Archdiocese of Carthage
History of this African center of Christianity including councils and bishops
Carthage, Archdiocese of (CARTHAGINIENSIS).—The city of Carthage, founded by Phoenician colonists, and long the great opponent of Rome in the duel for supremacy in the civilized world, was destroyed by a Roman army, 146 B.C. A little more than a century later (44 B.C.), a new city composed of Roman colonists was founded by Julius Caesar on the site of Carthage, and became the capital of the Roman province of Africa Nova, which included the province of Africa Vetus, as well as Numidia. From this date Roman Africa made rapid progress in prosperity and became one of the most flourishing colonies of the empire. The history of African Christianity opens in the year 180 with the accounts of two groups of martyrs who suffered at Scillium, a city of Numidia, and Madaura. Twenty years later a flourishing Church existed in Carthage, already the center of Christianity in Africa. In his “Apology”, written at Carthage about 197, Tertullian states that although but of yesterday the Christians “have filled every place among you [the Gentiles]—cities, islands, fortresses, towns, marketplaces, the very camp, tribes, companies, palaces, senate, forum; we have left nothing to you but the temples of your gods”. If the Christians should in a body desert the cities of Africa, the governing authorities would be “horror-stricken at the solitude” in which they would find themselves, “at a silence so all pervading”, a stupor as of a dead world (Apol., xxxvii). Fifteen years later the same author asks the Proconsul Scapula: “What will you make of so many thousands, of such a multitude of men and women, persons of every age, sex and rank, when they present themselves before you? How many fires, how many swords will be required?” And with regard to the Christians of the African capital he inquires: “What will be the anguish of Carthage itself, which you will have to decimate, as each one recognizes there his relatives and companions; as he sees there, it may be, men of your own order, and noble ladies, and all the leading persons of the city, and either kinsmen or friends of those in your own circle? Spare thyself, if not us poor Christians. Spare Carthage, if not thyself” (Ad Scapulam, v). It is clear from this that the Christian religion at the beginning of the third century must have had numerous adherents in all ranks of Carthaginian society; Tertullian, if the contrary were the case, would merely have stultified himself by making a claim which could have been so easily disproved. A council of seventy bishops held at Carthage by Bishop Agrippinus at this epoch (variously dated between 198 and 222), substantially corroborates the testimony of Tertullian as to the general progress of Christianity in Africa in the early years of the third century. It is impossible to say whence came the first preachers of Christianity in Roman Africa. It is worthy of note in this regard, however, that from the moment when African Christianity comes into historical prominence, the bishops of Roman Africa are seen in very close relations with the See of Rome. The faithful of Carthage in particular were “greatly interested in all that happened at Rome; every movement of ideas, every occurrence bearing on discipline, ritual, literature, that took place at Rome was immediately reechoed at Carthage” (Duchesne, Hist. anc. de l’Eglise, I; 392; cf. Leclercq, L’Afrique chret., I, iii). Indeed, during the last decade of the second century the Roman Church was governed by an African, Pope Victor (189-199).
The two greatest names in the history of the Church of Carthage are those of Tertullian and St. Cyprian. The former comes on the scene, in the troubled days of the persecution of Septimius Severus, as an able and valiant defender of his religion. He was born at Carthage, about the year 160. In his youth he devoted himself to the study of law and literature, and thus obtained the intellectual training which was to prove of the greatest service to his future coreligionists. His conversion appears to have been influenced by the heroism of the martyrs, and one of his earliest treatises was an exhortation to those ready to die for the Faith (Ad martyres). His first work was a severe arraignment of pagans and polytheism (Ad nationes), and this was followed in a short time (197) by his “Apologeticus”, addressed to the imperial authorities. The latter work was calm in tone, “a model of judicial discussion” (Bardenhewer). Unlike previous apologists of Christianity, whose appeals for tolerance were made in the name of reason and humanity, Tertullian, influenced by his legal training, spoke as a jurist convinced of the injustice of the laws under which the Christians were persecuted. The “Apologeticus” was written before the edict of Septimius Severus (202), and, consequently, the laws to which the writer took exception were those under which the Christians of the first and second centuries had been convicted. From the year of the martyrdom of Scillium and Madaura (180) the Christians of Africa were not molested by the authorities for nearly two decades. But in 197 or 198 the governors recommenced the legal pursuit of the followers of Christ, who soon filled the prisons of Carthage. Tertullian encouraged the “blessed martyrs designate” by what he termed a contribution to their spiritual sustenance (Ad martyres, i), and at the same time protested against the unjust measures of which they were the victims. But the magistrates took no heed of his protests. Christians were daily condemned to exile, torture, death, and, in at least one instance, to a still more dreaded fate (Apol., 1). In 202 the new anti-Christian legislation of Septimius Severus appeared in the form of an edict which forbade anybody to become a Jew or a Christian. According to Tertullian the Church at this period was recruited chiefly by conversions (fiunt, non nascuntur Christiani, Apol., xviii); the new law, consequently, aimed at cutting off this fertile source of membership, by imposing the death-penalty both on converts and on those who were the instruments of their conversion. Among the martyrs executed at Carthage under the law of Severus were the young matron Vibia Perpetua and the slave Felicitas, the Acts of whose martyrdom, which, perhaps, we owe to Tertullian (Duchesne, op. cit., I, 394), is one of the “jewels of ancient Christian literature”. Throughout the trying period inaugurated by the new legislation (202-213), during which the law was enforced with more or less severity according to the disposition of the governor of the moment, Tertullian was the central figure of the Church of Carthage. His rigorism indeed drew him, about the opening year of the persecution, into the sect of the Montanists, but in spite of this lapse he appears not to have lost for many years the confidence of the orthodox; as late as 212 he wrote his letter to the Proconsul Scapula in the name of the Christians of Carthage (Leclercq, op. cit., I, 165). It was only in the following year (213) that he broke definitively with the Church and became the head of an obscure sect, called after him “Tertullianists”, which maintained a precarious existence till the age of St. Augustine.
From this time to the election of St. Cyprian (249) little is known of the Church of Carthage. The Acts of Sts. Perpetua and Felicitas mention a certain Optatus, who was Bishop either of Carthage or Thuburbo minus. Agrippinus, already mentioned, was Bishop of Carthage about 197, and the immediate predecessor of St. Cyprian was Donatus, who presided over a council of ninety African bishops which condemned as a heretic Privatus, Bishop of Lambesa. Like Tertullian, Cyprian was a convert to Christianity; he was baptized at Carthage about 246. The period of his episcopate (249-258) is one of the most important, as well as the best known, in the annals of Christianity in Africa. A year after his elevation the edict of the Emperor Decius against the Christians was promulgated, and its appearance was the signal for wholesale apostasy. During the long interval of peace since the persecution of Severus the fervor of the Christians of Carthage had suffered a notable decline. The time was therefore favorable for effecting the emperor’s purpose, which was to compel the Christians to renounce their faith and offer sacrifice on the altars of the gods. In the early stages of the persecution capital punishment was not resorted to, except in the case of bishops, but the mere threat of even less severe penalties induced large numbers to comply with the law. Many others, however, proved themselves worthy of their religion and died heroically.
At the beginning of the storm, Cyprian, knowing that as bishop he would be one of the first victims, and judging that in a time so perilous it was his duty for the moment to preserve his life for the good of his flock, retired to a secure refuge. His motives were not, however, correctly construed by some of his people, and even the Roman priests who directed the chief Church of Christendom after the martyrdom of Pope Fabian (236-250) made a rather uncomplimentary allusion, in a letter to the clergy of Carthage, to “the Good Shepherd and the hireling”. Cyprian was naturally offended at the tone of this missive, and easily proved to the satisfaction of the Romans that they had misjudged him. But the difficulties which arose in Carthage itself during his retirement were not so easily overcome. In the absence of the bishop five priests hostile to him took it upon themselves to receive back apostates (lapsi, libellatici) into communion, merely on the recommendation of confessors awaiting martyrdom in prison. The intercession of confessors for the fallen was then customary, and was always regarded by the bishops as a reason for remitting part of the canonical penance for apostasy. But in Carthage at this time some of the confessors seem to have regarded themselves as having practically superseded the bishops, and issued letters of communion in a tone of command. One of them, for example, gave a note ordering the restoration of the bearer and his friends to communion (communicet ille cum suis). Cyprian objected to this usurpation of his authority, which, if not resisted, would destroy the Church‘s discipline, and he was supported in this attitude by the clergy and confessors of the Roman Church. On this Novatus, one of the rebellious priests, set out for Rome to obtain, if possible, support for his party. But the schismatical envoy at first met with no success. Eventually, however, he won over the priest Novatian and some of the Roman confessors. The object of the alliance was to elect a “confessors’ pope”, who would support a “confessors’ bishop”, to be elected in Carthage in opposition to Cyprian. The allies were, however, defeated at the outset by the election of Pope Cornelius, who was on the side of Cyprian. But this check did not at all dispose them to yield; they proceeded to elect an antipope in the person of Novatian. Meanwhile Cyprian had returned to Carthage, where he convened a council of African bishops for the purpose of dealing with the question of the lapsi. The decision of the council was moderate: all apostates who repented their fall were admitted to penance, which should last a greater or less time according to the degree of their guilt. The decree to this effect was confirmed by a Roman council under Pope Cornelius. But now, curiously enough, Novatian, who had taken the part of the laxists of Carthage, became a rigorist; he admitted apostates to penance, indeed, but without hope of reconciliation with the Church, even at the point of death. His views, however, were received with little favor, and eventually, through the efforts of Dionysius of Alexandria, Cyprian, and Pope Cornelius, the Roman confessors from whom he had derived his prestige deserted his party and were admitted to communion. The attempts to organize a schism in Carthage were no more successful. Cyprian was supported by all the bishops of Africa, with five exceptions, three of whom were apostates and two heretics.
The years 255-257 witnessed a controversy between Rome and Carthage on a question of discipline which for a short time produced strained relations between these two great centers of Latin Christianity. The trouble arose over the different modes in vogue in Rome and in Africa of receiving into communion persons baptized in heretical sects. In Rome baptism conferred by heretics was per se admitted to be valid; in Africa such baptism was regarded as wholly invalid. The matter was allowed to drop after the death of Pope Stephen (August 2, 257). Africans and Romans preserved their respective practices till the fourth century, when the former, at the Synod of Arles (314), agreed to conform to the Roman custom (Hefele, Hist. of the Councils, I, 188). Cyprian died a martyr in the persecution of Valerian, September, 258.
From this date to the outbreak of the last persecution under Diocletian, in 303, very little is known of the history of the Church of Carthage. Two of the bishops who succeeded St. Cyprian, Carpophorus and Lucian, in this period of forty-five years are mentioned by Optatus, but nothing is related of them save their names. The worldly spirit which had been the cause of so many defections in the African Church of St. Cyprian’s age was equally in evidence in the early part of the fourth century. A new form of apostasy characterized this persecution. In large numbers Christians betrayed their faith by giving up to the civil authorities copies of the Scriptures and the liturgical utensils. These renegades, who received the name of “traditors”, were indirectly the cause of the gravest division that had yet been seen in Christendom. The Donatist schism originated in the consecration of Castilian as Bishop of Carthage (311) by Felix of Aptunga, who was falsely accused of having been a traditor. Its effects on the Church of Africa were disastrous. The obstinacy of the Donatists kept the schism alive for more than a century, and it was only the intervention of the Emperor Honorius in 405 that dealt it a death-blow. The civil penalties then inflicted on the schismatics brought them back to the Church in large numbers, although the sect still existed in 429, when Carthage was taken by the Vandals.
The Vandal occupation of Africa, which lasted over a century (429-534), was a period of severe trial to the Catholics of that country. The disorganization of the African Church was arrested by the reconquest under Justinian of this portion of the empire, but the heresies which, during the sixth and seventh centuries, proved so fruitful in dissensions affected this portion of Christendom like the rest. The final catastrophe came with the fall of Carthage into the hands of the Arabs in 698. From this time the once flourishing Church of Africa is rarely heard of. Apostasy became the order of the day, and in 1053 only five bishops remained in the former pro-consulate.
PRIMACY OF CARTHAGE.—In the time of St. Cyprian the Bishops of Carthage exercised a real though not official primacy in the African Church. Roman Africa at this period consisted of three provinces: (I) the province of Africa proper, which comprised the proconsulate, Byzacena and Tripoli; (2) Numidia; (3) Mauretania. These three civil divisions formed in the middle of the third century but one ecclesiastical province. In 305 a Primate of Numidia is mentioned for the first time, and in the course of the fourth century Byzacena, Tripoli, and the Mauretanias each obtained an episco pus primce sedis. These later primatial sees were, however, of little importance; their metropolitans presided over the provincial synods, appointed delegates to the annual councils of Carthage, received the appeals of the clergy of their provinces, and gave letters of travel (litterae formatae) to the bishops of their jurisdiction who wished to visit Italy (Synod of Hippo, 393, can. xxvii). The provincial clergy had the right, if they preferred, to ignore their immediate metropolitan and appeal directly to the Primate of Carthage. At first the provincial primacy devolved ipso facto on the senior bishop of the province, but as this method proved a source of dispute the synod of Hippo of 393 (can. iv) decreed that in case of difference of opinion among the provincial bishops the primate should be “appointed in accordance with the advice of the Bishop of Carthage”. It was the right of the Bishop of Carthage also to determine, a year in advance, the date for the celebration of Easter.
COUNCILS OF CARTHAGE.—The earliest council of Carthage of which we know was held about 198 (7); seventy bishops, presided over by the Bishop of Carthage, Agrippinus, were present. According to Cyprian the question of the validity of baptism conferred by heretics came up for discussion and was decided in the negative. After this date more than twenty councils were held in Carthage, the most important of which were: (I) those under St. Cyprian relative to the lapsi, Novatianism, and the rebaptism of heretics; and (2) the synods of 412, 416, and 418 which condemned the doctrines of Pelagius. (See African Synods.)
BISHOPS OF CARTHAGE.—The Acts of the martyrdom of Sts. Perpetua and Felicitas mentioned, as noted above, a Bishop Optatus, who, if he was a Bishop of Carthage, as is generally supposed, is the first known incumbent of this see. It is possible, however, that Optatus was Bishop of Thuburbo minus, and, if so, Agrippinus, who was bishop in 197, heads the list of Bishops of Carthage. From this date to the election of St. Cyprian (249) we know of only two Bishops of Carthage, Cyrus and Donatus. After St. Cyprian (249-258) the succession so far as known (cf. Leclercq, op. cit., II, Appendix; Kirchenlex., II, 1998; Duchesne, op. cit., I, xx) is as follows: between 258 and 311 Carpophorus, Lucian, and Mensurius; Castilian (311 till after 325); Gratus, at Council of Sardica (344-), presided at Council of Carthage (349); Restitutus, at Council of Rimini (359); Aurelius (391), presided at Council of Carthage (421); Capreolus (431); Quodvultdeus (437); Deogratias (454-458); Eugenius (481, exiled 496); Boniface (523-535); Repartatus (535, banished 551); Primosus, or Primasius (553 till after 565); Publianus (581); Dominicus (591); Fortunius (632); Victor (635). After this date no Bishop of Carthage is heard of till the middle of the eleventh century.
After eight centuries of abeyance the archiepiscopal See of Carthage was restored by Leo XIII (November 19, 1884) and confided to Archbishop (later Cardinal) Lavigerie, to whose zeal it was owing that since 1875 the ancient site of Carthage became again a center of Christian life (see Baunard, Le Cardinal Lavigerie, Paris, 1898, passim). The territory of the new archdiocese, hitherto administered by Italian Capuchins, was enlarged by papal decree March 31, 1885, and now includes the entire Regency (French Protectorate) of Tunis. By another decree of March 28, 1886 the eighteen titular canons of the new chapter and their successors enjoy the dignity of papal chamberlains. A magnificent cathedral was dedicated by Cardinal Lavigerie (May 15, 1890) on the famous Hill of Byrsa, in honor of St. Louis IX of France; connected with it are several charitable and educational institutions. A Council of Carthage was held April 20, 1890, in which the decrees of the Council of Algiers (1873) were renewed and applied to the new ecclesiastical province. The archdiocese counts at present about 35,000 Catholics in a Mohammedan population of 1,600,000; it has fifty-four parishes (cures) and fourteen vicariates. It was also owing to Cardinal Lavigerie that the famous excavations on the site of ancient Carthage were begun about 1880 by one of his missionaries, Father Delattre. They were originally carried on at the cardinal’s expense, and for some time the church of St. Louis served as a museum for the preservation of the antiquities discovered. Apart from the light thrown by these excavatiops on the Phoenician and Roman life of ancient Carthage, the discoveries of Father Delattre have greatly increased our knowledge of the early Christian life of Africa, particularly in the fourth and fifth centuries. Many Christian epitaphs and inscriptions have been made known, the Christian architecture of the period has been illustrated by the ground-plans of ancient basilicas, some of them quite famous in Christian antiquity (e.g. the Basilica Major of Carthage), while Christian burial customs and domestic life have had fresh light thrown on them; in a word, the importance of these excavations for our knowledge of Christian antiquity is second only to that of De Rossi’s epoch-making discoveries at Rome.
MAURICE M. HASSETT