Priscillian was a wealthy nobleman of Roman Hispania who promoted a strict form of Christian asceticism. He became bishop of Ávila in 380. Certain practices of his followers were denounced at the Council of Zaragoza in 380. Tensions between Priscillian and bishops opposed to his views continued, as well as political maneuvering by both sides. Around 385, Priscillian was executed by authority of the Emperor Maximus; the ascetic movement Priscillianism is named after him, continued in Hispania and Gaul until the late 6th century. Tractates by Priscillian and close followers, which had seemed lost, were discovered in 1885 and published in 1889; the principal and contemporary source for the career of Priscillian is the Gallic chronicler Sulpicius Severus, who characterized him as noble and rich, a layman who had devoted his life to study, was vain of his classical pagan education. Priscillian was born around 340 A. D, into the nobility in western Hispania, was well-educated. About 370, he initiated a movement in favour of asceticism.
Priscillian advocated studying not only the Bible, but apocryphal books. His followers, who were won over by his eloquence and his ascetic example, included the bishops Instantius and Salvianus. According to Priscillian, prophets, "doctors" are the divinely appointed orders of the Church, preeminence being due the doctors, among whom Priscillian reckoned himself; the "spiritual" comprehend and judge all things, being "children of wisdom and light". In asceticism Priscillian distinguished three degrees, though he did not deny hope of pardon to those who were unable to attain full perfection; the perfect in body and spirit were celibate, or, if married, continent. Certain practices of the Priscillianists are known through the condemnatory canons issued by the 580 synod, such as receiving the Eucharist in the church but eating it at home or in the conventicle. According to Ana Maria C. M. Jorge, "He played the role of a catalyst among Lusitanian Christians and crystallized a variety of ascetic and intellectual aspirations that were either or entirely, incompatible with Christianity as it was lived by the great majority of the bishops of the day."
His notable opponents in Hispania were Hyginus, bishop of Cordoba, Hydatius, bishop of Mérida. They accused Priscillian's teachings of being gnostic in nature. Through his intolerant severity Hydatius promoted rather than prevented the spread of the sect. Hydatius convened a synod held at Zaragoza in 380. Ten bishops were present at this synod from Spain, two from Aquitaine, Delphinus of Bordeaux, Phœbadus of Agen. Although neither Priscillian nor any of his followers attended, he wrote in reply his third tract justifying the reading of apocryphal literature, without denying that their contents were spurious. Neither Priscillian nor any of his disciples is mentioned in the decrees; the synod forbade certain practices. It forbade assumption of the title of "doctor", forbade clerics from becoming monks on the motivation of a more perfect life. Michael Kulikowski characterizes the concern at Zaragoza as the relationship between town and country, the authority of the urban episcopacy over religious practice in outlying rural areas.
In the immediate aftermath of the synod, Priscillian was elected bishop of Ávila, was consecrated by Instantius and Salvianus. Priscillian was now a suffragan of Ithacius of Ossonuba, the metropolitan bishop of Lusitania, whom he attempted to oust, but who obtained from the emperor Gratian an edict against "false bishops and Manichees"; this was a threat against the Priscillianists, since the Roman Empire had banned Manichaeism long before it legalized Christianity. The three bishops, Instantius and Priscillian, went in person to Rome, to present their case before Pope Damasus I, himself a native of Hispania. Neither the Pope nor Ambrose, bishop of Milan, granted them an audience. Salvianus died in Rome, but through the intervention of Macedonius, the imperial magister officiorum and an enemy of Ambrose, they succeeded in procuring the withdrawal of Gratian's edict, an order for the arrest of Ithacius. Instantius and Priscillian, returning to Spain, regained their churches. A sudden change occurred in 383, when the governor of Britain, Magnus Maximus, rebelled against Gratian, who marched against him but was assassinated.
Maximus was recognized as emperor of Britain and Spain, made Trier his residence. There Ithacius presented his case against Priscillian, Maximus ordered a synod convened at Bordeaux in 384. After this, the matter was transferred to the secular court at Treves. Ithacius and Hydatius of Mérida both went there for the trial. Sulpicius Severus notes that Martin of Tours protested to the Emperor against the ruling, which said that the accused who went to Treves should be imprisoned. Maximus, a Spaniard by birth, treated the matter not as one of ecclesiastical rivalry but as one of morality and society, he is said to have wished to enrich his treasury by confiscation of the property of the condemned. At Trier, Priscillian was tried by a secular court on criminal charges that included sorcery, a capital offence. Priscillian was questioned and forced to
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