with escalating consequences polemics could be a delicate tool as well as a potent weapon.27 However, the practice of condemning theological ancestors to ensure contemporary definitions would be an important practice in the continuing construction of imperial orthodoxy.
The conflicts of the fourth century bequeathed a system of imperial enforcement of ecclesiastical councils to a religious community geographically and culturally divided. For the first time in Roman law, religious dissent was classified and ordered. Appeals to antiquity and the apostolic succession of the episcopacy, as well as pilgrimage, shrines and liturgical traditions, strengthened not only the larger religion of Christianity, but the local incarnation of it. In the fifth century in particular, the Donatist controversy and the Miaphysites in the East reflected the strength of local practices and traditions that were not easily dislodged by councils or imperial edicts. Ironically, the councils and edicts in fact could work to further define and cement local practice in opposition to its being perceived as 'heresy' by the larger church.
The Donatist controversy had ebbed and flowed from the early fourth century in North Africa to the fifth century. Rooted in particular African traditions as well as clerical scandals surrounding the community of Carthage during the last imperial persecution of 303, the conflict between a 'true' church and a 'contaminated' church resounded in earlier writings of Tertullian and Cyprian and the unresolved conflict with Stephen of Rome. Within the geographical diversity of ancient Christianity, the indigenous tradition of a church whose sacraments and identity were inviolate and singular had neverbeen challenged. Labelled as 'Donatists' (after their leader Donatus) and portrayed as 'purists' and 'rigorists', these North Africans in fact represented the biblical and apocalyptic legacy of Cyprian and Tertullian. They believed the identity of the church itself as the place of the Holy Spirit was compromised by the apostasy of the believers.28
The violence of the Donatist controversy was an ironic echo of the fervency of the church of the age of persecution. Like Athanasius, they accepted imperial power when the ruling was in their favour, otherwise in their eyes the state simply continued the persecution of the earlier pagan rulers. The broad support in the countryside and the criticism of wealth also reveal significant
27 R. Lyman, 'Ascetics and bishops'; S. Elm, 'The dog that did not bark'.
28 M. Tilley, The Bible in North Africa.
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