Resistance to Christianity

Chapter 20: Donatus and the Circumcellions


From the moment that Constantine agreed to support the Christian communities in 313, he took hold of the Church and treated it as an instrument of his State power. He accorded to the bishops he recognized the license to enact sentences under imperial protection. His patronage of large-scale construction projects (Saint Peter’s Basilica, Saint John Lateran’s Basilica and Saint Agnes’s Basilica in Rome; the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem) – which honored a faith that he openly mocked if it did not consolidate his own absolutism – aroused the reprobation of a popular Christianity that had been impregnated by asceticism and martyrdom ever since the end of the Second Century.

An old dispute opposed the party of the torture victims, the Christians who remained unshakeable in their convictions [even] when faced with their executioners, and the party of the lapsi and the traditores, the renegades and the traitors, who were more numerous and, due to their very pragmatism, better authorized to accede to the clerical responsibilities thenceforth conferred by the State.

It was in Carthage, the bastion of Tertullianism, that the most significant incident exploded; it was precipitated by an anti-Montanist offensive that was under the control of a corrupt clergy.

During the persecutions launched by Diocletian, which were brief but cruel (303-305), the majority of the clergy abjured. A small group of priests from Abitina (Tunisia), imprisoned in advance of being tortured, denounced the traditores. They proclaimed that only those who, following their example, remained loyal to the faith would reach paradise. Their intransigence irritated the clergy of Carthage and, in particular, the Archdeacon Caecilianus (Caecilian), who was later accused of preventing other Christians from bringing food and comfort to prisoners.[1]

When Caecilian succeeded the bishop of Carthage, who died in 311, the majority of the faithful reacted with indignation. A young bishop named Donatus [Magnus] led the protests.

Born in Numidia, Donatus had already attracted attention as a young bishop in Casa Nigra by demanding, at the conclusion of the persecutions, a new baptism for the lapsed clergy members. Taking up these entreaties, a council of seventy bishops met in 312 and deposed Caecilian and replaced him with Majorinus, the chaplain of Lucilla, a rich Spaniard who had been executed under the reign of the collaborating bishop.

That same year, Constantine crushed his rival, Maxentius, and seized North Africa, which had until then been ruled by the deposed emperor. On the recommendation of the Roman clergy, in which apostasy was dominant, Constantine restored Caecilian to his position, allotted him an important subsidy, and exempted from all taxes the clergy who obeyed the renegade.

Nevertheless, upon the death of Majorinus, Donatus succeeded him with the consent of Caecilian’s enemies, who sent the emperor a list of the crimes imputed to his protégé. Donatus went to Rome to plead his legitimacy, but Miltiades, the Bishop of Rome, whom Constantine consulted because of his African origins, took sides against him, which caused Donatus to be condemned by the Emperor.

Principally concerned with unifying his empire, Constantine moved from threats to conciliation. In 321, he repealed the decree of exile that had struck Donatus, whose influence had not ceased to grow. In 336, upon a territory that today stretches from Tunisia to East Algeria, two hundred and seventy Donatist bishops controlled communities in which the lax party of Caecilian was in the minority. In Egypt, the Donatist bishop Melece enjoyed great popular support.

No doubt Donatus would have benefited from the tacit tolerance of imperial power if the peasant revolt of the Circumcellions had not been grafted on to his movement and thus formed its working-class [populaire] wing.

In 346, a commando group of Circumcellions attacked the commission sent to North Africa by the Emperor. Despite their disapproval of this action, Donatus and his principal partisans were exiled to Gaul, where the bishop of Casa Nigra died in 355.

The Circumcellion movement allied with religious fanaticism (hostile to the laxity of the wealthy) the demands of the disinherited of the countryside: laborers, shepherds, slaves, and poor peasants. Their name came from circum cellas: those who roam around the barns (cellae).

They called themselves “saints” and “athletes” (agonists), which were terms issued from Essenism and Judeo-Christianity. Armed with clubs (each of which was called “Israel”), the Circumcellions attacked owners of large properties and functionaries, and liberated slaves, to whom they entrusted the task of treating their [former] masters as they had been treated in servitude. They combated the Devil in the person of his representatives: terrestrial property-owners, tax collectors, magistrates and anti-Donatist priests. They acted under the leadership of two men, Axid and Fasir, “duces sanctorum” (leaders of saints), who, according to Optatus (340), “made property owners and creditors tremble.”[2] The Circumcellions supported the cult of the martyrs and opposed the sanctification brought about by asceticism to the idle and hedonistic existence of the rich.

Disavowed by the Donatists, the Circumcellions did not resist the imperial army and ended up massacred around 348.

Nevertheless, Donatism survived until 429. It rejected the principal demands of the Circumcellions, which were so often reprised by the [various] millenarian movements: the reign of the saints; universal equality under the sole power of God; moratoria on debts; judgments and executions of the rich; and the suppression of slavery.

Donatus, who at the beginning cautioned against the zeal of the Circumcellions in their hunt for apostates, approved of their suppression but did not recover his credit with the Emperor.

The party of the lapsi and the morally lax regained the upper hand. Optatus attacked his adversaries in Against the Donatists. From 399 to 415, Augustine of Hippo undertook to chase them from Carthage. Moreover, they were outlawed, starting in 411.

Thanks to one of the many ironies of history, Donatism disappeared in 429, at the same time that Roman colonization was swept away by the invasion of the Vandals, who imposed as the new State religion the very Arianism that had previously been condemned as heresy.

The social and political components that had assured the success of Donatism also conducted it towards its downfall. The nationalistic demands of Numidia and Mauritania provided satisfying reasons for Donatus’ opposition to Rome and his project of creating an African Catholic Church. When he asked, at least according to Optatus’ Against the Donatists,[3] “What has the Emperor to do with the Church?” the response was doubly articulated. His Church – outside of which “there was no salvation” (the same was true for the Church of Rome) – refused to submit to the imperial power of an emperor who was at once the head of State and the leader of the clergy. He defended the principle of national Churches, independent of a central power.

But Donatus also contested the preeminence of temporal power over spiritual power. Such was the opinion of the papacy starting from the Seventh Century. Augustine, an enemy of Donatism and a partisan of spiritual preeminence, was not misguided when he borrowed from the Donatist theologian Ticonius the doctrine of the two cities (the terrestrial city and the city of God).

On the other hand, Donatus’ Montanism and Tertullianism went against the attempts of the Church of Rome to reconcile itself with a Latin aristocracy that was little inclined to asceticism and Puritanism. His Church claimed to be the “Virgin Church” of Tertullian, in opposition to the temporal Church of the lapsi. It was a “closed garden,” a refuge for the long-suffering people of God, a place in which adjured priests could have no part.

The Donatists did not grant – and [here] one again finds the arguments of the Elenchos against Calixte, the Bishop of Rome – that a dignitary who had lost his celestial existence in order to save his terrestrial life had the right to pursue his ministry. The sacraments accorded by such a bishop were deprived of value. The sacred character of the function did not accommodate itself to an abuse of authority. The clergy of Rome, in which the lapsi were in the majority, disagreed. For them, any bishop was invested with the right to give the sacraments, even if, as a man, he showed himself unworthy of the sacredness that he distributed. This was an endemic conflict, one that clarified – from a certain angle – the very notion of heresy. Provided that he did not put aside dogma (and thus remained an obedient son), a priest, bishop or pope could surrender himself to debauchery and infamy without losing the grace that the Church accorded him. But if he practiced virtue by contravening orthodoxy in his discourse, he incurred damnation in the beyond and the here-below.

Augustine formulated his doctrine concerning the nature of the Church and the sacraments in opposition to Donatus. Not only did he appeal for police repression against individuals and groups that put Catholic orthodoxy aside, he also made precise the point that the sacraments acted ex opere operato,[4] through the sacred character of the officiant.


[1] Acta Saturnini, in P.L., 18, 8, 701.

[2] Optatus, Contra Parménien le Donatiste.

[3] ID., op. cit., ed. Vassal-Philips, 1917, 3, 3.

[4] Translator: “from the works performed,” that is, from the sacrament itself.


(Published by Fayard in 1993. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! May 2013. All footnotes by the author, except where noted.)

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