The Mediterranean has never hindered the flow of populations. On the contrary, throughout history it has served more as a highway than a barrier, allowing intense commercial interactions and political integration but also destabilizing movements of people and bold projections of power. The 5th century AD is a case in point. Coming from the North, the Vandals crossed the straits of Gibraltar en masse, disrupting the life of the North African provinces (in a reversal of the historic threats coming north from North Africa, such as the Punic assaults in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC). Unrest, devastation, weakening of civil authority, and war were the result, ruining the wealthiest and until then safest part of the late Roman Empire.In part the Vandal flood of North Africa was the outcome of petty infighting among Roman administrators and the fruit of just plain stupidity of the imperial authorities. The barbarians had been invited by Boniface, the local Roman commander, who felt threatened by the imperial authorities eager to curb his ambition to become the supreme leader in the region. He probably had even greater aspirations, being one of those recurrent cases in history of a huge mismatch between ambition and capabilities. Boniface thought that he could strike a deal with the Vandals, trading some control over the region for their manpower. By the time he realized that the Vandals were too powerful to accept a deal, it was too late and the entire political structure in the region was up in flames.Rome then, like much of the West now, was not blessed with great political leaders.Whatever the reasons for the Vandals’ southward push, one thing was certain: the existing political order was threatened. Roman military presence was scant, local barbarian tribes that until recently were on the imperial payroll turned unreliable (Saint Augustine: “For not only on the frontier, but throughout all the provinces, the security of peace rests on the oaths of barbarians”), and even bishops seemed unwilling to stay and share the fate of their flocks.As the Vandals advanced eastward along the North African coastline, cities and communities surrendered without putting much of a fight. As Possidius, the bishop of Cama, put it, “a great host of savage foes, Vandals and Alans, with some of the Gothic tribe interspersed, and various other peoples, armed with all kinds of weapons and well trained in warfare, came by ship from the regions of Spain…. [And] they completely devastated everything they could by their pillage, murder and varied tortures, conflagrations and other innumerable and unspeakable crimes….”1The barbarians did not want to become shareholders of the existing political and social order; they wanted to wreck it and establish their own.The security situation, then, posed a big question: Why defend a political order that was clearly corrupt and led by half-witted pompous hedonists? After all, Rome had been far from a just city: It had created an order, but through violence. “How many great wars, how much slaughter and bloodshed, have provided this unity! And though these are past, the end of these miseries has not yet come.” (Saint Augustine, City of God, XIX, 7, p. 683).Some were surely tempted not to oppose the Vandals, seeking some accommodation, or simply running away and abandoning their positions of responsibility, high and low. After all, a new social order would arise, underwritten by the Vandals, and it was futile to stand athwart this mass movement. Perhaps the people should simply accept the changing nature of political rule and adapt to the movement of history.Saint Augustine thought otherwise. In a series of letters to Boniface, the confused Roman commander, the Saint in no uncertain terms argued that secular authorities had the duty to protect the social order and the populations entrusted to them. There is absolutely no presumption against war in Saint Augustine’s argument to Boniface. On the contrary, he writes in letter 189, “Do not think that it is impossible for anyone to please God while engaged in military service.”Sure, abandoning earthly preoccupations is a noble cause but not all are called to do that. “There are some who by praying for you fight against your invisible foes, while you by fighting for them are striving against the visible barbarians.” Contra visibiles barbaros—there are visible, tangible, real enemies to eliminate, and we should not deceive ourselves into thinking that some harmony can be achieved or that we can all retreat into a monastery. Harmony—or a tranquillitas ordinis (City of God, XIX, 13, p. 690)—is not of this earth. A political order, like the one North Africa enjoyed under the remnants of Roman authority, is a blessing, but, as a scholar put it, “All human order was fragile, poised over an abyss of chaos. It needed the best that men—Christian and non-Christian alike—could give to its preserving and fostering.”2Therefore, Saint Augustine continued, stop chasing women (Boniface was on his second wife and had concubines) and man those walls! “It is certainly shameful if someone who is undefeated by another human being is defeated by lust, or undefeated by iron, but overwhelmed by wine.” (Letter 189) You, Boniface, are failing in your duty as a soldier by putting the satisfaction of your basest needs above the defense of the people entrusted to you.In another letter (Letter 220) to Boniface, Saint Augustine writes: “The barbarians of Africa are succeeding here without meeting any resistance so long as you are in your present state, preoccupied with your own needs, and are organizing nothing to prevent this disaster.” Nobody thought that with you as commander (comes) “the barbarians would have become so bold, have advanced so far, have caused so much devastation, have plundered so widely, have made deserts of so many places that were full of people.”Yes, Rome is imperfect. Yes, Rome also may have been unjust with Boniface, whose frontier services were unrequited by the higher authorities in the capital. Yes, no political and social order is lasting. But the “Roman empire provides you with good things, even if they are ephemeral and earthly (for it is an earthly, not a heavenly, institution and can only provide what is in its power).” (Letter 220) Those good things—social order—are worth defending. War therefore is a duty and a necessity. “You don’t seek peace in order to stir up war; no—war is waged in order to obtain peace. Be a peacemaker, therefore, even in war, so that by conquering them you bring the benefit of peace even to those you defeat.” (Letter 189)Secular leadership—Boniface in this case—has a heavy responsibility. And Saint Augustine is careful in not offering operational advice. How you, Boniface, protect the existing order is your mission! “Are you asking me to give advice in the light of this world on how to safeguard this ephemeral security of yours…? If so, then I am unable to answer you. There is no secure advice to give for purposes that are so insecure.” (Letter 220) You, Boniface, have political experience, a trained military mind, and the ability to assess the state of your forces; it is your task to figure this out.How one defends one’s own fragile political order is a question best left to the security experts. But first one must be clear that the fragile order needs to be defended and not sacrificed to personal vanity or to an abstract and utopian harmony.In the end, Saint Augustine died during the siege of Hippo Regius in 430 AD. Shortly thereafter, Boniface was utterly defeated by the Vandals. Rome lost its grip over North Africa. But this outcome, like all events in history, was not inevitable. History is not written by inexorable movements of masses or the iron laws of decline and birth of political orders, but by decisions taken by individuals. In this case, it was the military failure of Boniface, and perhaps the failure of Saint Augustine to convince Boniface to fight the Vandals earlier rather than inviting them in, that led to the collapse of Roman order in North Africa.In the face of current security upheavals in Europe, we certainly seem to need now a vigorous Saint Augustine and better secular leaders than Boniface.
1Possidius, The Life of Saint Augustine, trans. by Herbert Weiskotten (Evolution Publishing, 2008), pp. 40–1.2R. A. Markus, Saeculum: History and Society in the Theology of St. Augustine (Cambridge University Press, 1970), p. xi.