BMCR 2023.11.42

Queens of a fallen world: the lost women of Augustine’s Confessions

, Queens of a fallen world: the lost women of Augustine's Confessions. New York: Basic Books, 2023. Pp. ix, 290. ISBN 9781541646001.



This will admittedly be an unusual review, insofar as Queens of a Fallen World was a rather unusual book. I begin briefly and morbidly with Augustine’s of Hippo’s death—a perfectly reasonable thing to do given the monograph’s “what-might-have-been” epilogue. Despite his biographer Possidius’ attempt to put the best light on the cleric’s final illness, the last ten days of his life were wretched (V. Aug. 31). Except for forced meals and doctor’s examinations, the 76-year-old bishop spent his time weeping and in continuous prayer. The Psalms were read out loud as he attempted to repent for a lifetime of sins, real and imagined. At the time, Vandal forces had also been besieging a desperate Hippo Regius for two months. His life was figuratively and literally coming to an end.

In that moment of death (as is true for most of us), all pretension and clever thinking were stripped away. Augustine’s misery may have even exceeded the misery he experienced in the year leading up to his conversion. More to the point, unlike in two previous illnesses that almost took his life—one as a boy in Thagaste and one as an adult in Rome—he was given no opportunity to interpret and reinterpret that moment’s significance. And we, his avaricious readers, have no opportunity to know what went truly through his head. Or argue about it.

This point is the virtue and the vice of Kate Cooper’s exploration of the women found in the Confessions. Augustine’s tell-all(ish) memoir of his path to conversion demands interpretation and debate, in part because it is the first true autobiography ever written—and Cooper dives in headfirst.

And what a dive it is. Sentimental and intimate are not two adjectives that normally come to mind while reading such a learned work, even one geared to a general audience. And yet, Cooper’s latest book is both; and arguably in the best and worst senses of each. As a reviewer, one must be impressed with the degree of empathy and intuition in interpreting the words and thoughts of such a complex man. As an academic, one can appreciate the experience and scholarship necessary to produce such a fascinating and compelling study. But as a skeptical reader, one must also raise a dubious eyebrow on more than one occasion about the seeds of speculation sown throughout the book. This review therefore offers a similarly speculative discussion.

In essence, Cooper takes as her subject those women discussed (however briefly) in Augustine’s literary confession. The empress Justina is also included, in part because she peripherally touched upon events affecting his family in Milan. But it is more properly a deeply insightful consideration of women in Late Antiquity and how they affected the cleric’s theology. Her study illustrates how the fraying of and tears in the Roman social fabric, caused by the rise of Christianity, can provide historians the opportunity to perceive women in ways not possible in earlier ages. Purpose and motivation, the scope and nature of their impact in and on a highly patriarchal society: Cooper has brilliantly created a third dimension to at best two-dimensional figures. What is especially laudable is her ability to reconstruct such things across a broad class spectrum, considering women at every level of society, from the enslaved domestic to augustae. Augustine’s writings indicate how both his experiences with and perceptions of such women shaped not only his thought but his own person.

To this end, the work is written in three parts. The first encompasses four chapters, each devoted to important women in Augustine’s narrative: Justina, Augustine’s underaged fiancé “Tacita”, his mother Monnica, and his concubine of many years “Una”. The second part focuses on the events of 385-387 in and around Milan, which brought these women’s lives together. And the third focuses on Augustine’s post-conversion life and religious concerns, explaining how Una and Monnica in particular influenced his understanding of the congress—social and sexual—between men and women. The final section includes, as mentioned above, a “what if?” epilogue, where potential marriages to Tacita and Una are considered.

In general, there is much to praise about Cooper’s scholarship, her understanding of the Roman world as its transformation began in earnest, and women’s place in that changing landscape. There are a number of important historiographical and historical gems throughout, and indeed it serves as of an exemplar for writing serious historical inquiry to a broad readership.

But to this reviewer, there are two objections to this exercise. First, Cooper’s study of these women is something of a conceit. Especially when talking about women we know so little about, Tacita and Una in particular, who they were is ultimately less important than who they represent. Indeed, his ten-year-old fiancée is mentioned in a single passage; his unnamed concubine in only a half dozen or so. Unsurprisingly, the chapter on Tacita focuses on girlhood and elite marriages in the Roman world; the one about Una considers women of humbler stations: their options, obstacles, and opportunities in a hierarchical and male-dominated world.

But why these women in particular? If the goal is to consider women through the lens of Augustine’s experiences and writings, why not his sister and nieces? More significantly, why not a woman also found in the Confessions whom I might dub “Secunda”, Augustine’s other concubine? Like his betrothed, she was barely mentioned in book six (and by Cooper on p. 181), a woman meant to fulfill his emotional and sexual needs after repudiating the mother of his child and before his impending marriage. Would a reconstruction of her life complicate, confuse or confute Cooper’s reconstruction?  Were one to devote a chapter to her, we might ask about this woman’s life and motivations.  She was an inconvenient placeholder in Augustine’s life—a callously disposable person, symbolizing his lack of self-control—and in Cooper’s narrative. Yet wasn’t she in Milan, too? Is her story somehow less approachable (or less worthy) than the others?

The second, larger concern is the degree of empathy for her subject matter. To be sure, Cooper does not paint with a broad brush of virtue. Her subjects can be selfish, opportunistic, and not always salubrious products of their environments. The question is not one of empathy for these particular women or even women in general. It is rather one of empathy for them through the eyes of Augustine, because he acknowledged their humanity in ways other writers and thinkers did not. Throughout the narrative, at these points of understanding, speculation seemed most problematic.

Monnica, the woman about whom we know best and who served as Augustine’s lodestar, is the key case in point. His mother is indeed a central figure in his story of sin and salvation. She was full of moralistic tales and useful advice, and Cooper is surely right about her influence on her son’s worldview and thoughts about the human condition. But she also appears single-minded to the point of obsession. Was the attention she lavished on her son a recognition of his innate sensitivity, intelligence, and skills?  Undoubtedly. But a less sympathetic reader might also suggest that she chose to focus on her younger child because he proved far more pliable than her husband Patricius and probably her older son, Navigius (whose character is perhaps dimly reflected in De beata vita 1.6-7 and 2.14). Indeed, everything we know about Augustine suggests he was a sensitive and spoiled youngest child.

How then might we read Monnica differently? Consider two examples. Let us start with her relationship to Augustine’s concubine, Una. Regardless of whether she became a surrogate partner at his mother’s instigation (a big “if” that Cooper strongly suggests with little support, p. 89), what did that actually change? What could have daily life have been like when a widowed Monnica lived with her Manichaean son, a humilior concubine, and their illegitimate love child in Carthage and Milan? In that context, we can perhaps understand why the young professor preferred the company of his male friends, discussing more pleasant and less emotionally charged things. Or even why he ultimately rejected marriage.

And what about Augustine’s move to Rome? Cooper’s comments about Monnica’s ambition spurring him on to Italy (p. 79; in somewhat greater depth, pp. 121-123) puts the best face on the fact that he snuck out on mum, leaving her in Carthage specifically to get away from her. This was no spur of the moment act: he had networked with other Manichaeans when the opportunity arose, he had arranged for his own passage and those of Una and Adeodatus, and did so all in secret. What could that parent-child reunion in Milan have been like (we get a sense of it at Conf. 5.8.15)?

Many years later, of course, Augustine tried to rehabilitate Monnica as the persistent, loving and wise mother who knew best. Again, a less generous reader might consider this the act of a guilt-ridden momma’s boy. Regardless of the truth, like so many parent-child relationships, theirs was undoubtedly loving and dysfunctional. Even in his last thoughts about Monnica, he could not avoid mentioning her fine sense of sarcasm (Conf. 9.9.19).

These observations are of course as speculative (if not more so!) than Cooper’s. But they underlie an important point about interpretation here: a bit more skepticism of Augustine himself might have been in order—not as a source of insight on the problems faced by women of various statuses, classes and ages—but about the bishop’s purposes in talking about them. He remained first and foremost a rhetorician; he was able to manipulate familiar topoi, tweak timelines, and create unintended emphases for his own purposes. The Confessions was after all written with at least ten years of hindsight to hone a compelling narrative. It is definitely the tale of a man confessing his life honestly; but like the actual sacrament, spinning the sin prefigured the penance.

What does this all mean for Cooper’s audience? Ironically, for those who know something of the man and his life, she has produced a wonderful exposition, and there is much here to consider and extol. Ultimately, the biggest difficulty is not for those well familiar with Augustine and the women who shaped his life and thought. For the general reader it would be easy with a bit too much frequency to confuse the “what may have happened” with the “what was so.”