BMCR 2004.09.06

Africa Cristiana. Storia, religione, letteratura

, , Africa cristiana : storia, religione, letteratura. Letteratura cristiana antica. Studi. Brescia: Morcelliana, 2002. 301 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 8837219016 €23.50.

[The author of this review regrets the lateness of its completion.]

This book contains a collection of twelve essays that mainly derive from a conference held at the Istituto di Scienze religiose in Trento in 1999. As the title suggests, the essays centre on Christian literary production in Africa and cover a wide range of subjects (literature, history, and religion) during the period from the second century to the sixth century CE. The model for the present book is the critical approach exemplified by Pierre Monceaux in his monumental seven-volume study on Christian Africa published in Paris between 1901 and 1923.1 In the introduction (7-13), which usefully summarises the papers, the editors explain that the essays can be grouped around three themes: (1) history of religious culture in the papers of Micaelli, Sforza Barcellona and Romero, who deal with the deviations from the orthodoxy (e.g. Donatism and Montanism), and those of Ressa and Tommasi Moreschini, who focus on the contiguity between Christianity and paganism; (2) literary analysis of certain texts in the papers of Moreschini, Veronese, Petri, Marin, and Catarinella (the last two on Augustine); and (3) historical events in Africa in the papers of Lancel (Augustine and the Donatists) and Vian (Vandalic invasions of Africa). The title of the book is an explicit reference to an important work in the cultural context of Italian catholic studies, the groundbreaking Africa Christiana, published in Brescia (1816-1817) and dedicated to Pope Pio VII by Stefano Antonio Morcelli.

“Tertulliano e il montanismo in Africa” (15-49) of Claudio Micaelli is the longest and most complex essay of the volume. Micaelli notes that Tertullian “si presenta a noi nella duplice veste di importante fonte per la fonte del montanismo e di dottore montanista” (15) and judiciously argues that Tertullian maintained a substantial independence of judgement in regard to some radical aspects of Montanism. The author covers a number of topics concerning the presence of Montanism in Africa and its influence on Tertullian: Tertullian’s formulation of God’s Trinity; his contribution to the debate on the nature of prophetic ecstasy; his strict Christian principles and his quotations of Montanist oracles. Micaelli looks at how Tertullian formulates his ideas, and the result, the author suggests, is that one ought not to overestimate the influence that Montanist beliefs had on Tertullian. If, for instance, the theory of the ecstatic rapture of prophesy is closer to Montanism, the discussion of the divine Trinity, the issue of irremissible sin and the treatment of Montanist oracles demonstrate that Tertullian re-creates and modifies the ideas of Montanism.

Claudio Moreschini’s “Varia Christiana” (51-73) touches on several different themes: the influence of Tertullian in Novatianus, the antignostic themes in three texts of Tertullian, the presence of pagan authors in Cyprian, and Arnobius and pagan myths. In the first section, Moreschini convincingly shows that two of Tertullian’s texts ( adversus Praxeam and adversus Marcionem) are the main models for the de trinitate of Novatianus. For instance, among the loci paralleli, the anti-Marcion assertion of the uniqueness of God in adversus Marcionem 1.3.2 ( Deum summum esse magnum …; … par non habere) is followed closely by Novatianus in de trinitate 4.25 ( Deus enim, quicquid esse potest, summum sit necesse est; … dum parem non habet). In the second section the author identifies a conspicuous number of parallels and scriptural quotations that appear only in the de carne Christi, adversus Marcionem and de resurrectione mortuorum illustrating the close connection between these three texts. The third section turns attention to Cyprian’s acquaintance with pagan literature. Moreschini stresses the paucity of studies on this subject, the only large-scale study being a text of Koch in 1926,2 in which it is wrongly suggested that there is an absence of any influence of pagan literature in Cyprian’s oeuvre. Moreschini argues, by contrast, that Cyprian was well versed in pagan culture, as is clearly shown by Cyprian’s knowledge of Stoicism, his use of the Aristotelian and Stoic explanation of the vexed question of human status rectus, and the many other literary echoes of pagan topoi contained in his texts. The fourth section explores the rejection by Arnobius of the attempts of pagan readers to interpret pagan myths partly allegorically and partly literally. According to Arnobius, this is an arbitrary approach since it is unclear which parts are to be read as allegory and which parts as reality and why. The text, Arnobius explains, must be interpreted entirely either as an allegory or ad litteram. However, this mixed form of interpretation was indeed the kind of reading that Christians were practising during Arnobius’ time (e.g. the allegorical exegesis of Origen), and Moreschini rightly suggests that such “impreparazione” (73) was due to the cultural isolation of Arnobius.

Maria Veronese in “Paulisper te crede subduci in montis ardui verticem celsiorem (Cypr. Don. 6). Alle radici di una immagine ciprianea” (75-98) explores the use of pagan and Christian topoi in the ad Donatum of Cyprian. She argues that the ad Donatum contains traits more similar to the genre of protemptikon than to the model of Christian apologetics. Although Cyprian does not refer explicitly to pagan authors, nonetheless his text is imbued with pagan rhetorical technique. In particular, Veronese takes a close look at the image of climbing up a hilltop in order to have a better view of the lower ground, a metaphor that symbolises the nature of detached and critical knowledge. She argues for the wide use of this metaphor in pagan and Christian texts and supports her argument with an array of evidence, ranging from the Homeric epic to the Old and New Testaments, from Greek philosophy and satire to Latin pagan literature. This is a stimulating essay that corrects the wrong and hasty assumption about the paucity, if not the absence, of any pagan allusion in the texts of Cyprian.

Pietro Ressa’s analysis in “Maghi e magie in Arnobio di Sicca” (99-124) is extremely useful both as a new, focused study on Arnobius’ acquaintance with witchcraft (the only brief examination of this subject by Thee3 was where Arnobius’ knowledge of magic is only tangential) and as a clear overview of the sources used in his Adversus Nationes. The fundamental belief of Arnobius is that witchcraft and divination are closely linked. This opinion goes back to Pliny the Elder, Tacitus and, among the Christians, to Tertullian (in particular Apologeticum, De idolatria and De praescriptione haereticorum). Arnobius is well versed in the history of magic, and his assumption of its oriental origin is based on the traditional (pagan) list of the inventors of magic (Chaldeians, Persians, Egyptians), to whom Arnobius adds the Indians and the Armenians. However, the mention of the Indians and the Armenians is seen by Ressa as original to Arnobius, who aptly integrates his sources. Ressa suggests that for the inclusion of Indians and Armenians (Adv. nat. 4.29.2) Arnobius has been influenced by the reading of Porphyry, De abst. 4.17 (regarding the Indians), Juvenal, Sat. 6.550 and Pliny, Nat. Hist. 31.25 (regarding the Armenians). A further interesting example of synkrisis of pagan and Christian models is the influence of Heliodorus and Iamblicus in the explanation of the antithei as ghosts, who deceive the believers during magic rites, rather than the more Christian interpretation of the antitheus as the Devil or the antichrist.

In “L’agiografia donatista” (125-151), Francesco Sforza Barcellona examines six stories of the surviving Donatist hagiographies.4 Donatism (from the name of Donatus, the founder of the eponymous sect) was a rigorous Christian movement that refused to accept those Christians who had lapsed during the persecutions of 303-305 and had handed over (thus derogatorily called traditores) their copies of the Scriptures to the pagan persecutors. The result of this conflict was a souring schism among Christians in Roman North Africa. The Donatists were split into tolerant and rigorist parties, the Circumcelliones, who targeted the African Catholic clergy and landowners as their main enemies. Donatism was essentially a regional answer to the mass conversion of the Empire to Christianity. The Donatists saw themselves as the representatives of the pure Christians of the African Church set against the lax Christians in the rest of the Empire. Sforza Barcellona deals with two stories of Donatist martyrs ( Passio Marculi, Passio Isaac et Maximiani), then with the martyr narrative of the “passioni donatistizzate”5 ( Passio Cypriani, Passio Maximae, Secundae et Donatillae, Passio Crispinae, the Acts of the Abitinian Martyrs) (134-145), that is, hagiographic stories reinterpreted by Donatists, and finally the so-called Sermo de passione Donati et advocati. The author stresses that the hallmark of these texts is that within the sharp division between the corrupted congregatio of the traditores, slaves of the Antichrist, and the Donatists, pure Christians, the polemical vis against the Catholic Church surprisingly sidelines the main aim of any hagiographic narrative, that is the promotion of the cult of the martyr, subject of the story.

In the essay “Ticonio en la historia y literatura cristiana en el norte de Africa” (153-181), part of a long-term project to produce the first edition of Tyconius’ commentary on the Apocalypse, Eugenio Romero-Pose deals with the exegetical interpretation of the Bible by the Donatist Tyconius. Tyconius is an enigmatic figure who had a considerable influence on the subsequent commentators of the Apocalypse. Yet we have lost a conspicuous portion of his oeuvre, and even his name has been variously transmitted by the scribes of his texts (Ticonius, Tichonius, Tyconius, Tychonius). Romero-Pose explores the Book of Rules ( Liber regularum), the oldest manual of biblical hermeneutics written in the West, much estimed by Augustine who quoted it at length in the third book of his De doctrina Christiana. The Liber regularum, which anticipates Augustinian and medieval hermeneutics, contains seven rules, which allow the understanding of difficult passages of the Bible by allegorical interpretation. Taking this text as an interpretative tool of Tyconius’s exegesis, Romero-Pose reconstructs his lost commentary on the Apocalypse, drawing from quotations and paraphrases of it scattered in later commentators and writers, in particular Caesarius of Arles, Primasius, Bede and, more importantly, the seventh-century commentary of Beatus of Liébana (163-178). The essay, which contains a detailed and updated bibliography on the subject, will be of great interest for all scholars of Tyconius.

In “Aspetti dell’omiletica agostiniana: il pubblico” (183-200) Marcello Marin focuses his attention on how Augustine puts into practice in his sermons the patterns of rhetorical technique contained in the De cathechizandis rudibus and the De doctrina Christiana. Augustine follows the three types of genus dicendi ( submissum, temperatum, sublime) and adapts them to the three aims of rhetorical speech: docere, delectare, flectere. These patterns of rhetorical performance are not blindly imitated but adapted to the aims of a Christian speech. For instance, Augustine explains that since Christian religion is not a form of entertainment, the art of delectare mainly consists in involving the audience and directing its attention to Christian preaching. The Christian orator has, therefore, to seek clarity ( evidentia) rather than formal elegance, “ogni cura di chi parla deve essere nel venire incontro alle esigenze di chi tace” (185). Marin effectively examines, with a good range of examples, how Augustine varies his rhetorical skills according to his audience. The essay ends with a glance at the reactions of the audience to Augustine’s speeches.

The essay of Serge Lancel, “Saint Augustin et les donatistes dans le nouveaux sermons Dolbeau” (201-219), is a stimulating and attractive study which illuminates the years 403-405 of Augustine’s bishopric in Numidia which he mainly spent preaching against the Donatists. Lancel reviews some Augustinian sermons (in particular the sermons D21, D24, D26, D27) discovered by Dolbeau in 1990 and hence called “Dolbeau sermons”.6 In these sermons, Augustine urges his community to stand firm against the attacks of the Donatists and reminds the clergy of the paramount importance of having a single and universal Church. These sermons not only offer new material on the “marathon antidonatiste” (219) of Augustine, but add important elements to Augustine’s biography. For instance, in the sermon D26 Augustine recalls that during the fall of 403 he had narrowly escaped an ambush planned by the Circumcellions. Lancel’s excellent discussion, firmly rooted in the historical context, casts a better light on Augustine and his community during those terrible years of religious havoc.

Francesca Maria Catarinella’s “Confutazioni epistolari: il caso Firmus (Aug. Ep. 2*) o della conversione differita” (221-239) looks closely at Augustine’s method of confutation and his point of view on Christian conversion and pagan culture in the letter addressed to Firmus, a nobleman of Carthage, who was in practice a Christian although not yet officially one since he was delaying the day of his baptism. This letter, written in 428, is the last in time of the “Divjak letters”, a collection found by Johannes Divjak in 1975 in the Bibliothèque Municipale of Marseilles.7 Augustine, in replying to Firmus, adopts the strategy, used in his polemical works, of reproducing portions of the original text in order to criticise it line by line. Catarinella gives several examples of Augustine’s witty reuse of Firmus’ vocabulary and adds a detailed stylistic and rhetorical analysis of this letter (228-236).

Giovanni Maria Vian in “Ariani d’Africa” (241-254), departing from the ground-breaking text of Courcelle,8 aims to give a brief sketch of African Arianism. The author deals with the historical facts and the literary production in fifth-century Africa at the time of the Vandalic invasions and the Arian repression of Catholic bishops. The role of the barbarian invasions in the decline of the Roman Empire is controversial. Some scholars minimise the impact of the invasions on the transformation of the ancient world and believe that the integration of the barbarian people was a relatively peaceful process. Others emphasise that the barbarian invasions were catastrophic for the future of Rome and interpret the clash in Africa between Vandals and Romans as one mainly driven by religious hatred. Vian’s approach is rightly cautious, and his assumption that our vision of events is distorted by the copious number of Christian sources and the scarce knowledge of the extant Arian texts is plausible. The essay collects interesting material on the evidence of the Arian persecution in Africa, and it ends with a brief glance at Christian authors of anti-Arian texts, such as Fulgentius of Ruspe (251-252) and Vigilius of Toledo (252).

Sara Petri in “Il contro Eutiche di Vigilio di Tapso e il suo tempo” (255-268) contributes an essay on the date of the contra Eutychetem, attributed by some manuscripts and by Theodulf of Orleans to Vigilius, bishop of Tapsus. Petri, on the basis of a close analysis of this pamphlet, argues that the contra Eutychetem is the mature fruit of an expert writer and probably the last work written by Vigilius. Petri argues that it is likely that the text was composed between 458 and 511, probably somewhere between 470 and 482.

In “Persistenze pagane nell’Africa del VI secolo. La Iohannis corippea e la questione dei dii mauri” (269-301) Chiara Ombretta Tommasi Moreschini examines the persistence of pagan cults (mainly among the Berber peoples of North Africa) in sixth-century Africa, basing her analysis on the epic poem Iohannis written by Flavius Cresconius Corippus to celebrate the Byzantine victory over the Vandals and the conquest of Mediterranean Africa. In this poem, the aim of Corippus is to stress the extraneousness of the barbarian feritas from the providential kosmos of the Byzantine Empire. In pursuing his aim Corippus investigates the religious pantheon of the Berber tribes and gives first-hand material concerning the gods of the indigenous religion, the so-called dii mauri. Corippus is the first Roman writer to mention the cult of gods such as Mastiman, Gurzil, Sinifere, and he is the first to give an interpretatio romana of their origin. This penetrating essay emphasises not only Corippus’ correct use of literary sources but also the importance of the Iohannis as a source of examples of synkresis between Roman and local religions. This is, for instance, the case of the transfert (288) of traits related to the cult of the African Baal Hammon into the cult of the Roman Saturn.

In general, this is an excellent collection from both well known and less known authors which opens up some stimulating topics. The quality of the contributors’ work is high, and very few typographical errors were found. The only shortcoming is the lack of connection between papers. Cross-references between papers (where appropriate) would have been useful to readers. For instance, cross-references might have helped the reader to relate the essays of Marin and Catarinella regarding the rhetorical technique of Augustine’s sermons. But overall, many essays offer substantial contributions to their topics and certainly will stimulate readers either to explore or to regard from a new perspective the many authors and texts analysed therein.


1. P. Monceaux, Histoire littéraire de l’Afrique Chrétienne, Paris 1901-1923.

2. H. Koch, Cyprianische Untersuchungen, Bonn 1926.

3. F.C.R. Thee, Julius Africanus and the early Christian view of magic, HUTh 19, Tübingen 1984.

4. For the English translation of these texts see M.A. Tilley, Donatist Martyrs Stories. The Church in Conflict in Roman North Africa, Liverpool 1996.

5. The expression is a translation of the French “Passions donatisées” coined by V. Saxer, “Afrique latine”, in G. Philippart, Hagiographies. Histoire internationale de la littérature hagiographique latine et vernaculaire en Occidente des origines à 1550, vol. 1, Turnhout 1994, 25-95.

6. In 1990, François Dolbeau found a cluster of sermons written by Augustine in a manuscript catalogued in the Municipal Library of Mainz. These sermons have been divided in two groups: the first group, the so-called collection Mayence-Grande Chartreuse, was preached in Carthage in 397. The second group, the collection Mayence-Lorsch, contains the sermons delivered in the Madjerda valley in 403-4.

7. J. Divjak, Epistolae ex duobus codicibus nuper in lucem prolatae in CSEL 88, Vienna 1981; epistula 2* is at pages 9-21.

8. P. Courcelle, Histoire littéraire des grandes invasions germaniques, 3rd edn., Paris 1964.