The many ways of seeing Saint Monica

Monica ­– mother to Augustine of Hippo, lionized by the Latin Church – is a women of many names and many more mysteries.

Ary Scheffer's 1855 'Saint Augustine and Saint Monica'.
Ary Scheffer's 1855 'Saint Augustine and Saint Monica'. Credit: Waverley Book Club/The Print Collector for Getty Images.

She was the mother of Augustine (354-430 CE), a teacher of public speaking who gave up his plans for a post in the civil service of the Roman empire. She did not live to see him become Augustine Bishop of Hippo, controversial in his lifetime, greatly influential – at least in western Europe – after his death. She has been blamed for his views on original sin and on sexuality; but for some she is a saint, and an inspiration to all women, especially mothers. We would never have heard of her if Augustine had not remembered her in his Confessions and made her a character in some philosophical dialogues. Usually he calls her ‘mother’, but just once, asking for prayers for his parents, he gives her name: Monica. Or was it Monnica?

Monnica is the spelling in the earliest manuscripts of Confessions. It is now used as a reminder that ‘mother’ when she lived was not Saint Monica: she was a woman of North Africa, where Monnica and related names were used. For almost all her 55 years, and for all her married life, she lived in Thagaste (now Souk Ahras in Algeria), a small town sixty miles inland from the Mediterranean coast. She wanted to be buried there beside her husband, who died before she was 40. But then she made a long-distance move: first to Carthage, the provincial capital, where Augustine was teaching, then across the sea when he left for Rome. Monnica and other family members joined him in Milan, an imperial capital; Rome was still the symbolic capital of empire, but Milan was better placed for defense. Three years later, after Augustine was baptized and committed his life to the service of God, Monnica died at Ostia, the port of Rome, as they waited together to sail home.  She had understood, Augustine says, that it did not matter where she was buried; she wanted only to be remembered in church, wherever her family was.

In Monnica’s time the Roman province of Africa extended south from the Mediterranean to the Atlas Mountains, and east from the Atlantic to Cyrenaica, which separated Africa from Egypt. Roman Africa was a mix of peoples. Some were there long before Phoenicians, known to Romans as Poeni, came from Tyre and founded a capital at Carthage. Phoenicians and Romans fought the long and exhausting Punic Wars for dominance in the western Mediterranean. Carthage was destroyed in 146 BCE, but the site was too good to waste, and a century later Julius Caesar resettled it. As Roman power advanced in North Africa, Latin became the language of administration and of high culture. Punic, a Semitic language related to Hebrew, was still spoken, especially in country districts, but was evidently not used in Augustine’s home: he knew only a few words of Punic.

Augustine represents his mother speaking clear unpretentious Latin. Like most women, she is not formally educated in the Latin classics, but, he says, God taught her through prayer and through reflection on Christian scripture (in Latin translation from Greek) which she heard at church and read at home.

What does it mean to say that Monnica was African? Augustine used the Latin word Afer, ‘African’, for people who came as he did from Roman Africa. He did not contrast ‘African’ with ‘Roman’: since 212 CE, all freeborn persons within the Roman Empire were Roman citizens. Nor did he suggest that Africans were easy to identify. There was a regional accent, but Africa’s mix of peoples ensured a wide range of skin tones, features and general appearance. Monnica could have had Phoenician or Italian or local Numidian ancestry, complicated by intermarriage. We do not know what Augustine and his family looked like, except that he did not think of them as ‘Ethiopians’ who lived in the remotest south and had black (Latin niger) skin. In postcolonial times, it is no longer assumed that Roman dominance brought civilization, and there is great interest in pre-Roman and non-Roman cultures. But we do not have a Numidian or Phoenician perspective, because the texts which survive from Roman Africa are works of high Roman culture, written by educated Latin speakers like Augustine. Comparative anthropology can help to interpret material culture but carries the risk of finding continuities over many centuries of change in population, religion, language and ruling power. That may happen when it is suggested that Monnica was ‘Berber’, for example, and that her local name points to a continuous tradition revealed in Augustine’s stories of her divinatory dreams and her ritual attendance on the dead.

Monnica was a woman of North Africa: one of the few women whose names survive from the later Roman empire, and one of the very few who are more than a name. It was apparently not polite to mention a woman in public speaking or writing. Women were unlikely to have any public role, so, if necessary, they could be identified in relation to a man: Monnica daughter of X (Augustine does not say), wife of Patricius, mother of Navigius and Augustinus. Monnica also had a daughter, but we know that only because Augustine, in one letter, mentions ‘my sister’ as the head of a community of women. Possidius, the friend and fellow-bishop who wrote a Life of Augustine, confirms that he meant his own widowed sister, who was also a sister in religion. Nobody wrote her Life; we do not know her name, or her husband’s name, or anything else about her.

Greek and Roman authors rarely wrote about women. Very few women were authors, and if they wrote letters or diaries, nobody kept them. Almost all led domestic lives which were not of general interest. A few had some effect on politics, and there are some well-worn examples of very good or very bad conduct. But for Christians, and for some non-Christian philosophers, moral and spiritual progress could be as important as war and politics. Christian authors wrote about women whose commitment to God was so strong that they overcame female weakness of body and mind: they died as martyrs, or tried to devote their lives to prayer and charity, not to marriage and family. Monnica was not faced with martyrdom, and did not evade marriage; in her lifetime, single-sex religious communities were an innovation. She had children and grandchildren, and led the undramatic life of a devout wife and widow, not poor but not rich, in a small provincial town.

Augustine did not write a saint’s life of his mother, but his writings provided the material for Saint Monica. In his early philosophical dialogues, composed when she was with him in Italy, she is an engaging character. Augustine took as his model the dialogues of Cicero, whose speakers are leading Roman statesmen. Augustine did not want discussion to be limited to the elite, and his speakers are his unknown students and relatives, including his mother. He says that a shorthand writer took notes; we cannot know how much of Monnica’s contribution was modified or invented, but it is still remarkable that she is a speaker.

In Confessions, ten years after her death, Augustine wrote about Monnica’s relationships with resentful household slaves, her hostile mother-in-law, a hot-tempered husband, a beloved son who went astray. Saint Monica was revered for the tact and patience which overcame these troubles, but changes in women’s lives have brought different reactions. She is best known for the response of a bishop when she begged him to intervene with Augustine: ‘the son of all those tears cannot be lost’. (Nobody quotes the bishop’s opening words, ‘please go away’.) Augustine had become a Manichaean: he thought this was the true interpretation of Christianity, but Monnica thought that his soul was in danger from false beliefs. He was also in danger of arrest as a member of a suspect cult. In Augustine’s account, his mother’s tears ensured that he was not lost to Mother Church however far he strayed.

But some think that Monnica’s tears bound him to Monnica, who invested her ambition in her clever son because she could not use her own abilities. Perhaps her anxieties induced the acute sense of sexual guilt which appears in Confessions; perhaps they influenced Augustine’s controversial belief that all human beings inherit the sin of Adam and Eve as a sexually transmitted disease. Augustine saw Monnica as a peacemaker, who lived in harmony with her husband, never spread unkind gossip, and served and mothered the members of her household in Thagaste and in Milan. But ‘service’ was done by slaves, and Monnica’s advice to neighbours whose husbands hit them was ‘think of yourself as your husband’s slave’. She was deferential, not confrontational; she did not complain about infidelity, and she waited until her husband calmed down before she explained that he might have misunderstood. In many cultures, such behaviour teaches sons that wife-beating is normal and battered wives have only themselves to blame. Augustine, in sermons, challenged his male hearers to be faithful to their wives (and yes, a discreet sexual relationship with your own slave is still infidelity). He did not challenge domestic violence.

Saint and role model for women; passive-aggressive and possessive mother; enterprising woman who made the most of her life: all these interpretations of Monnica show how brilliantly Augustine presented her. Without him, we would never have heard of Monnica, and there is no other source of information. His account in Confessions depends on what he remembered and chose to record. The writing of Confessions was perhaps an act of therapy in a time of ill health. Or perhaps the devout and resolute Monnica was an answer to people who had other memories: of Augustine the Manichaean who left Carthage to escape arrest as a member of an illegal cult, who was baptized in Milan without a letter of support from his home church, and who returned to Africa without a letter of support from Milan.

We do not know. But all these unanswered questions about Monnica are a reminder that we do not know how someone’s life was experienced. A portrait may show what the artist sees or what the subject or the patron wants. A spectator, or historian, may find something different.


Gillian Clark