Department of Missing Persons

St. Aurea

At a chapel inside the church of St. Aurea at Ostia, a plaque tells the story of Augustine and his mother, Monica, who died there in 387 A.D. (Author’s photo).

I don’t usually go for the whole “desk calendar” approach to history. There’s more to the past than names and dates. Sometimes, however, commemorations overlap in rich ways. Today — August 27 — is one of them. St. Monica, mother of St. Augustine, died on August 27, at the old Roman harbor town of Ostia.

Ostia, Monica, Augustine, me: our fates have intersected many times over the past ten years. (Spoiler alert: I wrote a book called Ostia in Late Antiquity). In my younger moments, however, I had once imagined writing a dissertation titled “Augustine’s Ostia.” It was going to tell the history of this vibrant Roman city through the lens of the saint who so famously left his mark there, describing the time he spent at Ostia reflecting on philosophical and theological questions with his mother while they traveled. You can still read about them in Augustine’s Confessions.

So what happened? How did my plans change? Well, here’s the thing: What on earth can you possibly say about the complexities of an urban environment, seen through the eyes of someone who had just been stopping off for a ride home? I grew up in Chicago, and I can’t begin to imagine someone writing the history of my home town based on a weekend experience at O’Hare. How was I supposed to ask one saint to do the same for the entire history of Roman Ostia? Short answer: I didn’t. I flipped the story. Augustine turns out to be little more than a blip in Late Antique Ostia — one of its most famous “missing people” — for whom we have little trace other than the story he wrote about his time there, well after the fact.

For many, talking about Augustine this way is probably a hard pill to swallow. The man who left us a legacy of reflections on war and heaven, who sparred with his peers in his letters about scriptural interpretation, who inserted himself into many affairs in the North African cities that neighbored his own — Augustine the saint is supposed to be granted more time speaking on history’s stage. Unfortunately, urban histories and intellectual histories aren’t necessarily always in sync. And nowhere is that point clearer than in the stories we tell ourselves about Augustine at Ostia and about his mother’s death.

In the 1940s, a copy of an inscription erected to commemorate Monica’s passing was found just outside the medieval and Renaissance town of Gregoriopolis. Today, it’s the site of the church of Sant’Aurea, located in a fortified neighborhood built by Pope Julius II, just outside Ostia Antica. Inside the church, you can visit of a copy of Monica’s inscription. It’s located in the chapel to the right of the door.

I’ve studied this inscription for the research that went into my book and noticed something remarkable about it when I began looking a little closer. It doesn’t name Monica at all (geek moment: the reference in line 6 to mater virtutum is not to Monica, or even to a woman; the phrase is a popular sixth- or seventh-century C.E. circumlocution for the virtue “Love.” The evidence is collected in my piece in the Journal of Roman Studies). In short, the woman who is supposed to be commemorated at the grave turns out to be another one of Ostia’s “missing persons.” She died there, all right. But she didn’t earn the right to have her own name on her tomb. And to me, that’s the most interesting part of the whole story.

What do these things tell us about Augustine, Monica, ancient history and Ostia? Here, I think dates and names do matter: It seems pretty clear that no local resident of Ostia ever got around to making a physical reminder about Augustine’s time at Ostia (with his mother) until two hundred years after they left.

All of which raises the question: How many folks actually knew who these people were, either in Augustine’s lifetime or shortly thereafter?

Archaeology, Memory, Ostia