North Africa is central to our understanding of late ancient Christianity. As the excellent recent volume on The Donatist Schism edited by Richard Miles (Liverpool University Press, 2016) amply demonstrates, the textual and material traces of North African Christianity have been at the heart of recent debates about religious violence and persecution, Christian identities and communities, and the cult of saints in late antiquity. But this modern historiographical interest in the region tends to end at the point where it ceased to be a part of the Roman Empire. After the Vandal leader, Geiseric and his band of warriors conquered the region in 439 CE, these provinces withdrew from participation in the western imperial state; as a result, they fade from our accounts of late ancient Christianity. As I argue in my new book, Being Christian in Vandal Africa: the Politics of Orthodoxy in the Post-Imperial West (University of California Press, 2018), the sophisticated Christian culture of post-imperial Vandal Africa help to destabilize a lot of what we think we know about the development of Christian orthodoxy in late antiquity.
From the capture of Carthage in 439, Geiseric and his successors ruled the core African provinces of Africa Proconsularis, Byzacena and Numidia (modern-day Tunisia and Algeria) as an independent kingdom until armies from the Eastern Roman Empire re-conquered the region in 533-534 CE. After their military victory, Geiseric’s regime consolidated power quickly by confiscating property to settle the Vandal warriors, developing relationships with the remaining Romano-African elite, and beginning to formulate a distinctive style of rulership. Perhaps the best-known component of the Vandal kings’ particular brand of late Roman governance was their repeated intervention in African ecclesiastical politics.
The kings and a significant number of their followers adhered to a “Homoian” Trinitarian creed (a modern term of art from the Greek homoios: God the Son is ‘like’ God the Father). This creedal formula had emerged in the imperial church in the late 350s as an alternative to the Nicene Creed of 325 CE, with its key term, homoousios (Father and Son ‘of the same substance’), which was seen as objectionable by many on account of its use of ‘substance’ (ousia) language which was not present in Scripture. The Nicene ecclesiastical controversialists who were (eventually) triumphant in the Christological debates of the fourth century denounced the Homoian formula as Arian heresy. Within their historical context, the adherence of Vandals to this form of Christianity was not that strange: there seem to have been many Homoians among various fifth- and sixth-century barbarian groups. More unusual was the Vandal kings’ consistent efforts to enforce this Christianity as the orthodoxy of their kingdom. They facilitated the creation of a Homoian church in North Africa through the transfer of Nicene churches and property, the exile of Nicene bishops and preventions of new episcopal appointments, bans on Nicene services, and the periodic purging of Nicene Christians among their political servants. The precise size of this African Homoian church is unknowable, but evidence for clerics and communities can be found across the region. Its Nicene rival—the triumphant early fifth-century ‘Catholic’ Church once led by Augustine—was reduced to the status of a heretical sect. The result of this power shift was a new controversy between Nicene and Homoian churches over the definition of the true faith.
Our understanding of this Christian conflict has always shaped the historiography of Vandal Africa. Traditionally, the kingdom was seen as a failed state: Nicene Romano-Africans suffered under the rule of persecuting Arian overlords and awaited the Byzantine reconquest. In recent years, excellent revisionist accounts have turned away from these issues of confessional affiliation to seek a more balanced assessment of life in the kingdom. Drawing on a wide array of textual and material evidence—from classicizing court poetry to potsherds—scholars have demonstrated continuities through the fifth century and the integration of elites into Vandal rule. But this rehabilitation of the kingdom has come at a cost: the unnecessary downplaying of the importance of Christian identity and ecclesiastical controversy in what was, after all, the most densely Christianized region of the late Roman West. My book seeks to fit this controversy into the successful late ancient polity so vividly captured in recent historiography.
My book aims in part to connect debates between Nicenes and Homoians in Vandal Africa—and across the post-imperial West—to those wider developments in the historiography of late ancient Christianity from which they have been peculiarly absent. Modern accounts of what we still (just about) call the ‘Arian controversy’ tend to culminate in the 380s. The presence of powerful Homoian Christians in the post-imperial West is portrayed as a peculiar sequel to the fourth-century Christological disputes, far removed both in time and substance from the arguments of Arius, Athanasius, Ambrose, and Auxentius. This adherence to a non-Nicene form of Christianity has generally been understood as a matter of ethnic identity and solidarity—Goths, Vandals, or Burgundians seeking to distinguish themselves from Nicene Roman provincials—rather than a genuine problem of confessional identity.
This shift in focus away from religion followed larger trends in scholarship. For decades, early medieval historians have investigated the role of ethnic identities in the first western successor kingdoms, as part of broader efforts to deconstruct modern myths of the origins of European nations. That interest maps neatly onto the concerns of Victor of Vita, the author of the History of the Persecution of the African Province: the sole detailed contemporary narrative account of Vandal Africa. In Victor’s History, Arian and barbarian—and Catholic and Roman—are essentially synonymous. But a string of superlative studies of Victor of Vita have shown just how tendentious his history is, and how far removed from the concerns even of other Nicene clerical authors, never mind the broader mass of the Vandals’ subjects. While other authors rarely make the “ethnic” identity of Christians relevant to their membership of the true Christian community (whether Nicene or Homoian), Victory consistently equates them. When other authors bring these two sets of affiliations to bear on each other, they present much more nuanced accounts of the relationship between ethnic and Christian identities, which better reflect the diverse social makeup of Christian communities in fifth- and sixth-century North Africa. One Nicene text even discusses Vandals and Romans joining together in Nicene masses with a Vandalic liturgy. But what mattered above all to these authors was to anchor the identity and legitimacy of their churches and to ensure their communities remained “Catholic” Christians according to (Nicene or Homoian) definitions. To do so required an intense engagement with the history and heresiology of fourth-century Christological debates.
Unlike modern historians, contemporaries in Vandal Africa thought the Arian controversy was still taking place. The Conference of Carthage, convoked by the Vandal king Huneric (r. 477-484 CE) on 1 February 484 CE, provides a wonderful illustration of this historical mindset. As Eric Fournier (in particular) has demonstrated, this Homoian-Nicene debate was a meticulous re-enactment of the Catholic-Donatist meeting of 411 CE. In his edict calling the conference (preserved by Victor of Vita), Huneric wrote to the ‘Homoousian’ bishops, demanding that they "prove homoousios specifically from the divine Scriptures, by which it might be recognized if you hold the entire faith" (Victor of Vita, HP 2.38). This was not an easy request, given the term’s infamous absence from the Bible. The unscriptural nature of homoousios was one of the reasons that various representatives of the fourth-century Mediterranean church had been uncomfortable with Nicaea. It was also part of why the creed of the Council of Rimini (359 CE), the definitive Homoian doctrinal statement, excluded such ‘substance’ (ousia) language for the relationship between God the Father and God the Son. The Homoian bishops at the conference (as cited by Huneric afterwards) used precisely that precedent. The Nicene bishops were to prove homoousios or condemn ‘that which was rejected by a thousand and more bishops coming together from the whole world at the Council of Rimini and at Seleucia’. When, in the eyes of Huneric’s regime, they were unable to do so, the king proscribed them as Homoousian heretics. The central term of the Nicene Creed was made definitive of an outlawed heresy within the region of North Africa.
Of course, the events of 484—the assembly and exile of the Nicene bishops of Africa and concerted attempts to enforce Homoian Christianity across the kingdom—held a peculiar intensity. This resolute drive to uniformity seems to have abated after the death of Huneric later in the year. But Nicene polemical texts written across the century of Vandal rule worry about the arguments articulated at Carthage in 484. They seek to contest the authority of Rimini as an ecumenical council, recalling the infamous ‘fraud’ perpetrated there. A (now anonymous) collection of proof texts for the Nicene cause titled On the Trinity complains about the comparative weight given to Rimini over Nicaea because more bishops attended the latter than the former. The attendance list at the time was not the full story: ‘barely the remnants of Rimini have remained to prove the Catholics’ (Ps.-Fulgentius, Liber de Trinitate, 3.81-82). Nicene authors sought to defend homoousios and to contest the validity of the term ‘Homoousian’ or ‘the name the Arians are accustomed to call us’, as Fulgentius, bishop of Ruspe (c. 508-533 CE) observed.
Above all, pro-Nicene authors endeavored to apply the tropes, heresiological strategies, and historical resources of the fourth-century Arian controversy on the debates of their own time. These references could be simple. In anti-heretical sermons and tractates, the likes of Fulgentius and Quodvultdeus, bishop of Carthage (c. 435-452 CE) explicitly called their opponents’ church that of the heresiarch Arius. They could also be extremely complex. Vigilius, bishop of Thapsa (fl. 484), saw fit to write an imaginary dialogue between Athanasius, Arius, Sabellius, and Photinus. Once they were head to head—the dialogue took an elimination format—the two Alexandrian antagonists discuss contemporary Trinitarian debating points. Vigilius’ Arius, unsurprisingly, puts forward a Homoian statement of faith. The point of these (sometimes arcane) references to events like the ‘Blasphemy’ Council of Sirmium or familiar heretical figures like Eunomius is obvious. These Nicene writers had to cast their opponents as Arians once again.
It is easy to read the many Nicene polemical texts from Vandal Africa as statements of the obvious. They repeat and reframe inherited knowledge about Arius and Arians, rehashing narratives, tropes and rhetorical strategies with which modern scholars of late ancient Christianity are all too familiar. But these texts are not simply repositories of conventional wisdom or anthologies of anti-Arian arguments for theoretical use. They reveal a live contest for ecclesiastical authority in post-imperial Africa. More than that, North African Nicene literature demonstrates what might otherwise have been an interesting thought experiment: what would have happened if you made the (safely ‘orthodox’) Nicene churchmen of the fifth-century Mediterranean into heretics? Vandal Africa provides the answers.
 See esp. A. H. Merrills and R. Miles, The Vandals (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010) and J. P. Conant, Staying Roman: Conquest and Identity in Africa and the Mediterranean, 439-700 (Cambridge University Press, 2012).
 É. Fournier, “Victor of Vita and the Conference of 484: a pastiche of 411?” Studia Patristica 62 (2013): 395-408.
Dr Robin Whelan is Lecturer in Mediterranean History at the University of Liverpool. He can be found on Twitter @whelan_robin.