Augustine’s Confessions as a Re-Write of Virgil’s Aeneid

St. AugustineMany scholars have commented on the polyphonic (using Bakhtin’s term) character of Augustine’s Confessions, particularly his use of biblical allusions, quotations and the like.  In this post, I focus on Augustine’s superimposition of key texts from the classical tradition, specifically, Virgil’s Aeneid. If we consider some of Augustine’s main geographical movements, we see that they mirror Aeneas’ journeys.  For example, Augustine moves to Carthage, one of the most important cities of the Roman Empire, in order continue his studies.  In the opening paragraph of book III, he describes Carthage in a not so positive light:

So I arrived at Carthage, where the din of scandalous love-affairs raged cauldron-like around me.  I was not yet in love, but I was enamored with the idea of love, and so deep within me was my need that I hated myself for the sluggishness of my desires.  In love with loving, I was casting about for something to love; the security of a way of life free from pitfalls seemed abhorrent to me, because I was inwardly starved of that food which is yourself, O my God (III.1, 1; Boulding trans., p. 75).

When Augustine moves to Carthage, he is a young man and describes himself as “in love with being in love.”  He finds himself enticed by certain activities available in the city and is particularly fond of the theater.  He enjoys “connecting” with the characters on the stage and even weeps at their misfortunes.  But as he reflects on his activity, he finds a contradiction of sorts.  He weeps for these imaginary, non-historical characters, but he fails to weep for his own, very real wanderings from God.  Literarily speaking, Augustine has focused on Carthage because Carthage is where Aeneas landed and began his love-affair with Dido.  Augustine is in a sense replicating Aeneas’ journey.  So the question becomes, what will Augustine do? Will he follow the way of Aeneas, leave his own Dido, and ultimately do what he is destined to do, or will he be ruled and enslaved by his own (mis-directed) passions?

In book V, we have a second Aeneas-inspired movement, viz., the journey from Carthage to Italy (then eventually to Milan).  Again, we find a parallel with Aeneas’ life. The move from Carthage to Italy is the same one that Aeneas makes after his affair with Dido.  In other words, Augustine, like Aeneas, is leaving something/someone behind, and is on the way to better things.  Aeneas’ destiny was fated by the gods and one wonders whether his path could have been altered.  In Augustine’s case, though no doubt guided by God’s providence and strengthened by God’s grace, a genuine choice was involved.  In book V, after his disappointing encounter with Faustus, Augustine meets Bishop Ambrose, who teaches him how to read Scripture “spiritually,” and he eventually comes to know the One to whom Scriptures point, Jesus Christ.

Augustine’s use of Virgil’s text is a continuation of a long tradition of taking up various threads, narratives etc. from previous texts and then re-writing them for one’s present purposes.  Virgil does the same thing with Homer, as Aeneas non-repetitively re-traces Odysseus’ steps. Of course, Virgil re-writes his story in order to bring the past to bear on the present (the glorious reign of Augustus).

8 thoughts on “Augustine’s Confessions as a Re-Write of Virgil’s Aeneid”

  1. Hi, Cynthia. I have checked your blog out from time to time. I really enjoy your writing although many times it is way above my head! I wanted to comment on this post and how spot on I think it is. I studied the Aeneid in high school in Latin as part of my AP course and am quite familiar with it. I am also an Orthodox Christian who has skimmed through Augustine’s Confessions. Your commentary here is so interesting and spurs me on to do a complete reading of the Confessions.

    Best of luck to you with your studies.

  2. Dear Cynthia,

    I have stumbled upon your blog accidentally, and since I’ve started reading through it, I have forgotten what I was originally looking for. Do not worry though, I am sure it will come back to me pretty soon…Anyway, I just wanted to salute your effort and your dedication to writing. As a student of political science, I feel like I have a few things to say myself especially that my area of focus is relatively under treated in political science literature. Unfortunately though, I find myself incapable of dedicating myself to writing in the same way you are. I therefore have high admiration for you and for your work, and I trust you will be a source of inspiration.

  3. Cynthia,

    Very intriguing comparison, and you draw out the parallels nicely. I did have a question though: why do you think Augustine chose the Aeneid as his ‘historical’ paradigm? Is it only because of the natural connections he saw, or would there have been significance to the early readers of the Confessions?

  4. Hi Jeremy,

    Augustine assumed that his (educated) audience would be familiar with the work, as Vergil’s _Aeneid_ had a somewhat “canonical” status.

    With all good wishes,

  5. I am doing this topic for my dissertation. Did you use any external sources for this blog entry? I was just wondering if you had any good books I could look at for this topic. Many thanks.

  6. You might be interested in my book,

    Augustine and the Making of a Christian Literature, published in 1995.

    Augustine uses Carthage as his means of producing a text in which all the logoi are directed toward the LOGOS. He follows Ambroses criterion for producing a new literature that moves away from the pre-Christian.

    This accounts for his denunciaton of the Aeneid as DULCISSIMUM SPECTACULUM VANITATIS in Conf. 1.13 and his movement toward the garden imagery: from pear-tree carnality at Carthage, to the Milan garden of his conversion, to the Ostia garden in his conversation with Monica.

    It also accounts for the concluding allegorical exegesis of Eden and the Tree of Knowledge that concludes the CONFESSIONS.

    Best wishes,
    Robert Forman
    Professor of English and Classics
    St. John’s University, New York

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