St. Augustine of Hippo

St. Augustine of Hippo was born on 13 November, 354AD in a small town called Tagaste (now known as Souk-Ahras, Algeria) in Africa. The area at that time was under the imperial rule of Rome. His father, Patricius, was a town councillor. Patricius was a pagan but Monica, his mother, was a Christian. Augustine was registered as a Christian aspirant, since baptism was normally only given to adults.

Not the most enthusiastic of scholars, he would frequently play truant from school, but after his father died, a rich family friend sent him to the university of Carthage at the age of 16, having noticed that Augustine actually had a very sharp mind. It was there that he began to study seriously, being particularly interested in philosophy after having read Cicero's "Hortensius".


Much to the dismay of his mother, he became interested in the Manichaean religion, which believed that the world was the result of a battle between darkness and light, and that each human soul was a small particle of light caught in an expanse of darkness.

It wasn't until the age of 29, after hearing the famous Bishop Ambrose of Milan, that Augustine started to move away from the Manichaean philosophy, but he was to suffer yet more personal anguish trying to resolve his own personal desires and his quest for inner peace. Having been defrauded of tuition fees by the scholars at a school of rhetoric he had established, he went through several stages of turmoil until one day, at the age of 33, he picked up the Bible and read the first words that he came across: "... not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness...But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh" (from St. Paul's Letter to the Romans).

Thereafter he became increasingly familiar with Christian doctrine and produced a number of works, including "Dialogues", "On the Immortality of the Soul" and "On Music", and was baptised in Milan by Ambrose during the Easter season of 387.

Sadly in the Autumn of that year his beloved mother died. After remaining in Rome for a few months, mostly engaged in refuting Manichaeism, he returned to Africa and after a brief sojourn in Carthage, returned to his native Tagaste. Immediately upon arriving there, he wished to carry out his idea of a perfect life, and began by selling all his goods and giving the proceeds to the poor. He and his friends withdrew to his estate to lead a common life in poverty, prayer, and the study of sacred letters.

This was probably the very origin of the Augustinian fellowship, as his reputation quickly spread throughout Northern Africa. He had never sought the priesthood, and would even flee from cities where episcopal elections were necessary, but one time he visited the coastal town of Hippo Regius in order to help a friend whose soul's salvation was at stake. Whilst at prayer in the cathedral, and unaware that Valerius, the bishop, was looking for an assistant, he was surrounded by the crowd who asked Valerius, the bishop, to ordain him. In spite of his tearful protests Augustine was obliged to yield to their entreaties, and was ordained in 391, preaching for the subsequent five years at Valerius's request, and against the local custom whereby preaching was normally reserved for bishops.

Following Valerius's death, Augustine was elected bishop in 396 and his episcopal residence became a monastery where he lived a community life with his clergy, who bound themselves to observe religious poverty. He spent the next 35 years preaching tirelessly and travelling all over Northern Africa.

Around 427AD North Africa was riven by fighting between the Goths (ruled by the Empress Placidia) and the Vandals, following the revolt of Count Boniface. Deeply disturbed by events, Augustine tried to arrange a reconciliation between Count Boniface and the empress. Peace was indeed restored, but not with Genseric, the Vandal king. Boniface, vanquished, sought refuge in Hippo, where many bishops had already fled for protection.

Although Hippo was well fortified, it suffered the horrors of an 18 months' siege. Augustine chose not to escape, but to stay and preach to a worried congregation. However, in the third month of the siege he was stricken with what he realised was a fatal illness. After 3 months of admirable patience and fervent prayer, Augustine died on 28 August, 430, at the age of 76.

He had amassed no fortune but had begged his companions to preserve his precious library, which included copies of his own prodigious output - some 232 books and pamphlets. His masterpiece, The City of God, had taken him 13 years in total to write, and became one of Europe's best-loved books.