Roman Africa

Obscurity shrouds Christian beginnings in Africa, i.e., the Roman provinces of Proconsular Africa, Numidia, and Mauretania (with later subdivisions), extending today from Tripolitania in Libya through Tunisia and Algeria into Morocco. Carthage, second only to Rome in the West and seat of a strong Jewish population, must quickly have attracted missionaries. They may have been Jewish Christians, whether from Palestine via the Jewish colonies of Cyrenaica, Asia Minor, or Rome (alternatively, an African group may early have influenced Roman Christianity; Pope Victor was an African); but Christianity did not prosper there until the later second century. The story begins in martyrdom, with the Scillitans in 180 at Carthage. Most if not all of the NT was already in Latin. Christianity also took root in Greek-speaking communities (perhaps from the first), but there is scant evidence that its coming rejuvenated native Punic or Berber cultures.

Around the turn of the second/third centuries, the Passion of Perpetua and the works of Tertullian* and Minucius Felix* (perhaps later third century) portray a thriving church reaching well to the south and west of Carthage and the more Romanized towns and littoral. The Latin Bible was now complete, close ties bound Africa to Rome, and some seventy bishops attended the Carthage council about 220 which under Agrippinus (the first known bishop of Carthage, unless the Optatus in the Passion of Perpetua was a predecessor) decreed the rebaptism of heretics. African Christianity owed its distinctive features largely to Tertullian, who created an African Latin Christian culture out of the raw materials of the Greek tradition. It became a religion of the sacred Book, interpreted literally, and eschewed profane literature. Apocalyptic and “enthusiastic” in tone and uncompromising in its defiance of the rulers of this world, it prized the martyr and confessor as the true Christians, possessed of and by the Spirit. Its church was the elect remnant; its holiness, in Judaistic fashion, legal; and its discipline severe. Tertullian attests the presence of Gnostic groups and was himself the channel of a significant Montanist influence.

In Cyprian* this rigorist Christianity was wedded to the episcopate, which in his hands through frequent councils exercised a collegial authority as yet unparalleled elsewhere. Provincial organization was well developed; in Proconsular Africa the primate was the bishop of Carthage, in other provinces the senior bishop. The church suffered severely in the persecutions of Decius* and Valerian,* in whose reign the martyrs of the Massa Candida at Utica probably died. Cyprian's handling of the ensuing controversies-over the lapsed, schism, and rebaptism-demonstrated a typically African combination of deference and ultimate independence towards the Roman see.

Late in the century Manichaeism reached Africa where Augustine,* its most famous adherent, was to crown its successes, despite proscription from 297 onwards. Diocletian's Great Persecution was foreshadowed by military martyrdoms (295-c.300) in North Africa, where alone in the West it hit really hard, the victims including all forty-seven Christians of Abitina, SW of Carthage. Two important writers were produced by Africa in these years, Arnobius the Elder* and Lactantius.* The disruption of persecution gave birth to the Donatist schism which for over a century divided African Christianity in its characteristic preoccupation with ecclesiology and baptism. The Donatist appeal to earlier African tradition in support of a rigorist purity was countered by the inclusivist vision of the church of the empire developed by Optatus of Milevis* and Augustine, but the eclipse of Donatism through the leadership of Aurelius and Augustine early in the fifth century after its dominance in the fourth was achieved only with imperial assistance. Against the Pelagians the African bishops secured Roman support on their own terms, but soon rejected anew Rome's claims of superior jurisdiction in the case of Apiarius.* Augustine's contributions to African Christianity were manifold, e.g., the propagation of monasticism and the supply of bishops from his own community of the “servants of God” in Hippo.

The century of Vandal rule in Africa (429-533) brought renewed persecution under three kings, Geiseric (429-77), Huneric (477-84), and Thrasamund (496-523). To the Arian Vandals at war with the empire the Catholics appeared like a Roman fifth column. Organized church life was overthrown, monasteries dissolved, bishops exiled (among them Quodvultdeus of Carthage [d. c.453], a writer and preacher of some note), new appointments barred, and Arian rebaptism imposed. In 484, at Huneric's conference of Arians and Catholics at Carthage, 466 Catholic bishops were present. But there were interludes of peace, especially under Gunthamund (484-96) and Hilderic (523-30). In 525 an all-African council could meet in Carthage, and Catholics and Donatists, probably treated alike by the Vandals, learned to live together, with Moorish pressure from the south an added incentive. Writers of this era mostly dealt with Arianism.* They included Victor of Vita, Vigilius of Thapsus, Fulgentius, and Christian Africa's only poet of merit, Dracontius of Carthage (fl. under Gunthamund).

The Byzantine reconquest in 533 enabled some recovery of earlier vigor but hardly of peace. The Moors were repeatedly disruptive, and the bishops and monks who defended the Three Chapters* against the condemnations of Justinian, the Council of Constantinople, and Pope Vigilius, whom they excommunicated, experienced signal imperial repression for thus maintaining Africa's independence vis-à-vis the imperial and papal authorities. Writers favoring the Three Chapters included Ferrandus (d.546/7)-a Carthaginian deacon, biographer of Fulgentius, and canonist-and Facundus of Hermiane, while Primasius of Hadrumetum opposed them. Gregory the Great found frequent occasion to rebuke African bishops, especially for tolerating a resurgent Donatism,* now perhaps scarcely distinguishable from Catholicism, but they naturally thwarted attempts at more direct papal control.

In the seventh century, Monothelitism* was rejected by African churchmen (except briefly Fortunatus, bishop of Carthage about 639-46), and again for a time the imperial will was resisted.

The Muslim Saracens' conquest of Africa, begun in 642/3 and completed by 709 with Carthage falling in 698, meant flight, slavery, or apostasy for many Christians and the reduction of Africa's bishoprics to three by the mid-eleventh century and to none by the thirteenth. The Turkish conquest of the late sixteenth century effaced the last vestiges of a Christian presence in North Africa, except, that is, for the rich archaeological remains which have so illuminated its church history.

L.R. Holme, The Extinction of the Christian Churches in North Africa (1898); P. Monceaux, Histoire Littéraire de l'Afrique Chrétienne (7 vols., 1901-1923); A. Harnack, The Expansion of Christianity, vol. 2 (1904), pp. 411-35; H. Leclercq, L'Afrique Chrétienne (2 vols., 1904), and in DACL 1, pp. 575- 775; E. Buonaiuti, Il Cristianesimo nell' Africa Romana (1928); J.J. Gavignan, De Vita Monastica in Africa Septentrionali (1962); A. Audollent in DHGE 1, pp. 705-861.