Monday 7 August 2017

Augustine and Beards

There seems to be quite a row blazing about whether St Augustine was black or not. Does it actually matter? The proposition was first made to me some thirty years ago, and even then I thought it odd, but not in any way objectionable. Some (including Brown, Augustine's most prestigious biographer) have thought that Monica was a Berber name (for those who don't know, that was St Augustine's persistent Mum), but Patricius (his Dad) has a Latin name—though perhaps a rather noveau-riche Latin name (effectively meaning Posh Guy). One thinks of people who call their sons Duke or Lord. This might suggest a lower-middle-class aspiring to poshness. But it says nothing about skin-colour.

I don't personally think Augustine would have very likely been black, any more than most Tunisians and Algerians today are black, if what you mean by black is sub-Saharan black. But of course it isn't impossible, because the Roman Empire mixed all sorts of people up. It placed soldiers all over the Empire in different places from where they were born precisely to provide a genetic or rather ethnic mix in which people would identify as 'Roman' rather than as Palmyran, or Egyptian, or British. The Roman Empire didn't spread into sub-Saharan territory, but it certainly captured slaves and employed mercenaries from there, who would have spread throughout the territories. Unlike slaves in the Southern States of the US, Roman slaves could be, and frequently were, freed, and were then able to set themselves up as businessmen, their descendants becoming citizens, often wealthy and influential ones. The issue was your willingness to buy into the Roman thing, not the colour of your skin. So Patricius could well have been the son of a freed slave, sub-saharan or not. But the probability is against it, I think. Yet why on earth would it worry anybody at all if it were to be found so? A Roman would have had far more problems with me, a descendent of the extra-terratorial, therefore barbarian, Irish, than with a black Augustine.

Here I want to stand up on my hind legs and come to the defence of Professor Mary Beard. In my view she is one of the most illuminating and intelligent teachers of Roman History around these days. As some of you may know, I teach early Church History in a seminary, to trainee priests, and I start the course by asking my students to watch her BBC series on Roman History; the fact that the BBC Store no longer will allow us access to the items we have purchased is deeply distressing, because her course on Rome without Limits was the most wonderful introduction to a Church History course. There are other people around (I won't name names!) who start with their conclusions and then go in search of the evidence, ignoring anything contrary. Television abounds with them. Mary Beard is not one of them. She is not only amazingly erudite, she has the ability to teach, too, without patronising her audience. She doesn't try to bolster a weak argument by provocative dress (or lack thereof), or hop on right-on bandwagons. She is an honest and amazing historian, who deserves our profound respect even if we don't agree with everything she says. Nuff said.