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The Circumcellions or Agonistici[1][2] (as called by Donatists) were bands of Berber Christian extremists in North Africa in the early to mid-4th century.[3] They were considered heretical by the Catholic Church.[4] They were initially concerned with remedying social grievances, but they became linked with the Donatist sect.[3] They condemned property and slavery, and advocated free love, canceling debt, and freeing slaves.[5] Donatists prized martyrdom and had a special devotion for the martyrs, rendering honours to their graves.

The term "Circumcellions" was coined by others, based on "circum cellas euntes", they go around larders, because "they roved about among the peasants, living on those they sought to indoctrinate."[1]


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.

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).[6] However, Catherine Nixey[7] points to rather more wanton violence on their part, describing mutilations of priests, bishops and others the circumcellions considered unholy. Many of the targets of their attacks were left in such a state as it would have made it impossible for them to retaliate and thus provide the martyrdom the circumcellions were presumably seeking. The sect survived until the fifth century in Northern Africa (Late Roman provinces of Tripolitania and Africa Byzacena).


Because it is written in the Gospel of John that Jesus had told Peter to put down his sword in the Garden of Gethsemane (John 18:11), the Circumcellions avoided bladed weapons and used 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 to provoke the victim to kill them, thereby becoming "martyrs".[8][9][10]

They preferred to be known as agonistici ("fighters (for Christ)").[3] "Agonistici" are not to be confused with agnostics: the first term is based on "agon", the second on "gnosis".


  1. ^ a b Wikisource-logo.svg A'Becket, John J (1913). "Agonistici" . In Herbermann, Charles (ed.). Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  2. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Donatists" . Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  3. ^ a b c Cross, FL, ed. (2005), "Circumcellions", The Oxford dictionary of the Christian church, New York: Oxford University Press.
  4. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg Chapman, John (1913). "Donatists" . In Herbermann, Charles (ed.). Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. it has been suggested that they may have been of Berber blood
  5. ^ Durant, Will (1972). The age of faith. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  6. ^ Gibbon, Edward (1993). "XXI – Part VII". The History of the Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire. 2. New York, NY: Everyman's Library. ISBN 0-679-42308-7.
  7. ^ Nixey, Catherine (2018). The Darkening Age: the Christian destruction of the classical world. Ch. Fifteen: Merciful Savagery: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 223. ISBN 9780544800885.
  8. ^ Gibbon, Edward (1831), The history and the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, 1, p. 468.
  9. ^ "Circumcellions", Catholic Encyclopedia, 5, 1909, p. 125.
  10. ^ Robertson, James Craigie, History of the Christian church, p. 182.

External links[edit]

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChambers, Ephraim, ed. (1728). "article name needed". Cyclopædia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (first ed.). James and John Knapton, et al.