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Caecilianus, or Caecilian, was archdeacon and then bishop of Carthage in 311 AD. His appointment as Bishop lead to the Donatist Controversy of the Late Roman Empire. He was also one of only five Western bishops at the First Council of Nicea.[1][2] [3][4][5]

Background to the Controversy[edit]

On the death of Mensurius, Caecilianus was nominated as his successor. The religious world of Carthage divided itself broadly into two sections, the moderate and rigoristic parties, or the supporters and opponents of the principles of Caecilianus. At the head of the latter was a devout and wealthy lady named Lucilla, who had been severely rebuked by the archdeacon for superstitious veneration for martyrs' relics.[6]

The rigoristic party wished to fill the vacancy with one of their own followers. Caecilianus' party hastened matters, and the archdeacon was consecrated by Felix, Bishop of Aptunga. Whether this was in the presence of any Numidian bishops or not seems uncertain.

Secundus, Primate of Numidia and Bishop of Tigisis, was presently invited to Carthage by the rigorist party. He came, attended by 70 bishops, and cited Caecilianus before them. Felix of Aptunga was denounced as a traditor and consequently it was claimed that any ordination performed by him was invalid.

Caecilianus himself was charged with unnecessary and heartless severity to those who had visited the confessors in prison; he was denounced as a "tyrannus" and a "carnifex" – "butcher." He declined to appear before an assembly so prejudiced; but professed his willingness to satisfy them on all personal matters, and offered, if right was on their side, to lay down his episcopal office, and submit to re-ordination.

Secundus and the Numidian bishops answered by excommunicating him and his party, and ordaining as bishop the reader Majorinus, a member of Lucilla's household.


The church of Northern Africa went into schism. The party of Caecilianus broke off from that of Majorinus, and the Christian world was scandalized by fulminations, excommunications, invectives, charges and countercharges. Both parties confidently anticipated the support of the state; but Constantine I, now emperor of this part of the Roman world, took the side of the Caecilianus. In his largesse to the Christians of the province, and in his edicts favourable to the church there, he expressly stipulated that the party of Majorinus should be excluded: their views were, in his opinion, the "madness" of men of "unsound mind." The rigoristic party appealed to the justice of the emperor, and courted full inquiry to be conducted in Gaul — at a distance from the spot where passions and convictions were so strong and one-sided.

Council in Rome[edit]

A Council in Rome met in 313 AD. presided over by Pope Miltiades who had as his assessors the bishops of Cologne, Arles and seventeen others. Caecilianus appeared with ten bishops; Donatus, Bishop of Casae Nigrae, in Numidia, headed the party of Majorinus. The personal charges against Caecilianus were examined and dismissed, and his party proclaimed the representatives of the orthodox Catholic church; Donatus himself was declared to have violated the laws of the church, and his followers were to be allowed to retain their dignity and office only on condition of reunion with Caecilianus' party. The bitterness of this decision was modified by Caecilianus' friendly proposal of compromise; but his advances were rejected, and the cry of injustice raised. It was wrong, the rigorists pleaded, that the opinion of twenty should overrule that of seventy; and they demanded first that imperial commissioners should investigate matters at Carthage itself, and that then a council should be summoned to examine their report, and decide upon its information.

Council of Arles[edit]

Constantine met their wish. Jurists went to Carthage, collected documents, tabulated the statements of witnesses, and laid their report before the bishops assembled at the Council of Arles in 314 A.D. This council, presided over by Marinus, bishop of Arles, and composed of about 200 persons, was the most important ecclesiastical assembly the Christian world had yet seen; and its decisions have been of permanent value to the church. As regarded Caecilianus personally, the validity of his ordination was confirmed, the charge raised against his consecrator, Felix, was proved baseless; and in regard to this wider issues were debated such as the status and meaning of traditor, proof or disproof of and ordination by traditors, when valid or not. Canons on baptism and re-baptism of great importance were passed.

Decision confirmed at Milan[edit]

The temper displayed by the victors was not calculated to soothe the conquered; and an appeal was at once made from the council to the emperor himself. Constantine was irritated; but, after some delay, ordered the discussion of the question before himself personally. This occurred at Milan in 316 AD. The emperor confirmed the previous decisions of Rome and Arles, and followed up his judgment by laws and edicts confiscating the goods of the party of Majorinus, depriving them of their churches, and threatening to punish their rebellion with death.

After Milan[edit]

From this time the schism of the Northern African church lost its purely personal aspect, and became a stern religious contest on questions of discipline.


  1. ^ Dean Dudley, The History of the First Council of Nice: A Worlds Christian Convention, A. D. 325 with a Life of Constantine (Cosimo, Inc., 2007) Page 49
  2. ^ Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume 3 (Library of Alexandria, 1966) online
  3. ^ Robert Payne, The Holy Fire: The Story of the Fathers of the Eastern Church (St Vladimir's Seminary Press 1980) page 79
  4. ^ W. A. Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers: Pre-Nicene and Nicene eras. (Liturgical Press, 1970) page 280
  5. ^ The First Council of Nicaea at the Catholic Encyclopedia
  6. ^ Wace, Henry; Piercy, William C., eds. (1911). "Caecilianus". Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century (third ed.). London: John Murray.

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainWace, Henry; Piercy, William C. (eds.). "Caecilianus (2)" . Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century (3rd ed.). London: John Murray.