- Being Christian in Vandal Africa: The Politics of Orthodoxy in the Post-Imperial West by Robin Whelan
Augustine died in 430 while the Vandals were besieging Hippo. This coincidence, as well as the fact that of all extant Vandal-era texts, Victor of Vita’s History has exercised great influence over modern readers, crystalized the idea that the break between Roman and Vandal rule in North Africa was sharp and brutal. Recent English-language studies on Vandal Africa, however, including work by J. P. Conant, A. H. Merrills, and R. Miles, have challenged that assumption, and Robin Whelan’s superb contribution to the conversation rewards the reader with a vision of Vandalic Christian Africa that is more déjà vu than departure. Despite a hegemonic shift in Africa and the new court’s affirmation of Homoian Christianity (called Arian by its enemies) over Nicene Christianity (Catholic as self-styled by the Nicenes), the bishops proceeded in ways remarkably similar to predecessors living under Roman rule.
Whelan removes the Nicene and Homoian churches from their overdetermined (and strictly rhetorical) dependence on Vandal kings and ethnic identity: Homoian bishops were not obliging extensions of the court, nor were they necessarily of Vandal or “barbarian” origin, just as Nicene bishops were not exclusively identifiable as Roman. Once Whelan extricates churches from false ethnic and royal entanglements, he concludes that the ferocious competition between them was born from commonality, not difference. The most famous Nicene bishops from the Vandal era, Quodvultdeus, bishop of Carthage, and Fulgentius of Ruspe, fretted that believers could not easily tell the two churches apart. Nicene and Homoian churches competed for and claimed the same honors: who had the greater number of bishops; who was more faithful to the legacy of Cyprian; who understood scripture better; [End Page 235] who had received legal recognition from the rulings of emperors and kings.
In order to distinguish themselves, these ecclesiastical doppelgängers pushed the other rhetorically into suspect realms of heresy and crime: the Homoians accused the Nicenes of being pagans, and the Nicenes claimed that to the unwary, the Homoian church might resemble the bride of Christ, but she was in fact a soul-devouring whore. These examples suffice to give an idea of the barbs traded, but they also offer reassurance that in terms of the rhetoric deployed, North Africa had not changed much since Roman days.
Whelan’s deft handling of episcopal rhetoric is one of many strengths in this well-written and persuasive book. Many of the literary sources he engages are not well known, even to students of Roman Africa, and their (re)introduction to the world is alone worth the price of admission. But Whelan’s work goes far beyond that, exploring (and in many cases, debunking) assumptions regarding the lives and loyalties of elites in post-Roman Africa. Examples: Vandal military uniforms were the court dress, not a declaration of ethnic identity. There is plenty of evidence, despite the courts’ official antipathy toward Nicene Christianity, that Nicene Christians worked at court, and that, exceptions notwithstanding, Vandal kings not only made concessions to the Nicene bishops, but also were fully aware that Nicene Christians occupied important posts and were uninterested in calling them out. Political efficiency superseded religious preferences. Among political elites who had ties to the court, a conscious effort was made to subsume the theological and legal labeling of doctrinal preferences (Homoousian or Homoian, heretic or orthodox) under more general, and generous, terms, such as “pious,” and “a good Christian.” More broadly, people everywhere gave their loyalty to revered martyrs more readily than to specific doctrines. The martyrs were for everyone. Whelan’s point is that the new regime had strong religious preferences, but did not let them get in the way of political expediency and practical existence.
Still, Africa was different. The book’s epilogue compares Vandal Africa to Burgundian Gaul, Ostrogothic Italy, and Visigothic Spain. The effort by the Vandal ruling house to unify its territory under one doctrinal allegiance was more...