BMCR 2022.04.13

Carthage, Constantinople and Rome. Imperial and Papal interventions in the life of the Church in Byzantine Africa (533 – 698)

, Carthage, Constantinople and Rome. Imperial and Papal Interventions in the Life of the Church in Byzantine Africa (533 - 698). Miscellanea Historiae Pontificiae, 68. Rome: Gregorian & Biblical Press, 2016. Pp. ix, 192. ISBN 9788878393479 €26,00.

In this book, Stanisław Adamiak explores the still largely neglected field of ecclesiastical history of Byzantine North Africa. Admittedly, the topic does crop up from time to time in introductions or studies on the relations of the North African church to Rome. There are also some specialized studies on prominent persons or theological controversies. Systematic studies on Christianity and the organization of the church in Byzantine North Africa, however, are still rare.[1]

At the outset, Adamiak argues that the North African church developed a particular eagerness to defend its autonomy over decades of conflict. Adamiak’s goal is “to analyse specifically the degree to which the autonomy of the African prelates was affected by imperial legislation and papal claims of jurisdiction” (p. 2). Therefore, his focus is on “external interference” in the affairs of the North African church by the political center of Constantinople and ecclesiastical center of Rome (p. 2).

The book is divided into three main charters. In the first, Adamiak gives a rather conventional overview of the history and organization of the church in North Africa from the emergence of Christianity in the second century to the Islamic conquest in the seventh (pp. 11-52). The focus of the chapter is mostly on political developments, as for example the Vandal conquest and Byzantine re-conquest and their impact on the church. Most relevant to the subsequent parts of the book, Adamiak sees the North African church as characterized by four main features: first, “a stubborn conservatism”; second, an attitude of a “certain insularity” that disconnected the North African church from other parts of the Mediterranean; third, a particular “collegial character” reflected in the important role of synods; and fourth, “an exceptional veneration of martyrs” (pp. 15-16).

The two following chapters each start with an overview of the historical background before moving on to source-based discussions of specific political and theological issues. As the title of book suggests, the second chapter is dedicated to imperial interventions from Constantinople (pp. 53-114). The chapter is arranged chronologically and covers the period from the Byzantine conquest in 533/534 to the Council in Trullo/Quinisext Council in 692. Adamiak explores a colorful range of topics, some of which, such as for example the influence of Monophysitism or references to the North African situation in the acts of the Quinisext Council, he touches upon rather briefly. The discussion of others is clearly focused on motives behind religious policies. The Byzantine campaign against the Vandal regnum, for example, he regards as “a religious war” (p. 53) and measures against the Donatists as driven by the “insistence” of pope Gregory the Great (p. 90). In contrast to that, he interprets the working direction during the Monotheletic controversy the other way around: not as an imperial initiative but “as an African attempt at intervention in the affairs of the imperial capital” (p. 99). Concerning the Jewish population, Adamiak discusses forced conversions (pp. 90-95). He considers it likely that “anti-Jewish sentiments […] seem to have become stronger than […] in other parts of the empire” (p. 94).

Adamiak spends the largest part of the chapter examining legal regulations and the impact of the Three Chapters controversy. Regarding legal regulations, Adamiak discusses Justinian’s Novel 37, issued in April 534; the Novels of 541 and 542 (constitutio dispersa II and constitutio dispersa III); Novel 131, issued in 545; and Justin’s II Novel 4 and the iussio, both commonly dated to 568 (pp. 56-65). Apart from the specific legislative goals, Adamiak interprets the constitutions as evidence of an imperial intention to intervene directly in affairs of the church. Adamiak believes that Justinian’s “uncompromising attitude” (p. 57), in Novel 37 particularly, “demonstrates the emperor’s evident intention to subsume religious matters under his jurisdiction along with normal public affairs” (p. 58).

The Three Chapters controversy of the 540s and 550s has been interpreted in recent research as an important stage in the emperor Justinian’s efforts to define theological doctrines (pp. 65-87).[2] Adamiak focuses on North African responses to imperial interference. In a first step, he looks at the political dimension of the dispute. Adamiak emphasizes that “the Africans were to play a leading part in the defiance right from the very beginning” (p. 70). Nevertheless, the ranks of the North Africans were not entirely closed and some bishops indeed sided with the emperor. Imperial reaction, however, was harsh and driven by “absolutely no toleration of religious dissent” (p. 77). The conflict calmed down only after Justin II switched to a more diplomatic policy, although by that time the controversy had already petered out in other parts of the empire. In a second step, Adamiak examines theological arguments. He sees the main characteristics of the North African church at work. Because of the important role of councils in decision-making, North African clerics interpreted the rejection of the Three Chapters as an attack on the Council of Chalcedon, one of the two most important ecumenical councils (the other one being Nicaea). Resistance was further fueled by the refusal to condemn those who died at peace with the church and a fundamental reservation against imperial interventions in theological matters. Adamiak emphasizes that North African theologians drew on a strong tradition of opposing state authorities. According to Adamiak, in particular the writings of Facundus of Hermiane turned into “something of an anti-imperial manifesto” (p. 83). Beyond this, the North Africans upheld the purity of the tradition of the western church, which was, in their view, contrary to the eastern church, untouched by heresies (p. 85). Adamiak also points to a possible language barrier: Christological arguments developed in Greek must have been difficult to understand in the Latin-speaking west (p. 86). Last but not least, Adamiak argues that the failure of the Byzantines to defend provincial territories against Berber incursions had a negative impact on the acceptance of their religious policies: “the subsequent military and political setbacks did not make for a propitious environment for the introduction of Justinian’s theological initiatives” (p. 87). This controversial interpretation can certainly be discussed in a fashion that takes into account the conversions of Berber groups documented in literary sources.[3]

In the last part of the second chapter, Adamiak sheds light on the means by which the government tried to implement its policy. The measures had an ambiguous impact, as he shows by discussing the removal and exile of bishops, surveying imperial sponsorship of church-building programs, and highlighting the importance of the introduction of eastern saints’ cults, in particular the veneration of the virgin Mary (pp. 103-114).

With chapter three, Adamiak moves on to Rome (pp. 115-162). The chronological scope of the chapter is very broad. Generally speaking, Adamiak begins in the time of Tertullian at the end of the second and beginning of the third centuries and ends with an outlook on relations between Rome and North Africa in the Middle Ages, from the ninth to the eleventh centuries. Some previously discussed topics reappear, but Adamiak is able to bring up interesting new observations by looking at the sources from different angles. At the beginning of the chapter, he points out that the metropolitan see of Rome had become a point of political reference for the North African church by the third century (pp. 115-129). Again, the focus of Adamiak’s analysis is on the main characteristics of the North African church as outlined in the first chapter of the book. Broadly speaking, he argues throughout the third chapter that, in contrast to imperial interventions, the bishops of Rome were able to intervene in matters of the North African church only to a limited extend. They simply lacked the necessary means of power to interfere directly. Whether the North African bishops followed or rejected interventions from Rome often depended on either personal relations between popes and bishops, as becomes particularly clear from the letters of Gregory the Great (pp. 143-149), or on the wider context of ecclesiastical politics, as Adamiak shows regarding the Three Chapters controversy.

To sum up, Adamiak provides a welcome study of the North African church in Byzantine times. Along with the broad thematic scope of the book, Adamiak’s extensive and detailed analysis of literary sources about ecclesiastical politics and theological controversies in Byzantine North Africa stands out. Here and there, Adamiak’s argumentation could benefit from incorporating recent research on the eastern Roman empire, especially that in German language.[4] The most important achievement of the book is that Adamiak does not simply provide an overview of the ecclesiastical history of Byzantine North Africa. By embedding North African developments in wider Mediterranean dynamics, he provides an interesting contribution to the question of how imperial rule effected provincial territories. Adamiak demonstrates that the imperial court in Constantinople and the papal court in Rome drew on different options to intervene in the affairs of the North African church. Using the language of modern-day political science, one could say the imperial court used hard power while the bishop of Rome, in contrast, had to rely on soft power.


[1] See, for example, the contributions from a conference about Liberatus of Carthage, published as a special volume of the Zeitschrift für Antikes Christentum, vol. 14, issue 1 (2011). A recent discussion of the North Africa church during the Three Chapters Controversy comes from Yves Modéran, ‘L’Afrique reconquise et les Trois Chapitres,’ in The Crisis of theOikoumene: The Three Chapters and the Failed Quest for Unity in the Sixth-Century Mediterranean, ed. Celia Chazelle and Catherine Cubitt (Studies in the Early Middle Ages 14). Turnhout: Brepols, 2007, pp. 39-82. Among a number of studies on Maximus the Confessor and the seventh-century controversies, Friedhelm Winkelmann’s Der monenergetisch-monotheletische Streit (Berliner Byzantinistische Studien 6). Frankfurt/Main et al.: Peter Lang 2001, provides a systematic collection of the sources.

[2] See, for example, Mischa Meier, Das andere Zeitalter Justinians: Kontingenzerfahrung und Kontingenzbewältigung im 6. Jahrhundert n. Chr. (Hypomnemata 147). Göttingen: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, 2nd ed., 2004, pp. 273-291; and Chazelle/Cubitt, The Crisis of the Oikoumene, 2007 (cf. note 1).

[3] To give just one example, see the Chronicle of John of Biclaro: Victoris Tvnnvnensis Chronicon cum reliquiis ex Consvlaribvs Caesaravgvstanis et Iohannis Biclarensis Chronicon, ed. Carmen Cardelle de Hartmann (Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, 173A). Turnhout: Brepols, 2001, in particular chapters 7 and 9.

[4] In particular, the important works of Mischa Meier are completely absent from the bibliography; for his book, see above, note 2.