R. A. Markus, Saeculum II — Tempora Christiana

The previous post introduced Robert A. Markus’ book Saeculum. 

Now, for chapter two.

Chapter 2
Tempora Christiana:
Augustine’s Historical Experience

We saw that Augustine breaks up history into seven ages, and places us in the last. “Senescence and renewal are the two poles of Augustine’s representation of the present epoch.” [22] Did these themes suggest either decay or renaissance to Augustine? Aging does not mean decay or decline for him, as he does not idealize youth: “[c]hildhood rather than old age ranks, for Augustine, as the chief locus of the miseries of life.” [24] Rejuvenation does not mean the reversal of age. Does Augustine think of the Theodosian establishment as part of the rejuvenation brought by Christ? [22] Augustine’s thinking did have a “phase […] when he was prepared to look upon the Christian Roman Empire as a decisive stage in the fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecies and of God’s promises.” [25]  This went counter to his seven-age “map of sacred history”, for according to it

the time between Incarnation and Parousia is a blank; a blank of unknown duration, capable of being filled with an infinite variety of happenings […]. None [is] privileged above others, God’s hand and God’s purposes are equally present and equally hidden in them all. […] There is no sacred history of the last age: there is only a gap for it in the sacred history. [23]

This seventh age “is the age in which ‘we are reformed to the image of God’.” [23] As for senescence and renewal, to speak of an aging world and to speak of an aging Rome were nearly equivalent for pagan and Christian writers. ” ‘Rome’ was the head, centre and sum of the ‘world’; the ‘world’ was only the expanded version of the City.” [26] Far from decay, the “image of a venerable, grey-haired Rome […] is an image of achievement”. No pagan author employing this image of an aging Rome “drew the inference […] that Rome was destined for a speedy end.” [27] Imagery of old age “expresses […] the well-founded claims of her traditions on men’s loyalties.”

Christian polemicists actively undermine this sense of an aged Rome in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. When Symmachus appealed to this aged and venerable Rome while writing against the removal of the Altar of Victory, Ambrose pressed, “why bring up the model of the ancients? […] Not the maturity of years, but of manners, is what we should praise.” Ambrose saw himself, as Markus puts it, as “on the side of triumphant novelty.” So Prudentius, who “writes as if Rome had come to the achievement of her destiny under his very eyes.” [28] So Prudentius can write:

Rome fled from her old errors and shook the dark mist from her wrinkled face; her nobility now ready to enter on the ways of eternity


Rome, dedicated to thee, O Christ, has placed herself under thy rule

which is significant because, writes Prudentius,

it is only Roman excellence that ensures a lasting peace

The basic idea is that “[t]hrough [Rome’s] supremacy the world was now united under the rule of Christ.” [29] What was merely “aggressive enterprise” in Ambrose is now “achieved success” in the writings of Prudentius. “This sense of achievement engendered a boundless confidence in the future.” Prudentius died before he could see the “shattering” of this “post-Theodosian euphoria”.

Augustine was smitten with this widespread sentiment from early on, “from the 390s for some ten or fifteen years” [31], that is: “for a decade or more his historical thinking was dominated by this motif” [32], this “vision of the triumphant progress of Christianity, assisted by the coercive measures of the emperors” [30], a progress widely thought to be “for the salvation of [God’s] people and [for] the fulfilment of the ancient prophecies.” [32] So Augustine wrote, at this stage, that

Through Christ the king[,] [God] has subjugated the Roman Empire to the worship of his name; and he has converted it to the defence and service of the Christian faith [30]

leading to the destruction of the idols. So he saw Psalm 72:11 –“all the kings of the earth shall adore him, and all the nations shall serve him”– as fulfilled in the Christian empire. [31] For Augustine, at this point, the Christianization of the Empire is not history, but theology [32]; at this point for him, salvation history for catechumens would not be complete without the story of this Christianization. [33] “The establishment of the Christian Empire and the repression of paganism have entered the sacred history” [31], Augustine seemingly “oblivious” to how this contradicts his understanding of sacred history. Instead, he divided the last age into pre- and post-Theodosius. [32] This was a borrowed division, for at “[a]round 400, tempora christiana served to designate the period of the legal repression of paganism […] ‘Christian times’ are not the age inaugurated by the Incarnation” [35], but the more recent post-Constantinian, and especially post-Theodosian age: what the martyrs “entertained as a future hope, or believed while persecuted, that we have seen accomplished” [35], champions of tempora christiana might say.

Augustine changed his tune. Writing on the same verse from the Psalms cited above “some fifteen years later” [33], Augustine changed his tone with regard to Christianization and sacred history. So for the same verse and its antecedent,

The kings of Tharsis and the isles render him tribute, /  the kings of the Arabs and Seba bring him gifts; / and all the kings of the earth shall adore him, / and all the nations shall serve him

it is now both the men brought into the Church and the martyrs produced by persecution who are “the gifts brought by the kings”. [34] Christianization is “quietly removed from […] sacred history.”

Yet different ages have different standards and imperatives: “[i]n Apostolic times the wedding guests were invited; in these times they are rightly compelled to ‘come in’.” [36] The Donatists had claimed earlier that the use of force had no place under the Gospel; Augustine, against this, “came to lay increasing weight on ‘distinguishing the times’ within the Christian era”, including justifying religious coercion. The Donatist objection is not the only one. As tempora christiana were synchronous with economic downturns and military losses, pagans complained “about a decline in the felicity of human affairs in ‘Christian times'” [37], and “[i]n the years immediately after A.D. 410 “the Christian times” move into the focus” of Christian-pagan debate. After the sack of Rome, “[t]he very phrase christiana tempora [became] part of the pagan vocabulary of abuse of the Theodosian establishment and its defenders.” [38] After 410, Christians were less enthusiastic about promoting ‘Christian times’, and used the phrase only in the sense the pagans gave to it. The only time Augustine uses the phrase in the City of God, however, it “refers to the whole period since the Incarnation.”  The “mirage of the Theodosian tempora christiana” evaporated for him. “Did God promise permanence to things such as social institutions and political arrangements?” [39] Augustine sighs in a sermon:

If only [our city “according to the flesh”] would also be spiritually reborn, and go over with us into eternity!

“[W]hat is needed is spiritual regeneration.” The Christianization of the Empire and the emperors should not be made “too much of[;] […] ‘The very same people who fill the churches on the festivals of Jerusalem fill the theatres for the festivities of Babylon.'” [40] Indeed, imperial patronage presents a “greater and more dangerous temptation” than the clearer trials of the apostolic age. Against despondent notes of the calamities brought during tempora christiana, Augustine exhorted his hearers: “let us live well […] we are the times: such as we are, such are the times.” [41] The “uncompromising clarity” with which Augustine spoke of the “homogeneity” of the last days left no room for the divisions he’d made before.

“In Christian circles the Empire had become quite generally represented as a vehicle of salvation with a divine mission in history.” [42] So why did Augustine, and nearly he alone, “break the spell” of this belief? The answer is in the way he gradually worked out the implications of his earlier restriction (in De Doctrina Christiana) of sacred history to the biblical canon. [43] “Beyond this, all history is starkly secular.” It was the fall of Rome that provoked explicit reflection on this. The ensuing controversy “moved the Roman state from the periphery to the centre of his mind.” [44] Past certainties showed themselves to have been illusory, while the future retreated into uncertainty.

10 thoughts on “R. A. Markus, Saeculum II — Tempora Christiana

    • As I understand it, it’s qualitative, though qualitative regarding the report, not the event — it’s certainly not purely temporal. See the “Saeculum I” entry. The “history” in question for Augustine, according to Markus, is not the temporal stretch of the events, but the selection and representation of them. The question during the end of the fourth century for Augustine was whether the perceived fulfillment of certain biblical texts in contemporary events was also part of this sacred history. According to Augustine (says Markus), all events speak, but not all speak with equal clarity. Sacred history, for Augustine, became reduced to the biblical texts. The difference is qualitative _in_the_reporting_ of them, according to his earlier theory of prophetic inspiration, rather than a quality _in_the_events_ themselves.


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