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Optatus of Milevis, c. 4th cent. CE

Catholic bishop from Africa, whose treatise Against the Donatists (or De Schismate Donatistarum, “On the Donatist schism”) provides our only surviving account of the origins of the Donatist controversy. Jerome (On Famous Men 90) speaks of a work in six books written in the reign of Valens (364–379 ce), but the extant version runs to seven and alludes to the pontificate of Siricius, which commenced in 384 (Donatists 2.3). Since Optatus speaks elsewhere of the persecution that ended in 311 as having occurred sixty years ago (1.13) and implies that Photinus, who died in 376, is a contemporary (4.5), we may postulate a first edition in six books before 376, and a second in seven after 384. The work is also known as the Contra Parmenianum, since its principal interlocutor is the man of that name whom the Donatists regarded as bishop of Carthage.

The first book gives an account of the Numidian bishops’ revolt against Caecilian when he succeeded Mensurius as bishop of Carthage. The cause of this, according to Optatus, was the rumour that bishop Felix of Abthugni, who took part in the consecration of Caecilian, had handed over copies of the scriptures to be burnt in the Great Persecution. He adds (1.19) that the malice of a rich woman named Lucilla was a contributory factor. At 1.22 he reproduces a letter of remonstrance to Constantine, in which the signatories declare themselves to be of the party of Donatus; if genuine, this is evidence that the malcontents named themselves after the man whom they had nominated as bishop of Carthage. The acquittal of Felix by a Roman synod under Miltiades is recorded as the final ecclesiastical pronouncement (1.24); nothing is said of the subsequent Council of Arles in 314, and we are given to understand at 1.26 that Constantine doubted the validity of Caecilian’s election even after the Roman judgement (1.26). This passage, since it appeared to favour the Donatists, was strenuously debated at the Conference of Carthage in 411.

In the second book, Optatus enumerates the five gifts of the church—the see (cathedra), the angel (3.2), the keys (3.6), the font (3.8), and the priesthood (3.9)—in opposition to Parmenianus, who had added a sixth gift, the altar (3.8), as though a hand could have six fingers (3.5). Optatus singles out the see, i.e. the chair of Peter in Rome, as the most important gift; because the Donatists had their own bishop in Rome, he lists the catholic incumbents from Peter to Siricius (3.4), displaying a higher regard for Roman claims to Petrine authority than was commonly entertained in this period, either in Africa or in the east. He also applies to the Donatists a number of scriptural judgements on rebels and dissidents, and goes on in Book 3 to upbraid them for their political contumacy and their habitual recourse to violent measures. Quoting their scurrilous answer to Gregory, the prefect of Africa (3.3), he reminds them that deference to kings and magistrates is enjoined throughout the scriptures. He equates Donatus with the prince of Tyre denounced in Ezekiel 28 (3.3), deplores the turbulent conduct of another Donatus, Bishop of Bagaia (3.4), and ridicules Donatist claims that the measures taken against them amount to a persecution (3.5–3.8).

The fourth book contends that separation from other Christians cannot be justified where there is no heresy. Consequently, the Donatists have no right to compare their rejection of the catholic priesthood with that priesthood’s excommunication of Arius (4.5); when they allege that the catholic font is the well of unholy water condemned at Jeremiah 2.13, they have misunderstood an attack on the idolatry of the Jews (4.9). The fifth book sets out a theology of baptism which precludes the Donatist practice of rebaptizing Catholics. Baptism, as the Christian equivalent to circumcision, can be performed only once (5.1); since Paul baptized in the name of Christ, not his own (1Cor 1.13), the efficacy of the sacrament cannot lie in the worthiness of the minister (5.6–5.7); it lies above all in the faith of the recipient, which cannot be found outside the one true church (5.8). Specious arguments from biblical metaphors are refuted in the sixth book; in the seventh, Optatus argues that, since God is greater than the law, the burning of scriptures is not so grave an evil as a breach of fraternal charity (7.1). The readmission of Peter to the apostolic circle shows that even apostasy can be forgiven (7.2). Theology thus trumps history, though Optatus has all but confessed that the Donatists have the better of the legal issue.

The appendix, which does not always corroborate Optatus’s narrative, contains in all ten documents: (1) the inquiry held by Zenophilus, which includes a detailed account of the procedures followed by African magistrates during the persecution; (2) a document exonerating Felix of Abthugni; (3) Constantine’s letter to an unknown Aelafius (c. 315 ce), which if genuine attests his determination to make Christianity the dominant religion of the empire; (4) the letter of the bishops at Arles to Miltiades of Rome, summarising the decrees of the council; (5) a letter from Constantine urging catholic bishops to deal charitably with the Donatists; (6) a brief letter of admonition to the Donatists from Constantine; (7) a letter in vindication of Caecilian from Constantine to Celsus, vicarius of Africa; (8) a letter by other officials to Celsus, recording the dismissal of the Donatist petitioners from Trier; (9–10) two letters from Constantine to catholic bishops explaining that he has found it necessary to practise forbearance. Most scholars ascribe his shifts in policy to external circumstances rather than to the patience which he enjoins as a Christian virtue.

Primary Texts

Optatus. De schismate Donatistarum libri septem. Edited by Carl Ziwsa. Leipzig: F. Tempsky, 1893.Find this resource:

    Optatus. Traité contre les donatistes. Edited by Mireille Labrousse. Paris: Cerf, 1995–1996.Find this resource:

      Optatus. Contra Parmenianum Donatistam = Gegen den Donatisten Parmenianus. Edited by Hermann-Josef Sieben. Freiburg: Herder, 2013.Find this resource:


        Optatus. Against the Donatists. Translated by Mark J. Edwards. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1997.Find this resource:

          Optatus. The Work of St. Optatus, Bishop of Milevis, Against the Donatists. Translated by Oliver R. Vassall-Phillips. London: Longmans, Green, 1917.Find this resource:


            Eno, Robert B. “The Significance of the Lists of Roman Bishops in the Anti-Donatist Polemic.” Vigiliae Christianae 47 (1993): 158–169.Find this resource:

              Frend, W. H. C. The Donatist Church. Oxford: Clarendon, 1952.Find this resource:

                Maier, Jean-Louis. Le dossier du Donatisme. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1987.Find this resource:

                  Mazzucco, Clementina. Ottato di Milevi in un secolo di studi. Bologna: Pàtron, 1993.Find this resource:

                    Tilley, Maureen A. The Bible in Christian North Africa. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997.Find this resource:

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