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E01158: Augustine of Hippo, in his treatise On the Care of the Dead, tries to answer the question of how living saints can appear in visions to human beings and how dead saints, being in heaven, can perform miracles on earth; he illustrates his considerations with examples taken from stories concerning *John of Lycopolis, (ascetic of Egypt, ob. c. 395, S00102), *Gervasius and Protasius (martyrs of Milan, S00313), and *Ambrose (bishop of Milan, ob. 397, S00490). Written in Latin in Hippo Regius (North Africa), c. 420/422.

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posted on 2016-02-29, 00:00 authored by robert
Augustine, On the Care of the Dead 21

Talem fuisse credendum est illum Iohannem monachum, quem de belli ciuilis euentu maior Theodosius consuluit imperator: habebat quippe etiam prophetiam. Neque enim singulos singula munerum istorum, sed etiam plura unum habere posse non ambigo. Iohannes ergo iste cuidam mulieri religiosissimae inpatienter eum uidere cupienti atque ut hoc inpetraret per maritum suum uehementer instanti, cum ille nollet, quoniam id numquam permiserat feminis, uade, inquit, dic uxori tuae, uidebit me nocte proxima, sed in somnis. Et factum est: monuit que illam quidquid fidelem coniugatam moneri oportebat. Quae cum euigilasset, talem se uidisse hominem dei uiro suo, qualem ille eum nouerat, et quid ab illo audierit, indicauit. Qui hoc ab eis conperit, retulit mihi, uir grauis et nobilis et dignissimus credi. Sed si illum sanctum monachum ipse uidissem, quia, sicut fertur, patientissime interrogabatur et sapientissime respondebat, quaesissem ab eo, quod ad istam pertinet quaestionem, utrum ipse ad illam feminam uenisset in somnis, id est spiritus eius in effigie corporis sui, sicut nos ipsos in effigie nostri corporis somniamus, an ipso aliud agente uel, si dormiebat, aliud somniante siue per angelum siue quocumque alio modo in mulieris somnio talis facta sit uisio, atque id futurum, ut ipse promitteret, prophetiae spiritu reuelante praesciuerit
Quodlibet horum mihi responderet ille homo dei, et de martyribus ab illo pergerem quaerere, utrum ipsi adsint in somnis uel quocumque alio modo uidentibus eos in qua figura uoluerint, et maxime quando ab eis se torqueri daemones in hominibus confitentur et rogant eos, ut pareant sibi, an ista fiant dei nutu per angelicas potestates in honorem commendationem que sanctorum ad utilitatem hominum illis in summa quiete positis et ad alia longe meliora uisa uacantibus seorsum a nobis orantibus que pro nobis; nam Mediolani apud sanctos Protasium et Geruasium martyres expresso nomine sicut defunctorum, quos eodem modo commemorabant, adhuc uiuum daemones episcopum confitebantur Ambrosium atque ut sibi parceret obsecrabant illo aliud agente atque hoc cum ageretur omnino nesciente; an uero aliquando per ipsam praesentiam martyrum fiant ista, aliquando per angelorum; et utrum possint uel quibus signis possint a nobis duo ista discerni, an ea sentire ac diiudicare non ualeat, nisi qui habeat illud donum per dei spiritum diuidentem propria unicuique prout uult: dissereret mihi, ut arbitror, ille Iohannes haec omnia, sicut uellem, ut aut eo docente discerem et ea quae audirem uera et certa esse cognoscerem, aut ego crederem quae nescirem illo dicente quae sciret.

'Such, we may believe, was John the Monk, whom the elder Theodosius, the Emperor, consulted concerning the issue of the civil war: seeing he had also the gift of prophecy. For that not each different person has a different one of those gifts, but that one man may have more than one gift, I do not question. This John, then, when once a certain very religious woman desired to see him, and to obtain this made vehement entreaty through her husband, refused this request because he had never allowed this to women, but “Go,” said he, “tell your wife, she shall see me this night, but in her sleep.” And so it came to pass: and he gave her advice, whatever was fitting to be given to a wedded believing woman. And she, on her awaking, made known to her husband that she had seen a man of God, such as he knew him to be, and what she had been told by him. The person who learned this from them reported it to me, a grave man and a noble, and most worthy to be believed. But if I myself had seen that holy monk, because (it is said) he was most patient in hearing questions and most wise in answering, I would have sought of him, as touching our question, whether he himself came to that woman in sleep, that is to say, his spirit in the form of his body, just as we dream that we see ourselves in the form of our own body; or whether, while he himself was doing something else, or, if asleep, was dreaming of something else, it was either by an Angel or in some other way that such vision took place in the woman's dream; and that it would be as he promised, he foreknew by the Spirit of prophecy revealing the same.
The man of God would answer me about these things as the case might be, and then about the martyrs I should go on to ask of him, whether they are themselves present in dreams, or in whatever other way to those who see them in what shape they will; and above all when the demons in men confess themselves tormented by the martyrs, and ask them to spare them; or whether these things are wrought through angelic powers, to the honor and commendation of the saints for men's profit, while those are in supreme rest, and wholly free for other far better sights, apart from us, and praying for us. For it chanced at Milan at [the tomb of] the holy martyrs Protasius and Gervasius, that Ambrose the bishop, at that time living, being expressly named, in the same manner as were the dead whose names they were rehearsing, the demons confessed him and begged him to spare them, he being at the time otherwise engaged, and when this was taking place, altogether unwitting of it. Or whether indeed these things are wrought, sometimes by very presence of the martyrs, at other times by that of angels; and whether it is possible, or by what signs possible, for us to discriminate these two cases; or whether none are able to perceive and judge these things, but he that has that gift through God's Spirit, “dividing unto every man severally as He will:” the same John, I think, would discourse to me of all these matters, as I should wish; that either by his teaching I might learn, and what I should be told should know to be true and certain; or I should believe what I knew not, when he told me what he knew.'

Text: Zycha 1900. Translation: Browne 1887, adapted.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Gervasius and Protasius, martyrs of Milan (Italy), ob. 1st/4th c. : S00313 John of Lycopolis, 4th-century monk in Egypt : S00102 Anonymous angels : S00723 Ambrose, bishop of Milan (ob. 397) : S00490

Saint Name in Source

Gervasius, Protasius Iohannes monachus Ambrosius

Type of Evidence

Literary - Other


  • Latin

Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Latin North Africa

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc

Hippo Regius

Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)

Hippo Regius Carthage Carthago Karthago قرطاج‎ Qarṭāj Mçidfa Carthage

Major author/Major anonymous work

Augustine of Hippo

Cult activities - Places

Burial site of a saint - unspecified

Cult Activities - Miracles

Apparition, vision, dream, revelation Miraculous interventions in war Exorcism Revelation of hidden knowledge (past, present and future) Miracle during lifetime Miracle after death

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Women Monarchs and their family Ecclesiastics - bishops Ecclesiastics - monks/nuns/hermits


Augustine wrote the treatise On the Care of the Dead c. 420-422, in response to a letter in which Paulinus of Nola asked whether burials ad sanctos bring any profit to the dead. The response was nuanced. If Augustine rejected any direct advantage for such interments and argued that even the total lack of burial cannot affect directly the posthumous fate of the soul, he acknowledged that the practice can bring consolation to the living and indirectly help the dead for whom people visiting the graves of saints will pray.


This passage brings an interesting insight to Augustine's uncertainty about the nature of the miracles. In this period of his life, after the arrival of the relics of Stephen in Africa he no longer doubted the possibility of healings and exorcisms performed at the tombs and relics of saints, but he still stuck to the belief that the dead who sojourn in heaven cannot be on earth at the same time. This problem was also raised by Vigilantius of Calagurris, see (E###). The story of John of Lycopolis' prophecies is taken from the anonymous History of the Monks in Egypt (ch. 1), which Augustine knew in Rufinus of Aquileia's Latin translation. Paulinus of Milan tells a story in which demons confess that they are tormented by Ambrose (at that time still alive), but he links it with the discovery of the relics of *Nazarius and not those of Protasius and Gervasius: see Life of Ambrose 33.3-4 (E00850).


Edition: Zycha, J. De cura pro mortuis gerenda (Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum 41; Vienna: Tempsky, 1900), 619-660. English translation: Browne, H., On the Care of the Dead (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, vol. 3; Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887). Further reading: Duval Y., Auprès des saints corps et âme. L'inhumation « ad sanctos » dans la chrétienté d'Orient et d'Occident du IIIe siècle au VIIe siècle (Paris: Études Augustiniennes 1988).

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    Evidence -  The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity



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