by Seth Knowles
Greely High School, Cumberland, ME

The earliest portrait of Saint Augustine in a 6th century fresco, Lateran, Rome.
Aurelius Augustinus Hipponensis is a monumental figure in the history of the Christian church in North Africa. Born in Thagaste in modern-day Algeria he went to Carthage as a young man to pursue an education in rhetoric. After a long association with the Manichean religious sect and sojourns to Rome and Milan, Augustine abandoned his Manichean beliefs and converted to Christianity with a vengeance, becoming bishop in his native Hippo Regius and fulfilling the hopes of his mother, Monica, a later saint in the church in her own right. [1] Even though much of his later life is associated with the city of Hippo Regius in Algeria, Augustine frequently visited Carthage in his capacity as bishop, giving sermons and meeting on church councils. His association with Carthage, in other words, did not end with his abandonment of the Manichean religion. And how could it; Carthage, as the largest city in North Africa and a jewel in Rome’s crown, became the center of Christian faith and martyrdom in Africa in the 3rd and 4th centuries CE.

It is particularly Augustine’s sermons on and justifications for the worship of martyrs that I will focus on, and not from a theological perspective per se, but an historical and archaeological one. Excavations at Carthage arose from the Catholic Church’s desire to recover artifacts of its early heritage in North Africa. Basilicas dating from the 5th and 6th centuries CE have been identified at Carthage, a number of which have an architectural form that emphasizes the church’s association with pilgrimage and the worshipping of saints or martyrs. The largest example is the Damous El Karita, on the outside edge of the Theodosian wall at Carthage, but more recent excavations in the 1990s revealed a substantial basilica complex northwest of the city, in the fields of Bir Ftouha, and the archaeologists who worked on the excavation have identified it specifically as a basilica for pilgrimage and the worshipping of saints or martyrs. [2]

St. Augustine spent much time in Carthage speaking about what he felt was the proper way to worship martyrs. These speeches delivered at Carthage were particularly important at the time because in North Africa there was a great divide between the Catholic Church and a rival sect, the Donatists. The Donatists believed that they were the true “martyr church” and that any individual who repented their faith during the persecutions that occurred during the reign of the emperor Diocletian should be banned from performing sacraments in the church. Of particular concern to the Donatists were the people they identified as traditores, or people who, when coerced, had turned over sacred scripture to the authorities. It followed then that the Donatists believed that any person, given the choice of denying their Christian faith and death, should give themselves freely to self-sacrifice for their faith.[3]

Adding to the divide between the two Christian sects, there were bishops in the Catholic Church in North Africa who were suspected of being traditores during the persecutions but then had risen to places of power within the church after their reintroduction to it. This was particularly displeasing to the Donatists who believed that once a person had repented, he should be banned from holding a high church office. Augustine’s belief about this issue was that bishops and priests were not divine figures, but a means by which God’s word was related to the congregation. Augustine says that believing otherwise was to hold humans as powerful as God in the holy sacraments. Augustine also believed that there were ways other to honor a church martyr than becoming a martyr oneself; his belief was that imitating the martyr’s virtues was a more proper way to worship those who had died for their faith. In his writings against Faustus the Manichean, Augustine has this to say about the worship of martyrs:

“It is true that Christians pay religious honor to the memory of the martyrs, both to excite us to imitate them and to obtain a share in their merits, and the assistance of their prayers. But we build altars not to any martyr, but to the God of martyrs, although it is to the memory of the martyrs. No one officiating at the altar in the saints’ burying-place ever says, ‘We bring an offering to thee, O Peter! or O Paul! or O Cyprian!’ The offering is made to God, who gave the crown of martyrdom, while it is in memory of those thus crowned. The emotion is increased by the associations of the place, and love is excited both towards those who are our examples, and towards Him by whose help we may follow such examples.”[4]

Here, Augustine is defending the Christian belief in honoring martyrs against charges from Manicheans that the worshipping of martyrs was like worshipping idols. He indicates here his belief that God is tantamount in religious matters, and it is not appropriate for a high church official to hold up saints, who were human and mortal, in the same respect as God. With his opening words “It is true…” he is showing that even at the time of his speech in the 4th century, there was an established martyr cult in North Africa.

The fact that Augustine wrote so much on the subject of martyrdom coupled with the fact that one of the essential bones of contention between the Catholic and Donatist sects was martyr worship also shows that it was important and widespread in ancient Carthage in the 4th century. The Carthaginians were particularly interested in martyrs of their own native land, like St. Cyrian and Sts. Perpetua and Felicitas. This desire for martyr cult worship at the time of Augustine continued even after the Vandal conquest and the subsequent retaking of the city by the Byzantine Empire, especially in the example of the recently excavated church at Bir Ftouha.

The complex at Bir Ftouha, from Stevens, Kalinowski, and vanderLeest, frontispiece.
The church at Bir Ftouha, built probably in the 540s,[5] just over a century after Augustine’s death was a basilica complex built with the idea of moving large numbers of people easily through the main nave in the basilica that contained a semi-circular inner sanctuary with tombs that, we assume, contained the bodies of saints or martyrs. The pilgrims would enter through a nine-sided polygonal vestibule, into a long basilica, at the end of which at least a dozen tombs and burials were excavated. These burials were probably covered with mosaic tile or stone. According to the final excavation report, “The path of circumambulation around the nave and apse that offered proximity to the tombs indicates that the tombs were the focus on veneration, the key to the identity of the basilica.” [6] The fact that these tombs discovered were in the apse of the basilica, nearest where a bishop or priest would deliver a sermon, gives a clear indication that the purpose of this church was for pilgrims from Carthage to honor the people buried in it.

Bir Ftouha was not the only pilgrimage church complex in Carthage in the Bzyantine era. Many other excavated churches like the Damous El Karita and Bir Messaouda have uncovered traces of structures that housed if not martyr’s bodies, at least relics related to martyrs.[7] With
Interior of the basilica at Bir Ftouha, from Stevens, Kalinowski, and vanderLeest, p. 555. Note the position of the burials in the apse.
martyrdom a contentious issue within the church during Augustine’s time and the evidence of martyr worship from basilicas like the one at Bir Ftouha from later centuries, it is clear that for a long time in North Africa and in and around Carthage itself there was a concern for the proper way of revering church martyrs, and even, at least in the case of a basilica like the one at Bir Ftouha, a desire to be near them and feel their presence.

Annotated Bibliography:
Saint Augustine, Martyrs, and the Pilgrimage Complex at Bir Ftouha
Seth Knowles
Greely High School, Cumberland, ME

Primary Source

Augustine, Against Faustus

This is a long series of letters written by Augustine in response to the Manichee Faustus’ diatribe against the practices of the Catholic Church. Contains Augustine’s retort about the status of martyrs as idols in Book 20, Chapter 21.

Augustine, Confessions

This is Augustine’s description of his early life and conversion to Christianity. Of particular interest in this work is his time in Carthage and his time as a Manichee, a part of his life that is of particular importance in his letters against Faustus.

Web Resources

Wikipedia Online Encyclopedia: Augustine of Hippo.

This is the first place I went to find information about Augustine. Because of Augustine’s importance in the Catholic Church, the entry is quite well documented and cited.

Secondary Sources for Students

Ennabli, Liliane. Christian Carthage. Ministere de la culture.

This tourist pamphlet is a nice overview of the growth of Christianity in Carthage for students and the archaeological evidence extant.

Knowles, Andrew and Pachomios Penkett. Augustine and his World. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2004.

This book is a good introduction for students to the Mediterranean and specifically North African world in which Augustine lived. Has a section on Augustine’s conflicts with the Donatists.

Merrills, Andy and Richard Miles. The Vandals. UK: Wile-y-Blackwell, 2010.

This book details the time in North Africa between the invasion of the Vandals and the emergence of Byzantine culture. Includes descriptions of the Damous el Karita and El Ftouha basilicas and their place in the Christian Carthage.

Stevens, Susan T. Excavations of an Early Christian Pilgrimage Complex at Bir Ftouha. Dumbarton Oaks Papers 54 (2000), 271-274.

This article is the preliminary report of the excavation, focusing on the baptistery and the entrance complexes, so would serve as a quick introduction for students to the site of Bir Ftouha as a whole. They could progress to parts of the full excavation report below if they were interested after reading this article.

Secondary Sources for Teachers

Brown, Peter. Augustine of Hippo: A Biography. New York: Dorset Press, 1967.

This is probably the most prevalent and exhaustive biography of Augustine to date in English. Serge Lancel’s more recent biography (1999) is completely in French, but seems, from what I can tell from my limited French knowledge, to be an expansive biography. Brown’s biography does discuss at length Augustine’s conflict with the Donatists.

Esler, Philip F. ed. The Early Christian World. New York: Routledge, 2000.

This collection of essays contains James Alexander’s essay on Donatism. The essay begins with a very nice overview of the rise of fall of Donatists in North Africa.

Fitzgerald, Allan and John C. Cavadini. Augustine Through the Ages: An Encyclopedia. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999.

This encyclopedia has an extended entry on the evolution of Augustine’s views on martyrdom. A very thorough overview with many citations of the specific works in which he refers to martyrdom.

Garbarino, Collin S. Reclaiming Martyrdom: Augustine’s Reconstruction of Martyrdom in Late Antique North Africa. Masters Thesis, Louisiana State University, 2007.

This thesis goes at length into Augustine’s debates with the Donatists over the issue of martyrdom. Garbarino thinks of Augustine as trying to make the martyr cult relevant for the local audience in North Africa. There are books and articles on Augustine’s view of martyrdom, but I included just this thesis because it is highly readable and engaging, and could be a springboard for future study.

Stevens, Susan T., Angela V. Kalinowski and Hans vanderLeest. Bir Ftouha: A Pilgrimage Church Complex at Carthage. Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplementary Series Number 59 (2005).

This is the final excavation report for the basilica site at Bir Ftouha. It is a rather dense archaeological narrative, but has some stunning digital reconstructions of what the church would have looked like inside and out in the 6th century.

  1. ^ See Augustine's Confessions for his account of this period of his life.
  2. ^ Stevens, Kalinowski, and vanderLeest, 571.
  3. ^ Esler, ed., 952-3.
  4. ^ Augustine, Contra Faustum, 20.21. Translation obtained at http://www.logoslibrary.org/augustine/faustus/2021.html. T
  5. ^ Stevens, Kalinowski, and vanderLeest, 545.Type your reference here.
  6. ^ Stevens, Kalinowski, and vanderLeest, 561.
  7. ^ Merrills and Miles, 242-245.