Augustine as a Bishop (Hippo)

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Writing to Archbishop Atticus of Constantinople around 420, Augustine referred to a rumor apparently spreading in Constantinople that he had died (Augustine, ep. 6.1*). He makes light of the confusion, excusing the likely reason for the apparent snub. Though his colleague Aurelius of Carthage had received a letter of greeting from Atticus, the eastern patriarch felt it beneath his dignity to address the bishop of an unimportant African town. This exchange puts Augustine the bishop in the broader context of the Christian Roman Empire in the first quarter of the fifth century. Despite his growing reputation in the west, among eastern contemporaries he carried no such weight. Yet Augustine’s long episcopate in Hippo illumines larger realities shaping the church, the empire, and their interrelation in the century after Constantine. Conversely, his own tenure as a bishop is best understood in the broader contexts of episcopal developments in the Roman Empire and the distinctive setting of the church in North Africa. THE EPISCOPATE IN THE ROMAN EMPIRE By the third century, the monepiscopate, in which one bishop served one community, had become the dominant ecclesiastical institution and a focus of unity for the church in the Roman Empire. From a position of equality, with deacons and presbyters complementing the teachers and prophets in the early Christian communities, the episkopos (“overseer”) emerged as not only the administrative leader but the primary teacher of truth. His duties included preaching to the congregation, teaching and baptizing catechumens, celebrating the Eucharist, supervising priests and deacons, and caring for widows, orphans, and consecrated virgins. He also dispensed church funds to the poor and sick; oversaw charitable work on behalf of captives, prisoners, and strangers; and represented the church before local and imperial officials. With the legislation of the Christian Emperor Constantine and the exponential growth of the church in the post-Constantinian period, bishops came to play much greater roles in imperial politics. Constantine and his successors also accorded bishops legal privileges and new or enhanced judicial powers. The grant of legal status to the bishop’s tribunal (audientia episcopalis) was not completely new. Bishops were already expected to serve as arbiters and peacemakers in their communities, but imperial legislation sanctioned and increased the scope of their judicial activities. The bishop’s court provided obvious advantages: it was free, quick, and relatively uncorrupt.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationAugustine in Context
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages8
ISBN (Electronic)9781316488409
ISBN (Print)9781107139107
StatePublished - Jan 1 2018

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© Cambridge University Press 2017.


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