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E00119: Optatus, bishop of Milevis (North Africa), writing in Latin in Africa c. 364/384, states that a rich Carthaginian woman in c. AD 300 used to kiss a bone of a supposed martyr before receiving the Eucharist. From Optatus' polemical treatise Against Parmenianus.

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posted on 2014-10-31, 00:00 authored by robert
Optatus of Milevis, Against Parmenianus 1.16.1

Hoc apud Carthaginem post ordinationem Caeciliani factum esse nemo qui nesciat, per Lucillam scilicet, nescio quam feminam factiosam quae ante concussam persecutionis turbinibus pacem, dum adhuc in tranquillo esset ecclesia, cum correptionem archidiaconi Caeciliani ferre non posset, quae ante spiritalem cibum et potum os nescio cuius martyris, si tamen martyris, libare dicebatur, et cum praeponeret calici salutari os nescio cuius hominis mortui, et si martyris sed necdum uindicati, correpta cum confusione irata discessit

'No-one is unaware that this took place in Carthage after the ordination of Caecilian, and indeed through some factious woman or other called Lucilla, who, while the Church was still tranquil and the peace had not yet been shattered by the whirlwinds of persecution, was unable to bear the rebuke of the archdeacon Caecilian. She was said to kiss the bone of some martyr or other – if, that is, he was a martyr – before the spiritual food and drink, and, since she preferred to the saving cup the bone of some dead man, who if he was a martyr had not yet been confirmed as one, she was rebuked, and went away in angry humiliation.'

Text: Labrousse 1995. Translation: Edwards 1997, 15-16.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Anonymous Martyrs : S00060

Type of Evidence

Literary - Other


  • Latin

Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Latin North Africa

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc


Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)

Milevis Carthage Carthago Karthago قرطاج‎ Qarṭāj Mçidfa Carthage

Cult activities - Rejection, Condemnation, Scepticism

Uncertainty/scepticism/rejection of a saint

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Women Aristocrats Ecclesiastics - bishops

Cult Activities - Relics

Bodily relic - bones and teeth Touching and kissing relics Privately owned relics


Optatus was the bishop of Milevis, a little town in Numidia. He wrote his treatise probably shortly after the death of the emperor Julian (363), since he mentions this event and says that the great persecution ended about sixty years ago (in Africa it ended in 305). It is quite probable, however, that he re-edited his work after 384, because at one point he refers to Siricius (elected in 384) as bishop of Rome. Only this (hypothetical) second edition survived. The treatise's original title is unknown. Jerome says that it was directed against Parmenianus, the Donatist bishop of Carthage. Be this as it may, it is important to remember that it is a highly polemical text and the image of Donatists, which it presents, should not be taken at face value.


In Book 1 of his treatise, Optatus tries to show the hideous origin of the Donatist schism in around 311, which resulted from the actions taken by greedy nobles, over-ambitious clergymen and a rich, superstitious and rebellious woman named Lucilla. She hated the archdeacon Caecilian, could not support his election to the bishopric of Carthage and thus initiated the schism. In the quoted passage Optatus tries to explain the reasons for Lucilla's hatred. This passage used to be treated as evidence of an actual, though not officially accepted, practice of dividing, touching and kissing the bones of martyrs already at the turn of the 3rd and 4th centuries. This, however, takes into account neither the polemical character of Optatus' treatise nor the fact that it was written sixty to eighty years after the purported events, when new forms of physical contact with relics were already quite widespread. Thus what this passage almost certainly shows is not an actual late 3rd century custom, but a late 4th century caricature or vision of unacceptable practices.


Edition and French translation: Labrousse, M., Optat de Milève: Traité contre les Donatistes. Vol. 1 (Sources Chrétiennes 412; Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1995). English translation: Edwards, M.J., Optatus: Against the Donatists (Translated Texts for Historians 27; Liverpool, Liverpool University Press, 1997). Further reading: Wiśniewski, R., "Lucilla and the Bone: Remarks on an Early Testimony to the Cult of Relics," Journal of Late Antiquity 4 (2011), 157-161. See also commentaries in both editions of the text named above.

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    Evidence -  The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity



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