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Christianity and dissent in Roman North Africa: changing perspectives in recent work

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 March 2016

R. A. Markus*
University of Liverpool


The history of North African Christianity in antiquity is a peculiar blend of the local and the universal. Whether we consider the ‘catholic’ or the ‘dissenting’ traditions represented in it, we find ourselves at the intersection of two worlds. It was not only the ‘Catholicism’ of Optatus, Augustine and Aurelius and their friends and successors that linked the African Church with the Great Church across the seas. Professor Frend long ago drew attention to the similarities between the ecclesiologies of the Donatist and of other western schismatic churches. More recently we have been given a portrait of another such ‘dissident’ Church by M. Meslin in his impressive study of the Arian communities of the Danubian lands. As these developed in the course of the later fourth century, after earlier flirtation with the idea of an imperial Church cast in some ‘Arian’ mould, they came to bear many of the same features of ‘dissent’ which distinguished the Donatists. Donatism was no mere aberration; it was the local expression of a permanent religious option. But unlike the other ‘dissenting’ churches of the Roman world, Donatists did not adopt their dissenting posture as a mere response of defeated men driven into a corner by a hostile imperial and ecclesiastical establishment. It had a long pre-history in the African tradition of Christianity.

Research Article
Copyright © Ecclesiastical History Society 1972

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page no 21 note 1 ‘The Roman Empire [in the eyes of Western schismatics during the fourth century A.D.’, Miscellanea historiae ecclesiasticae Stockholm i960] (Louvain 1961) pp 9-22.

page no 21 note 2 Les Ariens d’Occident 335-430, Patristica Sorbonensia 8 (Paris 1967).

page no 22 note 1 On this very problematic concept, see most recently Millar, F., ‘Local cultures in the Roman Empire: Lybian, Punic and Latin in Roman Africa’, JRS, LVIII (1968) pp 126-34Google Scholar, and [Peter Brown], ‘Christianity and local culture [in late Roman Africa’], ibid pp 85-95.

page no 23 note 1 Quotations from The Donatist Church (Oxford 1952) pp 333-5.

page no 23 note 2 I owe the reference to his Unparteyische Kirchen- und Ketzer-Historie...(Frankfurt-a.-M. 1699) to [Brown, P. R. L.,] ‘Religious dissent [in the later Roman Empire’], History, XLVI (1961) pp 83101, n 9 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

page no 24 note 1 Antiquity (London 1942) pp 342-52.

page no 24 note 2 The Donatisi Church, p xvi.

page no 25 note 1 It has not, of course, been universally accepted. The range of ‘moderate’ assessments may be represented by the following: Greenslade, S. L., Schism in the early Church (London 1953; 2nd ed 1964) pp 5861 Google Scholar (general agreement); Warmington, B. H., The North African provinces from Diocletian to the Vandal conquest (Cambridge 1954, though completed before The Donatisi Church, 1952) pp 76102 Google Scholar (qualified assent); Chadwick, H., The early Church (London 1967) pp 219-25Google Scholar (‘the tension between the two communities was all the sharper because class and economic factors had not been the prime cause of the division’-p 220); MacMullen, R., Enemies of the Roman order (Cambridge, Mass. 1967) pp 201-7Google Scholar (sceptical; a somewhat different direction emerges from the same writer’s ‘Provincial languages in the Roman Empire’, American Journal of Philology, LXXXVII (Baltimore 1966) pp 1-14.

page no 25 note 2 The most important of these are collected in his Kirche und Staat im spätrömischen Reich (Berlin 1963); see also his survey Der Untergang der römischen Herrschaft in Nordafrika (Weimar 1964). The principal contribution of Soviet scholarship in this field also appears to have been concentrated on this point. See Gacic, P., ‘En Afrique romaine: classes et luttes sociales, d’après les historiens soviétiques’, Annales, XII (Paris 1957) pp 650-61Google Scholar, at 659-60. I am unable to assess their work at first hand.

page no 25 note 3 ‘Were the ancient heresies national or social movements in disguise?’, JTS, n.s. X (1959) pp 280-95. Quotation from p 281.

page no 27 note 1 JRS, LV (1965) pp 281-3. Quotation from pp. 282-3.

page no 27 note 2 Ibid, p 283. For a masterly evocation of the contrast see his Augustine of Hippo [:a biography] (London 1967) pp 212-43.

page no 27 note 3 See W. H. C. Frend, ‘The Roman Empire’, referred to above, p 21 and also his ‘The Roman Empire in eastern and Western historiography’, Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society, CXCIV (Cambridge 1968) pp 19-32. A further dimension of the problem is the relation between Judaism and Christianity in North Africa. On this see Simon, M., ‘Le judaisme berbère dans l’Afrique ancienne’, Revue d’histoire et de philosophie religieuses, XXVI (Strasbourg 1946) pp 131 Google Scholar, 105-45; reprinted in his Recherches d’histoire Judéo-chrétienne (Paris 1962) pp 30-87; and Frend, W. H. C., ‘The Gnostic-Manichaean tradition in Roman North Africa’, JEH, IV (1953) pp 1326 Google Scholar.

page no 28 note 1 It has been subjected to severe criticism by Mandouze, A., ‘Encore le Donatisme: problèmes de méthode posés par la thèse de J. P. Brisson’, L’antiquité classique, XXIX (Paris 1960) pp 61107 Google Scholar. For a less ungenerous estimate sec the sane and balanced survey by Congar, Y. M. J. in his introduction to Oeuvres de saint Augustin, XXVIII: Traités anti-Donatistes , 1 (Paris 1963) pp 7133, at p 31Google Scholar.

page no 29 note 1 On the literary evidence, see Monceaux, , Histoire littéraire (referred to above, p 24) 111, pp 320 Google Scholar; on the archaeological and epigraphic evidence see Frend, The Donatisi Church, pp 76-93.

page no 30 note 1 ‘Religious dissent’, p 97.

page no 31 note 1 ‘Christianity and local culture.’

page no 31 note 2 ‘Toujours le Donatisme. À quand l’Afrique?’, Rivista di storia e lettere religiose, 11 (Florence 1966) pp 228-40.

page no 33 note 1 See Monceaux, , Histoire littéraire, IV, pp 97 Google Scholar et seq, to which on this point C. Courtois, (Les Vandales) adds little, and H. J. Diesner, Das Vandalenreich: Aufstieg und Untergang (Stuttgart 1966) less.

page no 33 note 2 On this episode, considered in relation to the ‘dissenting’ tradition in African Christianity, see my paper ‘Reflections [on religious dissent in North Africa in the Byzantine period’], SCH, 111 (1966) pp 140-9, where references to other accounts are given.

page no 34 note 1 ‘Donatism: [the last phase’], SCH, 1 (1964) pp 118-26, and ‘The imperial administration and the Church in Byzantine Africa’, Church History, XXXVI (Chicago 1967) pp 3-8.

page no 34 note 2 I single this out because references to rebaptizati in papal formularies as late as the seventh century are still held to provide formal proof of the existence of Donatists in Africa at that time. I think I have demonstrated that no such inference can be made from either papal formularies or papal letters based upon them; and that in any case the rebaptizati referred to are not Donatists, even at the time when the formula originated. See my ‘Reflections’, p 145 n 1, together with ‘Donatism’, p 124.

page no 36 note 1 This is the tide of an essay, itself one of the most distinguished contributions to this discussion, by Gerhard Ebeling, reprinted in his The Word of God and tradition (Engl trans London 1968).