Official repression of Christianity gave rise to the Donatist controversy. It took hold of North Africa, which had only been partially Christianised by the beginning of the fourth century. This movement originated during the Diocletian persecution that ended in March 305, just before Diocletian and Maximian abdicated. During that oppression, Christians were requested to hand over the holy books to the municipal authority (the Latin word for handing over, traditio, is widely used in this context). Many Christians refused to obey, but several clerics and bishops, to keep from being persecuted, turned over religious texts and liturgical items such as vestments and chalices. After the persecution ended, a controversy arose about whether priests who had cooperated with the state during the persecution could be re-admitted into the church. The supporters of Donatus regarded these people as traditores (literally, 'those who hand over', but here with the specific sense of'traitors') and insisted that they had to be re-baptised to be accepted again.15 In 311, Caecilian was chosen as the new bishop of Carthage, but the Donatists considered him a traditor.16 The Numidian clerics therefore opposed his election and later chose in his place Donatus of Casae Nigrae (on the Saharan border of Numidia), who quickly won the support of both Carthaginian and Numidian elements in opposition to Caecilian. However, Miltiades, the bishop of Rome, supported Caecilian (313) and Donatus was condemned. Despite this decision, public opinion in North Africa was strongly in favour of Donatus.
After the 'Peace of Constantine', several successive emperors attempted to resolve this problem, first by exiling Donatist bishops and confiscating Donatist property,17 then by promoting reunification; such was the goal of the aforementioned council of 411 in Carthage. Government support for Caecilianus' party was ultimately determinative. In 347, the emperor Constans proclaimed the reconciliation of the Donatists and Catholics under the authority of Bishop Gratus.18 This event led to a sudden collapse of Donatism in Carthage and in Africa Proconsularis.19 From 348, Catholicism was on the rise. We have, however, documentation of Donatists surviving into the early sixth century.20 In particular, the Donatist community continued to be active in Numidia during
15 This was based on Cyprian's idea that there is no salus (salvation, or health) outside of the church, and consequently these people needed to be re-admitted into the community.
16 Caecilianus was also supported by Constantine, after he defeated Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge in 312.
17 See Augustine, Letter 105.9: 'Legem contra partem Donati dedit severissimam.'
18 Passio Maximiani etIsaaci I (PL 8: 768).
19 Optatus, De scismate Donatistorum, 3.1; Passio Maximiani et Isaaci (PL 8: 768); W H. C. Frend, The Donatist church, 177-82.
20 Frend, The rise of the Monophysite movement, 2.
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