BMCR 2012.08.30

Sacred Violence: African Christians and Sectarian Hatred in the Age of Augustine

, Sacred Violence: African Christians and Sectarian Hatred in the Age of Augustine. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. xix, 910. ISBN 9780521196055. $160.00.

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Sacred Violence is an exhilarating, magnificent and infuriating book. It has already won the Wallace K. Ferguson Prize of the Canadian Historical Association and the Prose award in Classics and Ancient History from the Association of American Publishers. Nonetheless, because of its great length and formal complexity, there is a danger that it will not receive the detailed engagement that it deserves. As an aid to readers, this review therefore provides a sustained, sequential reading of the book before offering an assessment of the its main themes and arguments.

Shaw does several things brilliantly in this book. One is simply to consider the full range of available evidence. This applies not only to texts with known authors, epigraphic documents and archaeological data, but also to the vast array of anonymous sermons, martyriological texts and conciliar documents surviving from this period. A second, hugely significant achievement is the reconstruction of the contexts of production, reception and, where relevant, recitation of these literatures.1 Shaw also reveals the essential role played by government, not so much as a purveyor of violence (which it supplied only minimally in these events), but as a legitimator of the violence others, whether by judicial fiat or legislation. Obtaining the imprimatur of the imperial center in turn required that one address to it claims and evidence that it recognized, in genres and language it was prepared to read. These efforts shaped the self-understanding of participants and conditioned the construction of historical memory then and thereafter. Finally, over and over again, Shaw weighs such historical detail as one can reconstruct against the rhetorical, polemical and generic claims of the judicial and historiographic record, and so restores to late Roman North Africa its historical particularity.

That said, Sacred Violence has three problems at the level of form. First, Shaw offers neither preview of its argument nor explanation of its structure. Nor can the table of contents serve in place of such: titles are generally allusive and chapter subheadings are not included. The final paragraph of any given chapter often announces the topic of the next, but that is the extent of the volume’s signposting.

Second, at times Shaw urges that his topic is historical memory in the age of Augustine (pp. 2-3); at others, he identifies sacred violence in the same period as the true focus of the book (see, e.g., p. 624). Shaw adheres quite strictly to this conception of his bailiwick. In consequence, he excludes from his purview sustained consideration of the accuracy of the historical claims embedded in texts written between c. 365 and 430; nor does he survey the history of North African Christianity between the Great Persecution and the death of Donatus in 355.

A third formal difficulty in Shaw’s method of exposition arises in the unfolding of the argument at a particularist level. Perhaps because of some commitment to an Aristotelian epistemology, Shaw elucidates conclusions only at the end of sections (note e.g., pp. 139-40). Of course, it may in fact be that Shaw scrupulously elaborated his theoretical constructs narrowly on the basis of his empirical investigations. But there is no particular reason why some biographical reality of this kind (“I was careful not to draw any conclusion before I had examined all the evidence that I deemed relevant”) need determine the form of the exposition (“so you must be taken through all the evidence that I deem relevant before I reveal to you the conclusion that I drew”).

These aspects of the book’s presentation present substantial hurdles to a reader not prepared to give it a sustained, consecutive reading, and those hurdles are heightened in proportion as the reader is not already familiar with the subject matter. To cite but one example, it seems to me unhelpful that one is not introduced to Donatus (the bishop of Carthage, not the homonymous bishop of Bagaï) until p. 163, though he is mentioned as “the great Donatus” on p. 107 (and elsewhere), nor to the “Donatists” until p. 275 (but cf. p. 81).2

The volume’s Introduction reads like an envoi. Above all else, it offers reflections on human nature and the nature of conflict in human societies undergoing substantial processes of historical change. To the extent that it explains the shape and content of the argument, it urges that the volume’s analysis “is drawn in a direction contrary to the natural course of the progressive unraveling of events. It is attracted, rather, to the backwards rerunning of memory” (pp. 2- 3). Shaw further disavows any need or obligation to trace events “serially as they occurred” from 303 to 430.

Chapter 1 surveys a number of episodes or, perhaps, a number of kinds of violence. Its lack of an organizing principle is at some level a consequence of two difficulties to which Shaw repeatedly refers, namely, that violence has been poorly theorized, and that scholars studying late antique North Africa have tended to understand all violence of the period as somehow interconnected. State-sanctioned and state-generated violence that resulted from legal actions, rebellions by local army commanders, private violence by bandits or hired thugs: all these are customarily gathered in one hermeneutic frame, as irruptions of rural/nativist/indigenous/Donatist (majority) anger at urban/metropolitan/colonialist/Catholic (minority) power. As Shaw points out, this interpretive move neatly rehearses one already made in the final half century of the conflict itself (see esp. pp. 54-60). Modern historians have therefore largely echoed the ideological construal of a partisan discourse — which does not mean that they were wrong, but such echoing, once revealed, demands heightened scrutiny.

If I understand the chapter correctly, its double agenda strikes me as problematic. Shaw intends this chapter in part as a gesture toward the construction of a taxonomy of violence. At the same time, he intends by it to refute, through close-grained historical analysis, the empirical and sociological connections between parties, factions and ideologies implicit in the traditional view. On that understanding, the difficulty with the chapter is then twofold: on the one hand, this agenda is not made explicit; and on the other, it’s not entirely clear to me that the two projects can in fact be pursued contrapuntally within the same narrative.

Chapter 2 commences with an oblique reading of the acts of the Abitinian martyrs, both the earliest layer of the text and the later reflections added by its Donatist redactor. I name the reading “oblique” because Shaw does not provide a straightforward contextualization, to aid readers unfamiliar with the text or Great Persecution. He focuses rather on the thematics of betrayal and the role these played in boundary-drawing, between one community that stood fast and the other that betrayed. By such means, border zones that were in real life supremely messy might be reactively and clearly demarcated and rigidly and violently policed. Shaw pursues this theme of betrayal and boundary-crossing into the age of Augustine by focusing on the high tension that surrounded the possibility of “crossing over” from dissident to Catholic or vice versa (p. 81). What is more, as Shaw emphasizes, Scriptural tags were always available to underline the importance of such ideological narrowness and legitimate the hatred and cruelty by which it was nourished and which it sustained in turn (see, e.g., p. 97); the many urging patience and forgiveness were much more rarely mobilized (p. 101).

Chapters 3 and 4 are the most problematic in the book. One might characterize them to a point by saying that they investigate seriatim different venues for sectarian conflict, the forms of social power and authority implicated therein, and the discrepant modes of knowledge- and memory-production both employed in, and generated by, those venues. A central concern throughout is the web of connections that bound private violence with public (juridical) authority. Shaw repeatedly urges that the private violence remembered by the two sides occurred in the context of disputes over church property, and further that the exercise of (private) violence in such contexts was more or less legitimate (see, e.g., p. 159). But neither private violence nor municipal officialdom was sufficient to bring closure to these disputes. It was therefore imagined that imperial authorities, with access to vastly greater resources of coercion, might possess just that power. Their involvement proved explosive, both in the first instance (enforcing an edict of Constans in 347, on which see pp. 162-4) and subsequently, as each side accused the other of triggering a “persecution,” namely, a reenactment of the invocation of secular, statal power toward religious ends under Diocletian that had been the controversy’s originary moment. The overlay of internecine Christian struggles on a meta-narrative of some earlier existential struggle between minority Christians and a pagan state in turn aided the characterization of later conflicts as eschatological. “These people were in this for the long haul. Their hopes and expectations, their loves and hatreds, were firmly anchored in that concretely imagined future which, by its very nature, was a boundless field of vengeance” (p. 185).

A final concern of these chapters is to bring to light the tight connection between the juridical fora where so much of the primary argument took place and the forms that knowledge, memory and argument took in the literary record. The most important historical case concerns the circumcellions. Shaw charts the efforts of Catholic bishops between 403 and 411 to mobilize the coercive power of the state in a final program of forced conversion. An opening foray at a Catholic conference in 403 failed: the governor urged that “all parties were to be held responsible for the peace of the empire.” In response, a follow-up conference of Catholic bishops decided in 404 to appeal to the imperial court at Ravenna: it was then that the bishops assembled what Shaw calls a “circumcellion dossier.” This, at last, generated the desired reaction: the tribune and notary Marcellinus, presiding over the council of Carthage of 411, cited circumcellion violence in indictment of the Donatists alone. “This is the first time that the circumcellions, labeled as such, are known to have entered the formal official public discourse of the state, specifically as a threat to public order” (p. 142).

Chapters 5-7 form a trilogy and perform two tasks. Focusing on different populations (pagans, Jews and heretics), they investigate on the one hand material, demographic and geographic aspects of Christian interactions with these populations. On the other, they inquire into the ways in which those interactions were described — and the figures of the pagan, Jew and heretic were mobilized — to provide moral categories to which their sectarian opponents could be assimilated. The “core aims” of the Catholics in particular were two: to inculcate and sustain hatred of others in lay Catholics (and, of course, feelings of group solidarity within the latter population); and above all “to persuade the state to use its considerable power and resources against the dissidents in Africa” (p. 275). The three groups were thus regularly linked to each other in both rhetoric and law “in a fixed geometry of hatred” (p. 279).

Four of these chapters’ separate conclusions bear emphasis in relation to the volume as a whole. There is first the role of the state: authorities within the church eagerly sought legislation favorable to their ends and when it came, they exhibited an overwhelming tendency to push the boundaries of what the state clearly intended to permit (see, e.g., pp. 225, 229, 232). Second, Christian bishops used very similar rhetorical and social means to mobilize private violence against pagans as they used against their sectarian opponents (p. 251; see also pp. 124-5). The purveyors of violence often took the form of gangs of circumcellions (and occasionally wastrel gangs of elite youth), who were organized and deployed by dissident and Catholic alike (esp. pp. 234-43). Third, in violent conflict against pagans as in violent defense of orthodoxy, individuals are described as seeking to die — to martyr themselves, or self-kill, depending on one’s perspective (pp. 236-8). Finally, Shaw divides Christian literary production into two classes, learned texts exchanged among an educated elite (or addressed to corresponding members of what he calls “parallel elites”), and plainer, cruder texts “directed towards partisans at ground level” (pp. 269-271).

Chapters 8 through 11 study the institutional and infrastructural contexts of sectarian dispute, with a focus on the nature and limitations of the social power wielded by bishops. Above all, Shaw wishes to explain the means by which bishops’ social authority — most importantly, their massive control over public speech — succeeded in coordinating and controlling the passions of their flocks. Chapter 8 thus inquires into the extent of bishops’ power, both within the church hierarchy and without. It ends by considering two trouble-makers in the years after the Council of 411 and the legislation that council provoked. Shaw uses these episodes as indices pointing to the changed nature of sectarian life. Prior to the council, unhappy clerics could have moved from Catholic to dissident hierarchy. After 414, that path seems not to have been considered viable by any bishop known to us: the dissident position had become untenable.

Chapters 9 and 10 study the forms or genres of communication by which communities were founded and instructed and through which they sustained and cohered. The study of homiletics in the age of Augustine in chapter 9 drives home a number of points. Despite the huge importance of sectarian division in theological and other learned literatures, moral instruction and story-telling remained fundamental at the level of the sermon. What is more, on virtually all major points of doctrine, liturgy, discipline and ethics, Catholic and dissident churches were in complete agreement: “the small critical matters of difference were founded on a mountain of sameness” (pp. 421, 436). What must therefore be theorized is the work this “huge mountain of normative ordinariness” did in enabling the language of difference to mobilize hatred to the point of violence (p. 436). Shaw also works to draw attention to domains now lost to us: the oral world of the Punic church and the subliterary world of the sectarian pamphlet (pp. 427-35).

The cultural forms at the heart of chapter 10, namely, the chant and the hymn, are, like the sermon, both ordinary and revolutionary. On the one hand, chant had its roots in forms of acclamation long in use for the approval or condemnation of actions and of men in religious, cultural and political settings (p. 456). On the other hand, Christians understood their use of music and popular song to have specific roots in Christian invective and sectarian conflict (pp. 444-5 and 464-5; see also pp. 479-81 on the abecedarium as directed to the “unlearned and the idiots”). The efficacy of both genres lay in their use of rhythm, their communal nature and the crucial fact that their actions were at once hierarchically organized but also shared (p. 445). When singing, people did things together they would never have done silent and alone.

Chapter 11 studies the use church officials made of various forms of secular power. Though bishops regularly turned to local courts, local authorities in Africa were just as powerless as local authorities elsewhere and notably less Christianized (p. 506). In consequence, “to acquire serious coercive assistance, the bishops had to get matters to provincial level [sic], before provincial governors and, above that, to the imperial court at Ravenna” (pp. 519-20). For much of the fourth century, however, the imperial center was reluctant to involve itself in sectarian disputes. The reign of Theodosius I thus presented an opening like nothing in the past half century (p. 533; see also 345). Seizing the moment, Catholic bishops of North Africa assembled dossiers of evidence that, by various means, discursively repackaged small-scale non-homicidal violence as a threat to public order at the imperial level.

In Chapters 12 through 16, Shaw turns his gaze insistently upon events from 411 to the end of Roman North Africa two decades later.

Chapter 12 performs a thrilling reading of the acts of the Council of Carthage of 411. The reading is shaped by the loss from the preserved transcript of just those conversations from the third day in which the subject of violence came to the fore (p. 584). Shaw therefore focuses not on what the text can tell us about “sacred violence” in the years before 411, but on the discursive, gestural and procedural mechanisms by which each side contested or affirmed the legitimacy of the council itself. In particular, he shows how each side attended to the keeping of minutes, with an eye toward both their immediate distribution and future reception. Shaw’s study of the Council of 411 is preceded by a brief history of earlier African councils, which inter alia reviews prior Catholic efforts to involve the state. Those efforts included the momentous naming of the dissidents’ “dangerous men” as “circumcellions.” A similar act was resisted in the Council of 411 when the dissidents forced the record not to name them “Donatists” (pp. 561-4). This sorry tale of action against enemies without was, not surprisingly, “paralleled by an internal disciplining within the church itself that was construed as a reform program” (p. 552).

Chapter 13 offers background to the studies of violence contained in chapter 14-16. It draws attention to the legacy that pagan persecution delivered to later Christian uses of coercion: because the Catholic Church was so closely tied “to the post-Constantinian state, [it] had to represent state-driven persecutions of Christians as a thing of the past” (p. 598). Catholics therefore needed to redefine martyrdom in the post-Constantinian age around thematics other than violence (p. 601), if it wished to avoid popular construal of Donatist resistance as instantiating some historic form of heroic Christian virtue ( passim; summed up on p. 627). Along the way, Shaw draws attention the tiny numbers of named victims of persecution throughout the history of Christian North Africa (pp. 623-624).

Chapters 14 through 16 turn to the circumcellions and the violence with which they are indelibly associated. Chapter 14 asks who the circumcellions were; chapter 15, what they did; while chapter 16 turns to the self-killing of which they were accused, the violent act that aroused the greatest horror and moral outrage.

Chapter 14 draws a number of important conclusions, of which I mention three. First, circumcellions were migrant agricultural laborers. Some of these congregated at periodic markets, looking for work; others operated in larger gangs under managers. Second, even if we analytically isolate sectarian circumcellions, the evidence points to no single phenomenon: some were recruited for violence as they were for labor, on a purely ad hoc basis; some were self-directed gangs with stable ontologies; others were associated with particular clerics. Here, Shaw’s earlier remarks on the wealth controlled by bishops come to fruition, because he is able to show that bishops’ access to workers of violence followed upon their commerce with seasonal laborers (p. 647). Finally, Shaw locates their origin as instruments of religious-motivated violence not in disputes internal to the Christian community, but in the anti- pagan campaigns of the late 380s and early 390s, which were mounted and sustained by dissident and Catholic alike.

In Chapter 15 performs two moves. First, Shaw directs attention away from generic, hysterical claims and focuses on those episodes narrated with credible circumstantial detail. On that narrow basis, it is clear that sectarian circumcellions beat rather than killed their victims, and that chief among their victims were contemporary “betrayers”: dissidents who became Catholic, among whom priests not surprisingly attracted the greatest fury (pp. 704-8). Thus regarded, the circumcellions’ use of wooden sticks acquires a new meaning, since beating with rods was a common form of judicial punishment (pp. 678-9). Circumcellion violence should therefore be understood as aiming “to police the frontiers of the religious community” (p. 698).

Shaw then returns to the generic claims regarding circumcellion violence advanced by Catholics and ask what work they performed. He describes the acts attributed to the circumcellions as “the traditional [stuff] of social revolution” (p. 696). This language, alongside that of publica latronicia, “public banditry” (p. 701), was designed to enable the classification of the dissidents as threats to the social order (p. 714). The success of this campaign, and its cynical, interested nature, is revealed by the complete disappearance of any concern for circumcellions at the level of the state in the aftermath of the categorical anti-Donatist legislation of January 412 (p. 718).

Chapter 16 studies suicide. Here, the method deployed by Shaw elsewhere in the book no longer suffices, because it is simply not possible to detect discrete events of self-killing in the literary or material record. In this case, therefore, one cannot separate Catholic polemical generalities from some hard core of historical specificity. One consequence is that comparative material is foregrounded in this chapter to a heightened degree relative to its prominence earlier in the book.

Hard evidence lacking, Shaw takes it as given that “by the 390s self-killing formed an irreducible core of sectarian resistance” (p. 727). What he seeks to explain is the meaning self-killing is likely to have held; the chronological and geographic patterns of its purported occurrences (see, e.g. p. 742, on the regions where “the insane and the useless” happen to live); the tight intertwining of moral and aesthetic evaluation in dissident and Catholic responses to self- killing (pp. 746-8, though the finest formulation by far is on p. 792); and the specific forms self-killing took. Not surprisingly, the dissidents understood the involvement of the state in religious coercion as directly continuous with earlier persecutions (p. 726); and indeed, the language of imperial pronouncements, which explicitly threatened death in punishment for disobedience, supported their understanding (pp. 741-2). For them, therefore, self-killing was a “voluntary act,” a human choice to suffer rather than betray, and in this way they distinguished utterly between the heroic death of sacred martyrdom and “contemptible self-murder” (pp. 738, 743, 767-8).

At the core of chapter 16 stands Augustine. As others have before, Shaw emphasizes the decisive influence Augustine has played in creating the modern notion of suicide and (over-)determining its moral evaluation. But Shaw also makes painfully clear that Augustine changes his views on self-killing as the Catholic struggle with the dissidents reached its crescendo in the late 390s. No amount of rationalizing can obscure the self-interested nature of the arguments that Augustine constructed at once to bracket himself and his community and condemn all others. There were lives at stake, and he treated them with appalling, insensitive scorn.

Reflecting on the foundational importance of Augustine to Shaw’s endeavor invites considerations of a more general nature. One might commence with his citation practice. Shaw often introduces quotations with phrases such as, “A preacher in North Africa once said…” or “In an acerbic sermon …, the preacher warns…”. But in virtually all these cases, he quotes Augustine. Is this a stylistic tic? An attempt to obfuscate regarding his necessary reliance on Augustine? Or is it a more Foucauldian move, staking out a position on the nature of discourse? My sense is that it is the last, but not simply that. That is to say, its motivation is social-theoretical (Augustine can and should be read as typical), but it has the welcome effect of diminishing the great man (Augustine was typical).

On a related problem of evidence, Shaw observes near the close of chapter 1 that outside “oral tradition and a scattering of written documents contained in dossiers,” the single major source of information for Catholics about the early years of the dispute — its foundation and meanings (whether sectarian, doctrinal, liturgical, political or eschatological) — was “a five-book treatise composed in the mid-360s by Optatus” (p. 62). Bracketing here the qualification that, as Shaw knows and elsewhere avers, Optatus published a longer second edition a quarter century later (on which see p. 149), Shaw’s observation is important for three reasons central to the book as a whole. First, the extraordinary dominance of Optatus’s Contra Parmenianum as a source for information must inflect any project on “memory.” Second, Shaw’s specification that Optatus was important for Catholics draws attention, albeit obliquely, to the dissident literary tradition, both the ghostly palimpsests that lie behind extant Catholic refutations as well as the homiletic and martyriological texts that do survive, and which Shaw brings to life in subsequent chapters as never before. Indeed, it is in consequence of Shaw’s extraordinary efforts of excavation in the dissident and documentary traditions that one might well say Shaw’s imputation of overriding importance to Optatus is not true. Indeed, the extent of its untruth is better revealed by Shaw than by any other work of late ancient historiography known to me.

Shaw several times observes the end brought to the Donatist controversy by the Vandal invasion: “All at once, everything for which they had been killing and maiming, hating and hurting each other was suddenly and violently swept away and counted for little” (p. 802; see also p. 3). The absolute and deafening silence in the evidence thereafter points, according to Shaw, to the importance of contingent configurations of discursive and institutional structures in enabling, mobilizing, sustaining and legitimating non-statal social violence.

The Donatist controversy can legitimately be described as the long afterlife of a quarrel that began during the Great Persecution. That said, North Africa cannot be said to have suffered unduly in that period. The fact that in Africa more than anywhere else, the memory of the Great Persecution retained massive currency in communal self- definitions more than a century later therefore requires substantial and specific explanation. Shaw grounds one part of that explanation in the particularities of Roman North Africa. Effective social violence, which is to say, social violence of the sort that Catholics ultimately sought to mobilize against their sectarian opponents, was monopolized by the state (p. 796). But the African provinces were not central to the concerns of the imperial state in these years nor, it must be said, was the central state eager to involve itself in disputes internal to the Christian community (p. 783). To convince the emperors to take their side in a meaningful way, the Catholic bishops of North Africa had to assimilate their opponents to known categories of enemies of the Roman order and likewise to describe the actions of their opponents not as doctrinally subversive or liturgically deviant, but as threatening to civil society ( loc. cit.; see also p. 789). These efforts at the level of imperial legal and political discourse had myriad analogues in the coordinating of local social action, so as to mobilize the judicial and administrative apparatus of both municipalities and provinces (p. 785, on courts).

As Shaw demonstrates, these realities shaped contemporary action and near-term memory production, and over- determined the shape and content of historical knowledge both in the age of Augustine and ever after. The genres of historical memory central to state action — the record of proceedings, which is to say, judicial transcripts of confrontations between the state and individuals it names deviant; the acts of corporate bodies; the evidentiary dossiers that accompanied petitions — all played decisive roles in communal self-understanding and contemporary political action, even when (as with the recitation of martyr acts in church) genres acquired new meanings by virtue of their being embedded in novel social spaces. With somewhat less insistence, Shaw likewise draws attention to the way in which the imperial context of Roman North Africa endowed every stage of the controversy with extra-African dimensions: the struggle was also fought in Serdica, Rome and Ravenna. This aspect of North African life, in which true power lay elsewhere and all substantial controversies involved practical efforts to invoke that power even as one lamented the invocation of ‘outsiders,’ also came to an abrupt and shocking end in 430.

Though Shaw’s favored term of art is “historical memory,” the true focus of Sacred Violence is on the production of knowledge. Over and over again, he reveals the ways in which the Catholics worked to affix labels on their opponents in public discourse, of the sort that would provide moral purchase for their claims upon the state (p. 789). When, therefore, the Theodosian state demonstrated a willingness to move against heretics, Catholics shifted their practice accordingly (p. 345 and elsewhere). They fought to add “Donatist” to the list of known heresies (and Donatus to the catalog of heresiarchs). Catholics likewise toiled to endow the pre-existing word circumcelliones, “free migrant agricultural laborers,” with new meaning: they were sectarian latrones. In both cases, there is no evidence whatsoever that these were the terms the relevant persons used to identify themselves. Naming was an act of power, in pursuit of further power. When the imperial court began to use the terms Donatist and circumcellion, the Catholics had won (p. 798).

Shaw’s insistence on the historical particularity of the circumstances and events under study sits somewhat uncomfortably beside his occasional invocation of anthropological constants: the “deep background” of African respect for elders, to give one example, or the “African belief that hypervalued the ritual shedding of human blood,” to name another (pp. 110-11, 361-5, 588, 790-1). The conjoined articulation of ideological constructs, one anthropological and one more narrowly historical, gives one pause. The claim that African populations hypervalued human sacrifice, and the causal connection Shaw seeks to establish between this claim and the power of martyrdom in North African culture, both require more substantial argument than they here receive, not least when the participants themselves cited other forms of inspiration, especially 2 Maccabees (pp. 742-744).

Another major theme of the conclusion and of the work as a whole is the irregular periodicity of sectarian violence. The claims of the Catholics notwithstanding, fine-grained analysis of the evidence situates irruptions of violence in brief clusters immediately consequent upon the intrusion of state power, whether in 314-317, 347, 362 or under Theodosius (p. 797; see also p. 792). In the concluding chapter, Shaw draws attention to the pattern in one way: “it was the condition of peace and order in which the two sides lived side by side that was the dominant theme of the age” (p. 795). (By “theme” he must mean, “pattern,” because peaceful co-existence was never thematized in literature.) Elsewhere in the volume Shaw speaks with different valence: he focuses rather on the continuities and commonalities, the massive sameness, of the two communities. The unpleasant corollary, of course, is that “the manufacturers and purveyors of the ideology … had an important role to play in the violence. It took immense and untiring efforts to maintain continuity, and history, memory and ritual, all of whose elements had to be constantly taught and inculcated into each new generation of believers” (p. 785). Hatred is a learned behavior, and bishops were its teachers.

Shaw’s careful excavation of the realities of sectarian violence and disentangling of those realities from the content and influence of Catholic polemics is one of his most useful achievements. Several historiographic fallacies, in which sectarian violence was a “stand-in for ‘more important’ matters like economic revindication,” are laid to rest (p. 793). But the result seems to leave Shaw dissatisfied. He asks throughout whether any connection can be found between sectarian and other types of social violence (see esp. 777-784). The answer in the North African context appears to be negative. But Shaw seems to feel this as an aporia: the assertion of the non-existence of a connection, in order to dismantle the grand theories of earlier generations, leaves merely emptiness. And of course, one is left with the sad and troubling conclusion that North Africans in the age of Augustine hated and hurt each other simply because that is one what did, because that is what they had always done.

To a point, Shaw’s dilemma on this issue of theoretical distinction, and the moral and existential misgivings to which it gives rise, is itself a consequence of precisely the forces he has worked so hard to delineate. The story that we can now tell about sectarian violence in late Roman North Africa is the victor’s story. What is more, that party was victorious that best spoke the language of the state. The profound consequences of this reality for any modern project of historical inquiry are laid out only in the final chapter:

Violence created by the “big actors” and explained by their narrative only “makes sense” of violence that is directly caused by those forces. But these causes of violence create other ones that are only incidentally, not narratively, related to them as causes. So other sorts of violence, sometimes a lot of it as in these cases, appears to be chaotic, nonsensical, illogical, mad or insane. (p. 804)

It is perhaps in consequence of this reality that Shaw structures the book around pointillist inquiries into institutional structures, themes of contemporary ideology and even problems of definition. Shaw, one might say, resists re-telling the story that the evidence wishes to tell because our evidence is the victor’s evidence. The story our evidence most readily tells would necessarily be the victor’s story. And yet, Shaw suggests, any other story would be incoherent (if true to the evidence) or irresponsible (if not). The refusal of narrative is thus both an epistemic and a moral position.

The negative consequence of Shaw’s approach is that one revisits episodes and texts several times and only a patient reader — perhaps, even, only those who tackle the book in a single, consecutive reading — will come to appreciate the aesthetic and epistemic principles that appear to motivate the book’s structure.

Sacred Violence deserves a significant and critical reception. It is on any estimation a remarkable achievement. Though Shaw refers to the theoretical accomplishments of Natalie Zemon Davis, David Nirenberg and Thomas Sizgorich (among others), the massive empiricism of the work — and the contextual particularism that this empiricism generates and by which it is justified — seems to have prevented Shaw from those acts of abstraction and ideation necessary to sustained theoretical and comparative study. This work can now begin.


1. Shaw’s haunting, horrified account of the martyrdom of Marculus, the installation of his relics and inscription of his name in a church at Ksar el-Kelb, and recitation of his acts and invocation of his name over the next half century is a case in point (pp. 178-85; see also p. 71 on the reading aloud of the acts of the Abitinian martyrs).

2. The relevance of the Great Persecution to the events under study is not even mentioned until p. 62. Similar in effect are the repeated references to “the traumatic events of 347” before those events are described or their importance explained (e.g. pp. 126 or 148; explanation on pp. 162-4, 180-5 and Appendix D) or references to “the measures of 412-14” before these have been described (p. 88), and so forth. One might cite, too, the lack of internal cross- references: the invocation of the “purge of Heraclian” five hundred and thirty-three pages after its last and only mention is perhaps the most extreme example (pp. 50-51 and 584).