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Charles Buck Theological Dictionary
A species of fanatics; so called because they were continually rambling round the houses in the country. They took their rise among the Donatists, in the reign of the emperor Constantine. It is incredible what ravages and cruelties they committed in Africa, through a long series of years. They were illiterate savage peasants, who understood only the Punic language. Intoxicated with a barbarous zeal, they renounced agriculture, professed continence, and assumed the title of "Vindicators of justice, and protectors of the oppressed." To accomplish their mission, they enfranchized slaves, scoured the roads, forced masters to alight from their chariots, and run before their slaves, whom they obliged to mount in their place; and discharged debtors, killing the creditors if they refused to cancel their bonds. But the chief objects of their cruelty were the Catholics, and especially those who had renounced Donatism. At first they used no swords, because God had forbidden the use of one to Peter: but they were armed with clubs, which they called the clubs of Israel, and which they handled in such a manner as to break a man's bones without killing him immediately, so that he languished a long time, and then died. When they took away a man's life at once, they looked upon it as a favour.
They became less scrupulous afterwards, and made use of all sorts of arms. Their shout was Praise be to God. These words in their mouths were the signal of slaughter more terrible than the roaring of a lion. They had invented an unheard-of punishment, which was to cover with lime, diluted with vinegar, the eyes of those unhappy wretches whom they had crushed with blows and covered with wounds, and to abandon them in that condition. Never was a stronger proof what horrors superstition can beget in minds destitute of knowledge and humanity. These brutes, who had made a vow of chastity, gave themselves up to wine, and all sorts of impurities; running about with women and young girls as drunk as themselves, whom they called sacred virgins, and who often carried proof of their incontinence. Their chief took the name of chief of the saints. After having glutted themselves with blood, they turned their rage upon themselves, and sought death with the same fury with which they gave it to others. Some scrambled up to the tops of rocks, and cast themselves down headlong in multitudes; others burned themselves, or threw themselves into the sea. Those who proposed to acquire the title of martyrs, published it long before; upon which they were feasted and fattened like oxen for the slaughter; after these preparations they set out to be destroyed.
Sometimes they gave money to those whom they met, and threatened to murder them if they did not make them martyrs. Theodore gives an account of a stout young man, who meeting with a troop of these fanatics, consented to kill them, provided he might bind them first; and having by this means put it out of their power to defend themselves, whipped them as long as he was able, and then left them tied in that manner. Their bishops pretended to blame them, but in reality made use of them to intimidate such as might be tempted to forsake their sect; they even honoured them as saints. They were not, however, able to govern those furious monsters; and more than once found themselves under a necessity of abandoning them, and even of imploring the assistance of the secular power against them. The counts Ursacius and Taurinus were employed to quell them; they destroyed a great number of them, of whom the Donatists made as many martyrs. Usacius, who was a Catholic, and a religious man, having lost his life in an engagement with the barbarians, the Donatists did not fail to triumph in his death, as an effect of the vengeance of heaven. Africa was the theatre of those bloody scenes during a great part of Constantine's life.
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Buck, Charles. Entry for 'Circoncelliones'. Charles Buck Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/cbd/c/circoncelliones.html. 1802.