Modern Annaba – Bône la coquette – is a cosmopolitan city, a whimsical seaside resort and an industrial powerhouse rolled into one. But beneath the surface lies a royal port from the earliest days of the Numidian kings. Hippo Regius seems to have been the Manhattan of ancient Numidia; a rival port to Carthage, jammed with small-but-perfectly-formed sea-front villas by the Roman period, when it served as an important trading-port.
The city lies between two hills: on one – where the Temple of Saturn stood – now lie the remains of the saint who died here in 430, as the Vandals besieged the city on their way to conquer Carthage.On the other hill, where there is now a small museum housing extraordianary mosaics from the sea-front villas, stood the ancient palace of the Numidian kings.
This is the town where Augustine spent the last forty years of his life, where he wrote the Confessions, and from which he sent out young men, alumni of his monastery, to serve as bishops across Roman Africa.
Strangely, during his many trips to Carthage over the years to invtervene in the affairs of the African Church, Augustine travelled by donkey – evidently he suffered from sea-sickness. So, though he was never far from Italy across the water, it is difficult to assess how large it loomed in his thinking. Certainly he remained involved in the politics of empire, struggling – unsuccessfully as it turned out – to keep the African Church knitted closely into the wider network of Nicene Christianity. Somehow, his sense of life here on earth as a turbulent and ultimately unsatisfying business grew out of this long period of self-imposed exile – but how, exactly, it is too early to tell. Watch this space!