Was St Augustine black?

Saint Augustine by Philippe de Champaigne, 1650

The great and good Mary Beard has recently upset a few people on Twitter by bringing up the topic of the ethnic diversity of the Roman Empire, a subject about which she knows a great deal. She writes about the experience here.

As Professor Beard makes clear, the Roman Empire was ethnically diverse in that it allowed people to migrate from one end of it to the other. Hence there were people from Syria, Algeria and Ethiopia living in Roman Britain, and, one assumes, numerous Italians. Of course, all these people would have identified themselves as Roman first and foremost, would have spoken Latin and would have followed Roman customs, and all would, I am sure, have had a similar sort of education and a deep reverence for Rome and its laws. Many of them would never have seen Rome. You may recall Evelyn Waugh’s wonderful novel Helena, where the heroine, daughter of Old King Coel, born in Colchester, sees Rome for the first time as an old lady. Of course, we know very little for sure about the origins of the Empress Helen, but one thing is for sure, she travelled widely all over the Empire, as did her son, and considered herself Roman, an identity that transcended birthplace and ethnicity.

Some of the best known people of antiquity are Christians. Foremost of them is the inventor of autobiography, Aurelius Augustinus, whom we call Saint Augustine. He was born in Thagaste, North Africa, in present day Algeria. He was a thorough Roman, and we have no idea at all about his personal appearance. All the pictures and statues we have of him tell us what various artists thought he ought to look like, not what he actually did look like. However, his mother was called Monica, or as some scholars render it, Monnica. Assuming she too was a native of Thagaste, and given the clue in her name, it is assumed by many that Monica was of Berber origin. (The Berbers worshipped a god called Mon.) This has led some to see Saint Monica as a black saint. It has led others to discuss just what Augustine may have looked like. But one thing is for sure: this would have been a discussion that Monica and Augustine themselves would never have had: they were Roman, and that was that.

Again, what about Saint Paul, another person from antiquity about whom we know so much, thanks to his copious writings, in which he talks about himself at length? He makes it clear that he is a Jew and a Pharisee, a pupil of the famous Gamaliel, but he also plays on the fact that he is Roman Citizen, something that no one ever questioned. He spoke Hebrew, Greek and, one assumes, Latin, and was born in Tarsus, Asia Minor. Paul is a typical citizen of the Roman Empire, mobile in so many ways. As with Augustine, the ethnic question is not one he would ever have considered: he boasts about his Jewish credentials to underline his religious authority, nothing more.

We know also a great deal about another North African Christian, Saint Perpetua, who suffered martyrdom with her maid Saint Felicity in the year 203 in Carthage. Vibia Perpetua was of a noble family but Felicitas (“Happiness”) was a slave, and may well have had another name before enslavement; she could have been from outside the Empire, either from sub-Saharan African, or from northern Europe.

Here is one important consideration with regard to ethnic mobility in the Roman Empire. Lots of people travelled for commercial reasons, or because of military postings, but the biggest group of mobile people must have been the slaves. Prisoners of war would be sold off after capture and sold on, so it is not inconceivable that Saint Felicity may have been of Germanic origin. Moreover, given the upward mobility of slaves in the Roman Empire, and the way many won their freedom, the children and grandchildren of slaves would often intermarry with the settled population. Estimates vary about just how many slaves there were in the Roman Empire. It was at least 15 per cent but could have been much higher. Of course, many slaves had a life that was nasty, brutish and short, and died childless. But many others must have contributed to the gene pool.

So what does all this tell us? It tells us that in the Roman Empire what counted was romanitas, not ethnicity. The early Christians were undoubtedly perceived as a threat to the former, not to the latter. And it tells us that Saint Augustine may have looked like your average Italian today, but quite possibly did not.