The mother of Augustine (November 13, 354 - August 28, 430) (q.v.; cf. Q 4.342-462), bishop of Hippo, remains one of the few non-imperial women of the fourth century about whom there is nearly sufficient material upon which to compile a full biographical perspective. Moreover, she is revealed to portray a dominant, almost domineering, personality, quite at odds with her assumed status within either the Christian church or the Roman society of her time. She may be compared and contrasted with the equally well-known mother, Nonna, and sister, Gorgonia, of the greater Greek theologian Gregory of Nazianzen, or with the grandmother, Macrina, mother, Emmelia, and sister, Macrina the Younger, of the comparable Greek theologians Basil of Caesarea and his brother Gregory of Nyssa, or with those feminine correspondents, Paula and one of her five children, Eutochium, of Augustine’s contemporary, Jerome (cf. Alexandre 1994:409-444; van der Meer 1961:217-225).
Monica was born of Berber stock in Thagaste within the Roman province of (North) Africa subsequent to the Christianization of the imperial government, during the later administration of Constantine the Great [17 February 17, 274 - May 22, 337, reigned as co-Augustus from spring 307 and alone from 324]. Every indication is that she was a Christian from her youth. Of her ancestry there is no record. As noted by Aline Rousselle, “Roman law fixed the age at which a daughter given to a spouse by her father officially became a matron, a recognized spouse with all the privileges set forth in marriage law. That age was twelve years” (1994:302) – at which age Macrina the Younger was betrothed to a fiancee, who died before the marriage was consummated such that she remained a virgin. A comparable age for Monica may be calculated, since Augustine specifies that she died at the age of fifty-six when he was thirty-three years old (Confessions IX.11).
Again, as was common under Roman law, marriage entailed that “the bride left her father’s household to take up residence with her husband” whereat she was also “welcomed by his mother and father” (Zaidman 1994:360, 364), which is precisely the account given by Augustine, with the accompanying affirmation that Monica had fit in well such that in spite of how “hot-tempered a husband my mother had to cope with” nothing indicated “there had been any domestic disagreement between them, even for one day”; and moreover while “her mother-in-law was at first prejudiced against her by the tale-bearing of malicious servants,” Monica “won the older woman over by her dutiful attentions and her constant patience and gentleness” (Confessions IX.9). As defined within Graeco-Roman custom was the difference in age between men and women at marriage – him being some fifteen to twenty years older (Zaidman:365); and the respective years of death for Monica and her husband would bear this commonplace out.
We do not learn the names of any of Augustine’s grandparents, nor of both his two sisters, nor of his mistresses, but only that he had at least one brother, Navigius (q.v.), and but one son, Adeodatus (q.v.); Monica’s husband, his father, was named Patricius (q.v.), but he died two years before Augustine was nineteen (371; Confessions III.4), and Monica did not remarry (Frend 1988:135-151; van der Meer 1961: passim). Within that early household Augustine tells us he learned Latin “without being forced by threats of punishment . . ., not from schoolmasters, but from people who spoke to me and listened when I delivered to their ears whatever thoughts I had conceived,” which was in marked contrast to the way he “was forced to study Homer” and thereby learn with great distaste the Greek language and its literature (Confessions I.14).
By the age of sixteen (370), Augustine also studied at nearby Madaura (Confessions II.3) under the tutelage of the “pagan” Maximus, with whom, in correspondence exchanged at a much later date (390), reference was made to their both being Africans with a common heritage and education in the Punic language of ancestral Northwest Africa [Letters ##16-17 = NPNF ser.1 1.233-235]. But as William Hugh Clifford Frend has observed, “Augustine was first and foremost an African, and was influenced throughout his life by the Berber (as distinct from the Punic) background of his upbringing,” though of his later sermons it could be said they were “in a faultless Latin without trace of barbarism” (1952:230, 57-58, 327). Clearly, the home situation under Monica’s guidance was multi-lingual. Moreover, as observed by Rousselle, “the division of responsibility between husband and wife would continue throughout the child’s upbringing, which was left in the charge of women until the child reached the age when its sex and social needs determined what course further education would take” (1994:368).
Monica was instrumental in the conversion of her husband to Christianity not long before his death (Confessions IX.9), and in the instilling within her son the seeds of such a possibility, in spite of the postponement of his baptism, long before these took root and grew into his statured role (Confessions I.11). Augustine’s own career took him from higher education in Carthage, as determined by his father, whereat he studied philosophy and rhetoric (Confessions III), from whence he became a teacher of rhetoric first at Thagaste (375; Confessions IV) and then at Carthage (376-383), before voyaging via Rome to take up a comparable position at Milan (384) where he not only encountered Ambrose (Q 4.144-180) but was joined by Monica (385) for the remainder of her days. Of Monica’s own intellectual capacities beyond its focus upon Bible and the cult of martyrs, Frend has noted that “while lacking any formal literary education, (she) was able to hold her own in a philosophical discussion” (1988:143).
She died at the Roman port of Ostia as they were returning to Africa, but not before witnessing the baptism into the “Catholic” church (Confessions IX.6) of Augustine and his son Adeodatus, along with Augustine’s friend and colleague Alypius (q.v.; Confessions VI.7-12) on Holy Saturday, April 24, 387. Her ultimate influence upon her incomparable son is the other side of his own “confessional” autobiography. Her own cult developed in the later Middle Ages; her supposed remains were transferred from Ostia to Rome in 1430 by Martin V (pope November 11, 1417 - February 20, 1431; ODP 239-240).
Clyde Curry Smith
Bibliography (see abbreviations table below):
ODCC 915; PDS 246-247; NIDCC 672 (DFWright): OEEC 568 (ATrape); ODCC3 1104
“Early Christian Women,” by Monique Alexandre, in A History of Women in the West, volume I: From Ancient Goddesses to Christian Saints, edited by Pauline Schmitt Pantel, translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Pp.409-444.
Saint Augustine Confessions, translated with an introduction by R. S. Pine-Coffin. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1961. (Cited by Book and section)
Frend 1952 The Donatist Church: A Movement of Protest in Roman North Africa, by William Hugh Clifford Frend. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press.
“The Family of Augustine: A Microcosm of Religious Change in North Africa,” by William Hugh Clifford Frend, in Atti del Congresso internazionale su S. Agostino nel XVI centenario della conversione (Roma, 15-20 settembre 1986), I (Studia Ephemeridis “Augustinianum,” 24). Rome, 1987: 135-151; reprinted in Archaeology and History in the Study of Early Christianity, by William Hugh Clifford Frend. London: Variorum Reprints, #VIII.
“Body Politics in Ancient Rome,” by Aline Rousselle, in A History of Women in the West, volume I: From Ancient Goddesses to Christian Saints, edited by Pauline Schmitt Pantel, translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Pp.296-336.
van der Meer 1961
Augustine the Bishop: Church and Society at the Dawn of the Middle Ages, by F. van der Meer, translated by Brian Battershaw and G. R. Lamb. London: Sheed and Ward Ltd.
“Pandora’s Daughters and Rituals in Grecian Cities,” by Louise Bruit Zaidman, in A History of Women in the West, volume I: From Ancient Goddesses to Christian Saints, edited by Pauline Schmitt Pantel, translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, pp.338-376.
This article, received in 2004, was researched and written by Dr. Clyde Curry Smith, Professor Emeritus of Ancient History and Religion, University of Wisconsin, River Falls.