In the land of historians, Peter Brown is Jimi Hendrix. This is not merely a silly pairing of a rock legend with a Dublin-born patristics scholar. It is a helpful way to understand the legacy of Peter Brown and his most influential popular book, Augustine of Hippo (1967; new ed. 2000).

Hendrix’s first album was a watershed in the history of music. Only a few years before the Beatles had come to play Ed Sullivan, largely to screaming teens, with their rebellious, not-quite shaggy hair. Then Hendrix dropped Are You Experienced? and delivered to popular music one of the most idiosyncratic pairings of music ever, from Little Richard, Elvis, and Chuck Berry to the Grand Ole Opry. Most of us instantly recognize the opening riff—Purple Haze—which every beginner guitar player has learned (though it never sounds quite right when we play it). So iconic was Hendrix that he changed the landscape of music and forced journalists to search for new words to describe this style, eventually called ‘psychedelic rock’. Turn on the radio and nearly all the music you hear would not exist without Hendrix.

Peter Brown’s entrance into the world of history is much the same. After graduating a year early as a young man, and later attempting but not completing his doctorate, he went on to win one of the most prestigious fellowships at Oxford at All Souls (called the ‘Examination’ or ‘Prize Fellowship’). The fellowship lasts seven years, and the recipient is expected to eventually make a meaningful contribution to their field. It was at All Souls that Brown wrote Augustine of Hippo.

Why Augustine of Hippo is important

Before Peter Brown began to publish, a great deal of what we believed about the early church was misleading or wrong. The story of the rise of Christianity (and the fall of Rome) was confined, essentially, to the paradigm of Edward Gibbon, the 18th century English writer who gave us The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon despised many aspects of Christian faith, chiding it for being weak, lacking conviction, and for making the West ‘other-worldly’. Hence the title of his series is about the loss of Rome, rather than the discovery of Jesus. He wrote,

The theologian may indulge the pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption which she contracted in long residence upon earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings. (Gibbon, Decline, chapter 15).

After Rome came the cruel Dark Ages. And with the Dark Ages came many of the perils of medieval history before the Renaissance returned some measure of Roman glory to Europe.

Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo was the first line of attack on this narrative. Before long, Brown had established a new understanding of the transition of Europe from pagan to Christian. The ‘fall’ was not abrupt but gradual. Centuries after the last Roman king, Europeans would still consider themselves Roman, and the culture likewise endured for some time. Today historians call this transitional period ‘Late Antiquity’ (c. 300-750 AD). Brown also championed a real history of Christian experience and culture during these centuries, not allowing Gibbon’s mockery of faith to stand.

So in Augustine of Hippo Brown gives to readers a serious portrait of a serious theologian. The majority of his other books are not for the faint of heart, but this one is for all of us.

Why read Augustine of Hippo?

Brown’s story of Augustine is one of the most readable accounts of a historical figure published in the 20th century. His writing has a lyrical quality that fans have suggested (with some hyperbole) is as good as Augustine’s own autobiography, Confessions. I read the book while a young seminary student, mostly because I knew nothing about the early church. The book was so captivating at the time I can remember now what I was reading, what chair I sat in, and the smell of my old apartment.

If you like books about great figures, then the book will deliver. If you want to know a little more about the church during the time of the great Creeds of the church, Brown provides this. If you find yourself bored and in need of inspiration, this is a book to consider.

More importantly, Brown’s book is still the classic source for Augustine scholars today. His work has been overthrown in several areas (see below) but frankly it would be impossible to find a book from the 1960s that still carries the weight of Augustine of Hippo.

What should I look for when reading Augustine of Hippo?

There are several facets to the book to keep an eye on. You can start by diving into the book. It will pull you in rather quickly without a lot of preamble or historical blustering. Two features, though, in the book are often cited as outdated, due to the development of Augustine studies in the last generation.

First, Brown’s argues for a tension between the younger and older Augustine. The younger Augustine, Brown says, is  a serious thinker, but also a lively, joyful man in his dealings with the world. But the older Augustine—now a craggy bishop—is authoritarian and at times prickly with his opponents. It is hard to escape this division in the story when you read the book. Today few historians are not convinced of this—and Brown himself republished the book in 2000 with two epilogues in which he agreed that, on this issue, he got Augustine wrong. Perhaps the most decisive change since Augustine of Hippo is the use of Augustine’s letters and sermons to fill in Brown’s sketches. (See, for example, the new book by Joseph Clair of George Fox University.) These now give us a much clearer account of his intellectual development.

Second, we know a great deal more about Augustine, the Roman world, and especially North Africa than Brown had available in his day. This is to be expected, since Brown was the first to attempt a history of Augustine within his social and cultural world. For anyone not using Augustine of Hippo for research, these gaps are hardly worth the fuss. One can discover Augustine without knowing all these details. The book is still authoritative.

Above all, the book is a classic in historical biography.