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Circumcellions Bonar, Chance


The Circumcellions (sometimes called Agonistici) are a subgroup of Donatists in northern Africa in the fourth and fifth centuries CE. In general, Donatists are remembered for their rigorous stance on Christian clergy's baptismal and ethical practices, particularly in the wake of persecution, in order for their ministry and sacraments to be deemed valid. Donatists, including Circumcellions were primarily active around Carthage and spread throughout the broader North African province of the Christianized Roman Empire. This group believed, in the wake of Diocletian's persecution of Christians, that those who denied Jesus's lordship or repudiated Christian scriptures by handing them over to Roman authorities had given up the ability to function as leaders within North African Christian communities. Augustine, Optatus, and Filastrius of Brescia comment on the Circumcellions as a more radical branch of Donatist thought and practice emerging from Numidia that were characterized by their opponents as being rural hooligans, local mobs, and inciters of violence. They first appear in written record in the early fourth century in Numidia, and seemed to have been a more vocal subgroup within Donatist thought regarding the importance of changing the material circumstances of Christians. They particularly took violent action against traffickers of enslaved people and local landlords. They are often remembered (sometimes incorrectly or polemically) for seeking out martyrdom through violence, and for provoking soldiers, travelers, and courts to hasten their death -- all of which complicated late ancient Christian discussions of what types of martyrdom were acceptable. Unfortunately, much of what is known about the Circumcellions comes via the writings of those who saw them as a threat, so it is difficult to tease out what is rhetorical and what is historical reality about the group. Additionally, Circumcellions were primarily rural Donatist Christians who took aim at urban Catholic Christians, providing evidence that some Christian beliefs and practices were split along geographic and demographic lines. Because of their rural center, Circumcellions were remembered as comparable to bandits and highwaymen because of how they purportedly harassed urban travelers and soldiers across North Africa. By the seventh century, the Circumcellions' reputation spread such that their name was associated with non-North African clerics whose opponents wanted to label them as dangerous.

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