BMCR 2022.04.42

Commentary on Augustine ‘City of God’, Books 1-5

, Commentary on Augustine 'City of God', Books 1-5. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021. Pp. 304. ISBN 9780198870074 $85.00.

He who claims to have written an exhaustive commentary on the City of God (civ.) is lying—or so we could roughly quote the famous words of Isidore of Seville. Twenty-two books—almost 1,000 pages in a recent translation[1]—packed with oftentimes sage, sometimes strange remarks on almost any topic ranging from creation, sex and biology to fate and divination, history and politics, wonders, angels, and the afterlife; books for which, given their scope, the label “apologetic writing” proves to be a Procrustes bed. Therefore, it speaks to the honesty of Gillian Clark, emerita of the University of Bristol with a lifetime of scholarly engagement with Augustine and his times behind her, to clearly point out the limits of such an undertaking when presenting her own commentary on what Augustine himself called his “great and arduous work” (civ. 1 pr.). The present volume, the first of what hopefully will be a whole series, is dedicated to the Books 1–5, a disposition supported by Augustine himself in civ. as well as in his later Retractions. Less obvious is the way to engage with this massive text.

Not only does civ. itself often follow the technique of a commentary (which is why valuable passages from Cicero, Varro and others are preserved within it), it has also been the subject of commentators for quite some time: starting from thirteenth-century Oxford scholar Nicholas Trevet to the humanist commentaries and those marked by a specific confessional position, to the more interdisciplinary approaches beginning in the second half of the 20th century. They end, for the time being, with the unfinished series of translations with commentary by Patrick G. Walsh (2005ff., only books 1–16).

Clark recounts this interesting history and reflects its significance for writing yet another commentary for yet another age of reception of Augustine. It is an age of abundance, which is why the handy dimensions of her commentary (under 300 pages for five books) are very welcome. Ours is also an age of ever-growing diversity of readers and interests. Congruously, this commentary is intended for a wide readership not only with interests in theology and classics, but also history and political theory. Intimacy with the classical texts and their historical or philosophical context is not a prerequisite, and the same holds for the biblical scripture and the theological problems it poses. Clark rightly assumes that only a fraction of the readers intends to read all of Augustine’s twenty-two books. And having in mind the dangers of selective readings, she points out references and interrelations between books and passages in civ. wherever it seems necessary, making it easy for the reader to gradually widen his or her perspective and, ideally, to follow unexpected paths.

Clark’s commentary navigates through Augustine’s work using the Latin text (by pages and lines) of the Dombart and Kalb standard edition[2], which makes it independent from the various translations. Naturally this requires at least some knowledge of Latin from the reader (other than e.g. Walsh’s commentary and translation), but since Clark gives translations of the respective phrases, she enables non-specialists to find their way around without insurmountable problems. Moreover, important phrases, ambiguities and semantic layers in Augustine not obvious to the non-specialist are carefully explained throughout the commentary. It goes without saying that the work of Walsh is not made obsolete by this new publication and some annotations missed in Clark’s text may be found there.

The commentary to each of Augustine’s books is prefaced with a short summary and reconstruction of the (not always obvious) argumentative thread that runs through the individual chapters—always with an eye of its place in the overall concept of civ. and with short but insightful remarks on how Augustine approached his material (for example the introduction to book 5 on Augustine’s use of history (220)). Clark’s bibliography is by choice almost exclusively anglophone. And even though this is explicitly not to be taken as judgment about certain scholarly traditions, the reference to the “international reach of English” (32) regrettably only broadens that reach: a vicious cycle, which, however, should not be blamed on the author, who herself cites a passage from Marrou in the introduction—in French (30).

There are many ways leading into civ., but taking a historical perspective demands pointing to the events of the year 410, the Gothic invasion of Rome and its aftermath, as the immediate inducement for Augustine to pick up the pen—or rather to start dictating. Clark does so in the ‘Introduction to Books 1–5’ which also serves as a general introduction into civ. and the circumstances at the time. This works particularly well, not only since Augustine’s apologetic tendency in response to contemporary events, is most prominent in those first five books. Clark’s introduction is very much worth reading as the reader learns about the anti-Christian sentiment following the sack of Rome, but also about the less dramatic but more incisive process of Christianization of the Empire, especially under the Theodosian dynasty of the late 4th and early 5th centuries. He or she learns about Augustine’s relations (it was the Roman official Marcellinus urging him to write a reply) and opponents (2f.), and about the literary horizon he shares with them and purposefully addresses (11). Augustine is, after all, a teacher and practitioner of rhetoric by profession. But the reader also learns about the material dimension of ancient text production, about books and codices and how they influence the composition of the text (9), which itself has become a growing field of interest in recent years. No less important are Clark’s short remarks about the early manuscript tradition and reception of Augustine, with which began the history of reading him (27).

A commentary should not intend to anticipate a specific reading or interpretation. But it can, besides helpful linguistic remarks, explain references and allusions to texts and events—in the first five books of civ., many of them being part of Roman history, from the ancient days up to Augustine’s contemporaries. And it can incessantly point to the place these events had in Augustine’s life as an orator and teacher and, later, as a bishop. We learn what he could have known, read or heard and what connotations may have been obvious for his intended readership but require explanation for us today. An example: When Augustine speaks of a poor man (pauper) in civ. 4.3, he did not think of a beggar, Clark explains, but someone who could not (and therefore did not have to) take one of the civic obligations of municipal administration. In a small town like Thagaste, Augustine’s hometown, the required level of property could, however, include even peasant farmers. This insightful glimpse into the world of Late Antique North Africa is backed up by references from letters, sermons, theological treatises and, of course, the Confessions, showing us the richness of economic, social, and biographical information these texts hold for us. And so, in starting from the seemingly simple question of ’why does it say that?’ (32), a commentary such as Clark’s can ward off too selective approaches and point to the complexity of both text and context. It is from their entanglement that the text receives its independence, if not resistance, from which, in turn, new significance can originate.

To name just one important dimension, Clark rightly points out that “civ. is not a book about empire, or a work of political theory concerned with the government of cities and the best possible state”(18). That Augustine nonetheless talks about empire and cities and government in considerable length summons us to think about what place the thing we call ’politics’ had in his thinking—it may differ from ours. That is why it is equally important to stress that not only in Augustine but in all of Late Antique philosophy “there was no aspiration to reshape society”(20)—inconvenient as that may be for those who seek guidance in Augustine for contemporary questions both ethical or political. Clark presents Augustine as a man of Late Antiquity and, in doing so, draws on his letters and sermons among other works, though especially the former represents an invaluable source for Augustine’s life and thought, as well as for the world of North Africa around 400 CE. They also show us that, as political figure, Augustine was a quantité négligeable; the real power lay elsewhere.

Contextualizations like these are most needed when engaging with a delicate and frequently-discussed passage such as Augustine’s commentary on the rape of Christian women during the Gothic raid (civ. 1.16–26). Without suggesting a specific interpretation, Clark (who has published extensively on the fate of women in Antiquity) points to the semantic of stuprum (meaning “rape” but also all kinds of “unlawful intercourse”) as well as to the rhetorical fashioning of the Lucretia-episode (“a rhetorical exercise”(9)), which Augustine presents as a juridical declamation, condemning this classical Roman heroine along with the tradition that praised her. Together with the host of biblical arguments Augustine puts forward against any form of suicide, the only exception being a direct command by God, we get an idea of the intellectual and intertextual challenges Augustine faced when expounding his (rather lengthy) answer to the question, why God would let something so terrible happen. Interpretations of (and judgments about) these chapters must start from this context.

The difficult task of the historian is to confront tradition with its own alterity – and make it accessible at the same time. The careful and sober approach Clark offers to her readers is a way of doing just that and will hopefully become a point of access for many to this important work of western tradition.


[1] The City of God. Translation and introduction by William Babcock, notes and edited by Boniface Ramsey (2 vols.), New City Press, NY, 2012.

[2] De civitate Dei (Corpus Christianorum 47-48), Brepols, Turnhout, 1955.