect this text and commentary to become the new standard choice for upper-level Latin courses in Augustine’s Conf. 5-9. Its expert philological analysis, careful attention to Augustine’s hybrid classical and biblical style and content, engagement with the latest research into the Vetus Latina corpus, and its excellent marshalling and cataloging of the best secondary literature on Augustine in the last century merit it.


[1] A space carved out by Gillian Clark in the first volume for CGLC, for whom White gives due praise.

[2] O’Donnell’s exhaustive, three-volume text and commentary (OUP 1992) is available in the public domain at, making for an excellent companion to any classroom study of Augustine’s Confessions.

[3] Found here: Vetus Latina Database (VLD).

[4] For Augustine’s own conceptions of his distinctly Christian (but nevertheless “grand”) rhetoric, see De doctrina Christiana 4.

[5] Helpfully summarized by White on p. 4.

[6] I draw my reckoning of the number of allusions from a 2009 reprint (De Gruyter 2009) of Martin Skutella’s classic 1934 critical edition (rev. 1969).