Lucius Caecilius Firmianus Lactantius was an early Christian author (c. 240 – c. 320) who became an advisor to the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine I, guiding his religious policy as it developed, and tutor to his son.
Lactantius, a Latin-speaking native of North Africa, was a pupil of Arnobius and taught rhetoric in various cities of the Eastern Roman Empire, ending in Constantinople. He wrote apologetic works explaining Christianity in terms that would be palatable to educated people who still practiced the traditional religions of the Empire, while defending Christian beliefs against the criticisms of Hellenistic philosophers. His Divinae Institutiones ("Divine Institutes") is an early example of a systematic presentation of Christian thought. He was considered somewhat heretical after his death, but Renaissance humanists took a renewed interest in him, more for his elaborately rhetorical Latin style than for his theology.
A translator of the Divine Institutes starts his introduction as follows:
Lactantius has always held a very high place among the Christian Fathers, not only on account of the subject-matter of his writings, but also on account of the varied erudition, the sweetness of expression, and the grace and elegance of style, by which they are characterized.
Lactantius was not born into a Christian family. In his early life, he taught rhetoric in his native town, which may have been Cirta in Numidia, where an inscription mentions a certain 'L. Caecilius Firmianus'.
Lactantius had a successful public career at first. At the request of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, he became an official professor of rhetoric in Nicomedia; the voyage from Africa is described in his poem Hodoeporicum. There he associated in the imperial circle with the administrator and polemicist Sossianus Hierocles and the pagan philosopher Porphyry; here he will first have met Constantine, and Galerius, whom he cast as villain in the persecutions. Having converted to Christianity, he resigned his post before Diocletian's purging of Christians from his immediate staff and before the publication of Diocletian's first "Edict against the Christians" (February 24, 303). As a Latin rhetor he subsequently lived in poverty according to Jerome and eked out a living by writing, until Constantine I became his patron. The new emperor appointed the aged scholar in 311 or 313. The friendship of the Emperor Constantine raised him from penury and he became tutor in Latin to his son Crispus, whom Lactantius may have followed to Trier in 317, when Crispus was made Caesar (lesser co-emperor) and sent to the city. Crispus was put to death in 326, but when Lactantius died and in what circumstances is not known.
Like so many of the early Christian authors, Lactantius depended on classical models. The early Humanists called him the "Christian Cicero" (Cicero Christianus). His works were copied in manuscript several times in the 15th century and first printed in 1465 by the Germans Arnold Pannartz and Konrad Sweynheim at the Abbey of Subiaco. This edition was the first book printed in Italy to have a date of printing, as well as the first use of a Greek alphabet font anywhere, which was apparently produced in the course of printing, as the early pages leave Greek text blank. It was probably the fourth book ever printed in Italy. A copy of this edition was sold at auction in 2000 for more than $1m.
- De Opificio Dei ("The Works of God"), an apologetic work, written in 303 or 304 during Diocletian's persecution, and dedicated to a former pupil, a rich Christian named Demetrianius. The apologetic principles underlying all the works of Lactantius are well set forth in this treatise.
- The Divine Institutes (Divinarum Institutionum Libri VII), written between 303 and 311. This is the most important of the writings of Lactantius. As an apologetic treatise it was intended to point out the futility of pagan beliefs and to establish the reasonableness and truth of Christianity as a response to pagan critics. It was also the first attempt at a systematic exposition of Christian theology in Latin, planned on a scale sufficiently broad to silence all opponents. The Catholic Encyclopedia said, "The strengths and the weakness of Lactantius are nowhere better shown than in his work. The beauty of the style, the choice and aptness of the terminology, cannot hide the author's lack of grasp on Christian principles and his almost utter ignorance of Scripture." Included in this treatise is a quote from the nineteenth of the Odes of Solomon, one of only two known texts of the Odes until the early twentieth century. However, his mockery of the idea of a round earth was criticised by Copernicus as "childish".
- An Epitome of the "Divine institutes" is a summary treatment of the subject.
- De Ira Dei ("On the Wrath of God"), directed against the Stoics and Epicureans, dealing with anthropomorphic deities.
- De Mortibus Persecutorum has an apologetic character, but has been treated as a work of history by Christian writers. The point of the work is to describe the deaths of the persecutors of Christians: Nero, Domitian, Decius, Valerian, Aurelian, and the contemporaries of Lactantius himself, Diocletian, Maximian, Galerius, and Maximinus. This work is taken as a chronicle of the last and greatest of the persecutions, in spite of the moral point each anecdote has been arranged to tell. Here Lactantius preserves the story of Constantine's vision of the Chi Rho before his conversion to Christianity. The full text is found in only one manuscript, which bears the title, Lucii Caecilii liber ad Donatum Confessorem de Mortibus Persecutorum.
- Widely attributed to Lactantius although it shows no overt sign of Christianity, the poem The Phoenix (de Ave Phoenice) tells the story of the death and rebirth of that mythical bird. That poem in turn appears to have been the principal source for the famous Anglo-Saxon poem to which the modern title The Phoenix is given.
- Lactantius' role is examined in detail in Elizabeth DePalma Digeser, The Making of a Christian Empire: Lactantius and Rome, 2000.
- W. Fletcher (1871). The Works of Lactantius.
- Paul Stephenson, Constantine, Roman Emperor, Christian Victor, 2010:104.
- Encyclopædia Britannica 7 (15th ed.). 1993.
- Stephenson 2010:106.
- "Lot 65 Sale 6417 LACTANTIUS, Lucius Coelius Firmianus (c. 240–c. 320). Opera.". Retrieved 2010-12-29.
- ^ Lactantius The Divine Institutes, translated by Mary Francis McDonald Catholic University of America Press (1964)
- Charlesworth, James Hamilton. The Odes of Solomon. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1973, pp. 1, 82
- Lactantius, Divine Institutes, Book III Chapter XXIV
- Nicholas Copernicus (1543), The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company.
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