The Donatist Church: The First Berber Spring?
HIST 5199 Fall 2011 Professor Knight 12/5/2011
Introduction In March 1980, a lecture on Berber poetry by the Berber scholar, Mouloud Mammeri, was banned by the Algerian government. What resulted is now known as “Berber Spring” which consisted of weeks of demonstrations protesting the Algerian government’s prohibitive measure against Berber culture. Since Algerian independence in 1962, the Berber minority of that nation has sought increased cultural recognition among the Arab majority. This “Berber Spring” was the cataclysm of a brewing nationalist movement. It seemed as if the phenomenon of nationalism finally reached the Berbers; a long subdued people with an obscure history. Perhaps those like Hegel would consider this event the official awakening of the primordial Berber nation from its perpetual slumber. Yet to some historians this “Berber Spring” was not the first expression of Berber nationalism. For them, the Berber nation had stirred long before 1980. To demonstrate this, they refer back to the annals and archeological remains of antiquity. In early 5th century Roman North Africa, a band of armed religious zealots, known as Circumcellions, blocked a particular road in hope of capturing none other than St. Augustine of Hippo. Apparently by the hand of God, his guide erred and took the African Church Father to his destination via a different road.1 These Circumcellions were the “storm troopers” of the Donatist Church which Augustine spent decades combating. The Donatist Church separated itself from the Catholic Church and was located almost exclusively in North Africa from the 4th to 7th centuries. To some scholars, the Donatist Church was the first concrete expression of Berber nationalism that long predates the 1980 “Berber Spring.” In fact, some view the Donatist Church primarily as an expression of Berber nationalism against the Roman Empire. For instance, 1
Possidius, Life of Augustine, In The Fathers of the Church: Vol. XV: Early Christian Biographies: Roy Deferrari ed., 73-122 (USA: Fathers of the Church, INC., 1952), XII.
Martin Rist insists “Donatism represented the native poor and in its pronounced asceticism as well as its nationalism.”2 This differs from the traditional interpretation of Donatism as a movement of religious dissent against the Catholic Church. What, therefore, was the central impetus that sustained the Donatist Church? Was it Berber nationalist sentiment or religious dissent? This is the central question. Although extra-religious factors help explain the persistence of Donatism, it was undoubtedly a primarily religious movement. Yet the religious issues were not purely theological and instead dealt with the application of religion in society. This paper will argue that Donatism was not propelled by nationalist sentiment; instead this religious dispute is best understood when analyzed from a sociological standpoint. This paper will proceed by providing background information on the Donatist Church and the larger world it emerged in. Since this schism thrived centuries ago, it is necessary to speak of its historiography in terms of the primary and secondary sources that have addressed it. In order to consider whether or not Donatism was essentially a nationalist movement, a general definition of nationalism will be provided. The two paradigms, one characterizing Donatism as a religious movement and the other explaining the schism through nationalism, will be compared at length. After discussing the strengths and weaknesses of these two frameworks, Donatism will be analyzed from a sociological standpoint.
The Donatists and Their World The Donatist Church arose in the early 4th century during the historical period of the Late Roman Empire. By no means did this period mark the height of Roman political power. From the mid 3rd to late 5th century, Rome faced numerous external invasions, civil wars, and rebellions. In 2
Martin Rist, Review of: “The Donatist Church,” by W.H.C. Frend, The Journal of Religion, Vol. 33, no. 4 (1953): 299.
addition to such political setbacks, the Empire experienced economic downturn caused by a growing bureaucracy, increased taxes and monetary crises, and agricultural stagnation that curbed population growth.3 Paganism was the Empireâ€™s official religion for much of this period. During the late 3rd and early 4th centuries, the Christian minority of the Empire faced intermittent persecutions from the pagan majority. However, Christianity grew in popularity and uprooted paganism as Romeâ€™s official religion by the late 4th century. Yet this official religion was Catholicism, not Donatism. The Roman province that contained the Donatist Church was North Africa. Just prior to the outbreak of Donatism, Roman North Africa was divided into the six administrative units: Tripolitania, Byzacenum, Proconsular Africa, Numidia, Mauretania Sitifiensis, and Mauretania Caesariensis. Rome faced difficulties governing North Africa largely because of its mountainous terrain and lack of good roads. In general, the coastal, urbanized provinces like Proconsular Africa were more Romanized than provinces like Numidia which contained more rural areas with smaller populations. In addition to cities, towns, and villages, much of the North African landscape consisted of large farming estates that contained slave labor forces. During the Late Roman period, two general trends characterize the economy of North Africa. The first consisted of urban decline due partly to high taxation. The second was the relative stability of the agricultural sector.4 Another notable characteristic of North Africa during the mid to late 3rd century was the rapid Christianization of its population. In fact, this region became a focal point of Latin Christianity in the West.5
Peter Brown, Religion and Society in the Age of Augustine, (Great Britain: Harper Row Publishers, 1972), 62, 67. W.H.C. Frend, The Donatist Church: A Movement of Protest in Roman North Africa, (Great Britain: Oxford University Press, 1952), 38, 62. 5 Justo Gonzalez, The History of Christian Thought, Vol. I (Nashville: Abingdon, 1970), 175. 4
Culturally, the inhabitants of North Africa were Romanized, Berber, Punic, or mixed. The Romanized element of the population retained Roman cultural characteristics like the Latin language. They were descendants of Romans from different regions of the Empire. The political and or military accomplishments of their ancestors were rewarded with land settlements to colonize. Thus, the Romanized population of North Africa tended to be landowners.6 The next culture, Berber, is a generic label for the native inhabitants of North Africa that spoke a dialect of the Berber language.7 However, they were not culturally homogenous since their dialects were often mutually unintelligible. 8 Politically, Berbers were divided into various tribal groups. They were so widespread and diverse that different names described them. For example, Berbers of Mauretania are referred to as “Mauri” by the ancient sources which led to the term “Moor.”9 The last culture, Punic, had minimal influence in Late Roman Africa after Carthage’s grim fall to Rome during the Punic Wars.10 Thus, North Africa was a mix of Latin, Berber, and to a less, if any, extent Punic culture. Donatism originated after the persecution of Christians by the pagan Emperor Diocletian from 303-305 AD. Persecution was nothing new for the Christians of North Africa. They experienced it intermittently throughout the 3rd century from the emperors Severus (r. 193-211), Decius (r. 249-251), and Valerian (r. 253-260). Although none of these three persecutions were long lasting, each in its aftermath divided the Christians of North Africa. Hostility arose between the Christians who had withstood the persecution and those who denounced Christ. Some of the rigorists believed that the Church should not accept their lapsed brethren especially since other 6
Frend, The Donatist Church, 210. Glora Wysner, The Kabyle People, (United States of America: Privately Printed, 1945), 19. 8 Michael Brett and Elizabeth Fortress, The Peoples of Africa: The Berbers, (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 1997), 3. 9 Wysner, 18. 10 Peter Brown, “Christianity and Local Culture in Late Roman Africa,” The Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 58, no. 1-2 (1968): 85. 7
Christians had courageously suffered martyrdom at the hands of the persecutors. This took place in North Africa after the Decian persecution through the rise of the Novatian heresy which refused to readmit lapsed Christians.11 However, unity was restored to the church of Africa shortly after each persecution. Yet the same cannot be said in the wake of Diocletian’s persecution. Like previous persecutions, Christians were required to perform ritual acts and sacrifices to the pagan gods. However, Diocletian went further by ordering the closing and destroying of churches and the confiscation of Sacred Scriptures from clergy. These actions, intended to break the morale of Christians, ultimately divided them permanently in North Africa. After Diocletian’s persecution, the Christian community of North Africa split between the rigorist and conciliatory camps. The rigorists praised the heroic martyrs and those who endured torture and imprisonment at the hands of the Roman persecutors. They disdained Christians who renounced their faith and especially the clergy that surrendered the Sacred Scriptures. Thus, the aftermath of this persecution was particularly devastating because it divided the African clergy. Unfortunately for the rigorists, the conciliatory party was led by the highest ranking clergyman in North Africa, Mensurius, bishop of Carthage. He willingly readmitted the lapsed and questioned the intensions of some of the martyrs who he scoffed as debtors and or criminals.12 His death opened the chair of Carthage to Caecilian who became bishop of that city in 312. Caecilian angered the rigorists because like Mensurius, his predecessor, he pardoned the lapsed. Some of the rigorist bishops of Numidia, upset that they did not have a say in the election of the bishop of Carthage, nominated a rival bishop of their own liking named Majorinus (r. ca. 11
Frend, The Donatist Church, 128. Founded by the Antipope Novatian (ca. 200-258), Novatianists were schismatics who separated from the Catholics. Due to their rigorist outlook, they refused the pardoning of mortal sins and readmission to communion of those who lapsed during persecution. 12 Joseph Bryant, “The Sect-Church Dynamic and Christian Expansion in the Roman Empire: Persecution, Penitential Discipline, and Schism in Sociological Perspective,” The British Journal of Sociology Vol. 44, no. 2 (June 1993): 331.
311-315).13 This created a schism over the rightful bishop of Carthage. Majorinus was eventually succeeded by Donatus (r. ca. 315-355), surnamed “the Great,” by whom the schism received its name. This schism, unlike the previous ones that surfaced in North Africa after persecution, did not mend itself. In 313 the Donatists appealed to the Emperor Constantine (r. 306-37) to resolve their controversy with the Catholics under Caecilian. Furthermore, they accused Caecilian of surrendering the scriptures during the persecution. Constantine, busy with political affairs, passed this appeal to Miltiades, bishop of Rome. The Pope’s synod of October 313 vindicated Caecilian of the charges against him and declared him the rightful bishop of Carthage.14 This by no means pleased the Donatists or ended the schism. The issue was reconsidered at the Council of Arles in 314. Unfortunately for the Donatists, this council reached a similar verdict as the Pope’s previous synod by declaring that “they (the Donatists) neither have reasonableness in their argument, nor any moderation in their accusations.”15 The Church and the Empire spoke against the Donatists and yet this schism endured until the Muslim invasion of North Africa.
Historiography of Donatism Fortunately, the Donatist schism was relatively well documented. The central primary sources are St. Augustine of Hippo and St. Optatus of Milevis. Although both are considered reliable, it must be noted that they were Catholic polemicists against Donatism. Thankfully, some original Donatist writings have survived in the form of martyr stories and clerical works.
Optatus, Against the Donatists, Translated by Rev. O. R. Vassall-Phillips. (London; New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1917), I. xv. 14 Ibid, I. xxiv. 15 Letter of the Council of Arles to Pope Silvester, A.D. 314, In The Works of St. Optatus Bishop of Milevis: Against the Donatists, Translated by Rev. O. R. Vassall-Phillips (London; New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1917), 389.
Most of these valuable writings, translated in the last two centuries, do not provide a comprehensive picture of the schism. Other important primary sources of the period include the Codex Theodosianus and historians of the era like Ammianus Marcellinus, Claudian, Zosimus, and Orosius. These primary sources provide the foundation for the secondary scholarship on Donatism. For nearly a millennium after the existence of Donatism, scholars explained this schism as a solely theological dispute. For instance, during the Counter Reformation, interest resurfaced in Donatism since some Catholic thinkers claimed that elements of that schism reemerged in Protestantism. Like the Donatists, the Protestants were accused of rendering Christian unity.16 The first to emphasize the role of nationalism in the Donatist Schism was William Thummel in the late 19th century. Scholars split over this viewpoint until the early 1950s when W.H.C Frend buttressed and expanded Thummel’s ideas with archaeological evidence. Although Frend’s work received wide acclaim, other scholars insist that he overstated his case. Much of the secondary focus on Donatism since Frend has in some way addressed his seminal work. Two differing paradigms have emerged among scholars in their attempts to explain the pervasiveness and duration of the Donatist Church. One is the revisionist paradigm that highlights the extra-religious factors that propelled the Donatist Church. There are two wings of the revisionist paradigm. The Marxist or materialist interpretation views the Donatist Church as a native socio-economic movement of protest against the Roman Empire. This is expressed by P.R. Beaver who states that “the Donatist cause came to shelter under its name a true social and economic revolt.”17 The other wing of the revisionist camp insists that the Donatist Church was 16 17
Frend, The Donatist Church, xi. P.R. Beaver, “The Donatist Circumcellions,” Church History Vol. 4, no. 2 (1935): 123.
propelled by a nationalist struggle against the Roman Empire. For instance, G.L. Greenslade writes that the Donatists were “men with keen nationalist feelings (who) could not return to catholic unity.”18 M.P. Joseph adds a political element to this nationalist struggle by postulating that “the (Donatist) protest against the Catholic Church by the Berbers was…more basically against the State.”19 It is important to note that the two wings of the revisionist camp are mutually inclusive. For instance, scholars interpreting the Donatist Church as a nationalist movement use the economic grievances of the Berbers against Rome to buttress their argument. This is manifested by M.P. Joseph who claims that Donatism was sustained by “African nationalism and the rights of the poor against Roman imperialism.”20 In contrast to the revisionist perspective, numerous scholars uphold the central role religion played in sustaining the Donatist Church. In other words, they affirm the orthodox view of Donatism that interprets the schism as primarily religious in nature. This orthodox paradigm stresses how the period of late antiquity was one of great religious fervor. The primary concern of most was their individual salvation and the fate of empires was often linked to its official religious beliefs.21 Those of the orthodox position point out how religious feuds often survived for long periods even after their original causes became a distant memory. John Teall insists that “men will cling for years to religious values, irrational and immaterial as this may sound. Ecclesiastical history moves on its own track.”22 They caution against examining the past with a contemporary mindset and using terms like nationalism when describing Donatism. Peter Brown expresses this idea in his claim that “the search for a concrete basis of local discontent (in 18
S.L. Greenslade, Schism in the Early Church, (London: SCM Press LTD, 1953), 61. M.P. Joseph, “Heresy of the Majority: Donatist Critique of the Church-State Relationship,” Bangalore Theological Forum, Vol. 26 (June 1994): 70. 20 Ibid, 72. 21 A.H.M Jones, Were the Ancient Heresies Disguised Social Movements? (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966), 30. 22 John Teall, Review of: “Donatists and Catholics,” by Emin Tengstrom, The American Historical Review, Vol. 71, no. 2 (1968): 527. 19
Donatism) has been carried too far. To look for ‘nationalism’ of any sort in the Later Roman Empire would seem an anachronism.”23 All scholars of the orthodox mindset agree that the revisionist paradigm overstates its case.
Nationalism in Antiquity? In order to determine whether or not the Donatist Church functioned primarily as a Berber nationalist movement against the Roman Empire, it is helpful to establish a general definition of nationalism. If one adheres to a strictly “modernist” definition of nationalism that limits the phenomenon to the modern world, then the issue is fruitless to consider. The modern concept of nationalism does not apply to the Donatist Church which thrived in late antiquity long before mass industrialization, media, communication, culture, and literacy; universal citizenship, and the modern concept of the social-contract and nation-state.24 Thus, it is better to regard the position of scholars like Anthony Smith who highlight the ethnic origins of nationalism and trace elements of the phenomenon throughout history. They focus on group identity and how this has often crystallized into the pre-modern ethnic community with characteristics like a name, common culture, and association with a specific homeland.25 Therefore, was the Donatist Church a catalyst of Berber nationality and pride against Rome? Did this lead the Donatist Church to take action against Rome to achieve some form of political self-determination or separation? If the two prior questions can be answered in the affirmative, then Berber nationalism could be considered the central driving force behind the Donatist Church. How could the Donatist Church function as a catalyst of Berber nationality? Revisionists insist that the Berbers, through the Donatist Church, affirmed their homeland, culture and 23
Peter Brown, Religion and Society in the Age of Augustine, 250. Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism, (United States: Cornell University Press, 1983), 4, 46, 108. 25 Anthony Smith, National Identity, (United States: University of Nevada Press, 1991), 21. 24
ethnicity, and socio-economic status against Rome. The orthodox framework disagrees. Thus, it is best to explore and build off the revisionist and orthodox frameworks to reach a conclusion.
The Donatist Church: Catalyst of Berber nationality? The revisionist paradigm insists that it is no coincidence that North Africa was the homeland of both the Berbers and the Donatist Church. In this manner Donatism is seen as the church of the Berbers. Some in the Donatist Church recognized this homeland in the biblical verse that reads, “Tell me, O thou whom my soul loveth, where thou feedest, where thou makest thy flock to rest in the south” (Song 1:7). Here some Donatists loosely interpreted Christ speaking to his beloved Donatist Church located exclusively in the southernmost part of the Roman Empire, North Africa.26 From this it is clear that some Donatists recognized the exclusive homeland of their church that corresponded with that of the Berbers. Although the Donatists appointed a bishop of Rome, St. Optatus explains how the bishop was sent only “because some Africans (in Rome)…begged that someone should be sent from Africa to preside over their public worship.”27 Thus, Donatism spread outside North Africa only through members of that region living abroad. Donatism was the dominant religion of North Africa during the latter part of the fourth century.28 In certain parts of North Africa like Numidia, the Donatist Church is said to have held an overwhelming majority. 29 In this way the Donatist Church, confined to North Africa, is viewed as the church of the Berbers who shared the same homeland.
Augustine, Letters, In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 1 Translated by J.G. Cunningham (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887), 93. 8. 24. 27 Optatus, II. iv. 28 Frend, The Donatist Church, 169; Optatus, VII. i. 29 Jerome, On Illustrious Men, In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 3, Translated by Ernest Cushing Richardson (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1892), 93.
Through the Donatist Church, the Berbers fostered a collective consciousness and pride by embracing their culture and ethnicity. This is partly explained through the Donatist use of native Berber art forms in their churches and the Berber language in their liturgy. 30 It is also recognized how more Berbers were located in the hinterlands of North Africa where Donatism was more readily embraced. In general, the more settled, Romanized coastlands of North Africa embraced Catholicism, not Donatism. This polarity is manifested in the writings of St. Augustine when he conveys frustration at the lack of Catholic clergy fluent in the tongue of the indigenous Africans.31 In addition, the African pride of the Donatists was manifested through their identification of Simon of Cyrene, the man who helped Christ carry his cross, as a “fellowAfer.”32 Thus, Donatism seems to have been geared more towards the native Berbers while the Latin-speaking, Romanized Catholics remained foreign to them. The Berbers additionally affirmed their culture by expressing their traditional religiosity through the Donatist Church. The Berbers have often been depicted as a people inclined to a very strict religious disposition. Likewise, Donatists were more rigorist, pessimistic, and less intellectual than their Catholic rivals. Traditional African Christians like Tertullian were rigorists who encouraged martyrdom and did not accept multiple pardoning of grave sins. They were generally hostile to the philosophical knowledge of the world and embraced persecution and martyrdom at the hands of secular authorities.33 In contrast, the Catholics did not limit the number of times grave sins could be pardoned and found some validity in heretical baptism.34 30
S.L. Greenslade, Review of: “The Donatist Church” by W.H.C. Frend, The Classical Review, New Series, Vol. 4, no. 2 (1954): 155. 31 Augustine, Letters, 84. 2. 32 Brown, “Christianity and Local Culture in Late Roman Africa,” 89. 33 Tertullian, De Fuga in Persecutione, In Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4, Translated by S. Thelwall (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885), 1. 34 Geoffrey Willis, Saint Augustine and the Donatist Controversy, (London: S.P.C.K., 1950), 123, 153. Augustine concluded that an individual received latent grace if they received the sacraments outside the fold of the Church. The latent grace became full grace if the individual returned to the Catholic Church. Thus, there existed no need to re-administer the sacraments for those reentering the Church after receiving sacraments from
Their thinkers like St. Augustine penned philosophical treatises considered too intellectual for the few learned Donatist dogmatic theologians and numerous Berber peasants.35 Moreover, Donatism more closely modeled the level hierarchy of bishops that was a popular feature of African Christianity. The elevated and exclusive position of the Roman papacy was not fully recognized by the early African Church Fathers who supported an ecclesiastical model where power was localized in the hands of autonomous bishops.36 In this manner the Berbers found an outlet against Rome and the Catholic Church through the rigorist tendencies and more level hierarchy of the Donatist Church. Through the Donatist Church the lower-class Berbers expressed their socio-economic discontent against the Romanized upper-classes of North Africa. The receptivity to Donatism largely corresponded with socio-economic status. Revisionist historians point out how Donatism attracted the native Berber lower classes of Africa while the more Romanized upper class estate owners generally embraced Catholicism. At this time, the high imperial taxes were largely evaded by the upper classes and passed to the declining middle class and growing peasantry. 37 The economic frustrations of the peasantry toward Rome in turn fueled their discontent with Catholicism. The Catholic Church, unlike its Donatist counterpart, maintained the status quo by supporting the Empire and in turn received economic privileges and became a large landholder.38 This economic frustration of the Berbers manifested itself in the Donatist Circumcellion movement. These Circumcellions largely consisted of undesirables and lower-class Berbers and heretics. In contrast, the Donatists found no validity in sacraments conferred outside their fold and thus readministered the sacraments to those who joined their communion. 35 Frend, The Donatist Church, 238; Willis, 153. 36 Gonzalez, 250. 37 Frend, The Donatist Church, 60; Salvian, Goverance of God, In The Fathers of the Church: Goverance of God, Letters, Books to the Church, 21-232, Translated by Jeremiah Oâ€™Sullivan (New York: Cima Publishing Co., INC., 1947), V. vii. 38 Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 1, Translated by Arthur Cushman McGiffert (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1890), X. vii. 1-2; Rist, 299.
are seen as the “strong arm” of the Donatist Church. Some Donatists sanctioned these fanatic nomadic terrorists and their attacks against the rich and Catholic clergy. 39 Their anger against Rome was taken out against the Romanized estate owners of North Africa. This “social revolution” is suggested in Augustine’s writings where he questions, “What master was there who was not compelled to live in dread of his own servant, if he had put himself under the guardianship of the Donatists?”40 In this way the Berbers spurred socio-economic solidarity among themselves against the Romanized upper-class through Donatism. However, the orthodox framework by no means leaves the revisionist account unchallenged. They disagree that Berber North Africa was the exclusive homeland of Donatism. The sect was not isolated to North Africa since it established a Roman bishop and apparently attempted to evangelize Spain.41 The Donatist belief that North Africa was the home of the true church resulted from religious sentiment, not nationalism. Their later biblical exegesis of some of their members that highlighted North Africa as the home of the true church was an attempt for the sect to legitimate its existence after receiving no recognition from any non-African bishoprics.42 Nothing suggests the sect would have remained confined to Africa if some foreign bishops retained communion with the Donatists. Nationalist sentiment did not cause the Donatist persistence in the non-Romanized countryside. Numidia was not necessarily a rural province and by operating out of numerous cities like Carthage, Cirta, and Timgad, the Donatists inhabited the Romanized urban areas too.43 The Donatist success in rural areas resulted from the limitation of the Roman persecutions to urban areas and an unwillingness to antagonize the rural agricultural 39
Beaver, 125; Possidius, XII. Augustine, Letters, 185. 4. 15. 41 Jones, Were the Ancient Heresies Disguised Social Movements, 9. 42 Maureen Tilley, “Dilatory Donatists or Procrastinating Catholics: the Trial at the Conference of Carthage,” Church History, Vol. 60, no. 1 (1991): 17. 43 Brown, Religion and Society in the Age of Augustine, 85, 251. 40
sector which helped fuel the regional economy.44 Thus, the prevalence of Donatism in North Africa and Numidia did not result from nationalism. The orthodox historians challenge the apparent local African countercultural and ethnic movement against Rome through the Donatist Church. The Donatist Church was undoubtedly a product of wider Roman culture. This makes sense since throughout their history the Berbers have been influenced to some extent by their conquerors and the Roman period is no exception.45 Donatists did not deviate from the Roman religion of Catholicism; instead they claimed to be its only true inheritors. There is also no doubt that Latin was the language of culture for Roman North Africa and Donatism. Donatist hagiographies and clerical works are in Latin, not Berber.46 There is no evidence of Donatism using Berber in proud opposition to Latin. Rather if Berber was used it functioned as a sub-language for the largely bilingual society. 47 Latin, not Berber is found in Donatist churches, on their baptisteries, on graves of their martyrs, and the “Deo Laudes” war cry of the militant Circumcellions is Latin.48 In addition, Donatism did not limit its following to native Africans. For instance, the long-reigning Donatist bishop of Carthage, Parmenian (r. 355-391), was not African.49 Clearly Donatism did not reject Roman culture and exclusively embrace local Berber culture and ethnicity. The Donatist Church was well suited to the culturally rigorist tendencies of Berber religiosity. Yet such a rigorist religious disposition is not characteristically limited to the Berbers. Rigorists operated in Christianity long before that faith dominated North Africa. In fact, rigorist sects pre-dating Donatism that split from Catholicism, like Montanism and Novatianism, 44
Teall, 527. Jane Goodman, Berber Culture on the World Stage: From Village to Video, (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2005), 5. 46 Peter Brown, “Christianity and Local Culture in Late Roman Africa,” 90. 47 Ibid, 89, 92. 48 Jones, Were the Ancient Heresies Disguised Social Movements, 8-9. 49 Jones, Were the Ancient Heresies Disguised Social Movements, 8. 45
experienced little success in Christian North Africa.50 Both disfavored the Catholic ecclesial hierarchy: Montanism embraced the authority of individual prophets and Novatianism openly split from the bishop of Rome.51 Therefore, a rigorous and anti-hierarchical sect was not guaranteed success in North Africa. Simply because a sect was rigorist does not mean it sought an exclusive Berber membership or was anti-Roman. The puritanical Donatist Church appealed to the souls of the locals, not their nationalist sentiments against Rome. The supposed Berber social revolution against Rome through the Donatist Church is also countered. Donatism did not incite any class-conscious hatred of the poor against the rich. It is important to recognize how the revisionist model is simplified since there are records of Donatist landowners and Catholic peasants.52 If Donatism crystallized any antagonism between the peasantry and landowners, it was through religion. In the wake of Roman persecution, the rich, since they had more to lose, generally succumbed to the pagan authorities more than the poor.53 If anything, the Donatists opposed such Romanized estate owners not because they were wealthy but more so because they considered some Christian traitors. Donatism was more popular among rural peasant laborers because the Empire was hesitant to persecute them on religious grounds for fear of curtailing agricultural profits. The Roman Empire did not legally persecute the Donatist agricultural laborers until the year 411, a near century after the genesis of the schism.54 Orthodox historians refute the interpretation of the Circumcellions as social revolutionaries. They were not the dregs and thugs of society as the Catholic polemicists condescendingly described them. Some were of an order of landowning olive harvesters of southern Numidia 50
Greenslade, Review of: “The Donatist Church,” 155. Gonzalez, 176. 52 Greenslade, Review of: “The Donatist Church,” 155. 53 Jones, Were the Ancient Heresies Disguised Social Movements, 10. 54 The Theodosian Code and Novels, and the Sirmondian Constitutions, Translated by Clyde Pharr (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1952), XI. I. 31. 51
while others were simply religious fanatics who violently reacted to attacks against their faith.55 No evidence exists of an exclusively Berber agenda among the Circumcellions. Ultimately nothing suggests that the Donatist Church adopted a social revolutionary program with a nationalist agenda to uplift the Berber poor against the Romanized estate owners of North Africa. The two frameworks have clearly formed contrasting interpretations of the Donatist Church. Was the Donatist Church a catalyst of Berber nationality and pride against Rome? The revisionists answer in the affirmative and cite the geographical location, culture and ethnicity, socio-economic breakdown of Donatism as evidence of a conscious Berber nationalism steering the movement. Yet the orthodox perspective provides a strong counterargument on all these issues. It reveals that many of the revisionist generalizations are at best half-truths. The orthodox rebuttal has made the nationalist argument far less viable.
Was Donatism an Anti-Roman Political Movement? It is best to return to the second part of the previously listed general definition of nationalism. Did the Donatist Church take action against Rome to achieve some form of political self-determination or separation? If Donatism was primarily a Berber nationalist movement against Rome, it would have resisted the Empire in an either passive or active manner. If the Donatists resisted passively, they would have pursued an anti-imperial agenda that encouraged little to no involvement in Roman political affairs or a conscious pacifist resistance. If the sect resisted aggressively, it would have taken some action to achieve self-determination or political autonomy independent of Rome. The historical record, which thankfully sheds more light on the politics of Roman Africa, must therefore be analyzed to check for any traces of such resistance. 55
Augustine, Letters, 108. 6. 18, 185. 4. 15; Louis Swift, Review of: â€œDonatists and Catholics,â€? by Emin Tengstrom, The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 88, no. 1 (1967): 96.
Some revisionists find Berber nationalism in the Donatist Church through the sect’s hostility to the Roman secular authorities. The Donatists are considered anti-imperialists who scorned the Romans as evil persecutors. They made no distinction between the sufferings endured at the hands of the pagan emperors and that of the Christian emperors after Constantine. Catholicism was chastised for its cooperation with the Roman Empire since the Donatists believed that the true church was one which suffers persecution instead of implementing it.56 This made the Donatists hostile to the State and unwilling to partake in it. This idea is manifested in the words of the sect’s most illustrious bishop, Donatus the Great. When offered material support from the Emperor Constantius II (r. 337-61), he famously quipped, “What has the Emperor to do with the Church?”57 Donatist hagiographies also reflect similar values. For instance, in the story of Felix, bishop and martyr, the protagonist declares to his Roman persecutors, “It is better for me to be burned in the fire than the sacred scriptures, because it is better to obey God than any human authority.”58 Thus, the Donatists seemed hostile to the Empire and unwilling to operate within its confines. Such resistance to the State could have been facilitated by Berber nationalist sentiment against Rome. Donatist resentment of the secular authorities could have germinated after suffering numerous persecutions. The sect emerged from a tradition that deliberately remained at odds with the State. For instance, Tertullian insisted that the State was a completely foreign concept to the Christian.59 The native Christians of North Africa were used to intermittent persecutions at the hands of the pagan Roman emperors. This continued for the Donatist Church which grew
Frend, The Donatist Church, 259. Optatus, III. iii. 58 The Acts of Saint Felix Bishop and Martyr, In Donatist Martyr Stories: The Church in Conflict in Roman North Africa, 8-11, Translated by Maureen A. Tilley (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1996), 9-10. 59 Frend, The Donatist Church, 327. 57
accustomed to suffering persecution at the hands of the Catholics. Such persecutions came from the emperors Constantine, Constantius II, Theodosius (r. 379-95), Honorius (r. 395-423), and from numerous Catholic imperial officials like Paul and Macarius.60 Such actions were ultimately justified by the Catholics. For instance, Augustine writes of the Donatists, “It is not their death, but their deliverance from error, that we seek to accomplish by the help of the terror of judges and of laws.”61 Some scholars have claimed that such persecution fueled the Donatist antiimperial and Berber nationalist sentiments against Rome. Nonetheless, such a passive, anti-imperial form of Berber nationalism through the Donatist Church has been readily challenged. The historical record of Donatist appeals to the Roman Empire counters their proposed insistence that Church and State are inseparable. Ironically, the Donatists first involved the secular authorities in the religious affairs of Africa after Caecilian’s election in 312. They wrote to the Emperor Constantine, “we beseech thee that thy piety may command that we be granted judges from Gaul; for between us and other Bishops in Africa disputes have arisen.”62 Although Constantine disfavored the Donatists, the sect did not cease seeking imperial aid. Such support came from the pagan Emperor Julian (r. 361-63) who released many Donatist leaders from exile and supported them in their struggle against the mutual Catholic enemy. Augustine recognized this alliance and criticized how the Donatists supported a man who “they knew to be an apostate, and whom they saw to be so given over to idolatry.”63 Unfortunately for the Donatists, the reign of Julian was brief and no subsequent emperors supported them. However, they did not cease working within the legal confines of the Roman Empire to better their situation. For instance, they requested a conference against the 60
Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vols. I-III (Great Britain: The Penguin Press, 1994), II xxi, III xxxiii; Optatus, III.i. 61 Augustine, Letters, 100. 1. 62 Optatus, I. xxii. 63 Augustine, Letters, 93. 4. 12.
Catholics in 406.64 Their wish was granted in the State-sanctioned Council of Carthage in 411 where they participated and were condemned. Clearly the Donatist Church was not anti-imperial and worked within the confines of the State to advance their agenda. The view of Donatist nationalism taking the form of a conscious anti-imperial movement simply does not stand. After Constantine rejected their cause, there was a brief period when the Donatists wanted the secular apparatus to separate from religious affairs. Yet this was not unique since other contemporary religious figures like St. Hilary of Poitiers and St. Athanasius complained when Constantius II decreed against their doctrine. However, the anti-imperialism of the two previously mentioned saints and the Donaists did not remain after their doctrine received secular backing. 65 The Donatists certainly took advantage of it whenever it was granted. When the Emperor Julian favored them they readily persecuted the Catholics with violent frenzy.66 They also sought support and gained sympathy from rebel political leaders and Imperial officials like Firmus (d. 375), Flavian (r. 377), a professed Donatist, and Gildo (d. 398) to persecute the schismatic elements within the Donatist Church itself.67 Even after the Roman government passed legal decrees against the Donatists, the sect continued persecuting Catholics by destroying their churches and sacred scriptures, rebaptizing them, and even murdering some of their members.68 If Berber nationalism steered the Donatist Church, it clearly did not take the form of a pacifist, anti-imperial resistance against Rome that took no part in State affairs and instead attempted to foster conscious solidarity among its members against Rome by suffering persecution. 64
Frend, The Donatist Church, 286. A.H.M Jones, The Later Roman Empire, Vols. 1-2, (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964), Vol. 2 935; Brown, Religion and Society in the Age of St. Augustine, 249. 66 Optatus, II. xvi. 67 Augustine, Letters 51. 3; 87. 10; Swift, 96. 68 Willis, 61. 65
Therefore, did Donatist nationalism entail an active resistance against the Empire? Did the Donatist Church desire to achieve some sort of self-determination by separating itself politically from Rome? There are three separate instances where this question can be tested. Some revisionists insist the Donatists allied with the rebel usurpers of North Africa, Firmus and Gildo, and the Vandals prior to their invasion of North Africa in 429.69 Therefore, it is necessary to analyze the actions of the Donatist Church during the rebellions of Firmus, Gildo, and the Vandal invasion of North Africa. Firmus was one of many rebels and usurpers of the Late Roman Empire. There is no mention of him prior to his rebellion and his religious faith is uncertain. Nevertheless, the historical record mentions that he was the son of a prominent Moorish leader, Nubel, chief of the Jubaleni tribe.70 By recognizing Roman suzerainty, Nubel was rewarded with significant wealth which he left as an inheritance for his many sons.71 Consequently, his sons vied against one another for full possession of their father’s wealth. Such infighting partly led to Firmus’ rebellion against Rome in North Africa. There are two recognized causes behind Firmus’ rebellion. The first entails Firmus’ secret murder of Zammac, his brother and rival to his father’s fortune. Romanus, the Roman comes of Africa, greatly favored the murdered Zammac and was therefore enraged against Firmus.72 Romanus sought to avenge Zammac by reporting Firmus’ crime to Emperor Valentinian I (r. 364-375). Firmus, unable to directly appeal to the Emperor and fearing execution without a fair trial, was left with little other choice but rebellion. 73 In addition to his 69
Jones, Were the Ancient Heresies Disguised Social Movements, 5. Marcellinus, Ammianus Marcellinus, Vols. 1-3, English Translation by John C. Rolfe (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1935), XXIV. v. 2. 71 Gibbon, II. xxv. 3. 72 Marcellinus, XXIV. v. 2. 73 Ibid, XVIV. v. 2. 70
feud with Romanus, his rebellion was a reaction to Roman administrative corruption and high taxation.74 The fact that Firmus’ rebellion lasted some three years demonstrates how he attained a certain level of support from native North Africans against Rome. He quickly won over several Moorish tribes and with their help sacked the important city of Caesarea in Mauretania.75 His actions were generally limited to this region during the rebellion but there is evidence he also received support in Numidia where Donatism was primarily rooted.76 Valentinian reacted to the rebellion by sending a small body of veteran Roman legionaries to suppress it. Firmus fought a war of attrition along the expansive plains of Gaetulia and valley of Mt. Atlas against them.77 To successfully protract this war, both sides sought the support of the local Moorish tribes. They additionally sought the loyalty of the sons of Nubel as three of Firmus’ brothers: Mascezel, Dius, and Mazuca, allied with him while his other brother, Gildo, fought with the Romans.78 After a string of defeats and failure to break the will of the Roman troops, Firmus was betrayed by some of the local tribes and resorted to taking his own life in 375. Some cite the involvement of the Donatist Church during this rebellion as evidence of nationalism. Marcellinus once mentions how Firmus, after losing two battles to the Romans, “sent priests of the Christian sect with hostages to beg for peace.”79 This is all that historian reports about religion in the conflict but most highlight how those previously mentioned priests were Donatists since they are said to be “of the Christian sect” and not “Catholic” or simply
Ibid, XXVII. ix. 1; Zosimus, Historia Nova: The Decline of Rome, Translated by James J. Buchanan and Harold T. Davis (San Antonio, Texas: Trinity University Press, 1967), IV. xvi. 75 Orosius, The seven books of history against the pagans; the apology of Paulus Orosius, Translated by Irving Raymond (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936), VII. xxxiii. 76 Gibbon, II. xxv. 3. 77 Ibid, II. xxv. 3; Marcellinus, XXIX. v. 4, 7. 78 Marcellinus, XXIX. v. 6, 11, 41. 79 Ibid, XXIX. v. 15.
“Christian.”80 In addition, some of the writings of Augustine are used as evidence of clear Donatist backing of Firmus. He notes in one letter how some nicknamed the Donatists “Firmiani” for their support of the rebel and how the Donatist bishop of Rusabiccari opened the city’s gates to Firmus.81 The rebellion has been generalized as a conflict where the Donatists and Berber lower classes followed Firmus while the Catholics and upper classes fought against him. The Catholics seemed more than willing to support the Empire against the usurper. Firmus met the most native resistance at the Catholic stronghold of Tipasa.82 Augustine defended Romanus for acting “in behalf of unity” against the Donatists and that all his actions against them were, “in accordance with the laws.”83 This conflict is cited as evidence of the Donatist Church backing Firmus to separate from the Roman Empire. This view regarding Firmus’ rebellion as a Berber nationalist movement is questionable. It is generally noted that his rebellion was typical of other usurpations at the time and there exists no clear evidence of nationalism. Firmus had no evident nationalist agenda but instead rebelled due to his conflict with Romanus and fear how the latter was vehemently seeking his execution for the murder of his brother.84 Firmus took advantage of his noble upbringing from a Moorish princely family, local resentment of high Roman taxes, and religious dissent to build a power base against the Empire. If anything, such support of Donatism was circumstantial, not ideological. He was a usurper of the normal type seeking local aid to solidify his power-base against Rome. His war was not a conflict of Berbers against Romanized Africans as the Moorish tribes wavered back and forth against him. If he had clear nationalist aspirations, it is hard to 80
Frend, The Donatist Church, 73. Augustine, Letters, 87. 10. 82 Frend, The Donatist Church, 73. 83 Augustine, Against the Letters of Petilian, In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 4 Translated by J. R. King (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1994), III. xxv. 29. 84 Marcellinus, XXIV. v. 2. 81
conceptualize how his own brother, Gildo, sided against him and fought for the Romans.85 Ultimately Firmus’ rebellion resembles a typical usurpation, not a nationalist rebellion. The Donatist support of Firmus is not particularly surprising. As a Roman rebel, he was an enemy of Rome and its officially sanctioned Catholic Church, the enemy of the Donatists. All too often the cliché rings true in that an enemy of an enemy becomes a friend. Just as the Donatists took advantage of the support of the pagan Emperor Julian, they did the same with Firmus. He gave the Donatist Church an opportunity to persecute its own sectarians. During this time the Donatists turned on one of their own sects called the Rogatists, followers of the Bishop Rogatus. Augustine writes to a Donatist bishop, “the followers of Rogatus…call you Firmiani, as you call us Macariani.”86 The Donatists called the Catholics “Macariani” to remind them how the Catholic official Macarius persecuted Donatists in 347. In this letter Augustine turns the table on the Donatists by pointing out how those they persecute associate the Donatists with Firmus, the official who allowed their persecution. Thus, to interpret the label “Firmiani” as constituting a deep-rooted political alliance between Firmus and the Donatists is misguided. Instead the title shows how the Donatists took advantage of the support of Firmus to persecute the sects that emerged from their own church. Augustine uses the title to rebuke the religious agenda of the self-styled church of the persecuted for initiating persecutions itself, not for following an antiRoman political agenda. Besides pursuing these religious aims under Firmus, there is no evidence that the Donatists pursued political goals to separate from Rome under Firmus.87 If it is shortsighted to label Firmus’ rebellion a nationalist movement, it remains necessary to consider his brother Gildo’s usurpation. This same Gildo sided with the Romans against his brother Firmus’ rebellion. As a result, Emperor Theodosius rewarded Gildo’s loyalty 85
Ibid, XXIX. v. 6.
Augustine, Letters, 87. 10.
Frend, The Donatist Church, 171; Jones, The Later Roman Empire, 1034.
to Rome by appointing him comes of Africa in 386. He gained ties to the Imperial house when his daughter Salvina was married to a nephew of the Empress Aelia Flaccilla.88 Little is said of Gildo’s religion yet historians have commented on his character. Claudian does not paint a picture of a pious ruler when he writes that Gildo “is never quiet; when greed is sated lust is rampant; day is a misery to the rich, night to the married.”89 Even prior to Gildo’s rebellion, his loyalty to the Empire was questioned after he failed to aid Theodosius in suppressing the usurper Eugenius.90 Perhaps this foreshadowed Gildo’s own rebellion. Gildo’s rebellion was largely a result of historical circumstances. He broke ties with the Empire after the death of Emperor Theodosius in 395.91 He evidently wished to cut ties with the Western Roman Empire. This is manifested when Gildo tried to cede North Africa to the Eastern Roman Empire.92 He supposedly attempted to take advantage of the split of the Empire after Theodosius’ sons, Honorious and Arcadius, were appointed over the Western and Eastern Empires respectively. Both young emperors had regents who ruled for them: Stilicho for Honorius and Eutropius for Arcadius. The two regents became rivals and Gildo apparently forged an agreement with Eutropius against Stilicho.93 However, this arrangement never fully materialized probably because Gildo ambitiously hoped to extend his suzerainty over Libya, a province of Eastern Rome.94 Nonetheless, Gildo evidently viewed the ambitious Stilicho as a rival and possible threat to his connections to the house of Theodosius. This rivalry took full form when Gildo flexed his muscle by withholding the all-important North African corn fleet 88
J.B. Bury, A History of the Later Roman Empire: From Arcadius to Irene, Vols. 1-2, (London: Macmillian and Co., 1889) I. 76. 89 Claudian, Claudian, Vols. 1-2, Translated by Maurice Platnauer (Great Britain: William Heinemann., 1922), I. 111. 90 Ibid, I. 117. 91 Orosius, VII. xxxvi. 92 Ibid, VII. xxxvi; Zosimus, V. xi. 93 Zosimus, V. xi. 94 Claudian, I. 109.
that fed Italy in 397.95 Attempting to starve Italy to submission was essentially an act of war which is exactly what followed. The loss of North Africa and its bountiful harvest from Gildoâ€™s rebellion seemed disastrous for the Western Roman Empire. Luckily, famine was avoided in Italy after Stilicho brought in supply ships from Gaul and Hispania.96 Meanwhile, the usurper continued mobilizing support from the Roman soldiers under his command, the native populace, and the Moorish tribes against a potential Roman invasion.97 Fortunately for Stilicho, Gildoâ€™s own brother, Mascezel, desired to lead an expedition to suppress the rebellion and restore Africa to the Empire. Clearly the discord that divided the sons of Nubel during the rebellion of Firmus continued during the rebellion of Gildo. The rivalry proved fatal after Mascezel narrowly avoided death at the hands of Gildo; however, his children were not so lucky. 98 Stilicho gave Mascezel the opportunity to avenge himself by providing him with an army and fleet. Once in Africa, the determined advance of Mascezel caught Gildo by surprise at the Aradalio River in Numidia and caused a full rout of the rebel army. 99 The defeated Gildo, like his brother Firmus, took his own life and North Africa was reincorporated into the Western Roman Empire. Like the rebellion of Firmus, the actions of the Donatists during the subsequent rebellion of Gildo have also been viewed as an expression of Berber nationalism. Some scholars have pointed to the actions of certain Donatists during this rebellion to reinforce this idea. The key Donatist actor during this revolt was Bishop Optatus of Timgad who is said to have struck up a direct alliance with Gildo.100 This notion comes from the writings of Augustine who refers to the 95
Jones, The Later Roman Empire, 183. Bury, I. 77. 97 Gibbon, III. xxix. 98 Claudian, I. 27; Orosius, VII. xxxvi. 99 Orosius, VII. xxxvi; Zosimus, V. xi. 100 Augustine, Against the Letters of Petilian, I. x. 11; E.L. Woodward, Christianity and Nationalism in the Later Roman Empire, (London: Ballantine and Co. LTD., 1916), 35. 96
bishop of Timagad as, “Gildonianus,” or “satellite of Gildo.”101 Optatus took full advantage of Gildo’s support by mobilizing bands of native Circumcellions and transforming them into an armed force to terrorize the enemies of Donatism.102 In some of his writings, Augustine attempts to shame the Donatists for their association with the violent Optatus. For instance, he asks the Donatists, “What then can the name of Donatus (the Great) profit you, when all of you alike are polluted by Optatus?103 The nationalism of Optatus is highlighted through his attacks on the Romanized landowners and the Catholic Church.104 If Gildo successfully separated North Africa from the Roman Empire, would he have established a Berber polity with the Donatist Church as its official religion? One can only speculate. The counterargument against the nationalist overtones behind Gildo’s rebellion is similar to the one made against Firmus. Like Firmus’ rebellion, Gildo’s was typical of other usurpations at the time and there exists no clear evidence of nationalism. Gildo is viewed as a power-hungry opportunist who took advantage of his position to arouse local resentment against the Western Roman Empire.105 It is not clear whether he desired full independence or simply increased autonomy. If his desire was to cede North Africa to the Eastern Roman Empire, then his goal was to increase his autonomy by serving a more distant sovereign. He is simply regarded as a pretender to the throne who had connections to the Imperial house and there is no evidence to suggest that he wanted to fully separate from the Roman Empire and establish a Berber polity. 106 There is little to suggest he adopted a nationalist agenda since the malicious actions against his brother Mascezel, who had previously fought against the Romans under Firmus, made him 101
Augustine, Against the Letters of Petilian, I. x. 11. Beaver, 127; Frend, The Donatist Church, 209. 103 Augustine, Against the Letters of Petilian, II. xxxix. 94. 104 Beaver, 127; Frend, The Donatist Church, 209. 105 Frend, The Donatist Church, 221. 106 Jones, The Later Roman Empire, 966, 1034; Bury, I 76. 102
defect to their side.107 Gildo was considered cruel and impious so it is quite apparent he was not leading a religious movement.108 The fact that Orosius refers to Gildo as a “heathen” suggests that he was not a Donatist; let alone a Christian.109 The Catholics referred to Donatists as “schismatics” or at most “heretics” but the label “heathen” does not fit for one who professes the divinity of Christ. Ultimately Gildo’s rebellion resembles the typical actions of other usurpers, not a nationalist movement. Like Firmus before him, the Donatist support of Gildo is not particularly surprising. He too was an enemy of Rome and its officially sanctioned Catholic Church, the enemy of the Donatists. This enemy of an enemy became a friend just like Julian the Apostate or Firmus. There is nothing to suggest that Gildo’s alliance with Optatus of Timgad reflected any nationalist agenda.110 Like Firmus, Gildo gave the Donatist Church an opportunity to persecute its enemies which Optatus certainly took advantage of. He led his Circumcellions against a sect of the Donatist Church known as the Maximianists, followers of a certain Bishop Maximianus.111 Augustine’s label “Gildonianus” for Optatus does not suggest that Optatus and Gildo pursued a nationalist or social agenda.112 Instead it rebuked Optatus for his severe religious persecution of Maximianists and Catholics in the same way the Donatists under Firmus were titled “Firmiani” for their persecution of the Rogatists.113 Augustine does not associate a direct connection between Gildo and any other Donatist except Optatus.114 As bishop of Timgad, Optatus was not the head of the Donatist Church since at this time it was headed by Primian, Bishop of Carthage. 107
Marcellinus, XXIX. v. 14; Zosimus, V. xi. Claudian, I. 111. 109 Orosius, VII. xxxvi. 110 Swift, 96. 111 Augustine, Letters, 51. 3. 112 Augustine, Against the Letters of Petilian, I. x. 11; Jones, Were the Ancient Heresies Disguised Social Movements, 6. 113 Augustine, Letters, 87. 10. 114 Swift, 96. 108
Thus the independent actions of Optatus do not reflect the official position of the Donatist Church. Besides pursuing these religious aims under Gildo, there is no evidence that the Donatist Church pursued political goals to separate from Rome under the pretender. Since it is difficult to find Berber nationalism through the Donatist Church in the rebellions of Firmus and Gildo, it remains necessary to consider the Vandal invasion of Roman North Africa in 429. The Vandal tribe first threatened the Roman Empire after crossing the Rhine in the year 406 and settling in Spain by 409.115 Like most of the Germanic tribes of the Late Roman Empire, the Vandals adopted Arian Christianity which, unlike Catholicism and Donatism, did not recognize the equality of Persons in the Trinity. Prior to their invasion of North Africa, the Vandals settled in southern Spain around Baetica and bridged the narrow gap to Africa by building a fleet.116 There remains uncertainty surrounding the cause of the Vandal invasion of Roman North Africa in 429. The central question entails whether or not the Vandals were invited into North Africa. Regardless of the exact details, the fact that Roman North Africa was plagued with external invasions and civil war made it an enticing prey for the Vandals. Augustine’s letter of 427 to Boniface, the Roman count of Africa, complains of the porous frontier of the province when he questions, “What shall I say of the devastation of Africa at this hour by hordes of African barbarians?”117 Boniface could do little about these tribal incursions since he was occupied fighting a civil war against two Roman expeditions sent to arrest him because of his apparent disloyalty to the Empire.118 Count Boniface was pardoned and cleared of these
Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians, (Untied States: Oxford University Press, 2006), 195. 116 Bury, I. 162. 117 Augustine, Letters, 220. 7. 118 Bury, I. 167-168; Procopius, History of the Wars, Vols. 1-7, English translation by H.B. Dewing (London: William Heinemann; New York: The Macmillan co., 1914), III. iii. 16-23.
treasonable charges by the Roman Empress Galla Placidia in 429.119 Yet there was no respite for the distressed province since it was soon faced with a Vandal invasion. The traditional account claims that someone, either Boniface or his opponents during the civil war, forged an alliance with the Vandals and invited them in to Africa once threatened.120 A counter view claims the Vandals invaded on their own accord and would not have been invited by Boniface because he was reconciled with the Empire before the Vandal invasion of 429.121 Regardless, the Vandals found North Africa quite vulnerable and ultimately made it their new homeland. Some revisionist historians suggest that the invading Vandals were supported by the Donatist Church. Supposedly, the Donatists viewed the Vandals as liberators and allied with them in their apparent effort to overcome the Catholics and separate themselves from the Roman Empire.122 Some have suggested that the Donatists, not Boniface or his opponents, invited the Vandals into North Africa and that the havoc the latter wreaked on Africa was amplified by Donatist reprisals against the Catholics.123 This supposed alliance between the Donatists and the Vandals is suggested from one of the letters of St. Augustine to Count Boniface. In 416 the Bishop of Hippo wrote to Boniface that “some of them (the Donatists), wishing to conciliate the Goths, since they see that they are not without a certain amount of power, profess to entertain the same belief as they.”124 The apparent Arian strains within Donatist theology are also mentioned by St. Jerome who writes of Donatus the Great that “Many of his works, which relate to his heresy, are extant, including On the Holy Spirit, a work which is Arian in doctrine.”125 In this manner the Vandals have been portrayed as liberators of the Donatists who they shared more in 119
Heather, 268. Bury, I. 68; Gibbon, III. xxxiii; Procopius, III. iii. 23-29. 121 Heather, 268. 122 Frend, The Donatist Church, 297; Gibbon, III. xxxiii; Wysner, 39. 123 Bury I. 170; Gibbon, III. xxxiii. 124 Augustine, Letters, 185. 1. 1. 125 Jerome, 93. 120
common with religiously than the Catholics. Thus, the nationalist aspirations of the Donatists were channeled through their support of the Vandals who they saw as political and religious liberators from Rome and Catholicism. Like their supposed political alliances with Firmus and Gildo, the Donatist pact with the Vandals has been thoroughly scrutinized. The element of Donatist support for the Vandals is only found in Augustineâ€™s letter to Boniface in 416 and that was solely forged on religious grounds.126 It is only natural for the Donatist Church to seek aid since by 416 they were on the decline in North Africa after their defeat at the Council of Carthage in 411 and heightened Roman persecution. There is no evidence of a distinct political alliance between the Donatist Church and the Vandals to separate the former from the Roman Empire.127 As previously mentioned, it is quite uncertain if the Vandals were invited to invade North Africa. If they were invited, it seems unlikely that it came from the Donatists since no evidence indicates and it is hard to conceive they were communicating with the Vandals in southern Spain.128 Augustine only mentions how some Donatists were in communication with the â€œGothsâ€? which does not necessarily mean they were Vandals since Boniface had Arian Germanic troops under his command.129 If Donatist support of the Vandals existed, it rests only on religious grounds. The supposed religious similarity between the Vandals and Donatists is also challenged. Although Jerome claimed that the works of Donatus the Great were Arian in doctrine, Augustine insists that he did not sustain Arian views.130 Unfortunately the work of Donatus the Great that Jerome refers to is not extant today. Nevertheless, the fact that Donatism was a schism and not a
Augustine, Letters, 185. 1. 1; Jones, The Later Roman Empire, 966. Jones, Were the Ancient Heresies Disguised Social Movements, 7. 128 Ibid, 7. 129 Augustine, Letters, 185. 1. 1; 220. 8. 130 Ibid, 185. 1. 1; Jerome, 93. 127
heresy conveys that it shared the same faith as the Catholics.131 The view of the major African sources on Donatism, namely Optatus of Milevis and Augustine insisting how the schismatic church shared the same religious doctrine as the Catholis, is more trustworthy than the view of Jerome, a distant spectator. Donatism consumed much of the concerns and intellectual pursuits of Optatus and Augustine, not Jerome. Even if some Donatists had tried to draw theological parallels with the Arian Vandals, these were not sustained as the official doctrine of the Donatist Church.132 It is therefore hard to believe that the Donatists felt they had more in common with the Arians than the Catholics in terms of religion. The strongest counterargument against the supposed Donatist political alliance with the Vandals rests after their invasion of North Africa. There is nothing to suggest that the Donatists were favored by the Vandal invaders. Some have credited the Vandals success in Africa from the Donatist support they received although no evidence of this exists.133 Instead the Vandal triumph is largely explained from the fact that Bonifaceâ€™s mostly lower-quality Roman frontier troops were thinly spread across Africa and beleaguered from prior Moorish incursions and civil war.134 Regardless, the Donatists did not take advantage of the Vandal invasion and subsequently fell into obscurity which strongly suggests that they, like the Catholics, were victims of the Vandal persecution against non-Arians.135 Two sources on Donatism in the wake of the Vandal invasion by no means indicate any political alliance. One letter of Pope Leo the Great replies to the Gallic bishop, Rusticus, who questions whether the apparent Donatists that fled Africa to his bishopric should be baptized into the Catholic faith.136 The Donatists could not have received much favor 131
Optatus, V. i. Augustine, Letters, 185. 1. 1. 133 Gibbon, III. xxxiii. 134 Jones, The Later Roman Empire, 197, 652. 135 Frend, The Donatist Church, 303; Jones, The Later Roman Empire, 263. 136 Leo the Great, Pope, Letters, In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 12, Translated by Charles Lett Feltoe (From Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1895), 167. XVIII. 132
from the Vandals if some were leaving Africa for Gaul. The other source on the Donatists at this time, the Catholic bishop Victor of Vita, mentions Donatism only in regard to one of its followers who fell into the Arian faith.137 No Donatist alliance with the Vandals is spoken of and if it existed it most likely would have been highlighted to attack the sect.138 Ultimately it is more likely that the Donatists were persecuted, not favored by the Vandals. It is plain that any Donatist support of Firmus, Gildo, or the Vandals rested on religious grounds and sheer political expediency, not nationalism. Even W.H.C. Frend, one of the leading scholars stressing the role of extra-religious factors that sustained Donatism, sensibly recognizes this. He dismisses the political motives of the Donatist Church and recognizes that, “Their outlook was firmly fixed on what might happen in the next world. The Roman Empire was to them the symbol of the imperfection of the present transitory phase. There is no evidence that they envisaged its overthrow even in Africa.”139 This with contrasts thinkers like E.L. Woodward and M.P. Joseph who view the religious factors behind Donatism as a mere cloak over the political goals and nationalist sentiment of the Berbers.140 Their view is not in the majority. Thus, nationalism should not be considered the central impetus of Donatism.
Extra-Religious Factors in Donatism Despite the strong orthodox counterargument against the revisionist paradigm, it is likely that some extra-religious factors helped sustain the Donatist Church to a certain extent. Donatism is understood less thoroughly if it is interpreted as a solely theological movement. Scholars
Victor of Vita, History of the Vandal Persecution, Translated by John Moorhead (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1992), III. 71. 138 Jones, Were the Ancient Heresies Disguised Social Movements, 7. 139 Frend, The Donatist Church, 171. 140 See M.P. Joseph, “Heresy of the Majority: Donatist Critique of the Church-State Relationship,” and E.L. Woodward, Christianity and Nationalism in the Later Roman Empire.
should remain open to the possible socio-economic and or cultural interests of the natives that likely enhanced the success of the Donatist Church. Yet the other extreme of embellishing these extra-religious factors and overlooking the religious basis of Donatism is also shortsighted. Maureen Tilley takes a sound approach in explaining the Donatist Church when she writes, “Social history illuminates but cannot independently explain all facets of this disagreement.”141Ultimately it is a question of emphasis. The Marxist or materialist interpretation of the Donatist Church does not stand. The heart of this argument rests on the simplified model claiming that Donatists were found among the rural poor and the Catholics among the Romanized upper-class. This fuels the interpretation of Donatism as a rural economic revolt. However, little suggests that the peasants clung to Donatism to launch a social revolution against the rich. They most likely viewed their poverty in a different light. The Catholic Church was officially sanctioned by the Roman Empire and had grown comfortable with wealth. Although Augustine rebuked avarice and greed, he did not preach that riches were inherently evil and would automatically bar one from heaven.142 He praised wealthy biblical and religious heroes such as Abraham, Joseph of Arimathea, and Crispina the martyr.143 In contrast, although the Donatist Church possessed wealthy members, their sermons more closely retained the traditional Christian embrace of poverty. The Donatist Petilian claimed to his faithful, “we…are not apprehensive for our wealth, but rather feel a dread of wealth.”144 Donatism likely appealed to the rural peasantry since it more closely continued traditional Christian asceticism. Traditions generally remain longer in rural areas. However, there
Maureen Tilley, The Bible in Christian North Africa: the Donatist World, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), 14. 142 Augustine, Letters, 151. 37. 143 Frend, The Donatist Church, 328. 144 Augustine, Against the Letters of Petilian, II. c. 227.
is no evidence for the Donatist Church supporting a quasi-Marxist uprising of the poor against the wealthy. What, therefore, remains of the nationalist element in the revisionist paradigm? In terms of nationalism, Arnold Jones points out the irrationality in thinking that the Donatists were really suggesting that, “We are Africans and hate the Roman government; we will have nothing to do with the Romans and will maintain our African church and if possible set up our African state.”145 Did the natives view themselves as ethnically distinct? Augustine and Optatus simply use the term “Africans” when speaking of the locals.146 The Donatists used the label as well to identify Simon of Cyrene.147 Yet this term did not characterize an ethnic distinction. The Donatists used this term to affirm the religious significance of Africa, their faith’s exclusive homeland. Their African pride spurred religious, not ethnic or national solidarity. “African” could not serve as an ethnic label since that region contained many diverse peoples. Likewise, the term “Berber” is anachronistic and did not delineate a recognized ethnic group. For instance, how easily could Romanized Africans be distinguished from Berbers? Cases like Augustine, a Romanized African with a part-Berber upbringing, would have complicated such ethnic categories if they existed.148 Donatism certainly did not close its ranks to non-Berbers. The topics of nationalism, ethnicity, or anti-Roman sentiment arise nowhere in the debates between Augustine and his Donatist opponents. Thus, the concept of nationalism should be divorced from the Donatist Church since the sect favored no recognized nation or ethnic group. However, one should not completely dismiss the possibility that some Berbers desired to perpetuate their culture through the Donatist Church. Berbers may have related more to 145
Jones, Were the Ancient Heresies Disguised Social Movements, 3. Augustine, Letters, 220. 1; Optatus, II. iv. 147 Brown, “Christianity and Local Culture in Late Roman Africa,” 89. 148 Frend, The Donatist Church, 230. 146
Donatism since it conformed more to their rigorist religious tendencies while being more compatible with their culture than Catholicism. As previously mentioned, Augustine experienced difficulty finding Catholic clergy fluent in the native African tongue and archaeological remains of Donatist churches contain Berber art forms. Yet the Donatist Church was not culturally antiRoman. At most, it was a synthesis of Roman and local culture. Ultimately, even if the Donatist Church was culturally appealing to Berbers, this alone does not adequately explaining the pervasiveness of the schism.
Religion in Society The view advocating the role of religion as the central impetus steering the long history of Donatism is more sustainable but needs modification. It is helpful to remember how the Catholic Optatus of Milevis wrote to the Donatists, â€œYou and we have one ecclesiastical discipline, we read from the same Scriptures, we possess the same Faith, the same Sacraments of Faith, the same Mysteries.â€?149 From this it is clear that Donatism did not entail a theological controversy against Catholicism. When one thinks of religious controversies, especially in the Late Roman Empire, the Catholic fight against heresies like Arianism, Manichaeism, Pelagianism, and Gnosticism often come to mind. However, Donatism does not fit with these heresies because it was a schism that did not widely differentiate from the theology of the Catholic Church and instead claimed that it practiced Catholicism in its purest form. The Donatists insisted that unlike the Catholics they were the true inheritors of the faith of previous Church Fathers like Tertullian and Cyprian.150 The Donatists would have remained in the Catholic fold if the larger Christian world recognized Majorinus instead of Caecilian. Ultimately 149 150
Optatus, V. i. Willis, 176.
the key difference between the Catholics and Donatists rested not on theology; but instead on the application of religion in society.151 In essence, the Donatist Church is best understood when analyzed from a sociological perspective. One must establish a specific approach when addressing the Donatist Church from a sociological standpoint. To understand the sociology of early Christianity, the famous sociologist Max Webber introduced the church-sect model.152 This is a helpful approach to analyze Donatism from since the schism emerged in the early centuries of Christianity. The sect model is more applicable to early Christianity before it received official patronage from the Roman Empire.153 As a small, virtuous community of “the elect” abiding by high moral standards, early Christians were certainly characteristic of a sect.154 Members of a sect are also generally viewed as outcasts of the larger society that often come from its lower classes.155 Yet Christianity gradually grew from a small sect to align more closely with Weber’s church model. After becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire, Catholicism extended to a far wider social membership and began recognizing its holiness as a collective institution unified in doctrine rather than through the merit of its individual members.156 In this way Catholicism became an institutional church. The success of the Donatist Church is largely credited to the fact that it was a dynamic sect that contained the ecclesial structure of a church.157 Although Donatism incorporated aspects of both the sect and church models, it should be viewed primarily as a sect
Brown, Review of: “Donatists and Catholics,” by Emin Tengstrom, 282-83; Bryant, 303; Frend, The Donatist Church, 3, 315. 152 Bryant, 303. 153 Ibid, 307. 154 Ibid, 305. 155 Maureen Tilley, Donatist Martyr Stories: the Church in Conflict in Roman North Africa, (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1996), xii. 156 Bryant, 305-06; Cyprian, On the Unity of the Church, In Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 5, Translated by Robert Ernest Wallis (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886), IV-VI. 157 Frend, The Donatist Church, 319; Maureen Tilley, The Bible in Christian North Africa, 16.
since even the earliest Christian communities had some ecclesial organization. Comparing its conception of catholicity, holiness, and its secular outlook to the Catholic Church reinforces the idea that Donatism ultimately resembled a sect. The differing view on the concept of catholicity reinforces how the Donatist outlook resembles that of a sect while the Catholic outlook represents that of an institutionalized church. The term “catholicity” is associated with universality. The Catholic Church certainly interpreted it this way since it viewed itself as an institution dedicated to universal evangelization. It desired that Christ and his Church “have dominion from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth” and questioned how the Donatists could leave “Africa alone as His portion.”158 In contrast, the Donatists argued that “catholicity” applied not to geographical extent, but to what was whole.159 This wholeness entailed purity of membership among the Donatists who separated from Caecilian and those who had lapsed in the face of Roman persecution.160 Thus, the Donatists had little problem recognizing Africa alone as the home of the true catholic faith since it alone severed communion with the traitorous Caecilian. The Donatist conception of catholicity through its empirical standard of holiness is characteristic of a sect. Like a typical sect, Donatism required visible standards of holiness among its members. Their measurable sanctity entailed the disassociation with those who committed the grave sin of apostasy in the wake of the Roman persecution.161 The Donatists believed that any ecclesial members in communion with Caecilian were likewise traitors and could not administer valid sacraments since they lost God’s favor.162 The rigorous values of the Donatists are expressed in their martyr hagiographies one of which commands its members to “flee the whole corrupt 158
Augustine, Letters, 66. 1. Frend, The Donatist Church, 254. 160 Maureen Tilley, “Dilatory Donatists or Procrastinating Catholics: the Trial at the Conference of Carthage,” 17. 161 Willis, 117. 162 Ibid, 52. 159
congregation of all polluted people and…seek the glorious lineage of the blessed martyrs, which…alone broke the force of infernal persecution…(and) preserved the law of the Lord.”163 Their emphasis on sanctity is demonstrated through their belief that sacraments were not valid if administered by a minister in the state of grave sin or impurity. 164 Like a sect, the Donatists prided themselves on their empirical purity. Unlike the Donatists, the Catholic Church recognized its holiness not through its members but in its institution as a divinely-sanctioned church. As the Church spread throughout the Roman Empire, it was only inevitable its ranks would contain evil-doers. The Church ultimately accepted this and only acted against notorious, conspicuous evil-doers while saving the condemnation of its occult sinners for the judgment of God.165 Catholics like St. Optatus thus cautioned the Donatists by reminding them how, “It belongs to God to know who is guilty; His it is to pass judgment.”166 They also contested the Donatist belief that the validity of the sacraments depended on the personal purity of the minister. Instead they considered the sacraments gifts of God freely bestowed to his Church through which the minister is a mere agent.167 They even saw validity in schismatic sacraments done outside the Catholic Church in the name of the Trinity. Augustine insisted that such graces were latent and only fully realized if the wayward Christian returned to the Catholic fold.168 This countered the Donatist practice of rebaptism and belief that apostates did not contain valid sacraments since they did not have the Holy Spirit. By measuring its sanctity through its institution, the Catholics typified a church more than a sect. 163
The Acts of the Abitinian Martyrs, In Donatist Martyr Stories: The Church in Conflict in Roman North Africa, 27-49, Translated by Maureen A. Tilley (Liverpool:Liverpool University Press, 1996), 48. 164 Cyprian, The Letters of Cyprian of Carthage, In Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 5 (Translated by Robert Ernest Wallis. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886), 71. 2. 165 Willis, 118. 166 Optatus, IV. i. 167 Willis, xii. 168 Augustine, On Baptism Against the Donatists, In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series. Vol. 4, Translated by J. R. King (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.,1887), I. i. 2.
The church-sect model additionally applies to the Catholics and Donatists through their secular outlook. In general, as the institutionalized church of Rome, the Catholics became increasingly acclimated to the world while the Donatists remained at odds with it. Catholic scholars like Augustine harmonized elements of pagan knowledge with Christianity while the Donatists generally renounced secular knowledge in their intense devotion to Scripture.169 The Catholics were relatively comfortable in their relationship with the Roman Empire and its theologians like Augustine insisted that the Christian sovereign is required to bring back schismatics and heretics to the unity of the Catholic faith.170 Although the Donatists initiated persecutions when they received secular support, they were typically uneasy with the State and prided themselves on being the church of the martyrs and persecuted.171 In this manner the Catholics attained some comfort in the world as a supported institution while the Donatists remained averse to the world as a sect.
Donatism: A Dynamic Sect In this regard the Donatist Church resembles a sect particularly when compared to the Catholic Church; yet this alone does not explain the pervasiveness of the schism. Donatism had a rich theological basis and was not simply used as a guise for nationalist purposes. Perhaps this religious basis is best demonstrated by the fact that several sub-sects emerged from Donatism. This reflects how its members had clear religious interests. Another religious characteristic of Donatism was its immense devotion to the Sacred Scriptures.172 In short, the Donatist Church survived because it was a dynamic sect whose exegetical emphasis changed over time in order to 169
Tilley, The Bible in Christian North Africa, 178. Augustine, Letters, 100. 1; Willis, 110, 129. 171 Tertullian, To the Martyrs, In Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3, Translated by S. Thelwall (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885) II; Frend, The Donatist Church, 259. 172 Brown, â€œChristianity and Local Culture in Late Roman Africa,â€? 89. 170
retain an enthusiastic membership. The three key exegetical themes of the Donatist Church include their value of martyrs, spiritual dissenters, and elect religious communities. The earliest exegetical theme of Donatism comprised their enthusiasm of martyrdom and imminent eschatological expectation. This end-times outlook can be traced to the years of persecution suffered by North African Christians under the pagan Roman emperors. 173 This facilitated the Donatist enthusiasm of martyrdom which was characteristic of African Christianity. For instance, Tertullian advises Christians to, “Seek not to die…in soft fevers, but to die the martyr's death, that He may be glorified who has suffered for you.” 174 Thus, the early Donatist Church that emerged after Diocletian’s persecution was known as the “church of the martyrs” whose exegesis focused on the redemptive sacrifice of Christ.175 Martyrs were the great heroes and role models of the early Donatist Church for modeling the death of Christ. This is demonstrated in the extreme through the voluntary martyrdom of some Circumcellions. The next important exegetical theme was dissent or separation. This characterized the Donatist attitude in opposition of the Catholic Church whose popularity steadily increased in the Roman Empire throughout the 4th century.176 The early Donatist obsession with martyrdom could not long survive once Rome embraced Christianity. How could the “church of the martyrs” continue when the number of martyrs drastically declined? In turn, the Donatists demanded separation from the Catholics because of their connection with those who committed the horrific sin of apostasy and the handing over the beloved Sacred Scriptures during Diocletian’s Persecution. The Catholic bishop Caecilian not only lacked the Donatist enthusiasm of martyrdom, he also willingly pardoned those who apostatized during the persecution.177 Thus, 173
Tilley, The Bible in Christian North Africa, 16. Tertullian, De Fuga in Persecutione, 9. 175 Tilley, The Bible in Christian North Africa, 16. 176 Ibid, 16. 177 Optatus, I. xvi. 174
they considered him stained with this sin of apostasy. They also professed that all Catholics inherited this sin since they retained communion with him. Thus, the Donatists embraced the idea of separation from the corrupt Catholics indelibly marked with Caecilian’s sin. Their exegesis favored biblical heroes like the Maccabees who separated from the pagan Greeks as the Donatists did with Catholics.178 One of their favorite biblical passages reads, “Let the oil of the wicked never anoint my head” (Ps. 141:5). The “wicked” were the Catholics who inherited the apostasy handed down from Caecilian. In this manner the Donatists survived by calling the rigorist natives of Africa to dissent from the corrupt Catholics. The last central Donatist exegetical theme was its admiration of elite religious assemblies. How could the Donatists justify their existence as the true church of Christ confined to North Africa when Christ commanded his followers to spread his message to the ends of the earth (Mt. 28:19-20)? Thus, later Donatist exegesis, after recognizing how its church failed to spread to the ends of the earth, focused on ancient Israel as a small, elite group and Chosen People.179 The ancient Israelites could certainly be viewed as a sect since they were monotheists engulfed in a larger polytheistic world of idolatry. This is how the Donatists viewed themselves especially after Catholicism became the official religion of the Roman Empire after Emperor Theodosius.180 The Donatist rigorism was applicable to the strict, Law-abiding Israelites and the Donatist interpretation of scripture focused on the theme of sojourning in an idolatrous land as God’s Chosen People.181 Donatism additionally demanded a strict purity among its priesthood
Tilley, Donatist Martyr Stories: the Church in Conflict in Roman North Africa, (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1996), 177. 179 Tilley, The Bible in Christian North Africa, 16. 180 William Frend, Review of: “Donatists and Catholics,” by Emin Tengstrom, The Classical Review, New Series, Vol. 15, no. 2 (1965): 213. 181 Tertullian, On Repentance, In Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3, Translated by S. Thelwall (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885), V; Tilley, The Bible in Christian North Africa, 178.
just as the Israelites had done. In this manner the late Donatist Church survived by modeling itself as a small group of the elect or New Israel. Thus, throughout its existence the Donatist Church ultimately survived as a sect with a dynamic biblical exegesis. It began as the “church of the martyrs” when the persecutions raged. It emphasized separation from the corruption it found in the Catholic Church as that institution spread throughout the Roman Empire. It adhered to the example set by the Ancient Israelites by comparing them to the small Donatist Church sojourning in a world polluted by Catholicism. In this way the sect appealed to an enthusiastic membership in Africa which ensured its survival.
Conclusion It is interesting to consider the modern Berber nationalist movement in Algeria in lieu of the Donatist Schism. Like most modern nationalist movements, the Berbers have tried to find historical legitimacy through a recognized identity, language, and culture.182 Reinforcing a sense of cultural and ethnic solidarity is certainly easier in the modern world where mass media can pervade Berber literature, poetry, music, and other cultural motifs. This has allowed the modern Berber nationalist movement to spread outside Algeria to Morroco and even France.183 Yet such ethnic solidarity among the Berbers is a recent phenomenon and did not exist when Donatism flourished. Donatism certainly could not have functioned as a pan-Berber nationalist movement since that ethnic group, spread across North Africa, extended far beyond the range of Donatist bishoprics.184 The tribally-divided Berbers at the time remained Catholic, pagan, or practiced Judaism.185 Even if Donatism embraced the Berber language, it would have been nearly 182
Goodman, 11. Brett, 3; Goodman, 15. 184 Frend, The Donatist Church, see appendix map of Donatist bishoprics ca. 400. 185 Brown, “Christianity and Local Culture in Late Roman North Africa,” 89; Wysner, 180. 183
impossible to bridge the gap between the numerous mutually unintelligible Berber dialects. In fact, one of the agendas of modern Berber nationalism is the synthesis of its numerous diverse dialects.186 At most, Donatism was a subtle outlet of Berber culture that pre-dates the 1980 Berber Spring. Ultimately a sociological analysis of Donatist religiosity best explains the success and duration of that church. The view stressing Berber nationalism against Rome either reads too much into the primary texts or cannot be proven. Questions nonetheless remain about this topic. To what extent did extra-religious factors sustain Donatism? To what extent did native local culture pervade through the Donatist Church? These questions are difficult to definitively answer. Nonetheless, the Marxist and nationalist strains of the revisionist account rest on very shaky grounds. Yet their interpretation has made the history of Donatism all the more relevant. It exemplifies the difficulties of analyzing the distant past through a modern mindset. To the ancient world, modern concepts like nationalism and secularism are anachronisms. It must be recognized that religious history is unique and deserves analysis on its own ground. That the Donatist Church had a political or nationalist agenda is certainly a stretch, however, it is known that this downtrodden religious sect embraced scriptural verses that read, â€œFor here we have no lasting city, but we seek the one that is to comeâ€? (Heb. 13:14). The reforms and goals of the Donatist Church were not national but rather were spiritual in their attempts to prepare a sinful world for the anticipated, glorious return of its savior, Jesus Christ. Bibliography Primary Sources The Acts of Saint Felix Bishop and Martyr. In Donatist Martyr Stories: The Church in Conflict in Roman North Africa, 8-11. Translated by Maureen A. Tilley. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1996. 186
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