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E06328: The Latin Martyrdom of Isaac and Maximianus (Donatist martyrs of Carthage, ob. 347, S02755) tells of the suffering and death at the hands of the Catholics of two Donatists in Carthage (north Africa), and of the failed attempt of their persecutors to prevent their bodies being recovered. Written in 4th/5th c.

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posted on 2018-09-10, 00:00 authored by sadamiak
The martyrdom of Isaac and Maximianus (BHL 4473)

The martyrdom account pretends to be a letter, sent by someone [possibly Macrobius, the Donatist bishop of Rome] to the people of Carthage.

1-2. In an introduction, the author wonders which of the two martyrs he should praise first place: Isaac or Maximianus.

3. There were no persecutions [of the Donatists by the Catholics] at the time, but the faithful of Carthage were strengthened by the news of the [Donatist] martyrs of Numidia. The Devil causes the publication of the edict of unification of the Churches in Carthage. Christ chooses Maximianus to be his soldier.

4. On the day before his martyrdom Maximianus has dinner with 'some of the brothers and sisters'. Before taking the cup of wine, he sees a crown descending into it. It surrounds his reflection in the wine, as a sign of his future suffering and glory in heaven. When he starts drinking the wine, the crown does not disappear, but gets smaller, so that it always surrounds his reflected image.

5. Maximianus tears down the imperial edict and is immediately taken to the tribunal. The proconsul orders that he be flogged, and this is immediately executed with great brutality. Maximianus does not succumb.

6. At that moment, Isaac provokes the Catholics by shouting 'Come, traitors, recover your insane "unity"'. He is apprehended, probably [this does not result clearly from the text] by the Catholic clergy. The proconsul gives orders to start flogging Isaac instead of Maximianus.

7. Isaac is brutally flogged, and the judge sentences both Maximianus and Isaac to exile. They are thrown into prison, where Isaac dies.

8-9. Before his death, he has a dream in which he fights with the emperor. He eventually wins by removing the eye of the emperor from its socket. 'A young man of resplendent brilliance' appears, crowning Isaac with a victor’s crown (corona radiata). The emperor orders Isaac to be tormented again.

10. The author reflects on how this night vision was fulfilled the next day, when Isaac died. The only thing that has not been fulfilled yet is a prophecy of Isaac about the end of the world.

11. The author reflects on how Maximianus and Isaac are equal to each other, 'both preceding and both following each other', in bearing witness, and in suffering martyrdom.

12. At the same time, a ship is being prepared to carry the prisoners into exile. When the community learns of the death of Isaac, they come to recover his corpse. The executioners do not give the bodies up for funeral, so:

Illic tota die cum nocte populi triumphantes psalmis, hymnis, canticis in testimonium cunctis gloriose decantabant. Et omnis aetas ac sexus interesse tantis gratulationibus ardenti cupiditate gaudebat. Quale fuit illud, fratres, quod dominus suis martyribus ad honorem dignatus est procurare, ut XVIII Kal. Sept. die sabbato ad instar paschae permitteretur populus uigilias celebrare! (…) Quorum suggestione proconsul tunc coactus populos a carcere iussit expelli et uiuum pariter cum defuncto marinis fluctibus mergi, ne quasi permitteret eos dignitatem martyrum uenerari.

'There, for the whole day and night, the exulting people proudly sang psalms, hymns, and canticles in testimony. Every age and sex rejoiced with ardent desire to attend such festivities of thanksgiving. What kind of honour is this, sisters and brothers, that the Lord judges fit to procure for his martyrs, so that on the eighteenth day before the Kalends of September [15 August], on a Saturday, just as at Easter, the people might be permitted to celebrate a vigil! [...] Then goaded by their suggestion, the proconsul ordered the people who had been assembled to be expelled from the prison, and the living man [Maximianus] as well as the dead man [Isaac] to be dumped into the billows of the sea, so that they would not be permitted to reverence the dignity of the martyrs'.

13. This will only make the glory of the martyrs greater, that they are made to suffer on earth and on the sea. In the meantime, the soldiers scatter with clubs those gathered at the prisons. It makes the glory of the martyrs greater, that others are worthy to suffer for their funeral. The bodies of the martyrs are taken by ship out to sea, and thrown into it bound by ropes and tied to caskets filled with sand.

14-15. The sea does not want to accept the bodies of the martyrs:

Quos sinu pelagus proiectos ut agnouit, continuo quasi flammis totum caelestibus ureretur, sacrosanctos artus tenere non potuit; sed conuolutis deorsum desuper fluctibus ad eicienda corpora detrusas arenas funditus abradebat et ab imo fundo ad superiora terga subuertens undis resilientibus remouebat.

'When the sea recognized those thrown into its lap, immediately it glistened all over as if with heavenly flames. It could not hold the most holy limbs. So the waves rolled from top to bottom and the sea washed away the sand it dislodged, exposing their bodies.'

A detailed description of the action of the elements (sea and wind) follows; the masses of water protect the bodies and lead them towards the shore.

16. Obeidebantur haec igitur a fratribus litora, quasi iam certius aduentantes martyres ulla praecederet fama, et diebus noctibusque sollicite per momenta defixis obtutibus sperabatur quod credebant quandoque de dei solita uirtute uenturum. Cum subito post bis ternos dies templa Christi uenire gaudebant et occurrentes cuncti, quomodo poterant, oculis exsultante alacritate pendebant. Quorum extensis manibus optata membra cum tropaeis suis unda festinans uelut in gaudium resonans tradidit et compoti desiderio deuota fraternitas cum amplexibus laetis accepit. Sic beati martyres sepulturam debitam receperunt et optatum reddiderunt fratres obsequium et frustrata Christus exhibuit consilia traditorum, ne aut insepulta tantorum corpora remanere permitteret aut deuotionem populi ex parte ulla fraudasset aut nefandos uouta crudelitatis implere cum blasphemia sui nominis immotus aspiceret.

'Then the beaches were occupied by the brothers and sisters, as if some report preceded the martyrs as they were approaching. For days and nights during that time, they anxiously strained their eyes and hoped for what they believed would happen. They waited for the time to come as it always did with the help of God. Then suddenly, after twice three days, they rejoiced at the appearance of the temples of Christ and everyone hurried there in whatever way they could. With joy filling their eyes, they fixed their gaze. The waves crashing with joy handed over to their outstretched arms the bodies they have waited for, marked with signs of victory. The community of faith, committed as they were to this common devotion, received them with glad embraces. Thus the blessed martyrs received the interment due them. The sisters and brothers provided the burial rites for which they all had hoped. Thus Christ discredited the ineffectual plans of the traitors. He would not permit the bodies of such people to remain unburied and he would not defraud the devotion of the people in any way nor would he watch unmoved as the impious fulfilled their vows of cruelty with their blasphemy of his name.'

17. The author reminds the readers that it is obvious that since God can liberate souls from hell, he certainly can also liberate bodies from the sea.

18. The author encourages the readers to follow the example of Isaac and Maximian and seek martyrdom.

Text: J.L. Maier 1987. Translation: M. Tilley 1997, modified. Summary: S. Adamiak


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Isaac and Maximian, Donatist martyrs of Carthage, ob. 347 : S02755

Saint Name in Source

Isaac; Maximianus

Type of Evidence

Literary - Hagiographical - Accounts of martyrdom


  • 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)

Carthage Carthage Carthago Karthago قرطاج‎ Qarṭāj Mçidfa Carthage

Cult activities - Liturgical Activity

  • Procession

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs


Cult activities - Rejection, Condemnation, Scepticism

Destruction/hostile attempts to prevent veneration of relics

Cult Activities - Miracles

Miracle after death Power over elements (fire, earthquakes, floods, weather) Miracles experienced by the saint Apparition, vision, dream, revelation

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Crowds Heretics Soldiers Officials

Cult Activities - Relics

Attempts to prevent the veneration of one's relics


The date of the composition of the text is unknown. If its attribution to Macrobius, the Donatist bishop of Rome, is correct, it would be about AD 366 (Macrobius was active at that time: Optatus, Adv. Parm., 2,4,1). Sabine Fialon underlines the literary finesse of the text and suggests a later date, in the beginning of the 5th c.; she proposes as the author Macrobius, the Donatist bishop of Hippo contemporary to Augustine (Fialon 2008-2013). On the other hand, the text has been sometimes considered to be written immediately after the events it describes.


The Emperor Constans sent his envoys, Paul and Macarius, to North Africa in AD 347. The aim of their mission was to bring unity to the African Church. They probably proclaimed an imperial edict imposing the union of the Churches, but "The Martyrdom of Isaac and Maximianus" is the only evidence of this fact. On the other hand, the victims of that persecution are confirmed by other sources; the efforts of Augustine to minimalize the importance of those events and disengage from Macarius is a tacit confirmation that the bloodshed was caused by the imperial oficer. It is however clear even from this text, that the authorities were not keen on creating martyrs. Evidently, both Isaac and Maximianus died in prison, despite one passage suggesting that Maximianus was to be thrown into the sea alive.


Edition: Maier, J.L, Le dossier du donatisme. 1. Des origines à la mort de Constance II (303–361) (Berlin, 1997). Mastandrea, P., "Passioni di martiri donatisti," Analecta Bollandiana 113 (1995), 76-88. Translation: Tilley, M.A., Donatist martyr stories: the Church in conflict in Roman North Africa (Translated Texts for Historians 24; Liverpool, 1996), 63–75. Further reading: Dearn, A., "Donatist Martyrs, Stories and Attitudes,” in: R. Miles (ed.), The Donatist Schism. Controversy and Contexts, (Liverpool, 2016), 70–100. Fialon, S., "Notice d'hagiographie africaine: à propos de la datation de la Passio Isaac et Maximiani (BHL 4473)," Karthago 28 (2008-2013), 79-95. Fialon, S., Mens immobilis. Recherches sur le corpus latin des actes et des passions d'Afrique romaine (IIe-VIe siècles) (Paris, 2018).

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    Evidence -  The Cult of Saints in Late Antiquity



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