Coercive precedents: the place of Donatist appeals in Augustine’s anti-Donatist polemic
Bruce, Joshua Michael
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Augustine’s justifications for imperial coercion of the Donatist Church set the precedent for many later rationalizations of coercion against religious dissidents. But they themselves were not without precedent. This thesis asks the question: to what extent were Augustine’s justifications for coercion shaped by his own North African juridical precedents, most especially the appeals to imperial authorities by Donatist leaders during the fourth- and early fifth-centuries? This thesis demonstrates that Augustine’s justifications for coercion were themselves revised Donatist arguments and tactics. In particular, it places evidence for the Donatist use of imperial courts in the 390s and early 400s in conversation with earlier Donatist juridical appeals in the period 313-394 and later Donatist legal strategies at the Conference of 411. It is shown that when the evidence for these Donatist legal maneuvers are given their full weight, certain influential arguments by W.H.C. Frend and Maureen Tilley for an antagonistic Donatist posture towards Rome and imperial power as persecutor and antichrist must be rethought. Much of the scholarship to date addressing Augustine and coercion has attempted to contextualize and explain the controversial reception of Augustine’s justification of coercion through the centuries by seeking to identify a change of mind in Augustine or discern his evolving attitude on this subject. However, this thesis follows on from the recent arguments of Erika Hermanowicz and shows (pace Emilien Lamirande and Peter Brown) that searching for a change of mind or an evolving attitude in Augustine on coercion overlooks the extent to which Donatist precedents and Theodosian anti-heresy legislation (CTh.16.5.21) had already shaped and organized the contours of Augustine’s thought on coercion by the early 390s. Therefore, it is argued that Augustine’s practical juridical strategy in the 390s and early 400s culminated in his decisive argument to imperial authorities that the Donatists were heretics as members of an inveterate schism (schisma inveteratum, c. Cresc. 2.7). The thesis begins with a chapter examining the judicial precedents for Donatist appeals found in the rescripts of Gallienus in 261/262 to the Alexandrian church and the Antiochene church’s appeal to Aurelian in 272. Then, the appeal to Constantine from the party of Majorinus in 313 is explored on the basis of these juridical precedents, and it is shown that the initial policy of Majorinus’s party sought to preserve a certain degree of distance between the emperor and the church. This is proved from the language of the initial appeal, which requests that Constantine appoint judges (iudices) from Gaul rather than asking Constantine to adjudicate the matter himself. However, it is also demonstrated that with the death of Majorinus and the election of his successor, Donatus of Casae Nigrae, the Donatist party’s reluctance to seek imperial adjudications quickly faded, and the remainder of the fourth century was marked by repeated Donatist appeals for imperial intervention, including appeals to Count Taurinus (ca. 340) and the emperors Constans (346) and Julian (362). It is argued here that the evidence for Donatist conduct with respect to imperial authority seriously challenges scholarly assessments of the Donatist Church in the work of scholars, including Frend and Tilley, who argued for a much more consistently antagonistic posture towards Rome and imperial power on the part of the Donatists. Instead, it is shown that such scholarly assessments of Donatist posture towards Rome and imperial power as agents of antichrist were largely premised on interpretations of the Donatist martyr acta depicting imperial persecutions of Donatist martyrs. It is argued that the Donatist martyrdom accounts do not provide a full picture of the Donatist posture towards imperial authority and must be placed in conversation with the Donatist appeals of 313, ca. 340, 346, 362 and the use of imperial soldiers loyal to Firmus (ca. 373/5) and Gildo (397/398). Moreover, it is shown that rhetorically purist Donatist assertions, such as the Donatist mandatum at Carthage in 411 (‘Januarius and the other bishops of the catholic truth that suffers persecution but does not persecute’ Gesta Carth. 3.258) must be interpreted in a context where Donatist leaders had repeatedly appealed for coercive measures against their opponents and had carried out coercive measures against their own schismatics and Catholics pursuant to the Theodosian legislation (CTh.16.5.21), including fines, beatings with clubs, and the confiscation of property (eg. Possidius, v. Aug. 12, Augustine, c. litt. Petil. 2.83.184, epp. 29.12, 105.2, 88.6, c. Cresc. 3.48). Additionally, in both the first and second chapters, a new synthesis of the evidence for the social and economic situation in Numidia during the so-called ‘revolts’ of Firmus (ca. 373/5) and Gildo (397/398) is established. In particular, the recent work of Brent Shaw is used to challenge earlier characterizations of both leaders as social revolutionaries by Frend and it is argued that Firmus and Gildo are both better understood as imperial usurpers. The significance of this new synthesis of the evidence is shown to lie in the fact that Donatist alliances with both imperial usurpers evince the Donatists’ continued reliance on imperial power during the late fourth century. The role of the so-called circumcellions in North African ecclesiastical politics is also examined and it is shown that objections by certain Donatists to the circumcellions’ actions carrying out policies of coercion began a process of fragmenting the Donatist Church, which would ultimately render it ineffective when confronted by the Edict of Unity of 12 February 405 (CTh. 16.5.38). The second chapter also explores the repeated efforts of the Donatists to persuade North African judges to categorize the schismatic Maximianists and Rogatists as heretics pursuant to the Theodosian anti-heresy legislation of 392 (CTh.16.5.21) in the years immediately following the Council of Bagai of 394. The third chapter goes on to argue that the splintering within the Donatist Church on the issue of coercion was more significant for the fate of Donatism than has been recognized in Donatist scholarship to date. Here it is argued that the fragmentation of the Donatist Church becomes apparent in the evidence which reflects conflicting Donatist postures towards the ‘Arian’ Goths and Vandals, as is demonstrated inter alia from certain of Augustine’s letters (e.g., epp. 44, 185), the Donatist recension of the Liber genealogus, the records of the Council of 484, and Victor of Vita’s History of the Vandal Persecution. Chapter four then explores the extent to which Donatist opportunism towards imperial power shaped Augustine’s own legal arguments and tactics on coercion. In particular, this chapter examines the juridical weight of Augustine’s allegation that the Donatists were the first party to appeal to Rome. This chapter looks at Augustine’s polemic through the lens of Roman laws, which punished false claims, most especially laws concerning calumnia and the equivalent ecclesiastical precedent for dealing with false allegations of traditio established at the Council of Arles in 314. This chapter uses that juridical background to explain the importance of certain procedural maneuvers by both parties, including the strategies employed at the Conference of Carthage in 411. Carrying on the arguments from the previous chapters, chapter five examines Theodosian anti-heresy legislation and argues that it was the anti-heresy legislation of 392 (CTh. 16.5.21) that formed the juridical backbone of Augustine’s polemic against the Donatists through the 390s and into the early 400s. More specifically, it is shown how prior Donatist legal strategies coupled with the Theodosian legislation shaped Augustine’s legal categorization of the Donatists as heretics. Further, it is shown that Augustine’s tactic of labeling the Donatists as heretics departed from the opinion of the Catholic polemicist, Optatus, and instead carried on the precedent established by the Donatists themselves. This thesis demonstrates that the Donatist Church was just as comfortable as Augustine in utilizing the judicial mechanisms of imperial power. It also shows that the Donatists’ juridical tactics against their own schismatics and the Catholic party formed the legal precedents for Augustine’s own arguments in favor of coercion against the Donatists. Augustine’s success against the Donatists and his authority for later generations have meant that his justifications for coercion have been remembered, often at the expense of the Donatists’ own words and conduct. This thesis seeks to remedy that paucity of research on the Donatists’ legal strategies by treating them on their own terms and by carefully examining their own conduct with respect to imperial authorities. All of this recontextualizes ongoing scholarly discourse on late antique ecclesiastical recourse to imperial power, because it shows that this most controversial aspect of Augustine’s thought actually came from the Donatists themselves.