By David Benedict


Persecutions of the Donatists


        From the death of Constantine the Great to the reign of Julian was a period of about a quarter of a century, during which Constantine II., Constantius and Constans, sons of the founder of the dynasty, occupied the imperial throne. Of none of these reigns, so far as the Donatists were concerned, do I find so much information as of that of Constans, under whose administration of the empire occurred the Macarian war, accounts of which will occupy a considerable portion of this chapter. Although it is said that Constans at first did not seem disposed to engage in severe measures against the Donatists, to force them back into the church, yet under him, in the end, this people were most severely persecuted.

        After Constantine the Great, the Roman empire was divided into two parts, which were called the eastern and western, from their geographical positions. The western portion, in which North Africa was included, fell to Constans, who, says Neander, instead of forcible measures in the early part of his reign, simply employed those means which were then frequently resorted to on the part of the court for the purpose of making proselytes. In the year 340, the emperor directed his two commissioners, Ursacius and Leontius, to endeavor by the distribution of money under the name of alms to win over the Donatist churches; and as the said emperor at the same time issued an edict whereby he called upon the North African Christians to return back to the unity of the church which Christ loved, it was the less possible that the object of these measures should remain concealed from the Donatist bishops. On the failure of this covert scheme for gaining the Donatists, forcible measures were the next resort. The Donatists now were to be deprived of their churches, and they were actually fallen upon by armed troops while assembled in them for the worship of God. Hence followed the effusion of blood, and the martyrdoms of which the Donatists so often complained of their adversaries. Those who fell victims in these persecutions, says Neander, were honored by their party as martyrs, and the annual celebration of the days of their death furnished new means of enkindling the enthusiasm of the Donatist party. In the times under consideration Gratius had succeeded Caecilian as bishop of Carthage. Both he and the emperor Constantius, says Robinson, persecuted the Donatists with great severity. At an early period this persecuted people entirely renounced the church and state policy, and, of course, "What has the emperor to do with the church?" was their reply to the offers of royal bounty. The evil spirit, before openly combated in the church, said they, was now a still more dangerous enemy, in its covert attacks, since it made a pretext of religion itself, and strove to insinuate itself into men's hearts by flattery.

The Macarian War Against the Donatists, In 347

        This followed the unsuccessful experiments with the royal bounty, which was rejected by the Donatists. This is the only case among all the severe persecutions of this people of which we have any detailed accounts; and in this case all the reputed facts are from the pen of Optatus, who had no records, but related what he had heard; and when the Donatists objected to only hearsay news, he retorted that it was all they had themselves. But, unhappily for the Donatists, nothing from them direct has been preserved. Almost the whole of the third book, or chapter, of Optatus is occupied with the war under consideration. The burden of his remarks consists in explanations and apologies of the course of Macarius in his treatment of the Donatists, although he admitted in the beginning of his work that in many ways they were very roughly treated. According to Mosheim, after the repulse of Macarius with the royal bounties, he no longer used the soft voice of persuasion, but that of authority; and from what was said by Optatus we may infer he appointed a time for his coercive policy; and as the news spread abroad, thousands collected to witness the operation. The scene to be described was in the town of Bagnai, in the province of Numidia, a place distinguished for the number of the Donatists from the first. As Macarius was without a military force, he sought one of count Sylvester, from whom he obtained a company of armed horsemen, who came equipped with the death-dealing arms of the age, that is, quivers filled with arrows. As the business on hand was not the work of a day, this military company must be provided with quarters and supplies; concerning these no small difficulty was encountered, both from the magistrates and the citizens. The eventful and fearful crisis has arrived. Macarius, surrounded with his military aid, proclaimed the Catholic union; in other words, he commanded the Donatists to go into the Catholic church, unite with them in worship, and adopt the Catholic faith. Then, said Optatus to the Donatist bishop Parmenian, you all ran away; you were all in fear, and fled with precipitation and alarm; then again, said he, the words of the Psalmist were verified by you, "They were in fear where no fear was." Wherefore your bishops and their clergy all fled away, and some were killed. The most resolute and robust fled far away, where they were captured, and afterwards were sent into exile. The current language of historians, in their descriptions of this assault upon the Donatists, represents them as being a party to the war, whereas it was a war against them, not with them; and the frequent assertions of Optatus that all fled when the assault commenced upon them, is entirely against the idea of their fighting in their own defense. A people who suffer persecution, but do not persecute, was their stereotyped and cherished motto. This character for their community they everywhere proclaimed, and against everything warlike or coercive in religious concerns or with religious people, they always most earnestly contended. Excepting in their defense of church purity against the lax and corrupt system of the Catholics, there was no point on which they were more at variance with Augustine than on his coercive and persecuting policy. Nowhere in all church history can be found a more non-resisting people under the assaults of their enemies except by arguments. They were treated as rebels by Macarius, and his mission and policy were to bring them into the Catholic church, peaceably if he could, forcibly if he must.

Comments of Catholic Authors on the
Macarian War Against the Donatists

        If, said Augustine, Macarius was unduly severe on the Donatists, and went beyond the Christian law for dealing with heretics, he had recourse to the law of the king, that he should fight for the Catholic union. I do not say, said he, that Macarius did nothing wrong, but your doings were much worse than his, against the Catholics through all Africa; say no more, brethren, of Macarian times; so far as our men were cruel, their acts were highly displeasing to us. Du Pin repeats a long list of the apologies by Optatus for Macarius's treatment of the Donatists, some of which, in his opinion, were not very solid.

        Optatus argued that the killing of the Donatists by Macarius in his war against them for heresy, was sanctioned by Moses killing three thousand for worshipping the golden calf, and Phinehas and Elijah for those they killed. Macarius, said Optatus, did not persecute like the heathen emperors, whose policy was to drive the Christians out of their churches, while that of Macarius was to drive the Donatists into the Catholic churches, where they might worship God together in the spirit of peace and unity.

The Following Remarks are From Protestant Writers

        The opinion of Mosheim of the measures now under consideration is expressed in the following terms: "During the troubles with the Donatists in the reign of the emperor Constans, several steps were taken against this people, which the equitable and impartial will be at loss to reconcile with the dictates of humanity and justice, nor indeed do the Catholics themselves deny the truth of this assertion, and hence the complaints which the Donatists made of the cruelty of their adversaries." Relative to the measures of Macarius, and also of those of other imperial commissioners, who sought to covert the Donatists to the Catholic faith, a remark of Neander will doubtless properly apply: "It cannot be exactly determined," says he, "how much in all that was done, proceeded from the imperial edicts, and how much from the despotism, the passion, or the cruelty of individual commanders."

        Leontius, Ursacius, Macarius, Paulus Taurinus, and Romanus were the persecutors specifically named by the Donatist, in Numidia, and Bagnai is the principal town they have named for the effusion of their blood. But of none of their persecutors have they complained so much, as of Macarius; for the defense of whom all sorts of arguments have been employed by the Catholics, especially by Optatus and Augustine. How many of the Donatists were killed in this war, or were banished by the civil authorities, we have no information. In all Catholic descriptions there is apparently a studied silence on this subject. Optatus merely says some were slain, and others were banished. All the deaths doubtless were effected by the armed force above described. So notorious was this war that the Donatists referred to it simply naming it "Macarian times," and those concerned in it, or upheld it, they called "Macarians." These terms with the Catholics were exceedingly reproachful. Of this whole transaction we have no information from the Donatists themselves. None of their writings on this subject have come down to us, which would doubtless present a very different view of this cruel and terrible war. But, unhappily for the memory of this people, the true and real history of this ancient affair will never be made public.

Persecuting Measures of Augustine

        I name these measures in this place for the purpose of describing them in connection with the scenes of the Macarian war, although they were put in operation about half a century later. They originated in the local councils or synods, as they were sometimes called, at one of which, in 403, a plan was proposed for a general conference with the Donatists for the discussion of the differences between them and the Catholics. To Augustine we are indebted for the history of these councils; in which, although young in the episcopal office, he was evidently their principal manager; and in all his reports of their doings it plainly appears that the magistrates of Africa were very remiss in executing the persecuting laws against the Donatists; one of which, he said, had not been enforced at all, except in Carthage. In the record of a council in Carthage in 404 we find the following statement: "It is now full time for the emperor to provide for the safety of the Catholic church, and prevent those rash men from terrifying the people, whom they cannot seduce. We think it is as lawful for us to ask assistance against them, as it was for Paul to employ a military force against the conspiration of factious men." This is a new version of the conduct of the apostle Paul in the case here referred to.

A New Petition to the Emperor

        Before the laws were sent into Africa, says Augustine, which compelled the heretics to come into the church, some of the brethren, among whom I was one, were of the opinion that although the madness of the Donatists raged everywhere, yet we should not petition the emperors to forbid any one simply to be of that heresy, by inflicting punishment on all who embraced it, but desire them to make a law to restrain them from offering violence to any that either preached or held the Catholic faith; which we thought might in some measure be dome after this manner. The Theodosian law which decreed a fine of ten pounds of gold against the clergy of all heretics was Augustine's substitute in this case. This was a new idea; as thus far, as the Donatists denied being heretics, they had not been dealt with as such, and Augustine appears to have been the first who attempted to subject them to the penalties of the Theodosian code. To accomplish his plan he must have the authority of the imperial court, which was either at Rome or Ravenna; either of which was at a considerable distance from his residence in Africa. Before, says he, our legates could get to court, as new and grievous complaints against the Donatists had been made, the emperor, in his great piety, rather than suffer them to carry the badge of Christ against Christ, and err and perish, had published a new law against them. As soon as this new law, said Augustine, came into Africa, its influence was so great that the true mother received multitudes into her bosom, and only a hardened company retained their obstinate and unhappy animosity against her. The character of these new converts to the Catholic fold is thus described by the self-complacent bishop: At first, they maintained their new position by dissembling their opinions; but in process of time these dissemblers, by hearing the preaching of the Catholic truth, became true converts to the Catholic faith, especially after the conference at Carthage. This last position will hereafter be criticized by Augustine's own party. The remaining part of this chapter will be occupied with descriptions of the changed condition of the Donatists, under different reigns, to the time of Theodosius the Great.

Great Changes in Favor of the Donatists
Under a New Emperor of the Constantine Race

        Julianus Flavius Claudius was his Latin name; he was the grandson of Constantine the Great, and the nephew of his second son, named Constantius, whom he succeeded as emperor in 361. I can say but little of the early years of this singular man, usually called the Apostate. In his younger days his life was often in danger amidst the jealousies of the Constantine family. I can find no reliable account of what led him to renounce Christianity in favor of the idol system, the religion of his ancestors. It is said he revolted from the intolerance of the established church, and hated its persecutions. On the other hand, it is alleged he persecuted those whom he blamed as persecutors. The Donatists Favored by Julian. On his accession to the throne the Donatist bishops transmitted to him a petition, in which they besought a ruler who required only justice, to rescind the unjust decrees that had been issued against them. There could be no difficulty, says Neander, in obtaining a favorable answer, since the petition perfectly agreed with the principles of the emperor. He therefore issued an edict, by which everything under the preceding reigns had been unlawfully undertaken against them was to be annulled. Optatus commented boastfully on the peace of the Catholic church in Africa, in the east, and beyond other seas, in the commencement of Julian's reign. He also spoke reproachfully of the emperor as a ruler, and he frequently said to the Donatists, they ought to be ashamed to ask or receive their freedom from such an unworthy emperor; their exile, he said, was what they deserved, and the peace of the church was owing to their being in foreign regions. Then, said Optatus, there were no schisms in the church, neither was it lawful for the pagans to perform their sacrilegious rites, and a peace well pleasing to God was enjoyed by all Christian people. But, said he, the same edict which restored liberty to you opened the idol temples, and yet you were not ashamed to partake of the common joy. By the term common joy, I suppose we are to understand that many others besides the Donatists rejoiced in the decree of religious freedom for all parties. Then, said Optatus, in his address to the Donatists, you became rabid; then you became angry, tearing in pieces the members of the church, and by subtle seductions and savage slaughters you provoked the sons of peace to make war against you. The details of other charges by this author I will here omit. But the whole list of the worst impeachments of the Donatists in the writings of Optatus, which are utterly at variance with his former mode of addressing them, are found in the descriptions of Augustine, and also in those of Du Pin, Fleury, and other Catholic authors of the more candid class; and also by most Protestant writers, wholly on the authority of Augustine. That it would have been more commendable for the Donatists to have remained in the exile to which they were doomed by Catholic emperors, than to have gained their freedom by the ill esteemed Julian, seems the logical conclusion of their reasoning. But did the orthodox bishops reason thus who were banished by Arian rulers?

Julian Contrasts the Laws of the Catholics
With His Own, on Religious Freedom

        I believe, said Julian in a letter to the inhabitants of Bostra, the leading men of the Gallieans would feel themselves more indebted to me than my predecessors in the government; for it happened under the latter that many of them were banished, persecuted, and deprived of their property; and indeed whole masses of heretics, as they are called, were swept off at a stroke; so that in Samosata, Cyzicus, Paphlagonia, Bithynia, Galatia, and among many other races of people, entire villages were made desolate. But, under my government, the fact has been the very reverse; for the banished have been permitted to return, and their property is restored by our laws to those whose estates had been confiscated. Although the reign of Julian was but about two years, yet the favorable circumstances the Donatists enjoyed under it, continued under the short reign of his successor, Jovian; and nearly the same may be said of them under the Valentinians, Valens and Gratian, to the time of Theodosius the Great, whose reign of sixteen years included the four in which he was a colleague with Gratian. Although Theodosius was severe on all heretics, as the code which bears his name sufficiently shows, yet his most energetic measures were employed for the abolition of idolatry, and the destruction of the idol temples which were still numerous throughout the empire. Men, says Neander, of the ancient and noble families of Rome, ventured to raise their voice in favor of the religion of the eternal city. Among the advocates of the idol worship were magistrates and lawyers, the most eloquent orators and the most able writers. They claimed the same right to their temples as the Christians to their churches, and the same freedom for their worship. Theodosius died in 395. This was about the time that Augustine began to write against the Donatists, in which he attempted to expose them to the penalties of the Theodosian code against heretics, which character they always disowned, and which I do not find that Theodosius himself ever charged upon them.

Summary Description of Persecutions,
By Historian Waddington

        "In the fortunes of this people," says this author, "do we not trace the usual history of persecution? In its commencement, fearful and reluctant; and, as it were, conscious of its corrupt origin, it irritates without depressing; it next suspends the attack; then the object rises up and takes courage. "The same process is then repeated under circumstances slightly different with the same result. Then follows the passionate and sanguinary assault, which destroys the noblest of the recusants, while the most active and dangerous are preserved by hypocrisy and exile; and thus the sect spreads secretly and widely. "The exertions of Augustine against the Donatists have attached to the character of that father the stain of persecution." This statement will be fully verified in the forthcoming descriptions of Augustine's own accounts of the various measures he devised for suppressing and exterminating this people.



1. Neander's Ch. Hist., Vol. II, p. 195. The name of Gregory, and also that of Paul, the companion of Macarius in measures against the Donatists, is omitted.

2. Mosheim's Ecclesiastical History, Vol. I, p. 312.

3. Neander's Ch. Hist., vol. II, p. 196.

4. The distance from Carthage to Rome is about three hundred and fifty miles; the time occupied in the voyage, according to Mr. Amos Perry, late Consul to Tunis, might be a few days or a considerable number, dependent on wind and weather.

5. Neander's Ch . Hist., Vol. II, p. 196.

6. Optatus, p. 49.

7. Neander's Ch. Hist., Vol. II, p. 52.

8. Waddington's Church History, pp. 170-171 (Library of Useful Knowledge).