Monica (331–387)

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Monica (331–387)

Devout Christian and mother of St. Augustine who agonized over Augustine's spiritual health until he fully embraced her faith, only shortly before she died. Name variations: St. Monica. Pronunciation: MON-ika. Born in or near Thagaste (in modern Algeria) in 331 and named Monica (since she was eventually sainted, it is ironic that "Monica" derives from a north African pagan goddess, "Mon"); died at Ostia (in modern Italy) in 387; buried at Ostia, though her sanctified remains were later removed to Rome; married Patrick also known as Patricius; children: probably four, two sons, Navigius and Saint Augustine of Hippo (354–430), and two daughters (names unknown).

Thagaste at the time of Monica's birth lay in the formally Numidian wheat-belt of Roman North Africa, scores of miles from the Mediterranean Sea, inhabited by the ancient ancestors of the Berbers. Lush and productive in the 4th century, its land had been spared the destructive civil and foreign wars which had devastated other regions of the Roman Empire over the preceding century. Thagaste's population had long since been thoroughly assimilated into the Roman world, and in the 4th century was Christianizing along with the rest of the Mediterranean, although the Christianity of the period was far from the monolithic force it would become over the following millennium.

In 331, Monica was born into an Orthodox Christian household, living her first six years under the benign reign of Constantine, the empire's first Christian emperor. Had, however, Monica's parents not been Orthodox—for example, had they been tainted by the heretical notions of the Donatist Christians, or worse yet, by those of the Manichees—then the rule of Constantine would not have appeared so congenial. Monica's family was wealthy enough to own a few slaves but was otherwise unexceptional, and her rearing was undistinguishable from others of her class, religion and time. Although she certainly received little, if any, formal education, her devout parents saw to it that she could read and thus have access to the sacred texts which lay at the heart of their religiosity. Her limited exposure to the world of learning almost certainly was not enough to slake her intellectual curiosity, but it introduced her to a larger world. As a result, when she had children, she (along with her husband) did everything possible to offer them the best schooling available in North Africa.

We know little about Monica's relationship with her parents, but they may have been distant figures, in contrast to what she would become as a mother. Her rearing was left primarily to an elderly maidservant, who had performed a similar service for Monica's father a generation earlier. This slave women, moreover, appears to have been a rigorous nanny. Something of Monica's early years can be gleaned from her son's later mention of her frequent fasts and enforced moderation—she ate and drank sparingly as a youth (at least when she was under supervision), was trained to serve her parents, was thoroughly steeped in the zealous traditions of the African Christian Church, and was almost always under the watchful eye of her nanny, who demanded decorous behavior.

An anecdote from Monica's teenage years, however, suggests that while she generally internalized the values of her parents, she nevertheless flirted with rebellion. For (as Augustine of Hippo wrote after her death) when her parents dined, Monica was obliged to help serve them by fetching the meal's wine from the cellar. At some time, she stole her first taste of alcohol, and found it to her liking. For a while thereafter, she fell into the habit of greedily toping when the backs of her supervisors were turned. This habit continued until a young slave of the household—who had stumbled across Monica's secret—used her knowledge to taunt Monica at an appropriately effective moment. Intending to wound, this young adversary had an unexpectedly salubrious impact on Monica, for as a result of this double shame—that is, her vice had been discovered, and by a slave to boot—Monica thereafter gave up drinking wine altogether, so Augustine tells us.

At the earliest appropriate age (although we are not told when that was), Monica's father arranged her marriage to an older, poorer, pagan, and somewhat surly neighbor named Patricius. Why this man was thought a suitable match for Monica is not known, but perhaps his association with a local grandee named Romanianus figured into the equation. Nevertheless, for all its ups and downs, this union proved a lasting and relatively successful one. Monica and Patricius had probably four children: two sons, Augustine of Hippo and Navigius, and two daughters whose names are unknown. Augustine, who would later become one of the most important figures in the history of Christian theology, appears to have been the oldest of these children and was born when Monica was 23.

Augustine portrayed his parents' marriage as fraught with difficulties, brought on primarily by Patricius' quick temper and poverty. Nevertheless, Augustine characterized his mother as diligent and appropriately submissive to her husband, and as an amiable conversant and nongossiping peacemaker. She is said to have been a model of feminine resignation—often chastising those of her friends who dared publicly to criticize their husbands (more mild than her own) for the beatings these women received from their spouses. Whether or not Monica's criticism of her friends' legitimate complaints was sarcastic cannot be known, but it is certain that her son took Monica at face value. Regardless, she seems to have taken the measure of her husband, and to have been able to manipulate him without calling into question his nominal authority as the head of his household. Undoubtedly, this saved her many a beating, but it also allowed her effectively to dominate the management of her home, and eventually to lead Patricius to Christianity. Her method is described by Augustine, who asserts that as frequently as Patricius overheated in the midst of some argument, Monica refused to continue the discussion. Rather, she would wait out his anger, and then explain to a composed husband why she had been right all along. Thus, Monica tended to have her way without challenging her husband's authority. As such, she appears to have won hands down the battle of domestic diplomacy.

Equally deft was the conquest of her mother-in-law. As was customary, Patricius' widowed mother lived in his house. When Monica moved in, a rivalry erupted between her and her mother-in-law, each maneuvering to be the mistress of but one household. Egged on by some slaves, Patricius' mother was especially hard on Monica, who nevertheless took stock of the situation and overcame her mother-in-law's intransigence through quiet endurance and meekness. Eventually, Monica's deference won her "rival" over, to the point where, when certain slaves continued their attempts to sow discord, Monica's mother-in-law demanded of Patricius that he chastise those who would not be reconciled to her growing affection for Monica. Patricius reacted by having the troublemakers whipped. Harmony, we are told, thereafter existed among the women of the household. It thus appears that, although Monica was willing to manipulate through tact, she possessed a steely determination to win others to her way of thinking while abiding by the social conventions of her time. No one, least of all her husband or her mother-in-law, would deter Monica from implementing the principles in which she believed.

Although Monica's pliant, but resilient, temperament seems to have been a major factor in the success of her marriage, there was probably another ingredient which should not be overlooked. For whatever reason Monica was given to Patricius, it seems clear that her natal family was more socially and economically prominent than his. Thus, coming into the marriage, she almost certainly possessed a significant enough dowry to insure that Patricius would treat her as well as he could and carefully value her input into the management of the household. (The husband had usufruct of a dowry, but it remained the wife's property; upon divorce it had to be returned to the wife, along with appropriate interest.) Although Patricius may often have unleashed his notorious temper, it would in almost every case have been in his long-term interests to swallow his pride and carefully honor Monica's opinion—that is, as long as she refrained from embarrassing him by openly challenging his authority.

Inspire … that as many as shall read these Confessions may at your altar remember your servant, Monica, with Patricius her sometime husband, by whose bodies I came into this life—how, I do not know.

—Augustine, Confessions

While nominally deferring to her husband, Monica nevertheless became a figure of note in her local Christian community, to which she introduced her children. Both Monica and Patricius were inordinately proud of their most famous offspring, although Augustine later acknowledged that his mother had the greater impact upon his development—primarily because she inevitably had his spiritual, as well as his temporal, well-being in mind from the very beginning. Regardless, both pushed Augustine toward worldly success through education. As a result, Augustine found his way to Carthage where he pursued a course of rhetorical study to prepare him for an imperial career. Shortly after he began his Carthaginian studies, however, Augustine's now-Christian father died (372). Thereafter, Monica followed Augustine so as to monitor his spiritual growth.

At Carthage, Augustine, reveling in the delights of the regional center, deplored his mother's obsessive hovering. As an independent young spirit, he sought to exploit Carthage's charms—he once quipped, "Oh God, please make me chaste … but not now"—especially its diverse intellectual offerings. There, he was introduced to the classical traditions of epic poetry through Virgil and philosophy through Cicero. The stylistic sophistication of such influences made the canonical Christian texts seem pale and simpleminded by comparison, and, as a result, Augustine rejected his Christian upbringing to dabble in philosophy and religious experimentation. Monica was aghast and made her feelings known, but for a time his mother's censure only sparked Augustine's rebellion. Apparently, when Augustine acted in such a way as to be characterized by Monica as "sinful," she claimed to experience anew the pangs of childbirth. When Augustine also settled down into a long-term liaison with a woman whose name is unknown (with whom he fathered his son, Adeodatus), Monica was fit to be tied, although she neither despaired of the power of prayer nor attempted to demand that her son choose between her love and that of his mistress.

After years of his mother's devotions, Augustine came to suspect an element of unspiritual desire in Monica's concerns, although he ultimately berated himself for such speculation. Nonetheless, Monica hung on through Augustine's fleshy and spiritual vicissitudes in Carthage, hoping to influence her promising son by the strength of her faith. Playing upon a complex love-hate relationship, when Augustine went too far in Monica's eyes—such as when he embraced the heretical theology of the Manichees—she chastised him by refusing him entry into her home. Thus, Monica and Augustine co-existed in Carthage, alternatively loving and sparring.

Long before Monica's spiritual hopes began to bear fruit, Augustine's temporal fortunes began to rise. Initially, success came in the form of teaching, for Augustine's natural ability as an orator led him to tutor other North Africans who would become imperial lawyers. Before long, however, Augustine became bored with the students he himself considered second-rate. In part because he had not found the intellectual or spiritual solace he sought after rejecting Monica's religion, and also seeking achievement in a less parochial environment, Augustine decided to leave Africa for Italy (383), initially scheming to pursue his ambitions without Monica. His departure from Africa had the ring of comedy about it, for Augustine, with his common-law wife, his son, and assorted friends, slipped aboard ship under the cover of darkness so that

Monica would not learn of his flight until he had already sailed.

In Italy, Augustine went initially to Rome, the thousand-year-old symbolic capital of the empire which in his day continued to rule a European-Asian-African empire centered on the Mediterranean Sea. Although the appeal of Rome for the young provincial was manifest, Augustine soon discovered that the political focus of the Empire—and along with it, the promise of a stellar career—had shifted northward to Milan, then the residence of the emperor in Italy. As a result, relying upon the patronage of Symmachus (the prefect of Rome), Augustine secured for himself an appointment to teach rhetoric in Milan (384). Few rhetorical appointments carried the status of Augustine's new position, for the empire's best orators flocked to the imperial court where their training would help run the empire and they would be heard by the emperor himself. It is clear that Monica's son had come a long way from the provincial backwater of Thagaste, and it is equally manifest that he was driven to do so largely by his mother's insistence that he pursue education as a vehicle of social advancement.

Learning of her son's achievement, obviously missing him, and probably hoping to enjoy some of the worldly fruits of his success, in 385 Monica also came to Milan. She had departed Africa as soon as the spring sailing season made the voyage possible. In Milan, she again hovered over Augustine, attempting both to direct his career and to reconvert him to Christianity. Since this was an era which saw legal marriage less as a relationship emerging from love and more as a partnership entered upon for social and material well-being, Monica negotiated an appropriate marriage for her up-and-coming son. Of course, Augustine already had a common-law wife (a partner of 15 years), and a son. Nevertheless, this relationship with a woman of no social position became a professional stumbling block for the ambitious careerist (and his mother) in one of the most status-conscious professions his world knew. Although never consummated, an appropriate engagement was entered, and the prospects of marriage into a prominent Milanese family forced Augustine to break with his longstanding companion. She returned to Africa and a celibate future, while Augustine seems genuinely to have suffered a deep emotional loss. Their son Adeodatus (as was then customary) remained with his father, in a close relationship. Although both parties were pained by this separation, the would-be marriage which precipitated it never occurred, largely because the woman to whom Augustine became engaged was underage. Before she was old enough to wed, Augustine experienced his most profound intellectual and spiritual conversion, leading him to abandon his temporal ambitions for the life of a religious contemplative.

This metamorphosis coincided with Augustine's reconversion to Christianity, a milestone brought about under the influence of Ambrose, the orthodox bishop of Milan and perhaps the most intellectually commanding Christian thinker of his generation. Naturally enough, Augustine became the associate of Ambrose through the agency of Monica. Upon her arrival in Milan, Monica joined Ambrose's religious community, and there fell under the spell of his charisma. Among other things, she joined in his battle against the Arian Christians of Milan and their patrons at the imperial court. (Arian Christians differed from those deemed "Orthodox" in their belief that Jesus had been born man and became god only through his passion. Thus, they believed that the "Son" was akin but inferior to the "Father.") Monica found Ambrose's intellectualism awe-inspiring. Augustine later noted that Ambrose, unlike anyone else he had ever met, actually read without moving his lips or softly verbalizing the written text. Under Ambrose's influence, Monica abandoned many of the "primitive" Christian traditions she had learned in Africa to which she had previously clung. Among these were Sabbath fasts, meals ritually taken at graves on certain feast days, ecstatic chanting and dancing, and a particular faith in dreams. These, Ambrose argued, were not authentically Christian, but rather smacked of the pagan cults which Christianity had nominally replaced.

As with Monica, so with Augustine. Having long belittled Monica's Christianity for its rustic ways, the artistically uninspiring prose of its texts, and its lack of intellectual depth, Augustine was introduced through Ambrose to a Christianity he had never dreamt of before—one which eschewed the false artistry of rhetorical flourish as it sought the truly profound through the exploitation of faith and reason simply proffered. As Monica, ecstatic, looked on, Augustine was transformed by Ambrose. Thereafter, Augustine rejected his prior aspirations and took baptism from Ambrose, along with his son and a few friends (Easter 387). Consequently, he decided to return to Africa with his friends and family, including Monica, to establish a secluded community dedicated to the serious study of scripture.

En route to Africa, Augustine's entourage made for Ostia from which it expected to sail. There, the troop rested for a while, more from the dizzying effects of their spiritual pilgrimage than from the rigors of actual travel. While at Ostia, Augustine and Monica engaged in a tender conversation, long remembered and later depicted by the son as a notable cap to their occasionally tempestuous relationship. The setting was at a window, overlooking a quiet garden oasis into which the bustle of the city could not penetrate. Both talked of looking forward to the future, and especially to the afterlife. Both expressed their desire to be one with God and anticipated the sweetness of that union. Time seemed to stand still, and both experienced a sensation of rising above the material world which bound their mortal bodies. A sense of soaring higher and higher followed as they inwardly mused, scarcely needing words to express what each knew the other was thinking. Finally, they reached an ecstatic state beyond words or reason, and love seemed to embrace both in its caress. As the moment broke, Monica spoke:

Son, for mine own part I have no further delight in anything in this life. What I do here any longer, and to what end I am here, I know not, now that my hopes in this world are accomplished. One thing there was for which I desired for a while in this life, that I might see thee a Catholic Christian before I died. My God hath done this for me more abundantly, that I should now see thee withal, despising earthly happiness, become His servant: what do I here?

Augustine later understood this to be Monica's prophecy of her own death, for five days after she so spoke, she fell into a fever-induced coma. Although Monica had long expressed a desire to be buried in Thagaste with her husband, when she briefly regained her senses, she requested burial at Ostia. Immediately thereafter, she died. To the amazement of many, Augustine complied with his mother's final wish, understanding that Monica no longer believed it necessary for her physical remains to be interred with Patricius' for both to be reunited in the hereafter.

It is ironic that the extent of Monica's influence over her famous son can only be appreciated by his description of the grief he experienced at her passing. Although he believed her to be with God, he could nevertheless not immediately rejoice in her redemption, for her loss struck him the greatest blow of his life. While others around him wept, Augustine could not, until somewhat later at a public bath, after having moved through life in the meantime as if in a dream, he remembered a consolation once expressed by Ambrose. Then, and only then, did his pent-up emotion flow freely. He broke down and cried.

In Africa, Augustine would not be left alone long enough to enjoy the solitude he desired. Against his will, he was called to serve the city of Hippo (where he had sought to found his monastery), first as a priest (391) and finally as a bishop (395). In the latter capacity, he served both his local community as its Christian leader (dying in 430), and the Church at large as one of its most influential theologians ever. Monica, too, continued to have an impact in this world. Her fame grew with that of her son to the extent that her grave became a site of pilgrimage. Indeed, so holy were her remains considered by the 15th century, that Pope Martin V removed them to Rome, where he reburied them in a church dedicated to St. Augustine.


St. Augustine. The Confessions. Trans. by Edward B. Pusey. NY: Macmillan, 1961.

suggested reading:

Attwater, Donald. The Penguin Dictionary of Saints. 2nd ed. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983.

Brown, Peter. Augustine of Hippo. Berkeley, CA: University of California, 1967.

Frend, W.H.C. "A Note on the Berber Background in the Life of Augustine," in Journal of Theological Studies. Vol. 43, 1942, pp. 188–191.

William S. Greenwalt , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California