Augustinian Morpheus


Well, it’s time to have our minds blown by the most mind-blowing of all theologians, Augustine of Hippo. In City of God 4.4, Augustine does a little political theorizing. He doesn’t care much for empire. He thinks Rome lost its justice long before.

Remove justice, and what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale? What are criminal gangs but petty kingdoms? A gang is a group of men under the command of a leader, bound by a compact of association, in which the plunder is divided according to an agreed convention.

If this villainy wins so many recruits from the ranks of the demoralized that it acquires territory, establishes a base, captures cities and subdues peoples, it then openly arrogates to itself the title of kingdom, which is conferred on it in the eyes of the world, not by the renouncing of aggression but by the attainment of impunity.

I don’t know if in this section Augustine had in mind the Goths who sacked Rome. It seems likely that he did, since the sack of Rome sparked his desire to write City of God. But even if he wasn’t thinking of those Goths, he describes exactly what the Goths and other Germans did inside the Roman Empire.


I suppose I wasn’t too clear in what I was saying above. One reader pushed back and asked why I couldn’t see that Augustine was talking about the Romans in that piece. Why couldn’t I see that he was indicting imperialism? I assumed readers would understand that Augustine was talking about Rome, but now that I reread my post I see that it is not obvious.

Here’s what I think is going on in this quotation. Augustine is indicting Rome for its imperialism. The context clearly points to this. BUT I think Augustine is indicting the Roman state by using language that would remind his readers of the Goths. It’s a clever double indictment. His message is that Romans aren’t any better than their enemies, the Goths.

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