‘The eye of God is watching you': Bishops and martyrs in Vandal North Africa
studying for my PhD at the University of Sheffield, I was lucky enough to be part of the Medieval Latin Translation (MLT) group, which meets informally on a roughly fortnightly basis during term time. Each semester we have a go at translating a medieval text, preferably one which has not yet been translated into English, with the aim of making our finished version available online for the benefit of other researchers and students.
In Autumn semester 2019, I proposed a letter written by an African bishop named Honoratus Antoninus in c.437 A.D. I had come across this letter while researching the penalty of exile in the post-Roman kingdoms, as it was addressed to a man named Arcadius who had been banished somewhere in North Africa by the Vandal king Geiseric (r. 428-477). Although I had already produced a rough translation of the letter, I was eager to look at the text more closely with the MLT group.
The fruits of our labour are presented in this blog post, which provides (to the best of my knowledge) the first published translation of Honoratus’ letter. My thanks to Jasper Chopping, Richard Gilbert, Alex Traves, and Tianpeng Zhang who all collaborated with me on the translation, and especially to Dr Charles West, who led the group, checked over the finished translation, and heroically researched its complicated manuscript history. Any errors that remain are, of course, my sole responsibility.
Before providing the English translation, I thought it might be helpful to prospective readers to offer a brief summary of the letter’s historical context and contents. The letter was written during a tumultuous period in Roman history. In the first decade of the fifth century, several ‘barbarian’ groups had crossed over Rome’s Rhine frontier and caused disruption as they moved through the western provinces. One of those groups were the Vandals who, by the time of Geiseric’s succession in 428, had settled in the province of Baetica in southern Spain.
King Geiseric, however, took the momentous decision to move his followers across the straits of Gibraltar into Roman North Africa. Advancing eastwards along the coast, Geiseric won a string of victories against the Roman armies sent to resist him and captured the city of Hippo Regius – the see of the renowned theologian St Augustine who died during the siege – in 432. With limited resources available and recognising the strength of the Vandal position, the Western Emperor Valentinian III (r. 425-455) concluded a peace treaty with Geiseric in 435 and ceded him control of the provinces of Mauretania and the western half of Numidia.
Like many other barbarian kings, Geiseric subscribed to a form of Christianity erroneously referred to by contemporaries (and many modern historians) as Arianism but which is more properly described as Homoian. However, unlike many of his counterparts, Geiseric was a militant proponent of his creed, and over the course of his long reign he enacted several policies that targeted the Catholic, or rather Nicene, church in Vandal Africa. He was particularly concerned with ensuring that those serving in the royal administration subscribed to the Homoian confession and on several occasions attempted to force his Nicene officials to apostatise through threats of punishment.
It was this policy that resulted in the banishment of one of Geiseric’s loyal advisers, a man named Arcadius, in around 437. According to the Chronicle of Prosper of Aquitaine, Arcadius fell out with the king when he refused to adopt Homoian Christianity. Geiseric responded by banishing Arcadius together with three other Catholic courtiers named Paschasius, Probus, and Eutychianus. Prosper provides no indication of where the men were sent but they must have remained within the Vandal territories as they were later executed on Geiseric’s orders.
Bishop Honoratus and the Contents of his Letter
Honoratus Antoninus was the Catholic bishop of the see of Cirta/Constantina, which had fallen under Vandal rule following the treaty of 435. It is not clear why Honoratus addressed his letter solely to Arcadius, rather than to all four of the courtiers who had been punished by Geiseric – perhaps Arcadius had some pre-existing connection with Honoratus or was living in exile close to his see, or perhaps the bishop believed that Arcadius’ faith was wavering and thus needed special attention.
In any case, Honoratus’ letter was designed to console Arcadius, while encouraging him to remain steadfast in his commitment to Nicene Christianity. Judging by Honoratus’ repeated allusions to Arcadius’ impending martyrdom, it would seem that at the time of the letter’s writing Geiseric had already sentenced Arcadius to death (or at least Honoratus anticipated that this would happen in the near future).
Throughout the letter, the bishop reminds Arcadius time and again of what is at stake in his dispute with the king. Arcadius, so Honoratus tells him, is on the cusp of greatness; if he remains true to his faith and accepts the martyr’s crown, he will join Christ and the apostles in heaven. However, if he falters, he will humiliate the Catholic church and will risk spending eternity in damnation. So, while the tone of the letter is generally positive and uplifting, it is laced with a stark warning.
Honoratus employs several rhetorical strategies to prepare Arcadius for his showdown with the Homoian authorities. He refers to exemplars drawn from scripture – Job, the Maccabean mother, and, of course, Christ himself – whom Arcadius should look to for inspiration. He also reassures Arcadius about his fate, explaining how his pain will be assuaged through the strength of his faith and that his sins will be forgiven. But again such reassurances come with a sting in the tail, as Honoratus reminds Arcadius that God is watching him and testing him. Thus, for the good of his soul, and the souls of others, he must persevere and complete his victory.
In the latter half of his letter, Honoratus adopts a more theological perspective, outlining the nature of the relationship between Christ, God the Father, and the Holy Spirit. By way of analogy, Honoratus emphasises the unity of the Trinity. It is possible that Arcadius had specifically requested such an explanation in some previous (and non-extant) correspondence with the bishop. Alternatively, Honoratus may have simply wanted to provide Arcadius with a refresher in how Nicene belief differed from the Vandal’s Homoian confession, which favoured a nontrinitarian doctrine in which Christ is distinct from and subordinate to God the Father.
The first edition of the letter was published by Johannes Sichard in 1528, in Antidotum contra diversas omnium fere seculorum hereses. The German palaeographer and philologist, Paul Lehmann, who wrote about Sichard’s sources, was unsure which manuscript Sichard had used for his text and was unable to find one. However, a little digging has turned up two manuscripts: Montpellier BM H 308, at fol. 174, a ninth-century manuscript from Lyon linked to the Carolingian scholar Florus of Lyon, and Paris lat. 16331, a thirteenth-century manuscript (probably the manuscript mentioned in a medieval Sorbonne catalogue). 
The edition used for our translation was published as part of the Patrologia Latina (PL 50, Paris, 1846, cols 567-70) which was itself based on the edition published by Marguerin de La Bigne in Maxima bibliotheca veterum patrum vol. 8 in 1677, which in turn was probably based on Sichard’s 1528 edition.
Patrologia edition of the Latin text we used for our translation (n.b. requires subscription)
View open access format (via the Zuerich Corpus corporum project)
The Consolatory Letter of Bishop Honoratus Antoninus of Constantina to Arcadius, who has been Driven into Exile by King Geiseric of the Vandals.
Go on, faithful soul, go on; and, confessor of unity, rejoice that you have merited to suffer abuse in the name of Christ, just as when the apostles were flogged. Behold, this snake now lies beneath your feet. It was able to attack, but it fell, since it was not able to strike you. I demand of you, crush its head: let it not rise again in the martyr’s contest, let no one agitate you. Behold, Christ rejoices and watches you: the angels rejoice, and assist you; the crowd of demons watches your heel: do not falter, lest the demons who are now grieving rejoice. The whole chorus of the martyrs, your predecessors, stands with you: the martyrs await and protect you, and stretch out the crown. I ask you; hold fast what you have, lest someone else take your crown [Apoc. 31]. How short is the time in which you will fight! And how long the time in eternity in which you will be victorious in eternity! Finish what you have begun; today you will see why you are suffering; nothing is hidden from the Lord; let the devil not deceive you in the matter, when he piles confusion upon you; he does not want you, my dearest, to suffer. Truly, brother, you have a struggle. This confession is undiminished: if you die, you may be certain that you will be a martyr.
Job did not pay heed to his wife, and so he won; not to his family, not to riches, not to his friends, and rightly he prevailed. Adam loved his spouse too much, and therefore he fell so lamentably. Thus, the Lord says: “He does not send away his father, or his mother, or his wife, or his sons, or his daughters for me, is not my disciple”. [Mark 10]. If you were dead, how could your wife or family call you back? Just stay with him whom you have taken up, listen to him, hold him tight, do not reject him; and do not look back to your wife or family. In your heart, the battle you have begun is already complete. The archangel that fell is fighting you; he himself is wrestling against you; but on your side you have the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Do not be afraid: see, he is helping you so he can crown you. The Maccabean mother sent seven sons to their death for Christ. They were tortured in front of her, and she encouraged them all the more to die. After her sons were killed, behold – she exults to be crowned with her sons. Consider that God made you in your mother’s womb: he gave you spirit and soul, he endowed you with reason and wisdom. He made heaven and earth, and all the things which are in them. Thus he wants to receive you when you die for the faith, so that he may display his full majesty to you. Consider the world: it will perish. Consider the sun and the moon and the stars: they too will melt away. Fight bravely for your soul, which will either live forever or will forever perish. Behold, your sins have been forgiven. And for this struggle, God will expunge all your iniquities whatever you have managed to commit up to today.
Hear what the prophet Ezekiel says about this matter: “the day when the unjust man is a fellow-servant and creates justice from his iniquity, I will not remember any of his transgressions anymore, saith the Lord” [Ezek. 18.22]. Your justice, your faith (since he is just who lives from faith), your tribulation, despoliation, and exile have brought you the remission of your sins. Death opens up to you the kingdoms of heaven. What will it feel like when you see yourself with Saint Stephen? What will it feel like when you have Peter and Paul as friends, whom you used to pray to as patrons? Your soul will soon see Christ, and your body will be in the cool resting place of the resurrection, so that your flesh may see what your soul will see when it soon departs. The Devil rages, Christ rejoices. Ask, cry out, and demand help; and soon you will receive peace of mind. Fear the eternal punishments, where it always burns, where the body and soul are always tortured in darkness, where body and soul burn for eternity with the Devil. Fear Gehenna, and now hold onto Christ. Now is the time to either live or die. No one will rescue you if you falter in this fight.
And what benefit is it to you, if you agree with the devil, and soon afterwards you depart from your body? Or do you not know that the life of your body is in the power of your God, who can instantly take the flesh away from you if you relinquish the faith? A certain Christian recounted that, while he was being tortured on the rack for his faith, there was an angel with a shining face standing by him, with a cloth soaked in water, who splashed water on his face and wiped it with the cloth. While he was tortured, the angel did not withdraw, consoling him and refreshing him. Moreover, the martyr of Christ did not inwardly feel the punishment that he sustained. The tortures are less felt when the fighting is for Christ, because the strength of the soul overcomes the pains of the world; and since the divinity has been invoked, the bitterness of the tortures is softened.
Behold, you are held on behalf of mankind; and when you are broken, you will not lose the faith, even if you have lost your flesh. Show God this perseverance, and you need not greatly fear the punishment; for either it will either be great and soon over, or it will be trifling, and your soul will be in no great torment. You must pray, however, because you have begun to struggle, and you have not failed; you have commenced your martyrdom, so look after your soul. I adjure you by the union of the Trinity, for which you will suffer death, to preserve your heart, and strengthen it through the Holy Spirit, which you wished to inspire you, and which you have honoured in yourself. Fight bravely through the purity of your baptism, which you never intended to let down. Be sure of the crown; be sure in the fight, until the Lord wishes to complete your victory. Now God is testing your soul. There is the eye of God: it is watching you from hour to hour, what you are doing, what are thinking, how you are fighting, how you are behaving. If it sees that you are strong, it rejoices and assists; if it sees that you are weak, it sustains and uplifts.
So fight for the truth continuously until death; and you will be a salvation not only for yourself but for others: otherwise God will examine both your soul and the souls of others. You are the standard-bearer of Christ; you are marching first in the battle line: if you fall, you will not be without blame for the death of others. Be apprehensive of that: for, if you succeed, you will have fought for the salvation of many people, and you will receive a manifold crown. God is one, God can be nothing less, God cannot be changed. You know these things, so hold on to the truth strongly. Listen briefly to what I said before. God is one: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, yet the flesh pertains only to Christ. Truly, the soul is one thing, reason is another: but reason is in the soul. And the soul is one; but the soul does one thing, reason does another: the soul lives, reason knows. Life pertains to the soul; wisdom pertains to reason; and yet neither is the soul without reason, nor is reason without the soul; and though they are one, the soul alone takes up life, reason alone takes up wisdom. Thus the Father and the Son, although they are one, and God is one, yet the flesh pertains to Christ alone, just as wisdom pertains to reason alone, though it does not recoil from the soul. See therefore, the heat and light of the sun are in one ray, but the heat dries out, while the light illuminates: the heat does one thing, the light another, although the heat and the light cannot be separated from each other. The light therefore brings illumination, not warmth; the heat brings warmth, not illumination.
Each does different things individually, yet they do not recoil from each other. Thus the Son alone took on the flesh, and yet did not depart from the Father, nor did he divide himself from the Father. The Son therefore took on the flesh as a quality, and yet the Father and the Holy Spirit were not absent in majesty. Equality in divinity, specific in the Son’s flesh; but the divinity of the Father or the Holy Spirit did not recede from him. Christ took on the flesh, but did he retreat from the Father or the Holy Spirit? Therefore, there is a true unity. Both Father and Holy Spirit filled the flesh of Christ, but by majesty, not by taking it up. You want to know that the Father was in him: “I am not alone”, said Christ, “but the Father is with me “[John 16:32]. Listen to what the evangelist relates about the Holy Spirit, who was with him: “Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit, returned to the [river] Jordan” [Luke 4.1]. Behold, Christ alone took on the flesh, and yet the Father and the Holy Spirit were not absent in their majesty. If they fill up heaven and earth, they could not abandon the flesh of Christ, as long as they remained in the unity of divinity.
Furthermore, consider the lyre as it gives forth melodies with sweet sounds: three things seem as one, skill, hand and string. Skill dictates, the hand plays, and the string resounds. All three are at work, but only the string produces the sound you hear. Neither skill nor the hand make a sound, but each of them is working together with the string. Thus, neither the Father nor the Holy Spirit took flesh, but even so they are working together with the Son. Only the string produces sounds, only Christ took on flesh. The working consists of three things; but just as the production of sound pertains only to the string, so the taking on of human flesh pertains only to Christ. These words come from an inconsequential man placed in great suffering, so that whatever should be said came only with difficulty to my mind. This is the proper rule of the faith. If anything happens to you on account of this, you have achieved martyrdom. Christ received blows, Christ endured the spit of others, Christ drank sour wine vinegar, Christ was crowned with thorns, Christ was crucified, and the righteous was condemned among guilty thieves; Christ was pierced by a spear — Christ stood firm through all this on behalf of your faults, so how much firmer must you stand for your soul, so that nobody takes away your crown.
Now you are in the stadium; march forward bravely, do not be afraid; let nothing terrify you; let nothing deeply trouble you, because the whole Church prays for you so that you might conquer. The Catholic church is looking out for you, its martyr, so that it may honour you just like its martyr Stephen. See to it that you do not confound us in this world. See to it that you do not humiliate us in the sight of our enemies. Christ the Lord endures with you, the church endures with you. Be most confident about your crown; do not fear at all whatever past sins you have been able to commit.
 Prosper, Chron. a.437, MGH AA 9, 475-6 (available to read online)
 P.J.G. Lehmann, Iohannes Sichardus und von ihm benutzten Bibliotheken und Handschriften (Munich, 1911), p. 204.
 Thanks to Pierre Chambert-Protat for his help with this!