Who were the Circumcelliones? They were the political wing of the Donatist church, a North African organization unaffiliated with the Bishop of Rome. Augustine contended with them, won some of them over to his fold, and, shamefully, sicced the police on them. 'Circumcelliones' means something like 'gadabouts,' 'vagrants' or 'wanderers.' They travelled about North Africa, trying to convince slaves to desert their masters and follow them.

Christ in the Temple


They offered liberty to the slave: "Under the threat of beating, and burning, and immediate death, all documents compromising the worst of slaves were destroyed, that they might depart in freedom.:"

  • "And indeed, before those laws were put in force by the emperors of the Catholic faith, the doctrine of the peace and unity of Christ was beginning by degrees to gain ground, and men were coming over to it even from the faction of Donatus, in proportion as each learned more, and became more willing, and more master of his own actions; although, at the same time, among the Donatists herds of abandoned men were disturbing the peace of the innocent for one reason or another in the spirit of the most reckless madness. What master was there who was not compelled to live in dread of his own servant, if he had put himself under the guardianship of the Donatists? Who dared even threaten one who sought his ruin with punishment? Who dared to exact payment of a debt from one who consumed his stores, or from any debtor whatsoever, that sought their assistance or protection? Under the threat of beating, and burning, and immediate death, all documents compromising the worst of slaves were destroyed, that they might depart in freedom. Notes of hand that had been extracted from debtors were returned to them. Any one who had shown a contempt for their hard words were compelled by harder blows to do what they desired. The houses of innocent persons who had offended them were either razed to the ground or burned. Certain heads of families of honorable parentage, and brought up with a good education were carried away half dead after their deeds of violence, or bound to the mill, and compelled by blows to turn it round, after the fashion of the meanest beasts of burden. For what assistance from the laws rendered by the civil powers was ever of any avail against them? What official ever ventured so much as to breathe in their presence? What agents ever exacted payment of a debt which they had been unwilling to discharge? Who ever endeavored to avenge those who were put to death in their massacres? Except, indeed, that their own madness took revenge on them, when some, by provoking against themselves the swords of men, whom they obliged to kill them under fear of instant death, others by throwing themselves over sundry precipices, others by waters, others by fire, gave themselves over on the several occasions to a voluntary death, and gave up their lives as offerings to the dead by punishments inflicted with their own hands upon themselves."

  • (Augustine, Saint. On the Correction of the Donatists, Chapter 4, Section 15. The Complete Works of Saint Augustine, Kindle Locations 197228-197245).


According to Augustine, the Circumcelliones were violent revolutionaries who used to fling themselves off of precipices, for the sake of showing off:

"In conclusion, let them ask themselves: Do they not bear with the murders and devastations by fire which are perpetrated by the Circumcelliones, who treat with honor the dead bodies of those who cast themselves down from dangerous heights?" (Augustine, Letter XLIII (A.D. 397), To Glorius, Eleusius, the Two Felixes, Grammaticus, and All Others to Whom They May be Acceptable. . .Chapter VIII, Section 24, Kindle location 41532).

"I pass over the tyrannous exercise of authority in the cities, and especially in the estates of other men; I pass over the madness of the Circumcelliones, and the sacrilegious and profane adoration of the bodies of those who had thrown themselves of their own accord over precipices, the revelling of drunkenness, and the ten years' groaning of the whole of Africa under the cruelty of the one man Optatus Gildonanius: all this I pass over, because there are certain among you who cry out that these things are, and have ever been displeasing to them." (Augustine, Answer to Letters of Petilian, Bishop of Cirta, Book 1, Chapter 24, Section 26).

"Those indeed whose deaths you quote most frequently to bring us into odium, Marculus and Donatus present a great question,— whether they threw themselves down a precipice, as your teaching does not hesitate to encourage by examples of daily occurrence, or whether  they were thrown down by the true command of some authority." (Augustine, Answer to Letters of Petilian, Bishop of Cirta, Book II, Chapter 20, Section 46).

"And we cannot but wonder that your Circumcelliones thus throw themselves from precipices." (Augustine, Answer to Letters of Petilian, Bishop of Cirta, Book II, Chapter 93, Section 204).

It is difficult to believe Augustine would have made up such a bizarre charge, which no one ever would have believed, had they not seen it with their own eyes. Just like the Muslims, who were impressed by Christian marytrdom, but who failed to notice that the Christian martyr did not kill but was himself innocently taken by violent hands and killed, the Circumcelliones were presumably impressed by the willingness of the saints to lay down their lives, but failed to notice that throwing yourself off a cliff isn't quite the same thing.



Josef Stalin pointed out, you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs. To Augustine, the Circumcelliones were robbers, pure and simple:

"You say that you are persecuted, while our houses are pillaged by your armed robbers. You say that you are persecuted, while many of us have our eyesight destroyed by the lime and acid with which your men are armed for the purpose. Moreover, if their course of crime beings some of them to death, they make out that these deaths are justly the occasion of odium against us, and of glory to them. They take no blame to themselves for the harm which they do to us, and they lay upon us the blame of the harm which they bring upon themselves. They live as robbers, they die as Circumcelliones, they are honored as martyrs!" (Augustine, Letter LXXXVIII (A.D. 406) To Januarius, Section 8, Kindle location 46014).

I imagine they'd call them 'expropriations.' When you're robbing people of their slaves, there's a case to be made. Augustine was aware that the Circumcelliones did what they did under the impression they were serving God: "Oh, if I could but show you how many we have even from the Circumcelliones, who are now approved Catholics, and condemn their former life, and the wretched delusion under which they believed that they were doing in behalf of the Church of God whatever they did under the promptings of a restless temerity, who nevertheless would not have been brought to this soundness of judgment had they not been, as persons beside themselves, bound with the cords of those laws which are distasteful to you!" (Augustine, Letter XCIII (A.D. 408) To Vincentius, Chapter 1, Section 2).

In nineteenth century America, a genre of literature blossomed, the anti-slavery pamphlet. A skeptic might have wondered, 'If the Bible is anti-slavery as you say, then why has no one noticed this before?' People did notice. They did not at first prevail.


Vasily Polenov, Head of Christ

When the Muslim Arabs invaded North Africa, they referred to the existing inhabitants of the land as 'barbarians:' 'Berbers.' North Africa had been colonized before, by the Phoenicians who founded Carthage, and then by the Romans who defeated Carthage and wiped out much of its population in a genocidal frenzy. It could be that innate hostility of the indigenous population to foreign usages introduced by the imperialists, such as farming large plantations with slave labor, contributed to the popularity of the Circumcelliones.

Augustine grew up in a Latin-speaking family. Writing to Maximus of Madaura, a pagan he accuses of being a comedian, he chides him for ridiculing Punic names (Maximus had mentioned a martyr named Namphanio, which means 'lucky foot'): "For surely, considering that you are an African, and that we are both settled in Africa, you could not have so forgotten yourself when writing to Africans as to think that Punic names were a fit theme for censure. . .Nay, you ought even to be ashamed of having been born in the country in which the cradle of this language is still warm. i.e. in which this language was originally, and until very recently, the language of the people." (Augustine, Letter XVII, to Maximus of Madaura). Why does he say that "you" are an African, then say that "we are both settled in Africa"? Why not say, 'Brother, we are both Africans?' Maybe he suspected Maximus might play the 'More African than Thou' card, and he hastened to concede the point. Punic is not an indigenous language, it was brought to the continent by Phoenician colonizers. Augustine's father was "a poor freeman of Thagaste" (Augustine, Confessions, Book II, Chapter III), but perhaps for all that, a native speaker of Latin. Perhaps Maximus was a true indigenous inhabitant, though he does not mention it in his letter.

His mother may have been an indigenous African. He mentions that she was in the habit of bringing baskets of food and drink to the graves of the martyrs:

"When, therefore, my mother had at one time — as was her custom in Africa — brought to the oratories built in the memory of the saints certain cakes, and bread, and wine, and was forbidden by the door-keeper, so soon as she learnt that it was the bishop who had forbidden it, she so piously and obediently acceded to it, that I myself marvelled how readily she could bring herself to accuse her own custom, rather than question his prohibition. . .As soon, therefore, as she found this custom to be forbidden by that famous preacher and most pious prelate, even to those who would use it with moderation, lest thereby an occasion of excess might be given to such as were drunken, and because these, so to say, festivals in honor of the dead were very like unto the superstition of the Gentiles, she most willingly abstained from it." (Augustine, Confessions, Book VI, Chapter II).

This custom of visiting graves with baskets of food and drink was indeed a very old Gentile custom. The intent of the drunkenness associated with the practice, of which Augustine is careful to exonerate his sainted mother, was to produce a hallucinatory encounter with the deceased person. The deceased were imagined to be very wise, sapient, and well-informed about the future, and so you could inquire about investment opportunities, life choices, upcoming weather, etc. It could be that this approach was very effective, and that the deceased life guides gave excellent advice. . .but unfortunately no one ever remembered it! I think if I were the deceased party being queried, I would stick to generalities, like 'Don't put all your eggs in one basket.' Originally it was family members whose graves were visited, but evidently in the formation of folk Catholicism, the custom had been modified so that the graves visited belonged to martyrs. Realizing that deceased persons do not require food offerings as nourishment, and that this was indeed a Gentile, pagan survival, the practice was frowned upon, as Monica discovered. But it was not a Roman custom specifically, so whoever she learned it from was probably familiar with an indigenous African practice, suggesting she may herself have been of African origin. Besides Monica is not a Latin name. Nowadays it is the deceased Monica who receives petitions and queries, as she is a Roman Catholic saint. When Augustine decided to become a saint, he gave his long-term girlfriend the old heave-ho. This woman comes down to history faceless and voiceless. Was it easy for a woman in that society to be abandoned in middle age? Why were the people around Augustine content to see her treated like dirt? Perhaps she was just a touch tribal. Perhaps there was a long-standing family tradition (Patricius was a wife-beater) of Latin-speaking men feeling justified in treating African women with contempt. In fact, we do not know.

Adalbert, Bishop of Prague, Interceding for the Liberty of Christian Slaves, Gniezno Doors

It is common for pro-slavery advocates, like Robert Lewis Dabney, and his modern-day followers, to make an argument from ignorance: the fact that the church did nothing about slavery for 1,800 years proves they found nothing wrong with it:

"But in point of fact, the church never began to make such deduction, until near the close of the 18th century. Neither primitive, nor reformed, nor Romanist, nor modern divines taught the doctrine of the intrinsic sinfulness of slave holding. The church as a body never dreamed it. Slavery remained almost universal. It remained for the political agitators of atheistic, Jacobin France almost eighteen hundred years after Christ's birth, to give active currency to this new doctrine. . ." (Robert Lewis Dabney, Defense of Virginia and the South, Kindle location 246).

This is simply an argument from ignorance, if not intentional falsification: the French Republic did not definitively end slavery until 1848. For that matter, Western Europe had eliminated slavery, as a domestic concern, long before 1800: "By the twelfth century slaves in Europe were rare, and by the fourteenth century slavery was almost unknown on the Continent." (How Christianity Changed the World, Alvin J. Schmidt, Kindle location 5858). Why, if they approved of it? Moreover, they are overlooking various outlying, experimental forms of Christianity, such as the Circumcelliones and the leaders of the Peasants' Revolt of the Reformation era. While these groups may have added errors of their own to the mix, one thing they did get right is that slavery is not an evangelical relation. Before it was discovered, by the Neoconfederates and the atheists, that the New Testament authorizes slavery, the church had no problem in trying to stamp out the problem when and where it reared its ugly head:

  • “Council of Koblenz, 922.
  • “Also the question was put what should be done concerning him who led away a Christian man and then sold him; and the reply of all was that he should be guilty of homicide.

  • “Council of London, 1102.
  • “Let no one presume for the future to enter into that nefarious business by which they were accustomed hitherto to sell men like brute animals in England.

  • “Council held at Armagh in Ireland, 1171.
  • “When these things were done the clergy of all Ireland were called to Armagh, and upon the arrival of foreigners in the island after more negotiation and deliberation the opinion of all was as follows:
  • “On account of the sins of the people, especially because at one time they were accustomed to buy Englishmen both from merchants, thieves, and pirates, here and there, and to reduce them to servitude, this trouble had come upon them by the severity of divine vengeance, so that they themselves were in turn reduced by the same people to servitude. For the English people hitherto throughout the whole of their kingdom to the common injury of their people, had become accustomed to selling their sons and relatives in Ireland, to expose their children for sale as slaves, rather than suffer any need or want. Wherefore, it may be believed, just as they were sellers and buyers once, so now they deserve the yoke of servitude for such an enormity. And so it is decreed in the said council, and declared with the public consent of all, that wherever the English are throughout the island they shall be freed from the bond of slavery, and shall receive the liberty they formerly had.”
  • (Medieval Sourcebook, Fordham University).

 Negro Slavery Unjustifiable 
Alexander MacLeod

The early Christian emperors did little but chip away at the margins, though the Institutes of Justinian refers to slavery as being "contrary to natural right:" "Slavery is an institution of the law of nations, by which one man is made the property of another, contrary to natural right." (Institutes of Justinian, Book I, III). Discussing manumission, this law code goes on to say, "This institution took its rise from the law of nations; for by the law of nature all men were born free; and manumission was not heard of, as slavery was unknown. But when slavery came in by the law of nations, the boon of manumission followed. And whereas all were denominated by the one natural name of 'men,' the law of nations introduced a division into three kinds of men, namely, freemen, annd inoppostion to them, slaves; and thirdly. freedmen who had ceased to be slaves." (Institutes of Justinian, Book I, Section V.) Since this law code otherwise provides robust protection for the slave-owner's presumed rights, it's hard to see this verbal salve to the slave's wounds as of much use. Nevertheless, by the Middle Ages slavery was widely understood to be unChristian. As to why it took so long for the point to get across, there was a financial interest at stake. The people who ran the government were not strangers to the people who owned the slaves, and indeed were often one and the same.

When arguing with the Donatists, Augustine expects them to be as appalled at the excesses committed by the Circumcelliones as he himself was. Undoubtedly many of them were. Like the American John Brown, the Circumcelliones seem to have felt violence was justified under the circumstances. Whether the larger body of Donatists agreed with their goals, but disliked the means they adopted to advance them, or disagreed fundamentally with them about how society should be ordered, is difficult to determine at this distance. While some of the behavior Augustine attributes to them: drunken riots, burning, looting and murdering,— cannot be justified under any circumstances, their basic plan, of travelling about and encouraging slaves to desert their masters, is scarcely indefensible. It might be compared to someone who travelled about the ante-bellum South explaining to the slaves the amenities offered by the Underground Railroad. This underlying agenda is one from which the Donatists might not have felt it necessary to dissociate themselves. So why was Augustine so dead set against it? Perhaps, as a native Latin-speaker, he was more committed to the aims and institutions of the old regime. And a passing regime it was. As he lay dying, Augustine's Hippo was under siege by the Vandals, a Germanic people ambitious to become the new overlords of Africa. But their establishment, in turn, was not successful, not lasting even a century.

One of the drawbacks of using the military as an instrument to bring about desired social or political goals is that giving very young men unlimited power over unarmed civilians can blow up in your face. It did for America at My Lai. It seems to have done so for the Circumcelliones, if Augustine is to be believed, and he is, after all, the sole source for information about them. Ideally leadership will be quick to impose discipline; but My Lai does not prove the Communists were right in the Cold War, and these incidents do not prove the Circumcelliones were wrong to counsel slaves to flee their masters.

A new world was being born out of these cataclysms. Augustine would turn out to be immensely influential in determining the lineaments of this new world, although in his own beloved Tunisia, the Christian world as it then was would soon be enveloped in deep darkness. Islam in its North African form persecuted unbelief with a white-hot degree of fanaticism, which Christianity could not survive. Some of the characteristics of the medieval world that ultimately came into being are a lot worse than they needed to be, owing to Augustine's personal political predilections. For instance, he encouraged involvement by the police power of the state in religious disputes. This was a new thing, which eventually led to the Inquisition. In a like vein, in the matter of slavery, the Circumcelliones, forgotten by Christian history, were the good guys as far as concerns intent, though the means they adopted cannot be justified. In any event, their witness, imperfect as it was, should not be forgotten.

It is rare for slave rebellions to succeed. Haiti was an exception to the rule. The insurgency of the Circumcelliones, as far as can be teased out of the minimal information available, chugged along for a while as a low-level guerrilla insurgency, without achieving either success in ridding North Africa of the scourge of slavery, nor the kind of abject failure that met Spartacus and his comrades in the mass crucifixion that ended his uprising. A better outcome:


Cornerstone Darkness and Light
In Their Own Words Reparations
Founding Fathers Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll
The Forty Thousand Lerone Bennett, Jr.
What If States Rights
War Drums

You will sometimes hear it stated that no one in the ancient world found any moral problem with slavery. This is very far from being the truth. Not only the Christian Circumcelliones, but pagans writers, did perceive moral dilemmas associated with slavery:

"But when you have asked for warm water and the slave has not heard, or if he did hear has brought only tepid water, or he is not even found to be in the house, then not to be vexed or to burst with passion, is not this acceptable to the gods? How then shall a man endure such persons as this slave? Slave yourself, will you not bear with your own brother, who has Zeus for his progenitor, and is like a son from the same seeds and of the same descent from above? But if you have been put in any such higher place, will you immediately make yourself a tyrant? Will you not remember who you are, and whom you rule? that they are kinsmen, that they are brethren by nature, that they are the offspring of Zeus? But I have purchased them, and they have not purchased me. Do you see in what direction you are looking, that it is toward the earth, toward the pit, that it is toward these wretched laws of dead men? but toward the laws of the gods you are not looking." (Epictetus, Discourses, Book I, Chapter 13).

The Stoics were not abolitionists; they were not looking for political reform of the slavery system, rather, they sought to solve the problem, of how can our minds remain free while our bodies are under the control of others. A recondite moral problem perhaps, but not one which proceeds from the premise that slavery is entirely unproblematical morally. Epictetus himself had been a slave. He is not the Frederick Douglass of his people, but neither is he any great booster of the slavery system. At the close of every year, the Roman people celebrated the Saturnalia, in honor of King Saturn, a legendary ruler in Italy with some imagined connection to the planet of the same name. The observance, which unfortunately generally degenerated into a drunken riot, looked back to the Golden Age believed to have existed, before there was war, before there was slavery, when people lived on acorns. "They established a holiday on which masters and slaves should eat together,— not as the only day for this custom, but as obligatory on that day in any case." (Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Letter 47). Masters waited upon their slaves. This, again, was not a practical program for abolition, but neither was it an unvarnished endorsement of the existing system. Everyone knew, and was reminded by the recurring Saturnalia, that life could be different.

When slave liberations did occur, as under Moses or Solon the Athenian, the liberators did not liberate all slaves for all time nor intend to do so. Slaves were freed, but there was no 13th amendment to follow in a mopping up operation. Solon intended to free those Greek citizens who had fallen into slavery owing to debt, not foreigners. A stele is preserved recording Nero Caesar as "the liberator" of Greece, but whoever he liberated, this blow struck for freedom was never in any danger of toppling the slavery system. At least a part of this liberation was a reduction in taxes: "All Hellenes living in Achaea and what until now has been known as the Peloponnesus, receive your liberty and freedom from taxation, a freedom which you never had even in your most glorious days, for you were subject either to foreigners or to one another. . .Other princes have given cities their freedom; Nero alone has set free an entire province." (Inscription at Karditsa, Greece, translation from Greek Reporter, 'The Statue of Emperor Nero in the Isthmus of Corinth,' Philip Chrysopoulos, January 18, 2024). Whether this edict freed any actual individuals held in a state of bondage, or is just a high falutin way of saying he reduced taxes, is subject to debate. Greece did not willingly surrender its autonomy to go under Roman dominion; when Roman general Lucius Mummius subjugated the Greeks, his pacification of the province involved large scale massacre of the men and enslavement of surviving women and children. Were any of the descendants of these individuals still held in a state of bondage at the time Nero called his assembly? If so, he apparently freed them, and should join the ranks of Solon, Moses, and Abraham Lincoln as a liberator.

Even Indian Emperor Ashoka did not abolish slavery, though he did ban the slave trade, as monuments attest. This reform seems to have fallen by the wayside, even in the Buddhist world, although Pliny the Roman encyclopedist says of Sri Lanka (Taprobane), "In this island no slavery exists; they do not prolong their sleep to day-break, nor indeed during any part of the day; their buildings are only a moderate height from the ground; the price of corn is always the same; they have no courts of law and no litigation." (Pliny, Natural History, Book VI, Chapter 24). So these blanket statements that no one prior to the modern world had any problem with slavery are doubly unfair, both to the Christian church and also to the pagans. Why is this the best people can do?

Readers interested in ancient pagan thought on slavery might find interest in reading, in place of the contemptuous Aristotle, the compassionate Stoic philosopher Seneca. While this is far from abolitionism, there being no impetus to outlaw slavery, neither is it quite as bad as is often assumed:

 Lucius Annaeus Seneca 
On Slavery
(Letter 47)

At times Seneca can almost approach the Golden Rule, just not quite:

"Kindly remember that he whom you call your slave sprang from the same stock, is smiled upon by the same skies, and on equal terms with yourself breathes, lives, and dies. It is just as possible for you to see in him a free-born man as for him to see in you a slave. As a result of the massacres in Marius's day, many a man of distinguished birth, who was taking the first steps toward senatorial rank by service in the army, was humbled by fortune, one becoming a shepherd, another a caretaker of a country cottage. Despise, then, if you dare, those to whose estate you may at any time descend, even when you are despising them. I do not wish to involve myself in too large a question, and to discuss the treatment of slaves, towards whom we Romans are excessively haughty, cruel, and insulting. But this is the kernel of my advice: Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your betters." (Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Letter 47).

On into the Christian Middle Ages, some authors continue to perceive a problem with slavery, which eventually fell into desuetude in the West of Europe:

"By the law of Christ, every man is bound to love his neighbour as himself; but every servant is a neighbour of every civil lord; therefore every civil lord must love any of his servants as himself; but by natural instinct, every lord abhors slavery; therefore, by the law of charity, he is bound not to impose slavery on any brother in Christ." (John Wycliffe, quoted on BrainiyQuote website).

Unfortunately, BrainyQuote does not provide any source for this quote, so I offer it with a grain of salt. What is certain is that slavery ceased to be a present reality for most of the inhabitants of northwestern Europe during the Middle Ages, in the face of a broad consensus that slavery was unChristian.

Holy, Holy, Holy