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Optatus Gildonianus: Exposure and Concealment in Augustine's Anti-Donatist Rhetoric

Madeline E Monk

University of Texas at Austin

Augustine made it his mission to refute every piece of Donatist writing he was able to acquire in the decade leading up to the 411 Council of Carthage. Throughout this period, he repeatedly emphasizes his need to counter Donatist arguments as often as possible, despite possible redundancy, in order to ensure that his arguments circulate widely (Un. De Bapt. 1.1) and that he cannot be accused of failing to address any Donatist argument (C. Cresc. 3.1.1). Augustine’s epistolary entrapment of the Donatists and the techniques he uses to turn a largely one-sided conversation into a debate have been extensively discussed by scholars (Ebbeler 2016, Miles 2008), but his claim that he is fully addressing every Donatist argument has been taken at face value. This paper uses Augustine’s rhetoric around the Donatist bishop Optatus of Thamugadi to challenge that claim and argue that some of his strongest rhetoric conceals factual weakness and a deliberate obfuscation of the Donatist position.

Augustine’s rhetoric about Optatus was so influential that Frend claims Optatus was bent on accomplishing violent revolution along with Gildo (1952: 208-9). Shaw, however, points out that there is no real evidence to support these claims (2011: 134-5). My analysis proceeds from Shaw’s observation to elucidate the reasons that Optatus made such a tempting rhetorical target despite the lack of evidence for his alleged sedition. The Maximianist schism was a moment of weakness for the Donatists, which Augustine exploited gleefully and often. Optatus coerced two Maximianist bishops back into the fold, making him a key target. His association with Gildo also allowed Augustine to position the predominately African Donatist church as a source of sedition and civil strife for his Mediterranean audience, which Augustine became increasingly invested in addressing as he moved from promoting internal conciliation to advocating for government intervention. Indeed, one of Augustine’s tactics is conflating Optatus with Gildo as much as he can, referring to him as Optatus Gildonianus multiple times (C. Ep. Parm. 2.2.4, 2.22.42, 3.2.4; C. Litt. Petil. 1.10.11) and repeating several variations of the phrase comes est deus (C. Litt. Petil. 2.23.53, 2.28.65, 2.33.78, 2.37.88), which he claims was originally uttered by a Donatist (C. Litt. Petil. 1.9.10).

There are, however, indications in Augustine’s works that the Donatists were not as ashamed of Optatus as Augustine wants his audience to believe. This paper reconstructs as much of the Donatists’ portrayal of Optatus as possible and demonstrates a place where Augustine, known for his voluminous rhetoric and point-by-point refutation, seems to prefer silence. In a letter from 402, Augustine comments that if the Donatists call Optatus a martyr, they must be calling Gildo Christ (Ep. 76.3), revealing that some Donatists consider Optatus a martyr. In his response to Augustine’s Book 2, Petilian implies that Augustine is to some extent responsible for Optatus’s bad reputation (C. Litt. Petil. 3.40.48). Cresconius seems to challenge Augustine’s claim that Optatus used violence to bring dissident bishops back into the fold (C. Cresc. 4.25.32). The Donatist perspective is often lost to silence, both because of the loss of sources and their general refusal to engage Augustine in debate. Examining Augustine’s Optatus, however, ultimately provides some insight into the Donatist side of the debate leading up to the Council of 411 and demonstrates how Augustine manipulates narrative to silence his opponents.

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Literary Texture in Augustine and Gregory

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