Surplus violence is a product of all societies, a normal – and generally male – subset of social discourse. Bar fighting, sports rowdyism, and gangbanging are modern – western – expressions of a phenomenon that cuts across cultures and time periods. For community and political leaders, such violence often goes unremarked, but it always constitutes a potential threat to their claims to authority and a legal monopoly on the use of force. For this reason, it well behooves such leaders both to minimize the opportunities for the expression of surplus physical aggression and, whenever possible, to reinscribe these into frameworks that support their ongoing claims to power.
In Sacred Violence, Brent Shaw has lucidly and vividly shown how rival Christian communities in late antique North Africa appropriated random violence and reinscribed it into structures of religious meaning. The circumcelliones, decried in ancient Catholic sources as roving bands of Donatist marauders, were not ancient labor protestors nor the violent wing of an ethnic uprising against imperial authority, as has previously been argued. They were, rather, mobile seasonal workers whose surplus violent energy was deployed in socially constitutive ways to assert property claims and coerce compliance in favor of a cause. Using the discourse of scripture, religious leaders reinterpreted their expressions of violence as sacred or profane depending on where they stood in relation to the perpetrators: for supporters of the perpetrators these acts represented the enactment of theodicy against the unholy; for victims the manifestation of diabolical transgression against the divine order; and for both the potential for sanctification through confession or martyrdom – the sacred victimhood so prized by Christians.
This paper will outline Shaw’s vastly important argument with an eye to presenting its complex contribution to ancient history and the history of religious violence in digestible form. It will then contextualize Shaw’s work by framing it against the backdrop of private violence in other regions of the late antique Mediterranean. It will show how the rapid retreat of the state in the late fourth and early fifth century fostered a rise in claims to violent authority at the personal and local level. Building on arguments made elsewhere for the increased use of armed dependents and private security forces in the period, it will ask why the larger phenomenon of sub-state militias expressed itself variously in the different regions of the failing empire. Emphasizing the key role of violent verbal and physical discourse in community building and identity formation, it will attempt to explain why the North African expression of an empire-wide problem took on the coloring of “sacred violence.” Using Post-Marxist theory, it will portray the surplus violence of social dependents as an exchange commodity that could be harnessed and redeployed, but also given symbolic meanings contingent upon ethnic and religious contexts.