Tertullian had identified that it was Vigellius Saturninus, proconsul of the Roman province of Africa, who “first drew the sword upon us” [Ad Scapulum 3.4 = ANF 3 (1885) 106]. While persecution at various levels under diverse circumstances within distinct communities can be traced back throughout early Christian history to its origins, this specific episode began within weeks of the accession as sole emperor of Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus [161-192, co-emperor from 177 with his father Marcus Aelius Aurelius Verus (121-17 March 180); see Carrington 1957: II.291]. It was the same persecution which brought the twelve, mostly young, “Scillitan martyrs” before the proconsul, and led to their immediate execution on the same day as their hearing, 17 July [for the “Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs,” “the earliest dated document from the Latin Church,” see Musurillo 1972:xxii, 86-89].
By virtue of a reference in an epistle to Augustine [Letter #16 = NPNF ser.1 1.233-234] from one of his old “pagan” teachers, Maximus the grammarian, from the locale of Madauros, we may gather that a small cluster of four, presumably native North Africans, were caught up at about this same time. Madauros [Mdaourouch] lies in the region then known as Numidia, southwest of Carthage, along one of the “defined boundaries” by which the Romans intended to settle and separate various Berber tribes (Frend 1952:38-41).
In the interchange of letters Maximus speaks rather derisively of these four, naming each in sequence, pretending to associate each on a par with some higher Roman deity, from which we learn there was included three men and one woman. Perhaps there were some more, whom Maximus only designates as “others in an endless list (having names abhored both by gods and by men), who when they met the ignominious end which their character and conduct had deserved, put the crowning act upon their criminal career by affecting to die nobly in a good cause.” What seems to irk Maximus is that “the tombs of these persons . . . are visited by crowds of simpletons, who forsake our temples and despise the memory of their ancestors.” Namphanio himself specifically is purported to be held “above all the immortal gods together” [Letter #16 = NPNF ser.1 1.233].
Augustine in reply [Letter #17 = NPNF ser.1 1.234-235] takes an equally curious tone, arguing from the validity of the common Punic heritage and education he shared with Maximus: “For surely, considering that you are an African, and that we both settled in Africa, you could not have so forgotten yourself when writing to Africans as to think that Punic names were a fit theme for censure. . . . And if the Punic language is rejected by you, you virtually deny what has been admitted by most learned men, that many things have been wisely preserved from oblivion in books written in the Punic tongue.” As W. H. C. Frend has noted “Augustine’s answer to Maximus in 389 is one of the most interesting and revealing of his letters” (1952:231).
Augustine was thereby restating the significance of those who had been martyred, not as deified ones to whom Maximus made jest, but as confessors of the Christian faith. Especially noteworthy are the remarks on the name of Namphanio, who had been mocked as “archimartus” (“first martyr”) by Maximus – perhaps rightly, in spite of the jest, as the first of those executed in this early era of Commodus within the Roman province of Africa. But Augustine provides a Punic etymology “man of the good foot” from which he can “preach” back at Maximus, even on the basis of classic Latin texts, the new appropriateness of one “with an auspicious foot.” Were it not for this peculiar interchange, these several instances of earliest Christianity in western North Africa would have been lost completely!
Unfortunately neither court record, nor detail of the executions, survive. For what little else can be indicated relative to these events, see also the entry on “Speratus,” leader of the “Scillitan martyrs.”
Clyde Curry Smith
Bibliography (see link to abbreviations table below):
Carrington 1957 The Early Christian Church, by Philip Carrington. Cambridge: At the University Press. 2 volumes.
Frend 1952 The Donatist Church: A Movement of Protest in Roman North Africa, by William Hugh Clifford Frend. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press.
Musurillo 1972 Acts of the Christian Martyrs: Introduction, Texts and Translations, by Herbert Musurillo. Oxford: At the Clarendon Press.
This article, received in 2004, was researched and written by Dr. Clyde Curry Smith, Professor Emeritus of Ancient History and Religion, University of Wisconsin, River Falls.