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date: 25 June 2017

Summary and Keywords

The Donatist party began around 312 ce when Mensurius, bishop of Carthage, died and was replaced by Caecilian. Caecilian’s accusers claimed that he had been ordained by a traditor, someone who had “handed over” the scriptures to Roman officials during the Diocletian persecution. This ordination by a traditor allegedly contaminated Caecilian and all who continued in his communion with the contagion of idolatry, and therefore his ordination was seen as invalidated. In his place the opposing party appointed Majorinus as the rightful bishop of Carthage, and when he died, he was succeeded by Donatus, for whom the party eventually was named. Caecilian and his supporters continued to claim his innocence from such contagion, and so the Donatists appealed to Constantine. A council was summoned to Rome which ruled on Caecilian’s behalf. The Donatists again appealed, and so a larger council met in Arles in 314 and ruled again for Caecilian. When the Donatists still refused to recognize Caecilian, and since they broke fellowship with all in communion with him, Constantine pressured the Donatists with legal and even violent means. This schism continued through the 4th century with sporadic violence between the parties: Caecilian’s party could invoke government officials to enforce their legitimacy, while the Donatists were accused of utilizing the Circumcellions, a group which functioned as a violent mob. In the late 4th century, writers such as Optatus of Milevis and Augustine articulated a defense of their own “Catholic” party through various pamphlets and treatises; they claimed that their party was never guilty of such contagion, and that the Donatists were so concerned with the purity of the church that they had forsaken its catholicity. In short, the Donatists allegedly believed that their party in North Africa was the only remaining true church. In the late 4th and early 5th centuries, the government, advised by Augustine’s party, developed stricter attempts to coerce the Donatists. In 411 a conference met in Carthage at which the Donatists were found to be “heretics,” which finalized the Roman policy against them by requiring the enforcement of heresy laws against this party. While there is ongoing evidence for Donatists long after Augustine’s time, when the Vandals invaded and conquered North Africa beginning in 429, the Donatist controversy largely disappeared in the surviving literary sources.

Keywords: Donatus, Donatism, Christianity, schism, Diocletian, Constantine, Augustine, Carthage, Africa

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