Circumcellion II.

Back in 2007 I posted a tendentious and hilarious description of a North African group called the Circumcellions, which began:

The Circumcellions were a Christian suicide cult of the fourth and fifth centuries. Their religious practice consisted of delivering random beatings to strangers along the road, with the purpose of goading the strangers into killing them. If that didn’t work, they just threw themselves off a cliff instead[…]

There was much convivial discussion, with the usual divagations (including a prolonged one on Burushaski as “a Dravidian outlier, like Basque”), in the course of which a few sober souls pointed out that modern scholarship was pretty dubious about the whole “wacky club-wielding suicide sect” thing, and since I’ve gotten to a point in Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle where he discusses them, I thought I’d give modern scholarship equal time. He’s been talking about the large gangs of harvesters, often tied to their employers by debt, whose “hope of reward depended on the random oscillation of crop yields in a dry region”:

A wave of violence had rocked southern Numidia in the late 340s. Significantly, the principal aim of this violence had been the cancellation of debts. What is equally significant was that the violent bands of which we happen to know were led by Christians. Two otherwise unknown figures, Axido and Fasir, were acclaimed as “leaders of the saints.” The bands that were mobilized at this time were called by their supporters Agonistici: “Fighters [for the Lord].” Their enemies called them circumcelliones—Circumcellions. in all probability, “Circumcellion” was originally a religiously neutral term. It was used of the laborers who attempted to scrounge a living by gathering around the warehouses, the cellae, on the great estates in the hope of employment or of handouts of food.

We know of the Circumcellions largely through Augustine’s account of them. He presented them as a religious phenomenon. He spoke of them as dangerous “crazies”—as a species of terrorist monks given to murder, mayhem, and suicide. The outside world was encouraged to believe that the Circumcellions were a constant threat to law and order throughout the countryside of Africa and that they were the strong-arm men of the rival church to Augustine’s own Catholic community. In this way, a phenomenon born of the gray misery of rural Numidia has come to be known to us almost exclusively from the works of Augustine writing hundreds of miles away, in the distant coastal city of Hippo. He consistently presented them as a melodramatic, religious phenomenon.

We should always be aware of Augustine’s distortion of the evidence. When we talk of Augustine’s Africa we must bear in mind that what Augustine presents is a landscape deliberately viewed through religiously tinted glasses through which we can see only so much of a vast and complex world.

And now you know… the rest of the story.


  1. John Peter Creighton says:

    Thanks for continuing your website. I am slowly learning Hindi and Malayalam. This contributes to my “India studies.”

  2. Excellent! And they’ll have to pry my website out of my cold dead hands.

  3. (I was hoping this post might draw Noetica out of hiding…)

  4. Noetica may have made a comment that got stuck in the moderation cue. (It happened to me, I think, not that my contribution was particularly irreplaceable.)

  5. Nothing gets stuck in the moderation cue indefinitely; if the comment is made during the night, I’ll see it and approve it when I get up. And I certainly wouldn’t delete a comment by either of you, so if it didn’t appear, it wasn’t because of moderation. There seems to be some glitch that keeps apparently inoffensive comments from posting, and I strongly encourage people to whom this happens to send their comments to me via e-mail (as several commenters routinely do) so I can post them for you. I hate losing comments!

  6. I see! Well, the original lost in time now, like tears in rain, but to summarize, I was curious about what Augustine had actually said that was being translated as “crazies”,and (in Contra Gaudentium Donatistarum Episcopum) found “Ista Circumcellionum est insania, non martyrum gloria,” the first half of which struck me as amusingly similar to Obelix’s catchphrase “These Romans are crazy!” from the Asterix book.

  7. It’s not so much that such messages don’t post, because if I try to post them again from scratch, WordPress rejects them with “It looks like you’ve already said that.” So they are getting into the input hopper, so to speak, but never actually show up on the page.

  8. Entering [ “It looks like you’ve already said that.” WordPress ] into Google returns 1.85 million hits, per the hit counter, but in fact returns 13. Selecting the “repeat the search with the omitted results included” function reduces the number on the hit counter to 14.6K but increases the actual hits to several pages. Most seem to be from the WordPress documentation translation site.

  9. Man, that’s annoying. It already bothered me that it was happening to the (relatively few) comments people wrote me about, but it didn’t occur to me that it must be happening to a lot more that nobody bothered to write me about. I don’t know what to do about it — when Songdog’s life calms down a bit (he just got back from a trip), I’ll ask him if he knows anything.

  10. marie-lucie says:

    Matt: Obelix’s catchphrase “These Romans are crazy!” from the Asterix book.

    You mean: Ils sont fous, ces Romains!

  11. The version I learned was more insulting: porci.

  12. I tried to come up with an English version, but it breaks down on the P-Q (or rather Þorn-Q) split between Germanic and Romance.

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