Interpreting the Donatist Schism

There is a long history of schisms within the Christian Church, dating back to Christianity’s recognition as the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 CE. Church schisms usually center on a question of doctrine or church purity – an example of a famous (and permanent) schism is the Reformation in the sixteenth century. However, a lesser-known, yet much-studied schism is the Donatist schism, which is widely examined both for its peculiar concentration in the province of Roman North Africa, and for the atypical cause that lay behind it. 

The Donatist schism was rooted in the Great Persecution under Roman Emperor Diocletian (reigned 284-305 CE). Christians were forced to hand over holy books, Scriptures, and sacred objects to secular authorities. Over the course of the century, the schism played out in legal, ecclesiastical and popular contexts, involving not just religious authorities, but also the Roman state and ‘popular’ gangs commonly called circumcellions, until Donatism was finally declared a heresy by Emperor Honorius in 410 CE. Fundamentally, it was the perceived ‘betrayal’ (traditio) of the Scriptures that was embedded in the remembered history of the schism: violence, martyrdom, and rhetoric played a key role in reinforcing this remembrance and perpetrating this divide.  

Early scholarship relied on (largely Catholic) written sources to present the Donatists as a party of primitive ‘fanatics’ inhabiting rural Numidia and Mauretania, who were not fully absorbed into Roman civilisation. Recent scholarship has largely re-evaluated these problematic assumptions of the schism as a rebellion of ‘primitive’, ‘un-Romanised’ natives, suggesting instead that the cause lay at the ‘betrayal’ of the Scriptures at the hands of secular authorities, which became branded in the memory of the African church. Firstly, it should be established that both Catholics and Donatists agreed that God Himself had been betrayed by certain men who handed over His Word to be destroyed by earthly officials. But in the immediate aftermath of the persecution, the division lay in the question of re-integrating the traditores into the Church. Hardliners saw their actions as apostasy, and insisted they should undergo public penance and re-baptism first. The ordaining of Caecilian to the bishopric of Carthage by alleged traditor, Felix of Abthungi, was unacceptable to these hardliners, who charged him, and his predecessor, for traditio. Open schism grew when they ordained Majorinus as their bishop and Donatus as his successor (from which sprung the pejorative label ‘Donatist’). 

In the following decades, both groups fashioned their own identities through a process of exploring and appropriating the history of the original traditio. To the Donatists, their Catholic enemies, who were ordained and baptised by the traditores, had inherited the original sin, which was passed down over generations, and were thus a polluted ‘church of traitors’. The betrayal had become a point of self-definition for Donatists – they were ‘not the traitors’ who had handed over God’s words and paralleled Judas’ betrayal of Jesus. The Catholic position is encapsulated by Augustine’s thought around the unity of the church, as a counter to the Donatists’ self-definition as a pure church untainted by betrayal. Augustine argued that the Church comprised saints and sinners held together through the supreme virtue of charity, and thus sins of past individuals did not incriminate the whole community.  The Catholic Church was universal, and anyone who departed from it was committing the ‘grievous sin’ of separation. This rendered Donatism as a heretical sect because adherents had removed themselves from the supreme virtues of charity and peace.  

Martyr narratives were a major rhetorical tool for the Donatists to define their communal identity. Donatist martyr acts are usually dated to intermittent attempts by Roman emperors to compel union of the two churches, thus connecting opposition to the persecuting state with ‘true Christian’ behaviour. An examination of the famous Passion of Maximian and Isaac, a typical martyr text set during a period of imperial repression during 346-348 CE, reveals its intention to set an example of model behaviour and mobilise their parishioners’ religious passions. Firstly, it connects the eponymous martyrs’ sufferings to the past by suggesting that persecution was in “remission” before this renewed imperial attempt to enforce church unity. Secondly, the shared suffering of the martyrs and their supporting community demarcates the Donatists as the “true church” in contrast to their Catholic opponents, who appear as archetypal persecutors. In this way, their tortures and attempted executions celebrate their willingness to suffer and die in defence of God’s laws. 

The rhetoric of violence was symbolically crucial to the schism, as both sides competed for victory in the courts and in the discourse of martyrdom. The schism was characterised by long periods of coexistence, interspersed by sporadic episodes of violence related to enforcement of state orders and attempts to retake property. A landmark event was the reign of Julian the Apostate (361-363 CE), who permitted exiled Donatist bishops to return and retake the basilicas seized by Catholics after the persecution in 347 CE. This yielded a dossier of violent acts, where inhibitors would barricade themselves within the church and Donatist leaders organised a ‘gang’ of enforcers to force their way through the church doors. Much of this violence became a ritualised act of purification – Optatus reports altars being smashed and operations to cleanse and exorcise the basilicas perceived as ‘contaminated’ by Catholic use. This yields the conclusion that violence was often not employed deliberately to injure or kill; but rather to ‘cleanse’ sacred spaces of any trace of the ‘other side’. The underlying cause can be traced back to the language of betrayal and a sense of repulsion at the presence of the ‘polluted church’ – violence was an instrument to perpetrate and enforce this division. 

The circumcellions were a distinct, much-feared agent of contemporary religious violence, cited  as wandering gangs of seasonally employed laborers who attacked and sometimes killed their Catholic opponents. They are above all a rhetorical construct of the Catholic polemical strategy to undermine and discredit their opponents. Optatus pejoratively designates circumcellions as decidedly low-skilled, dependent on manual labor, and similar to bandits. Concurrently, the only legal document mentioning them is an edict issued on 30 January 412 CE, which imposed fines upon the Donatists, graded according to social rank. Circumcellions, fined ten pounds of silver, rank just above the lowest social group – slaves. They were likely to be a poor group of free persons from the rural social classes, whose availability for contractual labor, ‘ganglike’ organisation and tendency to wander around the countryside, designated them as a convenient supply of enforcers for Donatist bishops. 

Catholic texts exploited and exaggerated the distinct features of this group. This became especially potent after the election of Aurelius as bishop of Carthage and Augustine as Bishop of Hippo in the 390s CE, whose efforts to turn imperial authority to their favor included a systematically deployed rhetoric presenting the circumcellions as a dangerous and violent threat to the state. Augustine repeatedly portrays circumcellion attacks on Catholic clergy and churches as led by Donatist bishops through the phrase “your clerics and circumcellions”, which functioned both as a counterclaim to Donatist claims of persecution, and also as an incitement of Roman authorities to action. (e.g. Letters 88.6-7)  In reality, the extent to which circumcellion violence was controlled by Donatist leaders is ambiguous. Regardless, the Catholics now aimed to mobilise state power against Donatists, for which purpose the circumcellions had to be designated as a dangerous group under the control of Donatist leadership. Aurelius’ letter to the Governor of Africa on 13 September 403 CE presented them as a threat to public order for the first time, marking a shift in the language of the schism towards “violence” and “heresy”, rather than “rebaptism” or “betrayal”.  

The Catholics escalated their polemical discourse throughout the 390s CE to encourage state involvement in their favour, as a result of which Honorius issued an edict denying the Donatists right of assembly in February 405 CE. Their rhetorical strategy (deployed in petitions to the imperial chancery) both cited the danger of circumcellions, and alleged Donatist hypocrisy in glorifying martyrs facing “state persecution”, despite repeatedly resorting to the state to resolve disputes. By 404 CE, imperial legislation had decidedly turned in the Catholics’ favor, marked by Donatist rejection of an invitation to a conciliar debate and an alleged spate of circumcellion violence. The Catholics successfully petitioned the court for protection from an “insurrection”, which led to Honorius’ edict in 405 CE. By the time of the Conference at Carthage in 411 CE, the decision was made. Honorius had instructed the presiding judge, Marcellinus, that if Donatists attended they would be judged; if they didn’t, they would be punished.  

Essentially, there were no major theological or economic differences underlying the schism. Instead, it centered around the question of Church purity. To the Donatists, the original act of betrayal was a pollutant which contaminated those associated with the Catholic Church. To the Catholics, Donatists were an isolated sect, separated from the true Church in their preoccupation with a long-past betrayal. Above all, both groups saw themselves as the ‘true church’ and employed rhetorical tactics to delineate their respective identities. Donatist martyr acts informed their self-perception as a group of true Christian resistors against their persecutors, while the Catholic polemics presented them as a heretical sect broken from the ‘true church’, and discredited their claims to martyrdom by portraying the circumcellions as deranged and dangerous. Ultimately, the Catholics successfully employed discursive and legal tactics to wield imperial laws and force in their favor, resulting not just in the condemnation of Donatists as “heretics” but the very survival of the label ‘Donatist’ today. 


A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. Volume IV. St. Augustin: The Writings against the Manichaeans, and against the Donatists, translated by P. Schaff. Buffalo, 1887. 

Actes de la Conférence de Carthage en 411, translated by S. Lancel. Paris, 1972. 

“Out of Order: The Circumcellions and Codex Theodosianus 16,5,52.” Translated by J.E. Atkinson. Historia 41 (1992): 488-99. 

Donatist martyr stories: the Church in conflict in Roman North Africa, translated by M.A. Tilley. Liverpool, 1996. 

Optatus: Against the Donatists, translated by M. Edwards. Liverpool, 1997. 

Shaw, B. Sacred Violence: African Christians and Sectarian Hatred in the Age of Augustine, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 

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