Study Guide

Confessions Setting

By Saint Augustine


The Roman Empire: Thagaste, Carthage, Rome, Milan

When in the Roman Empire… So, each city in the Confessions adds something different to the book's narrative, largely because Augustine associates each city with a different stage of his life. (We're guessing you do this, too.) Thagaste, for instance, corresponds to his home life, where he was bored and indolent. Carthage is a "hissing cauldron of lust" (III.1.1), home to the famous love-torn queen Dido. This is where Augustine spends his young adulthood, sins a lot, and falls in with the Manichees. Once Carthage gets unbearable he goes to the even bigger city, Rome, the center of the empire and home of his intellectual heroes. Like Cicero. But Rome turns out to be a lot like Carthage, only less rowdy and more corrupt, so Augustine moves to Milan. Milan, it turns out, is where the Christians have been hanging out, like Ambrose. It's also where he develops a relationship with pizza. Okay, not really.

Each time Augustine moves to a new place, we definitely get the sense that the book's narrative is progressing as well. But Augustine's story is also a "There and Back Again"-type story. The place where he reaches the geographical top of his journey is Milan, the place of his conversion. Then, during the denouement, he returns back home and eventually becomes known as the Bishop of Hippo (modern-day Annaba in Algeria). So, he ends up not far from his original home, except with the tiny little difference that now, he is an entirely different person.

4th century CE

In addition to this book's where, there's also a when. (And since our homeboy Augustine was really into musing about time, we think he'd appreciate this section most of all.) The Confessions make the most sense when we pause to understand Augustine's work in its socio-historical context. So, when the Confessions were written at the tail-end of the 4th century, the Roman Empire was in a state of transition. Or decline, if you tend to see the glass as half empty. Here are some things that happened in the span of that century:

  • The Emperor Constantine became the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity. There is a legend about him seeing a cross in the sky, but his conversion also might have had something to do with the increasing number of Christians in his empire. But this was a pretty big deal because a lot of folks were still believing in pagan gods, and generally being religious in about a billion different ways. Pre-Augustine Christianity was a religion that had not yet taken the world by storm, so to speak.
  • Constantine moves the capital from Rome to a new city. He names this city after himself, calling it Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul in Turkey). The move of the capital is what begins the split between the "eastern" and "western" halves of the Roman Empire. 
  • Oh, and you have tribes like the Visigoths and the Vandals sacking cities left and right. Eep.

So, yeah, we definitely aren't back in the good ole' days of Julius Caesar's Rome, nor are we in a feudal, Plague-ridden Europe just yet. You might say that Augustine comes along at medieval Europe's awkward adolescent stage, and his writings on Christianity are part of the building blocks that lead to its maturity.