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date: 17 October 2019


The Oxford Dictionary of Late Antiquity
Oliver NicholsonOliver Nicholson

Lactantius (c.250–c.325) 

Latin rhetorician, Christian apologist, and courtier, known since Pico della Mirandola as the ‘Christian Cicero’ (cf. Jerome, ep. 58, 10). Lactantius is the first Christian from the world of practical imperial politics whose writings have survived. All that is known of him comes from his own works and from a few notices in the works of Jerome (particularly, Chron. 230e Helm; Vir. Ill. 80).

Lactantius came from Africa, where Arnobius taught him, though nothing in either man’s writings suggests that they were acquainted. Diocletian summoned him to the imperial residence at Nicomedia of Bithynia to teach Latin rhetoric, presumably to educate aspirants to the emperor’s enlarged administration (cf. Mort. 7, 4). Lactantius will have lost his job along with other Christian courtiers when the Great Persecution began in February 303. He was still in Bithynia in 305 (Inst. V, 11, 15) and in his extreme old age Constantine I made him tutor for his son, the ill-fated Caesar Crispus, in Gaul. There is disagreement concerning his movements after 305, in the years which saw the Great Persecution continuing in the eastern half of the Roman Empire and the expansion of Constantine’s power in the western half. He may have stayed in Bithynia till 311 and then moved to Gaul (Heck and Wlosok) or have moved west during the persecution, taught Crispus, and then moved back to Bithynia and his old job once the persecution had ended in 313 (Barnes and Nicholson).

Lactantius’ greatest work, written during the Great Persecution, was the seven books of his Divine Institutes, a comprehensive account of basic Christianity written not for Greek Neoplatonists but for Latin-speaking middle-brow men like Lactantius’ former pupils, and indeed like the Emperor Constantine, many of whose utterances (e.g. in his Oration to the Saints) have similarites to Lactantius’ theology, and to whom was dedicated a second edition, unfinished at the author’s death. The central contention of the Institutes is that religio, religious practice, and sapientia, serious thinking, should inform one another, and that they do so only in Christianity, making it unique in being both practical philosophy and rational religion (IV, 3–4). The first three books expose the silliness (stultitia) of Roman civic religio and the inconclusive and therefore unpractical character of Graeco-Roman philosophy; the latter four books expound the implications of the ‘new facts’ of Christianity for the understanding of world history, for public justitia and personal duty, and for the fundamental ends of human life, both for the individual and for the world at large. The seven books make no concessions to paganism, whether monotheistic or otherwise; they simply appropriate whatever in Latin literary culture is useful for the explication of Christianity. Later in life, Lactantius produced an Epitome of the Divine Institutes.

Before the Divine Institutes, Lactantius wrote specifically for fellow Christians a work on human anatomy On the Workmanship of God, which, while asserting that the body is God’s handiwork, at the same time suggests how a Christian life may be lived in it. His On the Anger of God, written after the Divine Institutes, argues that those of a philosophical bent who deny that the Most High God can be angry must needs also deny that He is benevolent.

The thesis of On the Anger of God is illustrated by ‘great and wonderful examples’ in Lactantius’ fiery pamphlet On the Deaths of the Persecutors. This is a highly circumstantial eyewitness account of the years of the Great Persecution, written in 313/15, shortly after the persecution ended in the East, and demonstrating a simple truth, that God gets revenge on emperors who persecute His Christians. The work is like an inverted panegyric, spreading blame rather than praise. Though highly tendentious, and dedicated to a Christian comrade who had been through nine bouts of torture in a Nicomedia prison (Mort. 16, 3–10), it is replete with valuable contemporary information.

A poem in elegiac couplets On the Phoenix is generally held to be by Lactantius. It has been argued by A. Friedrich that the Symposium which Jerome says Lactantius wrote in youth survives as the 143 epigrams of the Symposium XII Sapientum (Anthologia Latina, 495–638 R). Only tiny fragments of the voluminous letters mentioned by Jerome are extant and the Hodoeporicum Lactantius wrote about his journey from Africa to Nicomedia is wholly lost.

Oliver Nicholson


PLRE I, Firmianus 1 and 2.

HLL 5, § 570 (A. Wlosok).Find this resource:

CPL 85–92:

ed. S. Brandt and G. Laubmann (CSEL 19 and 27, 1890–7), now superseded for the Divine Institutes by ed. A. Wlosok and E. Heck, 4 vols. (2005–11) and for the Epitome by ed. A. Wlosok and E. Heck (1994).Find this resource:

Individual books of Institutes (all with FT): I (ed. P. Monat, SC 326, 1986), II (ed. P. Monat, SC 327, 1987), IV (ed. P. Monat, SC 377, 1992); V (ed. P. Monat, 2 vols., annotated, SC 204–5, 1974); VI (ed. C. Ingremeau, annotated, SC 509, 2007). Also (with GT and substantial commentary) of VII by S. Freund (2009).

ET A. Bowen and P. D. A. Garnsey (annotated with substantial introd.), Lactantius: Divine Institutes (TTH 40, 2003).Find this resource:

De Opificio Dei, ed. M. Perrin (with FT and comm., 2 vols., SC 213–14, 1974).Find this resource:

De Ira Dei, ed. C. Ingremeau (with FT and comm., SC 289, 1982).Find this resource:

De Mortibus Persecutorum, ed. J. L. Creed (annotated with ET), Lactantius: On the Deaths of the Persecutors (OECT, 1984).Find this resource:

Symposium, ed. A. Friedrich (with GT, comm., and discussion of authorship, 2002).Find this resource:

ET of Inst., Epit, Opif., Ira, by W. Fletcher and Mort by Sir D. Dalrymple, 2 vols. (ANCL 21–2, 1871).

CHECL 259–65 (Nicholson).Find this resource:

Barnes, Constantine, 176–9.Find this resource:

T. D. Barnes, ‘Lactantius and Constantine’, JRS 63 (1973), 29–46, reprinted in Barnes, Early Christianity and the Roman Empire.Find this resource:

F. J. Bryce, The Library of Lactantius (1990).Find this resource:

P. Monat, Lactance et la Bible: une propédeutique latin à la lecture de la Bible dans l’Occident constantinien, 2 vols. (Études augustiniennes, 1982).Find this resource:

O. [P.] Nicholson, ‘“Civitas quae adhuc sustentat omnia”: Lactantius and the City of Rome’, in Klingshirn and Vessey, eds., Limits of Ancient Christianity, 7–25.Find this resource:

M. Perrin, L’Homme antique et chrétien: l’anthropologie de Lactance, 250–325 (1981).Find this resource:

M. Vinzent and O. Nicholson eds. Lactantius: Classical and Christian (Studia Patristica 80, 2018).Find this resource:

A. Wlosok, Laktanz und die philosophische Gnosis. Untersuchungen zu Geschichte und Terminologie der gnostischen Erlösungsvorstellung (Abh. Heid., 1960).Find this resource:

Comprehensive bibliography of editions, translations, and studies, from 1465 onwards, by F. Jackson Bryce at: