The flowers of Africa

December 18 2008


Adrian Murdoch has a recent post on Peter Brown’s reception of the Kluge Prize. When I went to Oxford, Brown’s exploration of the reality of late antiquity inspired me. I was not taught by him directly, but I heard him speak and lecture. His work had a grandeur and freshness that were absolutely undonnish. He, for one, didn’t “cough in ink” or “wear the carpet with [his] shoes” – by which Yeats meant wear the carpet spiritually, not wear it out.

There is a bibliography on his Wikipedia page. I read his two early books, the masterly Augustine of Hippo (1967), an incredibly learned work for a man still in his thirties, and The World of Late Antiquity (1971). I hope that Toynbee read the former and took heart from it.

For some reason, this paragraph in Augustine of Hippo stuck in my mind:

“Augustine grew up a sensitive boy, acutely anxious to be accepted, to compete successfully, to avoid being shamed, terrified of the humiliation of being beaten at school. He would play in the fields around Thagaste. There he stalked birds, watched the writhing tails torn off lizards; he thought of thunder as the rattling of the heavy wheels of Roman coaches on the rough flagstones of the clouds. Yet Augustine never mentions the wonderful spring flowers of Africa. His sense of smell was not particularly acute. Mountains appear more often in his works: the light of the rising sun slipping down into the valleys; the sudden view of a distant town from the wooded slopes of a pass. Above all, he was surrounded by light. The African sunlight was the ‘Queen of all Colours pouring down over everything’. He was acutely alive to the effects of light. His only poem is in praise of the warm glow of the Easter Candle.” There are nine footnotes, referring to several sources.

The picture above, of the Capitolium in Thuburbo Majus, about forty miles southwest of Carthage, is from another magical book, Thames & Hudson’s large Roman Africa in Colour, Photographed by Roger Wood, Introduction and commentary by Mortimer Wheeler, 1966, which covers, in the order of plates, Sudan, Egypt, Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. (It’s not the whole image: it didn’t fit onto my scanner.) The World of Late Antiquity was also from Thames & Hudson, from its Library of European Civilization, published between 1966 and ’75. Augustine of Hippo was published by Faber.

2 Responses to “The flowers of Africa”

  1. […] The flowers of Africa (old post). […]

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