Being Christian in Vandal Africa

The Politics of Orthodoxy in the Post-Imperial West

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Robin Whelan
Transformation of the Classical Heritage
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , January
     2018.
     320 pages.
     $95.00.
    ISBN
    9780520295957.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Ecclesiastical controversy between Nicene and Homoian Christians (the preferred terminology) has long furnished scholars with a convenient example with which to articulate and to defend the establishment of the Vandal Kingdom in Africa as a point of historical rupture. The polemical rhetoric of Victor of Vita's History of the Persecution—the only contemporary African source to provide a continuous historical narrative—was intended to communicate precisely this. Consequently, the Vandal Kingdom has been deemed not only a world apart, but also the epitome of a failed state. In Being Christian in Vandal Africa: The Politics of Orthodoxy in the Post-Imperial West, Robin Whelan dismantles this traditional periodization and its corollaries through perceptive analysis of the sources and engagement with recent scholarship. 

Whelan's central contention, “that Vandal Africa, like the late Roman province it succeeded, was the site of a vibrant and often violent Christian conflict while remaining a viable political entity” (5), is advanced in two parts. Part 1, “Contesting Orthodoxy,” demonstrates that ecclesiastical controversy over the nature of orthodoxy—rather than between barbarians and Romans or regarding the legitimacy of the Hasding dynasty—and its sophisticated culture of disputation continued without interruption into the Vandal Kingdom. Part 2, “Orthodoxy and Society,” explores the consequences of enduring ecclesiastical controversy in “questions of identity and political formation,” and “suggests more nuanced models of interaction between the Vandal court, the Nicene and Homoian Churches, and the mixed elite of the kingdom” (23).

Chapter 1, “African Churches” (29-54), compares Nicene and Homoian ecclesiastical institutions. Here Whelan argues that numerical disparities between the two churches have been exaggerated, diversity of language and practice was common to both, and portrayals of Homoian bishops as “essentially secular political actors” were the result of Nicene polemic (35). Whelan's reassessment of the evidence is sober and striking. “The balance of power in ecclesiastical politics was delicate: a minority church supported by secular authority and gaining privileges, property, and converts confronted a church that had the advantage of a much more established presence in the communities of the African provinces but was suffering significant losses of material and personnel” (53). 

In chapter 2, “In Dialogue with Heresy: Christian Polemical Literature” (55-84), Whelan introduces the reader to Christian heresiological literature of the period and then analyzes the practices of Christian dialogue and debate in the Vandal kingdom. In addition to successfully advancing the book's argument, chapter 2 is notable for its detailed attention to several understudied texts which enlisted the authority of posthumous “fathers of the church” to buttress contemporary claims to orthodoxy.

Following an appropriate epigraph from Salvian of Marseilles's On the Governance of God, chapter 3 “'What They Are to Us, We Are to Them': Homoian Orthodoxy and Homoousian Heresy” (85-108), examines the argumentative strategies used by Homoians in Vandal Africa to assert their own orthodoxy and to brand their Nicene opponents heretics. Homoians portrayed themselves as the heirs of apostolic tradition and the Nicenes, who utilized the unscriptural term homoousios, as innovators. Further support was adduced from the Councils of Rimini and Seleucia, the attendants of which significantly outnumbered those of Nicaea.

With chapter 4, “Ecclesiastical Histories: Reinventing the Arians” (109-137), Whelan draws together insights from previous chapters to show that 4th century ecclesiastical history was a highly contested subject in Vandal Africa. Both Homoians and Nicenes sought control over the Trinitarian debates of the past to support their respective claims to orthodoxy. In doing so, each deployed the polemical strategies of the Donatist Controversy. At stake was the legal status of heresy: to be a heretic meant that one was (at least potentially) subject to the coercive apparatus of the state.

After a brief introduction (139-141) marking the transition to the second part of Whelan's argument, chapter 5, “Exiles on Main Street: Nicene Bishops and the Vandal Court” (143-164), successfully demonstrates not only the existence of productive engagement between Nicene bishops and the Vandal court—hostile rhetoric notwithstanding—but that such engagement was necessary for a functional state. Whelan’s assessment contrasts sharply with the assertions of the sources and he rightly notes that chapter 5 seeks not “to whitewash the relations between Vandals kings and Nicene bishops,” but to understand them more fully (164). 

Chapter 6, “Christianity, Ethnicity, and Society” (165-194), and chapter 7, “Elite Christianity, Political Service, and Social Prestige” (195-217) are best considered in tandem. First, chapter 6 challenges the notion that ethnicity and doctrine should be equated, contending that “the dominant paradigm of dual ethnic and Christian affiliations – of an inevitable connection between Nicenes and Romans, and Homoians and Vandals – does justice neither to the variety and subtlety of contemporary perspectives nor to the insights of recent critical work on group identities in late antiquity” (167). Instead, correct religious observance by the ruling elite was the priority for Vandal kings and Nicene clerics alike. Chapter 7 complicates this picture further by stressing cohesion among individuals of similar status and the situational nature of identity. It argues that, “Christian members of the African elite were able to serve the Vandal kings and engage in (now traditional) Christian practices of elite competition in spite of doctrinal and ecclesiastical difference” (217). 

The volume's epilogue (219-249) not only recapitulates the book's arguments but also examines Homoian Christianity in the Vandal kingdom within a broader historical context. It asserts that, “the social and political implications of Homoian Christianity in the post-imperial West are better understood not in terms of dichotomy (Africa and the rest) but rather as a spectrum of possible consequences” (225). With nuanced argument, methodological sophistication, and sensible judgment, Being Christian in Vandal Africa provides a welcome corrective to the polemical rhetoric of the sources that have unduly shaped the judgments of scholarship. Robin Whelan is to be commended for producing an exemplary study that will appeal to a variety of readers including scholars of the Vandal Kingdom, the post-imperial West, and late antiquity more generally.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christopher M. Blunda is a graduate student in History at the University of California, Berkeley.

Date of Review: 
January 11, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Robin Whelan is Lecturer in History at the University of Liverpool.

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