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Staging Schism: Optatus 1.16-20 and the Earliest Extant Christian Play

James F. Patterson

University of Texas at Austin

In the late 360s CE, Optatus, bishop of Milevis in Numidia, told a story about the origin of the Donatist schism that had divided Christian communities throughout Africa since the end of Diocletian’s Persecution. This paper argues that the story, found at De schismate Donatistarum 1.16-20, is a popular legend that preserves the earliest extant play by Christians. Accordingly, it asks that we reconsider Christian condemnation of theatre in Africa. 

Optatus’ story is as follows. Before the Persecution (1.16), a deacon at Carthage, Caecilian, upset a woman named Lucilla by rebuking her for kissing a martyr’s bone before the Eucharist. During the Persecution (1.17), the bishop of Carthage, Mensurius, was summoned to Rome and died abroad. Before he left, he hid church ornaments with elders and made an inventory of who had what. After the Persecution (1.18), two ambitious men, Botrus and Celestius, wished to succeed Mensurius, but Caecilian was elected bishop instead. Upon receiving Mensurius’ inventory, Caecilian asked the elders to return the ornaments. However, tres personae (1.19.1)—the iracundia of Lucilla, the ambitus of Botrus and Celestius, and the avaritia of the elders—quit Caecilian’s church. Suddenly (1.19), a contingent of Numidian bishops arrived, whom Optatus had previously introduced: in a council at Cirta after the Persecution (1.13-14), they confessed to wanton criminality and decided to accuse Caecilian’s entourage of traditio to shift attention from themselves. Now in Carthage, an argument between the Numidian leader, Purpurius, and Caecilian nearly came to blows, and the Numidians ordained a member of Lucilla’s household, Maiorinus, rival bishop. Thus, the African church split in two. Optatus’ story concludes (1.20) with the triumphal departure of the tres personae and Numidians. Their church would be called Donatist after Donatus, who soon succeeded Maiorinus. 

Included as fact in most studies of African Christianity, Optatus’ story has recently been doubted due to ritual anachronisms (Wiśniewski 2011 and 2019: 18-20), misogynistic mythologies (Eyl), and Catholic bias (Whitehouse 16). Indeed, the champion of anti-Donatism, Augustine, writing in the decades after Optatus, did not take the story seriously. Optatus reports it as a fanciful vulgata fabula like those surrounding Simonides and Erasistratus. Noting the absence of direct citations, Labrousse (68) proposed that the story belonged to oral tradition. This paper argues that either the story was transmitted as a play or Optatus himself fashioned it as one. 

Theatrical elements absent elsewhere in Optatus permeate the story. By removing the Numidian council at Cirta from the main narrative and glossing over the death of Mensurius abroad, space remains fixed upon a single stage—a church in Carthage, itself a type of theater. Relative time markers collapse a decade into simple sequential episodes, or acts. Each act relies on a prop: a bone, ornaments, an inventory, a cathedra, a movable altar (pace Labrousse 206 n.1, see Burns and Jensen 101-102). The story includes dramatic dialogue. Rowdy Numidians provide a chorus. An agôn between Purpurius and Caecilian includes comedic violence (see Webb 2008: 96). As in Plautus and Terence, phrases such as exitum est foras (1.19.4) are used for entries, not for exiting buildings. Optatus invites us to imagine his story as a play, and interpretative difficulties in the narrative are resolved when we do so. 

The regularity with which Christian leaders condemned theatre indicates that plays remained popular among ordinary Christians. Optatus’ story includes none of the features that worried authorities—false gods, laughter, vulgarity. For instance, Lucilla is distinctly not the lustful stepmother figure imagined by Shaw (328-329) and Whitehouse (23). Rather, she belongs to a corrupt political faction appropriate to Sallust (Wiśniewski 2011: 159). From liturgy to martyr narratives and the very idea of imitatio Christi, performance is found throughout African Christianity. To find Christians staging their own “Christological mimes” (Reich 80-109) should therefore come as no surprise.

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Late Antiquity

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