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Promoting Catholic Christianity in Roman North Africa

The various cultural negotiations that characterised early Christian interaction with local pagan traditions were frequently complicated by problems internal to the church. 'You must know, my friends,' said Augustine 'how the mutterings [of the pagans] join with those of the heretics and the Jews. Heretics, Jews and pagans: they have formed a unity over against our unity.'10 The combative posture of the Catholic Church against pagans - but also Jews and, perhaps especially, other Christians - is striking. Even as pagans become decreasingly visible in the history of Roman North Africa, Christians who are self-consciously not in communion with Rome come to fill their place as the 'other'. The historical context of Augustine's remarks, for example, was a major crisis that had raged for nearly a century and that saw the African church divided by schisms, only to be redressed ultimately by the council of 411.

In Peter Brown's summary, 'the rise of the schismatic church - which had begun in Carthage in 311 and by the time of Augustine had won over the majority of African Christians - created the situation that posed the problem of coercion in its classic form: that is, this church was not only prohibited but, during the episcopate of Augustine, its congregations were subjected to official pressure to join the Catholic Church'.11 By 400, the Catholic Church had attained privileges and was able to have its rivals repressed to various degrees. The Theodosian Code contains several laws that favour the supremacy of the Catholic Church.12 These laws specified acts contrary to Catholic morality for which people could be punished through the loss of civic rights, exclusion from public employment and so on. Some actions were subjected to increasing penalties: heretics were fined, and later a harsher punishment (namely, proscription and exile) was extended to the Donatist clergy, who 'polluted' the Catholic sacraments by re-baptism.13 Pagan temples were confiscated and access to them restricted; statues were to be destroyed (although archaeological evidence apparently does not confirm that these measures were taken). Heretical churches were given to the Catholics and illicit meeting places were confiscated.14

10 Augustine, Sermo 62.18, trans. from P. Brown, Religion and society, 303; see also P. Brown, Augustine of Hippo.

11 Brown, Religion and society, 303.

12 Ibid. 438. On CTh, see J. Harries and I. Wood, The Theodosian Code.

13 CTh 16.5.21; see further Brown, Religion and society, 303fr.

14 CTh 16.10.18,16.10.19 (dated to 407/8); 16.5.43,16.6.2,1.

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