A schism in the church in North Africa that grew out of the Great Persecution under DIOCLETIAN and in some ways resembled the Melitian movement in Egypt. While the more profound causes lay in the puritanical ethic of the North African church, its opposition to the secular world, and its enthusiasm for the cult of martyrs, the immediate cause arose from differing attitudes adopted by clergy during the Great Persecution. In contrast to the persecution in Egypt, the repression of Christianity in North Africa was short and sharp, lasting only until the abdication of Diocletian and Maximian in May 305. During that time, however, many members of the clergy had lapsed and handed copies of the Scriptures and other church objects to the authorities. These clergymen, dubbed traditores (traitors; from tradere, to hand over) by their more intransigent brethren, were regarded as apostates incapable of administering a valid sacrament and, hence, of retaining their clerical office.
The simmering conflict erupted in 311. In that year, Bishop Mensurius of Carthage was cited to appear before the (usurping) emperor Maxentius (306-312) to answer a charge of concealing in his house a presbyter who had published a libelous tract against the emperor. Mensurius vindicated himself but died on the return journey from Italy. There was at once a dispute over his successor. Aside from the problems caused by personality conflicts, the church in Numidia had acquired the right during the previous forty years to consecrate each new bishop of Carthage, and there was an element of rivalry between Carthage and the bishops in Numidia. Before the latter’s representatives could arrive in Carthage, Mensurius’ archdeacon, Caecilian, had been consecrated bishop and accepted by at least part of the congregation at Carthage.
There were, however, strong objections against him. It was said that during the persecution Caecilian had forbidden food to be sent to the imprisoned confessors who had been arrested in the township of Abitina in western Tunisia. He also had offended a wealthy member of his congregation named Lucilla by forbidding her to kiss a bone, allegedly of a martyr, before receiving communion. There were additional rumors that one of his consecrators, Felix of Aptunga, had been a traditor during the persecution, thereby rendering Caecilian’s consecration invalid.
The various factions united with the Numidians in opposing Caecilian. Angry that he had been denied participation in Caecilian’s consecration, the Numidian primate, Secundus, bishop of Tigisis, appointed an interventor (interim administrator) for the see of Carthage pending settlement of Caecilian’s position. On the murder of the interventor, Secundus summoned a council of seventy Numidian bishops that condemned Caecilian to deposition.
This situation confronted Constantine after his victory over Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge on 28 October 312. For reasons that are unclear, the new emperor of the West took Caecilian’s part from the outset. Funds were placed at his disposal and his enemies threatened with judicial penalties (Eusebius Historia ecclesiastica 10.6). Subsequently, clergy loyal to Caecilian were released from obligations to undertake municipal duties and pay municipal levies. This stung the opposition into action, and in April 313 its members appealed to Constantine to set up a commission of Gallic judges to arbitrate. Gallic judges were sought because Gaul, they said, had not suffered from the persecution (see Augustine, Letters 88.7, for the text of the petition). In his role as chief magistrate of the Roman people, the emperor remitted the case to the bishop of Rome, who happened to be an African.
The hearing on 2-5 October 313 went against the opposition, now led by a Numidian bishop named Donatus, from Casae Nigrae (Black Huts), on the edge of the Sahara. His vigorous leadership lasted until his death in exile in 355 and gave the opposition their name, Donatists. However, a council of the western provinces of the empire, assembled at Arles on 1 August 314, also decided in favor of Caecilian; and after his consecrator, Felix of Aptunga, had been cleared of the accusation of being a traditor (February 315), the emperor himself pronounced judgment in his favor on 10 November 316.
Nevertheless, Donatus prevailed. His ruthlessness, his self- confidence, and the conviction with which he inspired his adherents bear some resemblance to Athanasius. According to Jerome (De viris illustribus 93), he “deceived nearly all Africa.” Evidence of the success of his movement is that Donatus won the allegiance of 270 bishops who attended a council over which he presided about 336 (Augustine, Letters 93.43).
Donatism remained the major form of Christianity in North Africa throughout the fourth century. This was due not only to the personalities of Donatus as bishop of Carthage and of his successor, Parmenian (355-391) but also to the fact that the Donatists continued the North African ecclesiastical tradition developed by Cyprian, combined with renewed acceptance of the role of martyrs and martyrdom in the church. Integrity and purity were, they claimed, the hallmarks of a Christian in the exclusive body of the elect who formed the church. This church was continuously directed by the Holy Spirit, a conviction that involved complete separation from the secular world and denial of the authority of the emperor in the affairs of the church; thus, the rhetorical question of Donatus to emissaries of Emperor Constans about 346: “What has the emperor to do with the church?” (Optatus On the Donatist Schism III.4).
In addition, the Donatists were practically supreme in the province of Numidia, especially in the rural areas (Optatus III.4; Frend, Donatist Church, chap. 12). In these areas an extreme form of Donatism known as the Circumcellion movement emerged. It combined devotion to the shrines of martyrs (hence their name, derived from circum cellas, “around shrines”) with acts of revolution and terrorism directed against the wealthy, whom they regarded as representatives of the devil (Optatus, III.4; Augustine, Letters 185.4.15).
The Donatists, therefore, became a far more formidable movement of dissent than the Melitians, and were more successful in retaining the loyalty of native Christians. Their weakness lay in the fact that the rest of Christendom accepted Caecilian and his successors as true bishops of Carthage; consequently the Donatists were not recognized by the emperors. It was only when prominent Numidian Donatists supported the rebellion against Emperor Flavius Honorius by Count Gildo (397-398), and lost, that their Catholic opponents could destroy them. Between 399 and 412 Augustine of Hippo and his friend Aurelius, bishop of Carthage, led an intensive and successful campaign against the Donatists. Propaganda, imperial legislation, and persecution all played their part.
In May 411 the Donatists were forced into a conference at Carthage with their opponents, and after three sessions of debate were condemned and proscribed under imperial legislation against heretics (Codex Theodosianus XVI.5.52 of 30 January 412). Donatism was severely weakened and showed little sign of activity during the Vandal occupation of North Africa (429-534). At the end of the sixth century, however, a series of letters by Pope Gregory I (590-604) allude to a strong revival of Donatism in the heartland of southern Numidia. The movement may not have died out until the arrival of the Arabs in the seventh century.
Like the MELITIAN SCHISM, the Donatist movement illustrates the strength of feeling among native Christians in the Mediterranean lands against collaboration with the authorities during the Great Persecution. With a strong provincial base in Numidia, the Donatists combined powerful leadership and adherence to a traditional biblical theology. For his part, Caecilian was no Athanasius, and in North Africa there was neither Antony nor Pachomius to swing native Christianity into conformity with the orthodoxy represented by the church in Carthage, which had remained in communion with the rest of Christendom.
Unlike the Melitians, the Donatists had to be suppressed by coercion. Only the combination of imperial power and the astute policies of Augustine and Aurelius prevented Donatism from permanently becoming the authentic voice of Christianity in North Africa. Its destruction may have contributed to the downfall of Christianity itself there. In North Africa there was no native “Coptic church” to withstand the onset of Islam in the seventh century.
- Berthier, A.; M. Martin; and F. Logeart. Les vestiges du christianisme antique dans la Numidie centrale. Algiers, 1942. Brisson, J. P. Autonomisme et christianisme dans l’Afrique romaine de Septime Sévère a l’invasion vandale. Paris, 1958.
- Brown, P. R. L. “Religious Coercion in the Later Roman Empire: The Case of North Africa.” History 48 (1963):283-305.
- Diesner, H. J. Kirche und Stadt im spätrömischen Reich, pp. 78-90. Berlin, 1963.
- Frend, W. H. C. The Donatist Church: A Movement of Protest in Roman North Africa. Oxford, 1971.
- Lepelley, C., ed. Les Lettres d’Augustine découvertes par J. Divjak.
- Etudes Augustiniennes. pp. 251-65. Paris, 1982.
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- Willis, C. G. Saint Augustine and the Donatist Controversy. London, 1950.
W. H. C. FREND