Lucius Caelius (or Caecilius?) Firmianus Lactantius
was an early Christian
author (ca. 240 - ca. 320).
Lactantius, a Latin
-speaking native of North Africa
, was a pupil of Arnobius
(according to Methodius
9.2) 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 pagans
while defending it from pagan philosophers. His Divinae Institutiones
("Divine Institutions") is an early example of a systematic presentation of Christian thought. He was considered somewhat heretical
after his death, but Renaissance humanists
picked up renewed interest in him, more for his elaborately rhetorical Latin style than for his theology
Lactantius was born a pagan and in his early life taught rhetoric in his native place, 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 Roman Emperor Diocletian, he became an official professor of rhetoric in Nicomedia, the voyage from Africa described in his poem Hodoeporicum. Having converted to Christianity, he would have been dismissed after the publication of Diocletian's first "Edict against the Christians" (February 24, 303), and as a Latin rhetor he 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 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 (minor 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).
The astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus
mocks Lactantius in his De revolutionibus orbium coelestium
Perhaps there will be babblers who claim to be judges of astronomy although completely ignorant of the subject and, badly distorting some passage of Scripture to their purpose, will dare to find fault with my undertaking and censure it. I disregard them even to the extent of despising their criticism as unfounded. For it is not unknown that Lactantius, otherwise an illustrious writer but hardly an astronomer, speaks quite childishly about the earth's shape, when he mocks those who declared that the earth has the form of a globe. Hence scholars need not be surprised if any such persons will likewise ridicule me. Astronomy is written for astronomers.
The German TV documentary on "The worlds 7 greatest lies" states that medieval scholars knew very well that the Earth was a sphere. Copernicus is blamed for omitting that Lactantius was the exception rather than the rule.
- 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 Institutions (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.
- An Epitome of the "Divine institutions" 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 I's vision of the labarum 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 Persecutorium.
- 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.