Is it true that Emperor Constantine led an army of Christians against the Donatists in 316 AD?Jan 17th, 2012
While doing research to see how people search online for Emperor Constantine, I found a site with an article on pacifism and Christianity. One of the main points of the author is that "Constantine fundamentally changed the Church [from pacifism to] the idea of Christians going to kill other Christians."
After deciding against the Donatists, Constantine led an army of Christians against the Donatist Christians.
In all of my reading about Constantine I had NEVER read anything like this statement, and thus, I found it dubious. My general Christian history reading is WHC Frend, Rise of Christianity and Hans Lietzmann's four volume set A History of the Early Church. My primary source documents for Constantine have included Eusebius' Ecclesiastical History, portions of Lactantius, and portions of the histories of both Sozomen and Socrates. On the Donatist controversy I have now just recently read portions of Optatus' Against the Donatists, obviously biased, but still an historical document. Added to these sources, I have read hundreds of pages about this time period in scholarly works where Constantine is referenced in more ways than can be mentioned...yet I had never read anything about him leading an army of Christians against anyone.
I hope you will take the time to read this article with an open mind. It is not my intention to defend Constantine as a pure Christian believer, but it is my desire to defend a proper reading of the historical data. It is wrong when we misrepresent historical data to prove our point. IF Constantine was a Christian, perhaps modern-day Christians should refrain from pointing their finger at him and calling him a pagan...at least until they have read the historical data. Constantine was a man, a sinful one...like you and me. He was also the Emperor of the Roman Empire which meant that he was tasked with protecting Romans from outside invaders and from sedition led by insiders. Because he was the Emperor he was charged with putting people to death from time to time, something he did not take lightly. This was his reason for putting off Christian baptism until he lay on his death bed - he was fearful of losing his soul by sentencing people to death. Enough lecturing....
Here is the history as we can determine it from our primary source, Optatus of Milevis.
The Beginning of the Donatist Controversy
The Donatist controversy actually begins in 303 with the persecution under Diocletian. As with Roman persecutions in the past, there was great conflict over how the various pastors and bishops responded to the torment and how the Church should treat these "traditores" (those who "surrendered" under persecution). The history of the past had been to offer grace to those who had failed, but there were always more strict believers who wanted a more stringent discipline. (Learn more about this, read the paper on Second Repentance)
In around 311 a dispute arose in Carthage (N.Africa) over who would be the rightful bishop. A group refused to submit to Caecilian because he had been ordained by Festus, who had been a traditor. The man who stepped to the front of the dispute was Donatus. He had traveled around the countryside rebaptizing and ordaining bishops, though he himself had not been officially ordained. Apparently a charismatic man, and due to the fact that these "new" leaders now owed their positions to him, Donatus gained a strong following.
The details of this story are somewhat complicated. In order to keep this from becoming far too lengthy, we will stick to the basic outline of events:
Roman Synod of 313 AD
Caecilian offered to be ordained again, but this did not satisfy the Donatist party and the Church was basically divided into two camps. This came to the attention of Constantine in 312 - he directed Miltiades, the bishop of Rome to investigate. Miltiades selected several regional bishops to come to Rome; Caecilian also traveled to Rome with both supporting and opposing bishops. This hearing (or synod) convened during September of 313. Caecilian was found innocent on several charges (mainly of being illegitimately ordained) and Donatus was excommunicated. Some efforts were made to allow ALL the pastors/bishops on both sides to continue in public ministry, but the Donatist camp refused to abide by the ruling.
The Council in Carthage
The dispute in N. Africa only grew worse and the Donatists demanded another council that would be held locally in Carthage. Witnesses for the Donatists were not produced due to the fear of violence. This council also decided in favor of Caecilian and the Donatists then appealed directly to Constantine.
We know from letters of Constantine (preserved by Optatus) that he was very unhappy with the whole situation. He had wanted the matter resolved by the church leadership. His letters indicate the desire to see everyone come together in unity - the somewhat naive desires of the newly "Christian" Emperor. Constantine calls for another council to be held in Arles in 314, what becomes the first true Church Council in the West.
The Council of Arles
The decisions of the council are expressed in twenty-one canons that survived, dealing mostly with administrative rules for bishops. They do, however, set rules for the celebration of Easter and they condemn Donatus. In addition, they rule that false witnesses against a bishop would be excommunicated and could receive the death penalty! A wonderful time was had by all.
Again the Donatists denounced the verdict and appealed to Constantine. His response letter indicates white hot anger as he ordered that the Donatists from the Arles Synod and the main ringleaders in Africa be brought to his court for punishment. He then relented as he considered the unruly state of affairs in N. Africa and that he might only make the situation worse. Donatist lawyers presented more legal complaints against Caecilian in Carthage forcing Constantine to order yet another trial. It was discovered that some accusations in the Donatist legal briefs were not true and their witness statement had been forged - now the parties were again called to Rome to make an account. Constantine again ruled in favor of Caecilian.
After ruling in favor of Caecilian, Constantine received news that a certain Menalius was stirring up anti-Caecilian riots in Numidia. As early as 313 Constantine had been briefed about the situation in N.Africa and had warned the Roman bishop, Miltiades that rioting would not be permitted (Frend, p.156), thus he wanted something done quickly to bring peace. Constantine had traveled to Milan with directions for both Caecilian and Donatus to be retained in Italy. He feared that their presence would inflame the already tense situation in N. Africa, and it turns out he was correct. During this time one of Constantine's favored advisors suggested a compromise plan to the two groups still in Rome: a commission of bishops would be sent to Africa to appoint a new bishop of Carthage. The proposal was accepted, but when the delegation arrived in Africa it was met with hostility. The Donatists boycotted and riots broke out in the streets of Carthage. After 40 days the Roman prelates left Carthage with no resolution. (Frend, pp.156-57)
Shortly after this failed attempt to keep the peace, both Donatus and Caecilian were able to slip away; both returned to Africa, making the situation worse. Constantine then gives instructions to his governor (Domitius Celsus) to suppress the rioting. He also states that he intends to come to Africa himself to bring a resolution - this never happens. Expressing disappointment and frustration that the church cannot come to peace saying, "What more can be done..." (Frend, p.157; from Optatus' Letters)
Emperial Edict Against the Donatists
In 317 Constantine issued a severe edict against the Donatists: the death penalty would be imposed on anyone who disturbs the peace. A later decree orders the confiscation of Donatist churches. Donatus refused to surrender church properties in Carthage into the hands of Caecilian. Caecilian then appealed to the local Roman authorities.
There is a lack of documentary evidence about what happens next, but it appears that extremists in the Donatist camps took to the streets in violent protests. On March 12, 317 armed forces move in to take Donatist church buildings by force; attacks were made on churches with Donatists defending them. Donatist writings claimed many were killed. While there are no other records, there have been other pieces of evidence that lend some credibility to these reports.
It should also be pointed out that the violence only happened in Carthage - in the surrounding regions Donatist bishops were allowed to keep their buildings and their positions. (Frend, pp.159-160)
THIS is the ONLY incident that could possibly be referred to when you read, "After deciding against the Donatists, Constantine led an army of Christians against the Donatist Christians."
By 321 Constantine decided he would not be able to bring about the peace in N.Africa that he desired, thus he granted toleration to the Donatists. In an open letter Constantine asked the catholic bishops to show moderation and patience to the Donatists. (Optatus' Letters; Frend pp.161-162)
A sad commentary on Christianity, but NOT an incident where Constantine leads an army of Christians against other Christians. The historical records indicate that Constantine was not a killer of Christians. We can wish that he had not become so involved with the struggles in the Church, but he was responding to the requests of bishops AND he tried to let the Church work these problems out. In the end, his government was tasked with keeping peace in the streets which the Roman troops did as a police action.
Finding easy answers is quite difficult.
Caecilian seems to be less than Christian by calling on the government. Donatus and the extremists in his camp seem to be less than submissive and peace-loving. You can fault the Roman soldiers for attacking churches and killing Christians, but as the peacekeeping "police," they were just doing their job. Finally, you can quickly say that Constantine was NOT a true Christian and that he forced Christianity into an idolatrous relationship with the government, encouraging violence. This view is not what the historical record shows.
A Note on Constantine and the Changing of the Church
The pastor mentioned in the beginning of this page states that a shift took place with Constantine. While this is true to some degree the real shift took place later when in 380 AD Emperor Theodosius outlawed pagan practice in the empire and made Christianity the official religion. Shortly after this we have the first church father to suggest that heretics could be put to death, using the OT as a reference. Sadly, it was Optatus, the same man from whom we learned the facts regarding the conflict we have just studied.
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