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The Circumcellions or Agonisticis (as called by Donatists) were bands of Berbers considered as heretical Christian extremists in North Africa in the early- to mid-4th century. They preferred to be known as agonistici ("fighters (for Christ)"). They were initially concerned with remedying social grievances, but they became linked with the Donatist sect. They condemned property and slavery, and advocated canceling debts and freeing slaves. Donatists prized martyrdom and had a special devotion for the martyrs, rendering honours to their graves.
The Circumcellions regarded martyrdom as the true Christian virtue (as the early Church Father Tertullian said, "a martyr's death day was actually his birthday"), and thus disagreed with the Episcopal see of Carthage on the primacy of chastity, sobriety, humility, and charity. Instead, they focused on bringing about their own martyrdom.
Because Jesus had told Peter to put down his sword in the Garden of Gethsemane (John 18:11), the Circumcellions piously avoided bladed weapons and instead opted for the use of blunt clubs, which they called "Israelites." Using their "Israelites", the Circumcellions would attack random travelers on the road, while shouting "Laudate Deum!" ("Praise God!" in Latin.) The object of these random beatings was the death of the intrepid martyr, who sought to provoke the victim to attack and kill them.
On occasion, members of this group assaulted Roman legionaries or armed travelers with simple wooden clubs to provoke them into attacking and martyring them. Others interrupted courts of law and verbally provoked the judge so that he would order their immediate execution (a normal punishment at the time for contempt of court). The sect survived until the fifth century in Africa.
- Agonisticis are not to be confused with agnostics. The first is based on "agon", the second is based on "gnosis".
- John J. A'Becket (1913). "Agonistici". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
- "Donatists". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913.
- John Chapman (1913). "Donatists". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. it has been suggested that they may have been of Berber blood
- "Circumcellions." Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford dictionary of the Christian church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005
- Durant, Will (1972). The age of faith. New York: Simon and Schuster.
- The history and the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, volume 1, 1831 edition, p.468 by Edward Gibbon
- Catholic Encyclopedia, "Circumcellions," Volume 5, 1909 edition, p.125
- History of the Christian church, p.182 by James Craigie Robertson
- Gibbon, Edward (1993). The History of the Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire - Vol 2 – Chapter XXI – Part VII. New York, NY: Everyman's Library. ISBN 0-679-42308-7.
This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chambers, Ephraim, ed. (1728). "article name needed". Cyclopaedia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (first ed.). James and John Knapton, et al.