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St Augustine and the Donatists

Cartennas, Algeria: An Ancient Scandal That Nearly Ripped the Catholic Church Apart


Phoenicia was a seafaring empire and trading culture that spread across the Mediterranean from 1550 to 300 BC. They were famed for their valuable purple dye which was used for, among other things, royal clothing. Several of their major cities were built on the coastline of the Mediterranean, although after 150 BC, much of northern Africa was dominated by the Romans.

Emperor Augustus, adopted son and heir to Julius Caesar, founded many Roman colonies on what is now the coast of Algeria. Amongst them was Cartennas, formerly an ancient Phoenician city, which he established in 30 BC. Cartennas became an important commercial link to the other colonies and a rich city with a forum, theater, baths, aqueducts and a library. Though all romans memorials above ground had been destroyed, a large portion of the old necropolis was discovered when part of a cliff fell away. The necropolis has delivered a great deal of evidence about the upheavals that happened there between Donatism, Rogatism and the Catholics around 380 to 420 AD - theological differences which shook the African Christian Church to its core.

The Roman Persecutions Had Repercussions Far And Wide

When Mensurius, the Bishop of Carthage died, Felix, Bishop of Aptunga, hurriedly appointed the archdeacon Caecilianus as his replacement in 311 AD. During the Roman persecutions (64 to 313 AD) all three men had been accused of handing over the names of their brethren to the Romans and therefore many claimed that the ordination performed by Felix was invalid. Caecilianus was also accused of unnecessary and heartless severity to the prisoners and was denounced as a ‘butcher’ before being excommunicated by his opponents who chose Majorinus as their Bishop instead. The church of Northern Africa split, with the faction of Caecilianus breaking away from that of Majorinus. The Christian world was scandalized.

Ancient ruins of Carthage (Fotolia)

The Pope presided over a council which met in 313 AD. Caecilianus appeared with ten bishops while Bishop Donatus headed the party of Majorinus. The personal charges against Caecilianus were ultimately dismissed, and his party became the representatives of the orthodox Catholic Church. Donatus himself was declared to have broken the laws of the church, and his followers were offered the opportunity to retain their dignity and office on condition they reunited with Caecilianus' party. Caecilianus proposed a friendly compromise, but his advances were rejected. A call for justice was raised and a council of 200 men were sent to Carthage to examine all the evidence in 314 AD. Still not satisfied with the findings, the challengers appealed directly to the emperor who looked into the matter personally in 316 AD. Constantine confirmed the appointment of Caecilianus and followed up his judgment by laws confiscating the goods of the party of Majorinus, depriving them of their churches and threatening to punish their rebellion with death.

Emperor Constantine (Fotolia)

Emperor Constantine (Fotolia)

Majorinus was soon succeeded by Donatus. The Donanists persisted, seeing themselves as the true Church. Although they had local support, Rome supported Caecilianus and the Donatists refused to accept the sacraments and spiritual authority of priests and bishops whom they saw as traitors. According to the Donatists, prayers and sacraments administered by those men were invalid.  

Rogatus, Donatist Bishop of Cartennas, established a new sect, modifying the Donatist Heresy. He did not advocate violence against the Catholics although he did take advantage of the general confusion during the revolts to persecute his opponents. While his sect did not take firm root, the original Donatist Heresy nearly overpowered Orthodox Catholicism.

 Cartennas Was Strategically Situated and Many Nations Fought To Rule

The Vandals were an East Germanic group of tribes inhabiting present-day southern Poland. In 429 AD they entered North Africa and established a kingdom which included Cartennas. They successfully fended off several Roman attempts to recapture the African province. The Vandals managed to sack the city of Rome in 455, but their own kingdom collapsed in the Vandalic War of 533–4.

The Vandals sacking Rome (Public Domain)

The Vandals sacking Rome (Public Domain)

Cartennas was re-established to its former glory by the Byzantines and regained importance during the sixth century when the Christian Diocese of Cartennas thrived.

It was conquered by the Arabs around 700 AD and then was attacked and annexed by the Ottomans in 1512. From that time the city lost its fame and importance and became an isolated town until the French conquered the region and rebuilt the ancient city in 1843. It is now known as Ténès.

Beyond Cartennas, the french army found the remains of fortified posts marking the route the romans would have followed inland as well as thirty-eight localities in the neighborhood in which roman remains were found. Most of them were destroyed by the military engineers to make new roads.  

It is thought that Jannes and Jambres, the two ‘wise men and sorcerers’ who were employed by the pharaoh (possibly Thutmose IV) to rival the miracles of Moses, were natives of Ténès.

Top image: St Augustine and the Donatists                          Source: (Public Domain)

By Michelle Freson


Lt-Col Vereker. 1871. Scenes in the Sunny South: Including the Atlas Mountains and the oases of the Sahara in Algeria, Volume 2. Longmans, Green and Co. London

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Bencheneb, H. Tanas. 2017.  Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Billonline Reference Works

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Manfredi, L-I. 2018. Cartennas (Tenes). Algeria Punica

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Michelle Freson's picture


Michelle Freson is a professional writer and editor and has spent many hundreds of wonderful hours working with and learning from fiction writers based all over the globe.

Born in July, 1971, Michelle has long since stopped working out her... Read More

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