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Tunisia - Byzantine Africa

In time, the Vandals lost much of their warlike spirit, and their kingdom fell to the armies of Belisarius, the Byzantine general who in 533 began the reconquest of North Africa for the Roman Empire. It is true that Salvius of Marseilles is prone to exaggeration in all that he says, but he gives a most deplorable, and not wholly inaccurate, account of the crimes of all kinds which made Africa one of the most wretched provinces in the world. Nor had the Vandals escaped the effects of this moral corruption, which slowly destroyed their power and eventually effected their ruin. During the last years of Vandal rule in Africa, St. Fulgentius, Bishop of Ruspe, exercised a fortunate influence over the princes of the dynasty, who were no longer ignorant barbarians, but whose culture, wholly Roman and Byzantine, equalled that of their native subjects. Yet the Vandal monarchy, which had lasted for nearly a century, seemed less firmly established than at its beginning.

Hilderich, who succeeded in 523, was too cultured and too mild a prince to impose his will on others. Giluner made an attempt to deprive him of power, and, proclaimed King of the Vandals in 531, marched on Carthage and dethroned Hilderich. His cause appeared to be completely successful, and his authority firmly established, when a Byzantine fleet appeared on the coast of Africa. The naval battle of Decimunt (13 September 533) destroyed, in a few hours, the seapower of the Vandals. The landing of the Byzantine army, the taking of Carthage, the flight of Gilimer, and the battle of Tricamarum, about the middle of December, completed their destruction and their disappearance.

The victor, Belisarius, had but to show himself in order to reconquer the greater part of the coast, and to place the cities under the authority of the Emperor Justinian. A council held at Carthage in 534 was attended by 220 bishops, representing all the churches. It issued a decree forbidding the public exercise of Arian worship. The establishment of Byzantine rule, however, was far from restoring unity to the African Church. The Councils of Carthage brought together the bishops of Proconsular Africa, Byzacena, and Numidia, but those of Tripolitana and Mauretania were absent, Mauretania had, in fact, regained its political autonomy, during the Vandal period. A native dynasty had been set up, and the Byzantine army of occupation never succeeded in conquering a part of the country so far from their base at Carthage.

Effective Byzantine control in the old Roman province was restricted to the coastal area, and even there the newly walled towns, strongholds, fortified farms, and watchtowers called attention to its tenuous nature. The region's prosperity had diminished under Vandal domination. Unpopular Byzantine governors imposed burdensome taxation, while towns and public services - including the water system-were left in decay.

The old Roman political and social order, disrupted by the Vandals, could not be restored, but Byzantine rule in Africa did prolong the Roman ideal of imperial unity there for another century and a half and prevented the ascendancy of the Berber nomads in the coastal region. In outlying areas neglected by the Vandals, the inhabitants had sought the protection of tribal chieftains and, having grown accustomed to their autonomy, resisted reassimilation into the imperial system, but no coherent form of political organization evolved there to take the place of Roman authority.

The reign of Justinian marks a sad period in the history of the African Church, due to the part taken by the clergy in the matter known as that of the Tria Capitula (Three Chapters). While one part of the episcopate wasted its time and energies in fruitless theological discussions, others failea of their duty. It was under these circumstances that Pope Gregory the Great sent men to Africa, whose lofty character contributed greatly to increase the prestige of the Roman Church. The notary Hilarus became in some sense a papal legate with authority over the African bishops. He left them in no doubt as to their duty, instructed or reprimanded them, and summoned councils in the Pope's name. With the help of the metropolitan of Carthage, he succeeded in restoring unity, peace, and ecclesiastical discipline in the African Church, which drew strength from so fortunate a change even so surely as the See of Rome gained in respect and authority.

This renewal of vigor, however, was not of long duration. The Arabs, who had conquered Egypt, made their way into Africa. In 642 they occupied Barca and Cyrenaica; in 643 they conquered part of the Tripolitana. In 647 the Caliph Othman gave orders for a direct attack on Africa, and an army which had gained a victory at Sbeitla withdrew on payment of a large ransom. Some years of respite ensued. The African Church showed its firm attachment to orthodoxy by remaining loyal to Pope Martin I (649655) in his conflict with the Emperor of Byzantium.

The last forty years of the seventh century witnessed the gradual fall of the fragments of Byzantine Africa into the hands of the Arabs. The Berber, or native tribes, which before this had seemed on the way to conversion to the Gospel, passed in a short time, and without resistance, to Islam. Carthage was taken by the Arabs in 695. Two years later it was re-entered by the Patrician John, but only for a brief period; in 698 Hassan once more took possession of the capital of Northern Africa. In this overwhelming disaster of ihe Arab invasion the Churches of Africa were blotted out. Not that all was destroyed, but that the remnant of Christian life was so small as to be matter for erudition rather than for history.



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