Is it true that Emperor Constantine led an army of Christians against the Donatists in 316 AD?

Jan 17th, 2012
It is unfortunate that Anabaptists and others in the "Free" Church feel a certain superiority about their stance on such things as pacifism and being anti-hiearchical. If you read my book review on "Retrieving the Tradition" you will see that I have been a "Free" church Christian my entire Christian experience. I have reached out to several Anabaptist writers/blogs/web sites to challenge them as an historian of the early church, but only one has had the humility to admit and change the error. When you continue to write or say what you have been shown to be false, what is that? One young man told me he would consult his own historian to confirm what I was attempting to show him - his own historian could not disagree with me...yet he continues to have this incorrect statement below on his web site. Very sad.
The end does not justify the means. Telling lies or distorting the truth about Constantine does NOT help the cause of Christ.
Update: 2014-03-15 This young man and I have exchanged around two dozen e-mail messages. He has satisfied me that he was justified in posting the sentence in question below - he used Christian theologian Justo Gonzalez who has been shown to be sloppy in his historical writing. See this exchange below

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."

On this site was a statement that caught my attention:

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controversy I have now just recently read portions of Optatus' Against the Donatists, obviously biased, but still an historical document.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 least until they have read the historical data. Constantine was a man, a sinful 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)

[I am using Odahl's dating here from Constantine and the Christian Empire, p.131-132]
Sometime around 304-307 a dispute arose in Carthage (N.Africa) over who would be the rightful bishop. A group refused to accept Caecilian because one of the bishops that had ordained him (Felix of Aptunga) was believed to have 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.

- Jan 21, 2012
After spending several hours in the NC State library with WHC Frend's text, "The Donatist Church; A Movement of Protest in Roman North Africa" (1952 Oxford), I have what I believe is a solid treatment of the historical documents. Though written many years ago, Frend's work on this topic continues to be seen as an exceptional scholarly work. The remainder of this article comes mainly from Frend with page number citations to his work.

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.

Constantine and the Christian Empire, by Charles Odahl - represents 31 years of research, retracing the steps of Constantine across Europe and the Eastern Empire. This is possibly the most exhaustive work on Constantine ever published.

Numerous CH101 readers have written to me with questions and critical comments about what I have written regarding Emperor Constantine. There is a significant percentage of conservative Protestants who believe Christianity suffered greatly under Constantine. As a young man I was taught that the Catholic Church started with Constantine and was the beginning of Christianity losing its way.
One reader expressed it very close to how I learned it as a young man:

"Paul said that the 'mystery of iniquity' was already at work in the church even during his day (2 Thes. 2:7). How much more in the years following the death of Paul and the other Apostles would the 'mystery of iniquity' be working."
While there are some valid points to be made for Christianity losing its zeal and spiritual power, Constantine gets a bad rap in MY opinion. If you are interested in learning more about Constantine I would highly recommend the text by Charles Odahl (to the right) to better decide if Constantine was a Christian or just a political opportunist. My articles will be edited using Odahl's excellent research:
Emperor Constantine comes to Power
Emperor Constantine and Christian Faith
Emperor Constantine at the Council of Nicea
Emperor Constantine and Worship of the Sun (Sol Invictus)
Emperor Constantine and Christians in the Military
Emperor Constantine Against the Donatists

I am still looking through my Justo Gonzalez book, but I ran across this:
"Irritated at the obstinacy of the Donatists in declining even yet to accept their defeat, Constantine now enforced the decision of the councils by the aid of the secular arm. The Donatists were proscribed, deprived of their churches, their property was confiscated, their bishops were exiled...Constantine sent an army, and for the first time in the world's history Christians slaughtered Christians....Such were the fruits of the alliance of Church and State." - Robinson Souttar; A Short History of Medieval People.
From the Dawn of the Christian Era to the Fall of Constantinople, p. 227

My Response
This is interesting and unfortunately does not surprise me. Gonzalez has made such mistakes before. I just visited the latest version of his text on Google books. He said that he was going to remove a particular error he had made regarding the nickname "black dwarf" for Athanasius - indeed, he has removed it. I will have to update my page now.
This is another such error.
First, Gonzalez earned his Ph.D. in theology. Just let it be said that I would never attempt to write a text on theology....Gonzalez really should not be authoring texts on Church History. [This example and his poor choice for the "black dwarf" quote on Athanasius give evidence for my harsh view of his inexperience in church history.]

Secondly, he is citing from a text first published in 1903. I found Souttar's text on an archive site and Gonzalez did cite him correctly. So, I guess we can release Gonzalez from error. No! As a scholar he is responsible for whatever he cites. Souttar, as far as I can tell, does not give any primary source for his commentary on the Donatists...Frend's text on Optatus and the Donatists came out in 1952 so Souttar is working with limited sources....But Souttar is incorrect in his VERY general description of the events. I will admit that his comment is so general that I have very LITTLE idea of exactly what event he is commenting on. But my reading of Optatus/Frend shows that there was only one such incident where anything like an army was called in.

I am fairly certain that Constantine did not specifically say, "Go kill those Donatists." He told his governor to keep violence from happening. Even though Roman soldiers were sent, this was a police action. Like the Governor of California calling in the National Guard to quell the Rodney King LA riots. Rioters were killing people - 53 people died in these riots, mainly rioters, but also innocent victims of random attacks. Police and National Guard had real guns with real bullets to enforce the peace. I personally would not fault the Governor, nor would I fault a Christian serving in the Police/National Guard if they had to shoot someone for being violent.

1. This was not "an army."
2. The Donatist were not "deprived of their churches," but were being forced to give up churches they had wrongly taken from catholic bishops.
3. It is highly likely that the soldiers sent in to quell this "riot" were NOT Christians. In fact, many of these were probably the same soldiers that had persecuted the Christians under Diocletian only 10-12 years prior. (Leithart, Peter, "Defending Constantine," p.160)
Thus, to describe this as "Christians slaughtered Christians" is a very inflamatory way of presenting this event - and really not true.
4. "Slaughtered?"
This just strikes me as overly-emotional, used to bolster the argument. In my view what the Romans did in their various persecutions could easily be called a slaughter. But in this instance the death toll was anywhere from 6 to 40 people. The catholic writers claim deaths of 6-12 while the Donatist writers claim 30-40. But remember, the Donatists were barricading themselves inside church buildings and refusing to surrender the buildings. We know Donatist Christians were killed in this context and it may be that some of those killed should have been given more opportunity to surrender. But they were no more innocent than the men who refused to leave the Alamo - they made their choice knowing full well the possibility of death.

This quote above by Souttar does illustrate how poor historical reporting has ramifications. Like my DH Williams review shows, misrepresenting Constantine by the Anabaptist Free church writers of the Reformation has had a lasting impact. I just found yet another site where a reader is reporting what she has learned from Gonzalez. A few good points, but a few skewed ones from a skewed presentation by Gonzalez. He is a trained theologian, not an historian. He proves this by making two undergraduate errors - and these are just two I happened upon.

I am sure Justo Gonzalez is a good man. I think he is a sincere Christian and probably a good theologian. I am sure he knows at least 100 times more about theology than I do. But I would be surprised if he has not made several more historical errors like the two I have stumbled upon....

Another message from me:
I never said that Constantine did not use force. But the force was to tell his governor in N.Africa (Numidia, I think) to quell any violence. N.Africa had a history of violence and Constantine, prior to knowing about the Donatist issue, had signaled earlier that he wanted peace and quiet.

Donatists were commanded to get out of the churches they had taken (this is important - Donatus had traveled around the region recruiting bishops to follow him. This would include whatever buildings they had) and when they refused and some of their extremists took to the streets threatening (and perhaps beating people), Roman soldiers were sent in as a police force. When the Donatists "defended" their churches, deadly force followed.

Again, this is NOT "leading an army" into battle. This is calling in Roman troops on a police action. Kind of like the governor of California calling in the National Guard during the Rodney King riots.

It is also important to know that the violence and the deadly force only happened in Carthage. Donatists in other cities/towns did not resist and were left alone. If Constantine had just wanted to kill Christians he would have sent troops to ALL Donatist churches and rooted them out. Constantine quickly regretted the police action and never did anything like this again. In fact, he reversed his action and granted the Donatists freedom with their churches.

The point is the way Gonzalez and others present it puts Constantine in an unfair light. Now if you want to say things like this against Julian a bit later...that is more accurate. But to give the few lines you used, or what Gonzalez reported, does not even mention the violence and obstinence of the Donatists. It is all about how the data is presented.

Questions, Comments or Criticisms:
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