committed to historic Baptist & Reformed beliefs





Conclusive Evidence Against the Demoralizing Influence
of the Conference of Carthage On the Affairs of the Donatists


        The report of the editors of Augustine's works on this subject has previously been referred to, namely, that although this people were conquered by force, yet they were not silenced and subdued, for they immediately appealed to the emperor against the decision of the judge. That they did not submit to the judgment in question will fully appear i what will hereafter be exhibited in their subsequent transactions. Further evidence that this people were not generally converted to the Catholics by Augustine's conference, according to his frequent representations, and that the judgment which was pronounced against them did not restrain their speech and actions, according to his descriptions, will be clearly shown.

Friar Baldwin on the Conference

        This eminent Catholic jurist, whose name so often appears in this history, lived more than one thousand years after Augustine, whom, as a Catholic, he highly esteemed; yet, in justice to the Donatists in this case, as in a number of others, he gave an opinion decidedly against him, in the following terms: What, said the Friar, may have been the effect of this conference in other respects, he would say of the Donatists what Jerome said of the Luciferians, a kindred party, although they could certainly be overcome and put down by the Catholics, yet by them they could not be persuaded nor convinced. We were conquered by imperial power, not by the truth, was the language of the Donatists. The Luciferians consisted of a small party of orthodox dissenters in the fourth century.

Great Changes in the Affairs of the Donatists,
Also in Those of Their Opponents

        In the first place, this long afflicted people were in some measure relieved by the sudden and unexpected deaths of a number of high state officials, in the ranks of their adversaries. The Catholics at this time were in great trouble in their state concerns by the invasion of the Goths, by whom Rome was captured in 410, a few months before the conference. The Gothic armies were spreading over all parts of Italy, and threatened all the provinces of the Roman empire, while the Vandals threatened Africa, which they soon after conquered. In this condition the emperor Honorius was in the greatest perturbation, and even desperation, for the fate of the empire, says Friar Baldwin, especially after the death of his prime minister and chief adviser, Stilicho, the circumstances of whose death will soon be related. Truly it would seem that this persecuting ruler had full employment with national concerns without lending his aid in persecuting measures.

Death of Distinguished Persecutors Of the Donatists

        In addition to the alarming state of the empire, about the time of the conference new and unusual scenes occurred among the Catholics, in which a number of their prominent men were taken from their accustomed scenes of action, one after another, mostly by ignoble deaths, under the charge of treason against the state. The scenes about to be described belong to civil history, but since all the men in the following list had more or less share in persecuting the Donatists, under edicts from the emperor Honorius, with the approval of Augustine, I will give their names with a few facts of their history. The death of these men occurred in the following order: Stilicho, Heraclion, Apringius, Marcellinus and Boniface. All these men died either a little before or not long after the conference at Carthage. The four first named were beheaded by the order of the emperor, under the charge of treason. Boniface was killed in a duel. Such was the fate of men who had been employed to persecute the Donatists for the reputed crime of treason and rebellion against the Catholic church; and the same ruler who commissioned them to defend said church, ordered the loss of their heads for treason against his crown or the state. Stilicho was of Vandal pedigree, but he was one of the greatest generals of his time, under both Theodosius the Great, and Honorius his son; and under the impeachment, whether true or false, of his aspiring for the throne, the emperor commanded him to be beheaded. The charge against Heraclion was for his descent on Rome with a numerous fleet. The charge against Marcellinus and his brother was a confederacy with Heraclion, who was the betrayer of Stilicho. What a company of high-toned traitors, not only of the state, but also of each other; and who can blame the persecuted Donatists for rejoicing in their downfall? As the last named traitor acted a conspicuous part against the Donatists, it seems suitable that we should give a few of the facts concerning him, during the scenes under review. We have seen in the history of the conference over which he presided, decided indications of haste in his giving judgment on the spot, and closing it in the night; and is it unreasonable to attribute all this to his concern in the great naval expedition just named, which was prepared in the ports of Africa? Marcellinus, says Fleury, in his church history, remained a long time in Carthage after the conference, when at length he and his brother were thrown into prison on a charge of treason in confederacy with Heraclion; and after being a long time in prison, they were both led out and beheaded. What a change of destiny; and what different sensations must have been produced among the people when the rumor spread far and wide, before all Carthage, that he who but yesterday sat on his judicial seat as a cruel judge, lay lifeless beside the block of the stern executioner!

Did His Judgment Die With Him?

        This question was agitated immediately after his death, and so much was the emperor concerned on the subject, that, according to Friar Baldwin, within about two months he reaffirmed said judgment with his own edict. The edicts of Honorius were very easily obtained, and were frequently issued. The main question in this case is,

"Did the Edict Help the Catholics to Convert the Donatists,
or Hinder them From Opposing Both the Judgment and Its Author?"

        This proscribed people, instead of hastening to the bosom of the Catholic church after the conference, according to the representation of Augustine, are found in the open field of controversy with their opponents on the side of those who maintained that the judgment of Marcellinus died with its author. That they did not acknowledge its authority is apparent from what was said of them by Catholic writers. "In the conference of Carthage, as above stated, the Donatists were indeed overpowered, yet they were not put down by arguments, for they speedily appealed from the judgment against them, to the emperor." "After that great convocation." said these writers, "the Donatists pursued its president, the tribune Marcellinus, with extreme hatred, principally because he urged the execution of the imperial laws, in Africa, against them." The disposition ascribed to the Donatists towards their judge, in the foregoing terms, seems at first view unchristian and unduly severe; but let us consider the relative condition of the parties. Marcellinus had no judicial authority. His appointment was merely to preside in the conference, and pass judgment on the merits of the testimonies and arguments of the contending parties; and accordingly the language of his judgment (moneo,) was that of admonition rather than of judicial command. Thus far he was within due bounds, but it was far otherwise when, as a zealous partisan, he urged upon the state authorities the execution of the dormant imperial laws, which were very severe, against all dissenters. The plan of the judge evidently was to have the Donatists punished beyond what he was able to inflict. It was for this principally they followed him with the hatred ascribed to them, according to the Catholic writers above referred to.

The Donatists Were Accused of Causing The Death of Their Judge

        The same Catholic writers who imputed such a deadly hatred of Marcellinus to the Donatists, also said, him they so defamed with count Marinus, by malicious arts and blind intrigues, that by his command he was beheaded. This strange and most improbable story, according to Friar Baldwin, was first circulated by a Spanish ecclesiastic of the fourth century. It was doubtless devised to shield Marcellinus from the infamy of dying a traitor. In this story it is said it was uncertain if the judge thus executed was corrupted with gold at Carthage. It is also said that count Marinus, as a state offender, was immediately recalled from his official station in Africa and severely punished. In this fabulous account we see to what an extent the enemies of this people would carry their misrepresentations against them. What an idea, that a people under the ban of the empire, and everywhere despised by the ruling powers, should have such an influence with a state official!

Gibbon's Account of the Donatists

        "After the conference at Carthage," says this secular author, "Honorius was persuaded to inflict the most rigorous penalties on a faction which had so long abused his patience and clemency! Three hundred bishops, with many thousands of the inferior clergy, were torn from their churches and ecclesiastical possessions, banished to the islands, proscribed by the laws if they presumed to conceal themselves in any of the provinces of Africa. A regular scale of fines was imposed upon them, according to their rank."

        This description is grounded on an edict in which the most rigorous penalties were indeed threatened, but which edict does not appear to have been executed.

Jacob Gothofred's Comments on This Edict

        "Immediately after the conference," says this author, "the emperor Honorius engaged in earnest to reclaim the Donatists to the Catholic faith, and to put a stop to their heresy, by his severe edict." The nature and the express design of the document are represented under seven heads, of which fines and exiles are the most prominent. These, said this commentator, on the severe edict of the emperor, assuredly are the seven considerations with which Honorius endeavored to reclaim the Donatists to the Catholic faith, and to break in pieces their pertinacious institution. According to Gothofred, to operate on the fears of those whom he sought to reclaim, was the main object of the rigorous edict in question. The fear of the loss of money is the first in the list; the next of the most importance, was the fear of their clergy being sent into exile; then came the fears of the loss of their own goods, and the donations of those to their churches, for the Catholics; and finally, fears for their personal and family enjoyments. How little did the emperor understand the character of the Donatists, to suppose that for any or all these considerations he could induce them to give up their dissenting interest, and go over to the Catholics. Almost a score of the edicts of the emperor Honorius concerning the Donatists may be found in Du Pin's Monumenta of this people. Four were issued in quick succession against their rebaptizing, and still they continued the practice without abatement. But the document now under consideration was the result of an extraordinary effort, doubtless under clerical influence, in which the logic of fines was the principal argument; they descended by tens from eighty to five pounds of gold, according to the rank of those on whom they were imposed. Generally, only the clergy were fined, but in this case all Donatists, and even Catholic laity, were included. That was probably intended for such as favored the proscribed party. Ten pounds of gold was the ordinary sum with which the Donatists were threatened for rebaptizing Catholics, and for other inroads upon them. This, with us, would amount to more than two thousand dollars, and the fifty pound fines to considerably over ten thousand. I can find but one case in which this ten pound fine was imposed, namely, on Cryspin of Calama, which was soon remitted. This transaction, related in Du Pin's history of the Donatists, will be described in another chapter. It occurred before this edict was issued. From the day of the giving of the law, said the emperor, the fines imposed must be paid into his treasure, unless the offending parties would cease from their sacrilege and return back to the Catholic faith. But I do not find any evidence that any one returned, or that any fines were paid. Neither can I find that any of the Donatists were exiled for non-payment of said fines.

A Contrast Worthy of Notice

        The severe edict of the emperor is dated 412. In the same year we find Augustine, after the conference, addressing the Donatists in mild and fraternal language, and endeavoring to persuade them back to the church.

Circumstantial Evidence Against the Exiles In Question

        They must have taken place, if at all, in the full tide of Augustine's operations against this people, concerning whom his last writings were in his controversy with Gaudentius in 420, in which neither party refers to the exile punishment, nor is it complained of by the Donatists in the times under consideration. In these times the chief men were the first to be banished. It was so in the contests between the orthodox and the Arians, and also with the dominant party and the dissenters; and of course such men among the Donatists as Petilian, Gaudentius, Emeritus and Adeodatus, who occupied conspicuous stations among their own people, and were the principal men of the seven debaters in the conference at Carthage, instead of now being at their posts, and boldly defending their cause, would have been in exile on some of the desolate islands in the Mediterranean sea.

Remarks on the Foregoing Details

        Not to modify the persecuting measures of the Catholics against the Donatists, but to show that the influence of these measures was much overrated, has been the main object of these remarks; and the writers principally had in view were Augustine, in what he said of the demoralizing influence of the conference of Carthage on the affairs of this community; and Gibbon, for what he said of the wholesale banishment of the Donatist bishops and inferior clergy, under the influence of the edict of the emperor Honorius, soon after the conference. Both Gibbon and Augustine at times had different dialects with respect to the Donatists. Gibbon not being in favor of either the Catholics or the Donatists, so far as religion was concerned, could give them hard hits by turns. Thus while he blamed the emperor for causing the reputed exile of the large number of the Donatist clergy, he could at the same time stigmatize them as a faction who had long abused the patience and clemency of the emperor. This abuse of the emperor, in the view of Gibbon, doubtless consisted in the Donatists not joining the Catholics according to his plan and desire. The two dialects of Augustine may be described in the following terms: When he wished to prove the influence of his measures for suppressing his opponents, he would magnify their effect; but when answering their complaints of such measures he would say, you exaggerate your sufferings for your error. Both Gibbon and Tillemont, in what they say of the exile of the three hundred Donatist bishops and the thousands of their inferior clergy, refer for their authority to the severe edict above described, the literal execution of which they evidently seemed to take for granted. This opinion appears to have been held by other historians; whereas, according to Jacob Gothofred, the commentator on the edict in question, its main design was to operate on the fears of the Donatists.



1. Mosheim's Ecclesiastical History, Vol. I, p. 296.

2. This fleet, says Gibbon, when it anchored at the mouth of the Tiber, surpassed those of Xerxes and Alexander.

3. Decline and Fall, Vol. 2.

4. Metus damni pecuniarii metus clerici in exilium missi; bonorum proscriptionis metus. Du Pin's Monu., p. 260.

5. The terms for pounds stand thus: Auri pondo quinquaginta (50), quadraginta (40), triginta (30), viginti (20), decem (10), quinque (5). Gold then was not a circulating medium, but went by weight, twelve ounces to the pound. Such was then the scarcity of money and its higher value, that it is very improbable that any of the very high or many of even the ten pound fines were ever paid.

6. Exaggeras persecutiones, quas vos patri dicitis. Op. Aug., Tome 9, p. 475.

The Reformed Reader Home Page 

Copyright 1999, The Reformed Reader, All Rights Reserved