A revolutionary movement arising out of religious and agrarian discontent in N Africa associated with the Donatist church, particularly in Numidia and Mauretania in the 4th and early 5th c. see Praedestinatus, De haeres. 69, in partibus Numidiae et Mauretaniae. Their name was derived from circum cellas, i.e., those who dwelled in or moved around the cellae, or martyrs’ shrines Aug., Enarr. in Ps. 132, 3 whence they got their food C. Gaudentium I, 28, 32. Certain Catholic writers outside Africa referred to them as Cotopitae or Cutzupitae e.g., Isid. of S., Etym. Libri VIII, 53. The origin of this term is unknown, but it might come from a combination of the Coptic words kot, to move around or wander, and aouet, cenobium see S. Calderone, Circumcelliones, 107. They epitomized the apocalyptic martyr-spirit of the Donatist church.
They were regarded as athletes agonistici and saints, ever ready for combat with the devil, now seen however as creditors and landowners as well as by Roman magistrates. If they failed to receive death at their hands, suicide, mainly by leaping over a precipice, was regarded as an effective alternative Aug., C. Gaudentium I, 22, 25; 27, 30; 28, 32; Filaster, Diversarum haereseon liber 57, 85; cf. L. Leschi, propos des pitaphes chrtiennes . The Catholic writers Optatus of Milevis ca. 365 and Augustine describe their depredations. Optatus describes how in ca. 340, due to the activities of Axido and Fasir, duces sanctorum, no one could feel secure in his estates, the debtor’s bond chirographia lost its force.
In those days it was impossible for a creditor to exact payment of a debt. Slaves and masters were obliged to change places, and masters had to run before their own carriages De Schismate Donatistarum III, 4: CSEL 26, 82. Fifty years later Augustine paints a similar picture of circumcellion attacks, only with Catholic clergy and Donatist converts to Catholicism added to their victims see esp. Ep. 88, 8; 93, 11; 108, 4.18; 111, 1; 185, 4.15; C. Cresconium III, 48, 53; Contra litteras Petiliani II, 83, 184. They roamed in gangs turmae, armed with clubs C. Ep. Parmeniani I, 11, 17 called Israels, and their watchword, Deo Laudes, was more feared than the lion’s roar Enarr. in Ps. 132, 6. Augustine does indicate, however, that the movement also had a religious aspect. The drunken mobs greges ebrios of circumcellions were accompanied by sanctimoniales C. Ep. Parmeniani II, 10, 19; cf. C. Gaudentium I, 36, 46 and Ep. 35, 2. The tombs of circumcellion martyrs became pilgrimage centers Ad Catholicos Ep. 19, 50. The circumcellions sold relics of real or presumed martyrs De opere monachorum 28, 36 and were themselves regarded as confessors and martyrs C. Ep. Parmeniani III, 6, 29. Other writers confirm this. Though a Donatist himself, Tyconius ca. 380 criticized them for their superstition and described them as wandering from one saint’s tomb to another for the sake of the salvation of their souls quoted by Beatus of Libana, In Apocalypsin, and cited from T. Hahn, Tyconius-Studien, Leipzig 1902, 68. Isidore of Seville d. 636 described them as a fifth type of monk Quintum genus monachorum est Circumcellionium qui sub habitu monachorum usquequaque vagantur: De off. eccles. II, 16. There has been much discussion of their possible economic role as day laborers employed mainly for the olive harvest in Numidia Tengstrm, Donatisten und Katholiken, 52- 56, or of their legal status as an ordo, indicated in Honorius’s anti-Donatist edict of 30 January 412 CTh XVI, 5, 52; cf. J.P. Brisson, Autonomisme et christianisme, 332-334. It would seem, however, that a less legalistic interpretation is preferable, i.e., that ordo is used to indicate a definable group, as tagma is used to describe monks, and not a legal status in agrarian society.