At a young age, Mani believed himself to have had visions, presumably from the Paraclete promised to believers by Jesus Christ. He took to wandering, traveling far and wide, and learning much. Along the way he determined a great number of things and built a following.
While Mani taught many things which were Zoroastrian in origin — particularly the duality of the world, marked by light and darkness, good and evil, spirit and matter, etc. — the older priesthood saw the Manicheans as upstarts.
When a new Shah came to power late in the third century, the magi prevailed on him to do something about the wandering sage Mani. He was imprisoned, and later died.
While Manicheanism was never exactly popular, there was a steady stream of support for it, for the next few centuries. As the Shahs came and went, its fortunes at home in Persia rose and fell. But even at the height of persecution, it did not die out there, either.
Just how the figure of Jesus Christ fit into Manicheanism, isn't clear. Mani didn't have much to say about him, naming him simply as a prophet. Even so, Manicheans adopted a number of Jesus' sayings. Later Manicheans seem to distance themselves from Christianity — which would appear to agree with what Mani wrote. Christians, however, considered Manicheanism to be an errant version of their own faith. Some Christians of the time compared it with the various Gnostic movements, with which it does share some points in common.
It's for this reason that I stated that Manicheanism wasn't a Christian heresy, per se. What makes it important for Christian history, is that Christians of the time thought of it as heresy. Also, Manicheanism came under occasional repression; for instance, the infamous persecutions of Diocletian began by targeting Manicheans. Only later did Christians become targets.
Augustine, who made a living as a teacher of rhetoric, happened to study Platonism in northern Italy. There, he met St. Ambrose, who eventually converted him to Christianity.
Quite thoughtfully, Augustine provided an account of his time as a Manichean, in his autobiography Confessons. It is from him that we know as much as we do, about the Manichean movement in the centuries after Mani.
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