Notwithstanding the high reputation enjoyed by this father, no sure record has been preserved by which we call determine either his exact name, or the place of his nativity, or the date of his birth.
In modern works we find him usually denominated Lucius Coelius Firmianus Lactantius ;
but the two former appellations, in the second of which Caecilius
is often substituted for Coelius,
are both omitted by Hieronymus, and also in many MSS., while the two latter are frequently presented in an inverted order; moreover, we have no means of deciding whether Firmianus
is a family or a local designation; and sone critics, absurdly enough perhaps, have imagined that Luctantius
is a mere epithet, indicating the milk-like softness and sweetness which characterise the style of this author.
Since he is spoken of as having been far advanced in life about A. D. 315, he must have been born not later than the middle of the third century, probably in Italy, possibly at Firmium, on the Adriatic, and certainly studied in Africa, where he became the pupil of Arnobius, who taught rhetoric at Sicca. His fame, which surpassed even that of his master, became so widely extended, that about A. D. 301 he was invited by Diocletian to settle at Nicomedeia, and there to practise his art.
The teacher of Latin eloquence, however, found so little encouragement in a city whose population was chiefly Greek, that he was reduced to extreme indigence; and, without attempting to turn his talents to account as a public pleader, abandoned his profession altogether, devoting himself entirely to literary composition.
There can be little doubt that at this period he became a Christian; and his change of religion may in no small degree have proved the cause of his poverty; for we can scarcely suppose that he would have been left without support by the emperor, had he not in some way forfeited the patronage of the court. We know nothing farther of his career until we find him summoned to Gaul, about A. D. 312-318, when now an old man, to superintend the education of Crispus, son of Constantine, and it is believed that he died at Treves some ten or twelve years afterwards (A. D. 325-330).
Among the writings of Lactantius we must assign the first place to Divinarum Institutionum Libri VII.
, a sort of introduction to Christianity, intended to supersede the less perfect treatises of Minucius Felix, Tertullian, and Cyprian.
It is partly polemical, since it contains a direct attack upon the pagan system; partly apologetic, since it undertakes to defend the new faith from the misrepresentations of its adversaries; partly didactic, since it presents an exposition of the beauty, holiness, and wisdom of pure religion; thus seeking to recommend the principles of the true belief to the favour of the philosophers and educated men of the age, to whom chiefly the work is addressed.
The period at which this manual was composed is involved in considerable doubt.
There is on the one hand a direct allusion (5.17.5) to a persecution still raging (Spectatae sunt enim spectanturque adhuc per orbem poenae cultorum. Dei,
&c.), which seems to point to the horrors under Diocletian; while on the other hand Constantine is addressed by name as emperor, at the beginning of the first, second, fourth, and fifth books.
These clauses, it is true, are omitted altogether in several MSS., and hence have by some editors been rejected as spurious; while others avoid the difficulty by supposing that the task, commenced in Bithynia, was completed in Gaul, after a lapse of twenty years; or by adopting the plausible conjecture of Baluze, that copies passed into circulation at Nicomedeia, from which one family of MSS. was derived, and that a second edition was published at a later epoch under happier auspices. Each of the seven books into which the Institutions are divided bears a separate title, whether proceeding from the author or from a transcriber it is impossible to say, and constitutes as it were a separate essay.
In the first, De Falsa Religione,
the ruling providence and unity of God are asserted, the unreasonableness of a plurality of deities is demonstrated, and the absurdity of the popular creed is illustrated by an examination of the history and legends of the ancient mythology.
In the second, De Origine Erroris,
the same subject is pursued, with reference particularly to the folly of paying reverence to idols, and then the steps are traced by which men gradually wandered away from the plain and simple truth.
The third, De falsa Sapientia,
exposes the empty pretences of so-called philosophy, which is pronounced to be an arrogant but weak imposture, a mass of flimsy speculations upon physics, morals, and theology, at once unsubstantial and contradictory.
The fourth, De vera Sapientia et Religione,
points out that pure religion is the only source whence pure wisdom can flow, and then proceeds to prove that Christianity is the religion required, by entering into an inquiry with regard to the nature and history of the Messiah.
The fifth, De Justitia,
is occupied with a disquisition upon righteousness, which, having been banished from earth by the invasion of the heathen gods, was brought back by Christ; and concludes with a vehement denunciation of the injustice and impiety of those who persecuted the followers of the Saviour.
The sixth, De Vero Cultu,
treats of the manner in which homage ought to be rendered to the one true God.
The seventh, De Vita Beata,
embraces a great variety of discussions; among others, an investigation of the chief good, the immortality of the soul, the duration of the world, the second coming of Christ, the general resurrection, future rewards and punishments.
II. An Epitome of the Institutions.
of the Institutions, dedicated to the Pentadius, is appended to the larger work and is attributed to Lactantius by Hieronymus, who describes it as being even in his time ἀκέφαλος
; and in fact, in all the earlier editions this abridgement begins at the sixteenth chapter of the fifth book of the original.
But in the eighteenth century the work was discovered nearly entire in a very ancient MS. deposited in the royal library at Turin, and was published at Paris in 1712 by C. M. Pfaff, chancellor of the university of Tübingen.
It may be observed, that Walchius and others have doubted whether the Epitome
really proceeded from the pen of Lactantius, but we can scarcely prefer their conjectures to the positive testimony of Jerome.
De Ira Dei
, addressed to an unknown Donatus, is a controversial tract, directed chiefly against the Epicureans, who maintained that the deeds of men could produce no emotions either of anger or of pleasure in the Deity; a position which Lactantius declares to be subversive of all true religion, since it at once destroys the doctrine of rewards and punishments.
IV. De Opificio Dei s. De Formatione Hominis,
De Opificio Dei s. De Formatione Hominis,
addressed to a certain Demetrianus.
The first part of this book, to which there seems to be a reference in the Institutions (2.10.15), belongs to natural theology, being an argument in favour of the wisdom and beneficence of God, deduced front the wonderful contrivances and adaptations of means to ends discernible in the structure of the human frame; the second part is devoted to speculations concerning the nature of the soul.
V. De Mortibus Persecutorum.
De Mortibus Persecutorum.
VI. Poetry ascribed to Lactantius
Hieronymus speaks of Lactantius as a poet, and several pieces still extant have been ascribed to him, but erroneously.
in elegiacs, containing a collection of all the most remarkable tales and legends regarding the far-famed Arabian bird.
It is probably a compilation comparatively modern. For full information with regard to its history see Wernsdorff, Poetae Lat. Minores,
vol. iii. p. 233.
an assemblage of one hundred riddles.
This is noticed in the article FIRMIANUS.
De Pascha ad Felicem Episcopum
, in elegiacs, is generally believed to have been composed by Venantius Honorianus Clementianus Fortunatus, who flourished in the middle of the sixth century.
De Passione Domini
, in hexameters, one of the most admired productions of the Christian muse, not unworthy of Lactantius, but bearing in its language the impress of a much later age.
De Passione Domini
will be found in the Poetarum Veterum Eccles. Op. Christiana,
edited by G. Fabricius, Bas. fol. 1564, and in the Bibliotheca Patrum Max.,
Lugdun. 1677, vol. ii. p. 671.
VII. Other works ascribed to Lactantius
Lactantius, according to Hieronymus, was the author of a Symposium,
of a piece called Grammaticus,
of an itinerary in hexameters, Ὁδοιπορικόν de Africa usque Nicomediam,
of two books, Ad Asclepiadem,
who had himself addressed to Lactantius a work De Providentia summi Dei (Instit.
7.4), of four books of epistles Ad Probum,
two Ad Severum,
and two Ad Demetrianum,
all of which are now lost.
It appears from his own words (Instit.
7.1, sub fin.), that he had formed the design of drawing up a work against the Jews, but we cannot tell whether he ever accomplished his purpose.
The style of Lactantius, formed upon the model of the great orator of Rome, has gained for him appellation of the Christian Cicero,
and not undeservedly. No reasonable critic, indeed, would now assert, with Picus of Mirandula, that the imitator has not only equalled but even surpassed the beauties of his original.
But it is impossible not to be charmed with the purity of diction, the easy grace, the calm dignity, and the sonorous flow of his periods, when compared with the harsh phraseology and barbarous extravagance of his African contemporaries, or the stiff affectation, vulgar finery, and empty pomposity, of the Graeco-Italian rhetoricians.
He was unquestionably also a man of extensive erudition; and much curious and valuable information concerning ancient superstition and ancient philosophy may be gathered from his pages, in which are preserved many quotations from lost works of interest and importance. His merits as a theologian are more questionable.
It is almost certain that he became a convert late in life: he probably did not receive instruction from a judicious teacher, nor fully comprehend all that he had learned. His expressions relative to the nature of Christ, his view of the redemption, his picture of the day of judgment, his predictions concerning the millennium, the unsuspecting confidence with which he quotes such authorities as the Sibylline oracles and Hermes Trismegistus, the line of argument adopted in the De Ira Dei,
his remarks on the immortality of the soul and on early death, may be given as a few examples out of many which might be adduced of erroneous doctrines, of rash and unwarrantable conclusions, of unsound criticism, of reasoning rhetorical but not logical, of superficial investigation, and false induction.
The charge of a leaning towards Manicheism and Anti-Trinitarian opinions seems altogether unfounded.
The Editio Princeps of Lactantius is one of the earliest specimens of the typographical art in existence, having been printed at the monastery of Subiaco in 1465 by Sweynheym and Pannartz
; a second and a third impression by the same printers appeared at Rome in 1468
and 1470, the last under the editorial inspection of Andrew, bishop of Aleria
The great popularity of this author, and the multitude of MSS. dispersed over Europe, gave rise to a multitude of editions, of which the most notable are that of Gallaeus, Lug. Bat. 1660, forming one of the series of Variorum Classics, in 8vo.
; that of C. Cellarius, Lips. 8vo. 1698
; that of Walchius, Lips. 8vo. 1715
; that of Heumann, Goetting. 8vo. 1736
; that of Bünemann, Lips. 8vo. 1739
; and that of Le Brun and Lenglet du Fresnoy, Paris, 2 vols. 4 to. 1748
Hieronym. de Viris Ill.
79, 80; Chronic. Euseb. ad ann. cccxviii., Comment. in Eccles.
100.10, Comment. in Ephes.
100.4, Ad Paulin. Epist.;
Lactant. Divin. Instit.
1.1.8, 5.2.2, 3.13.12; Schröckh, Kirchengescht.
vol. v. p. 232; Schönemann, Bibliotheca Patrum Lat.
vol. 1.2; Bähr, Gesch. der Römisch. Litterat.
Suppl. Band. 1e Abtheil. § 9, 2e
. Abtheil. § 38-46.