His father, Patricius, affords us a good enough type of the Romanized African. He belonged to the order of Decuriones, to the "very brilliant urban council of Thagaste" (splendidissimus ordo Thagastensis), as an inscription at Souk-Ahras puts it. Although these strong epithets may be said to be part of the ordinary official phraseology, they indicate, just the same, the importance which went with such a position. In his township, Patricius was a kind of personage. His son assures us that he was poor, but we may suspect the holy bishop of exaggerating through Christian humility. Patricius must certainly have owned more than twenty-five acres of land, for this was made a condition of being elected to the curia. He had vineyards and orchards, of which Augustin later on recalled the plentiful and sweet-tasting fruits. In short, he lived in considerable style. It is true that in Africa household expenses have never at any time been a great extravagance. Still, the sons of Patricius had a pedagogue, a slave specially engaged to keep them under his eye, like all the children of families comfortably off.
It has been said that as Augustin's father was a member of the curia, he must have been a ruined man. The Decurions, who levied taxes and made themselves responsible for their collection, were obliged to supply any deficiency in the revenue out of their own money. Patricius, it is thought, must have been one of the numerous victims of this disastrous system. But no doubt there were a good many exceptions. Besides, there is nothing in Augustin's reminiscences which authorizes us to believe that his father ever knew embarrassment, to say nothing of actual poverty. What seems by far the most probable is that he lived as well as he could upon the income of his estate as a small country landowner. In Africa people are satisfied with very little. Save for an unusually bad year following a time of long drought, or a descent of locusts, the land always gives forth enough to feed its master.
To hunt, to ride horseback, now and then to go on parade, to look after his small-holders and agricultural slaves, to drive one of those bargains in which African cunning triumphs -- such were the employments of Patricius. In short, he drifted through life on his little demesne. Sometimes this indolent man was overcome by a sudden passion for work; or again he was seized by furious rages. He was violent and brutal. At such moments he struck out right and left. He would even have hit his wife or flogged the skin off her back if the quietude of this woman, her dignity and Christian mildness, had not overawed him. Let us not judge this kind of conduct by our own; we shall never understand it. The ancient customs, especially the African customs, were a disconcerting mixture of intense refinement and heedless brutality.
That is why it will not do to exaggerate the outbursts of Patricius, which his son mentions discreetly. Although he may not have been very faithful to his wife, that was in those days, more than in ours, a venial sin in the eyes of the world. At heart the African has always longed for a harem in his house; he inclines naturally to the polygamy of Muslemism. In Carthage, and elsewhere, public opinion was full of indulgence for the husband who allowed himself liberties with the serving-women. People laughed at it, and excused the man. It is true they were rather harder on the matron who took the same kind of liberty with her men-slaves. However, that went on too. The Bishop of Hippo, in his sermons, strongly rebuked the Christian married couples for these frequent adulteries which were scarcely regarded as errors.
Patricius was a pagan, and this partly explains his laxity. It would doubtless be going too far to say that he remained faithful to paganism all his life. It is not likely that this urban councillor of Thagaste was a particularly assured pagan. Speculative and intellectual considerations made a very moderate appeal to him. He was not an arguer like his son. He was pagan from habit, from that instinctive conservatism of the citizen and landowner who sticks obstinately to his class and family traditions. Prudence and diplomacy had also something to do with it. Many great landlords continued to defend and practise paganism, probably from motives similar to those of Patricius himself. As for him, he had no desire to get wrong with the important and influential people of the country; he might have need of their protection to save his small property from the ravenous public treasury. Moreover, the best-paid posts were still controlled by the pagan priesthood. And so Augustin's father thought himself very wise in dealing cautiously with a religion which was always so powerful, and rewarded its adherents so well.
But for all that, it is undeniable that paganism about this time was in an awkward position from a political point of view. The Government eyed it with disapproval. Since the death of Constantine, the "accursed emperors" had waged against it a furious war. In 353, just before the birth of Augustin, Constantius promulgated an edict renewing the order for the closing of the temples and the abolition of sacrifices -- and that too under pain of death and confiscation. But in distant provinces, such as Numidia, the action of the central power was slow and irregular. It was often represented by officials who were hostile or indifferent to Christianity. The local aristocracy and their following scoffed at it more or less openly. In their immense villas, behind the walls of their parks, the rich landowners offered sacrifices and organized processions and feasts as if there were no law at all. Patricius knew all that. And, on the other side, he could take note of the encroachments of the new religion. During the first half of the fourth century Thagaste had been conquered by the Donatists. Since the edict of Constans against these schismatics, the inhabitants of the little city had come back to Catholicism out of fear of the severity of the imperial government. But the settlement was far from being complete and final. As a consequence of the edict, the whole region of the Aures had been in revolution. The Bishop of Bagai, fortified in his episcopal city and basilica, had stood an actual siege from the Roman troops. Almost everywhere the struggle between Donatists and Catholics still went on below the surface. There cannot be the least doubt that Thagaste took its share in these quarrels. To those who urged him to be baptized, the father of Augustin might well answer with ironic politeness: "I am only waiting till you agree among yourselves, to see where the truth lies." In his heart this rather lukewarm pagan had no inveterate dislike to Christianity.
What proves it at once is that he married a Christian.
How did Monnica become the wife of Patricius? How did these two beings, so little alike, between whom there was such a great difference of age, not to mention all the rest, come to join their fate? Those are questions which it would never have occurred to the people of Thagaste to ask. Patricius married to be like everybody else -- and also because he was well over forty, and his mother an old woman who would soon be no longer able to run his house.
Monnica also had her mother. The two old women had a meeting, with many politenesses and ceremonious bowings, and because the thing appeared to them reasonable and most suitable, they settled the marriage. Had Patricius ever seen the girl that he was going to take, according to custom, so as to have a child-bearer and housewife? It is quite likely he had not. Was she pretty, rich, or poor? He considered such matters as secondary, since the marriage was not a love-match but a traditional duty to fulfil. If the union was respectable, that was quite enough. But however the matter fell out, what is certain is that Monnica was very young. She was twenty-two when Augustin was born, and he was probably not her first child. We know that she was hardly marriageable when she was handed over, as Arab parents do to-day with their adolescent or little girls, to the man who was going to marry her. Now in Africa girls become marriageable at a very early age. They are married at fourteen, sometimes even at twelve. Perhaps she was seventeen or eighteen at most when she married Patricius. She must have had first a son, Navigius, whom we shall meet later on at Milan, and also a daughter, of whom we do not even know the name, but who became a nun, and superior of a convent in the diocese of Hippo. For us the features of these two other children of Monnica and Patricius are obliterated. They are concealed by the radiance of their illustrious great brother.
Monnica was fond of telling stories of her girlhood to her son. He has handed down some of them to us.
She was brought up strictly, according to the system of that time. Both her parents came of families which had been Christian, and Catholic-Christian, for many generations. They had never been carried away by the Donatist schism; they were people very obstinate in their convictions -- a character quite as frequent in Africa as its opposite, the kind of Numidian or Moor, who is versatile and flighty. It is not unimportant that Augustin came from this hard-headed race, for this it was, with the aid of God's grace, that saved him -- the energetic temper of his will.
Still, if the faith of the young Monnica was confirmed from her earliest years, it is not so much to the lessons of her mother that she owed it, as to the training of an old woman-servant of whom she always spoke with gratitude. In the family of her master, this old woman had a place like the one which to-day in a Turkish family is held by the nurse, the dada, who is respected by all the harem and all the household. Doubtless she herself was born in the house and had seen all the children born. She had carried Monnica's father on her back when he was little, just as the Kabylian women or the Bedouin nomads carry their babies still. She was a devoted slave, just a bit unreasonable -- a veritable housedog who in the zeal of guardianship barks more than is necessary at the stranger who passes. She was like the negress in the Arab houses to-day, who is often a better Muslem, more hostile to the Christian, than her employers. The old woman in Monnica's family had witnessed the last persecutions; she had perhaps visited the confessors in prison; perhaps she had seen flow the blood of the martyrs. These exciting and terrible scenes would have been graven on her memory. What inflamed stories the old servant must have told her young mistresses, what vital lessons of constancy and heroism! Monnica listened to them eagerly.
Because of her great faith, this simple slave was revered as a saint by her owners, who entrusted her with the supervision of their daughters. She proved a stern governess, who would stand no trifling with her rules. She prevented these girls from drinking even water except at meals. Cruel suffering for little Africans! Thagaste is not far from the country of thirst. But the old woman said to them:
"You drink water now because you can't get at the wine. In time to come, when you are married and have bins and cellars of your own, you'll turn up your nose at water, and your habit of drinking will be too much for you."
Monnica came near fulfilling the prophecy of the honest woman. It was before she was married. As she was very well-behaved and very temperate, she used to be sent to the cellar to draw the wine from the cask. Before pouring it into the flagon she would sip just a little. Being unaccustomed to wine, she was not able to drink more; it was too strong for her gullet. She did this, not because she liked the wine, but from naughtiness, to play a trick on her parents who trusted her, and also, of course, because it was prohibited. Each time she swallowed a little more, and so it went on till she ended by finding it rather nice, and came to drinking greedily one cup after another. One day a slave-girl, who went with her to the cellar, began to grumble. Monnica gave her a sharp answer. Upon this the girl called Monnica a drunkard.... Drunkard! This bitter taunt so humiliated the self-respect of the future saint, that she got the better of her taste for drink. Augustin does not say it was through piety she did this, but because she felt the ugliness of such a vice.
There is a certain roughness in this story of childhood, the roughness of ancient customs, with which is always mingled some decency or dignity. Christianity did the work of polishing the soul of Monnica. At the time we are dealing with, if she was already a very devout young girl, she was far as yet from being the grand Christian that she became afterwards.
When she married Patricius she was a girl very reserved and cold to all appearances (in reality, she was very passionate), precise in attending to her religious duties, even a little strict, with her exaggeration of the Christian austerity in her hate of all the brutalities and all the careless morals that paganism condoned. Nevertheless, this rigid soul knew how to bend when it was necessary. Monnica had tact, suppleness, and, when it was needed, a very acute and very reasonable practical sense of which she gave many a proof in the bringing up and management of her son Augustin. This soul, hard for herself, veiled her uncompromising religion under an unchangeable sweetness which was in her rather the work of grace than a natural gift.
There can be little doubt that her behaviour and character greatly disturbed Patricius at the beginning of their married life. Perhaps he regretted the marriage. What use had he for this nun alongside of him! Both of them must have suffered the usual annoyances which always appeared before long in unions of this kind between pagan and Christian. True, it was no longer the time of Tertullian, the heroic century of persecutions, when the Christian women glided into the prisons to kiss the shackles of the martyrs. (What a revenge did woman take then for her long and enforced confinement to the women's apartments! And how outrageous such conduct must have seemed to a husband brought up in the Roman way!) But the practices of the Christian life established a kind of intermittent divorce between husbands and wives of different religion. Monnica often went out, either alone, or accompanied by a faithful bondwoman. She had to attend the services of the Church, to go about the town visiting the poor and giving alms. And there were the fast-days which occurred two or three times a week, and especially the long fast of Lent -- a grievous nuisance when the husband wanted to give a dinner-party just on those particular days! On the vigil of festivals, Monnica would spend a good part of the night in the Basilica. Regularly, doubtless on Sundays, she betook herself to the cemetery, or to some chapel raised to the memory of a martyr who was often buried there -- in fact, they called these chapels "Memorials" (memoriae).
There were many of these chapels -- even too many in the opinion of austere Christians. Monnica went from one to another carrying in a large basket made of willow branches some pieces of minced meat, bread, and wine mixed with water. She met her friends in these places. They would sit down around the tombs, of which some were shaped like tables, unpack the provisions, and eat and drink piously in honour of the martyr. This was a residue of pagan superstition among the Christians. These pious agapae, or love-feasts, often turned into disgusting orgies. When Augustin became Bishop of Hippo he had considerable trouble to get his people out of the habit of them. Notwithstanding his efforts, the tradition still lasts. Every Friday the Muslem women keep up the custom of visiting the cemeteries and the marabouts. Just as in the time of St. Monnica, they sit around the tombs, so cool with their casing of painted tiles, in the shade of the cypress and eucalyptus. They gobble sweetmeats, they gossip, they laugh, they enjoy themselves -- the husbands are not there.
Monnica made these visits in a really pious state of mind, and was far from trying to find in them opportunities for lewdness or carouse. She was content to drink a little wine very carefully -- she always bore in mind her youthful sin. Besides, this wine weakened with water that she brought from the house, was tepid by the time she reached the cemetery; it would be a drink of very moderate relish, little likely to stimulate the senses. She distributed what was left of it among the needy, together with the contents of her basket, and came back modestly to her house.
But however staid and reserved she might be, still these outings gave rise to scandalous talk. They annoyed a suspicious husband. All the Africans are that. Marital jealousy was not invented by Islam. Moreover, in Monnica's time men and women took part in these funeral love-feasts and mingled together disturbingly. Patricius got cross about it, and about a good many other things too. His old mother chafed his suspicions by carrying to him the ugly gossip and even the lies of the servants about his wife. By dint of patience and mildness and attentions, Monnica ended by disarming her mother-in-law and making it clear that her conduct was perfect. The old woman flew into a rage with the servants who had lied to her, and denounced them to her son. Patricius, like a good head of a household, had them whipped to teach them not to lie any more. Thanks to this exemplary punishment, and the good sense of the young wife, peace reigned once more in the family.
Women, friends of Monnica, were amazed that the good understanding was not oftener upset, at least in an open manner, between husband and wife. Everybody in Thagaste knew the quick-tempered and violent character of Patricius. And yet there were no signs that he beat his wife. Nor did any one say he did. Other women who had less passionate husbands were nevertheless beaten by them. When they came to Monnica's house they shewed her the marks of the whacks they had got, their faces swollen from blows, and they burst out in abuse of men, clamouring against their lechery, which, said these matrons, was the cause of the ill-treatment they had to endure.
"Blame your own tongue," retorted Monnica.
According to her, women should close their eyes to the infidelities of their husbands and avoid arguing with them when they were angry. Silence, submissiveness, were the all-powerful arms. And since, as a young woman, she had a certain natural merriment, she added, laughing:
"Remember what was read to you on your wedding-day. You were told that you are the handmaids of your husbands. Don't rebel against your masters!..."
Possibly this was a keen criticism of the pagan code, so hard in its rules. Still, in this matter, the Roman law was in agreement with the Gospel. Sincere Christian as she was, the wife of Patricius never had any quarrel with him on account of his infidelities. So much kindness and resignation touched the dissolute and brutal husband, who besides was an excellent man and warm-hearted. The modesty of his wife, after a while, made her attractive in his eyes. He loved her, so to speak, on the strength of his respect and admiration for her. He would indeed have been a churl to find fault with a wife who interfered with him so little and who was a perfect housekeeper, as we shall see later on when we come to her life at Cassicium. In one point, where even she did not intend it, she forwarded the interests of her husband by gaining him the good-will of the Christians in Thagaste; while he, on his side, could say to the pagans who looked askance at his marriage: "Am I not one of yourselves?"
In spite of all the differences between him and Monnica, Patricius was a contented husband.