Monday, January 02, 2006

Life of Lactantius in Breve

Life of Lactantius in Breve

Lucius Caecilius Firmianus Lactantius[1] was born circa 250 CE in Proconsular Africa and likely died at Trier in 325 CE.[2] Arnobius of Sicca evidently taught Lactantius the art of rhetoric while the latter resided in Africa, although historians from time to time dispute this point.[3] Lactantius also wrote a number of literary works, the first of which he entitled the Banquet, which is no longer extant.[4] He further composed a document in hexameter prose entitled Journey from Africa to Nicomedia and a pamphlet De mortibus persecutorum.[5] Finally, it appears that Lactantius authored his most memorable work Divinae institutiones around 311 CE in order to confront verbal and physical aggressions directed against the Christian faith, aggressions which the campaign of Diocletian persecution instigated.[6] McGiffert considers Divinae institutiones, “the most ambitious work published by a Latin Christian before the time of Augustine.”[7] In this apologetic treatise, Lactantius displays his ability to make a persuasive case for the Christian faith. Moreover, he exhibits uncharacteristic erudition in this work.

Lactantius eventually left Africa at the behest of Emperor Diocletian (284-304 CE) to assume the position of rhetor Latinus[8] in Nicomedia.[9] However, he did not fare well as an instructor of rhetoric since this kind of training apparently was not in high demand at that time.[10] Therefore, his pecuniary resources rapidly depleted and Lactantius subsequently undertook the task of writing theological documents in order to sustain himself materially and to advocate the Christian religion.[11] Nevertheless, he still maintained his position as professor of rhetoric until fateful events dictated otherwise.

In 303 CE, persecution directed against Christians by Emperor Diocletian forced Lactantius to relinquish his prestigious chair as rhetor Latinus.[12] He accordingly departed from Bithynia around 305-306 CE and in time became the tutor of Constantine the Great’s son, Caesar Crispus (De vir illustribus 80).[13] While tutoring Crispus, Lactantius persisted in arranging rhetorical and apologetic documents, endeavoring to model his writing after Marcus Tullius Cicero (Epistle 58.10; 70.5).[14] Perhaps, for this reason, Lactantius possibly never learned Greek: he only acquainted himself with those pre-Nicene authors, who wrote in Latin. More than likely, Lactantius acquired his knowledge of Greek philosophy from his reading of Cicero and Seneca.[15] The lacuna concerning his knowledge of Greek writers seems to manifest itself in his apologetic writings. Conversely, Bowen and Garnsey believe that Lactantius had first-hand knowledge of Greek and even quoted texts written in Koine.

In conclusion, successors of Lactantius did not consider him a profound thinker, especially respecting theological matters. Quasten notes that the apologist maybe denied either the existence or at least the distinct personality of God’s Holy Spirit, at times identifying the Spirit of holiness (spiritum sanctificationis)[16] with the Father or the Son.[17] Immediate evidence of Lactantius’ pneumatology, however, does not survive in written form. But in view of his “unorthodox” Christology and pneumatology, an oft-heard criticism of Lactantius is that “he was not a theologian” (theologus non erat).[18] Modern-day research somewhat mitigates this evaluation, however.[19]

[1] A number of MSS contain the praenomen Lucius and the nomen Caecilius or Caelius for Lactantius (his Christian name). See Cruttwell, A Literary History, 642.

2 Berardino says 260 CE. See page 469. Wlosok says 250 CE on p. 370 of Theologische. McGiffert (History of Christian Thought, 44) states that the details of his death are unknown. Cruttwell (A Literary History, 643) suggests that Lactantius was born in Africa.

3 McCracken. However, see Epistle 70.5; De viribus illustribus 80.

4 Quasten, Patrology, 392-393; Campenhausen, Fathers of the Church, 62.

[5] Barry Baldwin, “Lactantius,” 2:1168 of Aleksandr Petrovich Kazhdan,

ed., The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. New York & Oxford: 1991.

6 See Gieschen, Angelomorphic Christology, 197.

[7] History of Christian Thought, 45.

8 Kennedy notes that five of the major Latin pre and post-Nicenes taught rhetoric prior to becoming Christians. These rhetores respectively were Tertullian, Cyprian, Arnobius, Lactantius and Augustine. Vide A New History of Classical Rhetoric (Princeton: Princeton University Press, ), 264-265.

9 Quasten, Patrology, 393; Campenhausen, Fathers, 62; Bardenhewer, Patrology, 203, Wlosok, Theologische, p. 20:370; McGuckin, Handbook to Patristic Theology, p. 202; McGiffert, History of Christian Thought, 44; Timothy Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius, 13.

[10] De viribus illustribus 80.

10 Quasten, Patrology, 393.

[12] Lactantius reportedly witnessed the razing of Nicomedia’s city church (H. Chadwick, The Church in Ancient Society, 191). See Historia ecclesiastica 8.2.1-4 and De mortibus persecutorum 12. Lactantius relates the steps that Diocletian took to remove “eloquence” from Nicomedia in De mortibus persecutorum 22. But see Drake, Constantine and the Bishops, 117-118.

[13] Quasten, Patrology, 393, Bardenhewer, Patrology, 203, Wlosok, Theologische, 20:371.

13 See Jerome Catal. 80 about erudition of Lactantius. Fourteen extant MSS of his writings in 15th century (Quasten, Patrology, 394). It is common to see historians and humanists affixing the moniker “Christian Cicero” to Lactantius because of his extraordinary literary and rhetorical abilities. See The Dictionary of Christian Biography, 639; Bowen and Garnsey, Divine Institutes, xi.

14 Campenhausen, Fathers of the Church, 63-64. See Divinae Institutiones 2.8.23 and 1.17.3. See also T. B. de Graff, “Plato in Cicero.” Classical Philology 35 (1940): 143-153.

[16] See Romans 1:4.

16 See Quasten, Patrology, 407, McGuckin, Handbook, 203; Epistle 84.7; Comm in Gal ad 4.6.

17 Dictionary of Christian Biography, 639. Cf. Labriolle, History and Literature of Christianity, 207; Cruttwell, Literary History, 650.

[19] Bowen and Garnsey, Divine Institutes, .

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