There are contradictions among the sources, but it appears that Mani (c.216–76) was born near Seleucia-Ctesiphon, the capital of the Persian Empire, and began teaching in 240. Opposition from the Zoroastrians forced him into exile. He returned in 242, was at first supported and then attacked by Sapor I, and was finally put to death by being flayed alive.
Mani's system was a radical offshoot of the Gnostic traditions of E. Persia. It was based on a supposed primeval conflict between light and darkness. It taught that the object of the practice of religion was to release the particles of light which Satan had stolen from the world of Light and imprisoned in the human brain, and that Jesus, Buddha, the Prophets, and Mani had been sent to help in this task. To achieve this release, severe asceticism was practised. Within the sect there was hierarchy of grades professing different standards of austerity: the ‘Elect’ were supported by the ‘Hearers’ in their missionary endeavours and in an otherworldly state of perfection.
The sect spread rapidly. It appears to have been established in Egypt before the end of the 3rd cent. and at Rome early in the 4th. In the later 4th cent. Manichaeans were numerous in Africa and for a time included St Augustine. It is disputed how far Manichaeism influenced the Albigensians, Bogomils, and Paulicians, but it is clear that it survived in Chinese Turkestan to the 10th century.