Giosuè GHISALBERTI. Augustine’s Passions: His Transformation from a Roman Citizen to a Catholic Bishop, 354-401. Milwaukee:  Marquette University Press, 2016. pp. 300. $29.00 pb. ISBN 1-62600-606-7. Reviewed by Leo MADDEN, Ohio Dominican University, Columbus, OH 43219.


This book belongs to the general category of biographical study of Augustine (354-430), bishop of Hippo in North Africa and one of the most influential Christian philosophers and theologians in history.  Rather than a broad-ranging biography on the order of those written, for example, by P. Brown (Augustine of Hippo, 2nd ed. [Berkeley, 2013]), M. Clark (Augustine [New York, 1994]), and J. O’Donnell (Augustine: A New Biography [New York, 2005]), Ghisalberti focuses on the 15-20 year period of time, roughly 382-401, when Augustine’s personal anxieties about his convictions and his status in the Roman social and political system came to a head, leading to his conversion to Christianity, his return to North Africa, and his eventual ordination as a priest and appointment as bishop of the diocese of Hippo.  

The author’s purpose is to examine carefully those writings of Augustine, not only Confessions but also other works composed during this period of time, to reveal the specific elements of Augustine’s transformation from a fully-trained and committed member of the Roman elite to an equally trained and committed member of the leadership of the Catholic Church.  In this respect, Ghisalberti is not so much interested in the transformation of Augustine’s inner spiritual life as he is examining the traces of the transformation in Augustine’s self-identity from a Roman rhetorician to a Catholic teacher and public voice.  Ghisalberti’s book should be distinguished also from various studies, such as O’Meara’s The Young Augustine (2nd ed. New York, 2001), that provide the intellectual background to Augustine’s religious and political formation.

The book is divided into two general sections: chapters one through four examine the period leading up to Augustine’s conversion to Christianity; while chapters 5 through eight touch on the difficulties Augustine faced during the first years of his life within the Catholic system, first as priest and then as bishop. 

In the first section, Ghisalberti focuses on four elements of Augustine’s wholly conventional formation as a Roman citizen: “Education” (Roman paideia existed to prepare the individual for public life); “Spectacles” (attendance at Roman games and entertainments served to foster the attitudes that would lead to social success); “Sex” (the Roman state connected social success with marriage to the well-heeled); and “Music” (Roman society used music to create and guide emotions that served society’s ends).  For each element, Ghisalberti cites relevant passages in Confessions and other contemporaneous writings to reveal Augustine’s longtime frustrations with the expectations of Roman society.

In the second section, Ghisalberti examines four contexts in which Augustine exerted his intellect and authority as Catholic priest and bishop and thus demonstrated in a public manner his new identity within a new society: “Exhortations,” “Sermons,” “Hermeneutics,” and “Polemics.”  The fourth context, “Polemics,” forced Augustine to realize that his transformation did not mean that the Church replaced Rome; rather, in order for the Catholic Church to confront the challenge of the Donatist controversy, Augustine came to recognize that the Church needed the state as a partner for its continued life and expansion.

The story of Augustine is the story of a man who, throughout his youth and young adulthood, was filled with unease within the Roman society even as he succeeded in it.  But then Augustine experienced two conversions: the first one, in the few years before his appointment as bishop, involved a radical transformation of his identity and allegiances from Rome to the Church; but then, in a second conversion, Augustine had to accept that Christianity needed to coexist within Rome and not in place of Rome.

            The audience for this book is graduate-level students interested in the encounter between late Rome and early Christianity.  The book includes an extensive bibliography (mostly in English) and an index of key individuals and ideas.  The reader should be alert to the not infrequent errors in spelling and punctuation, sometimes more than one per page.