1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Lactantius Firmianus
LACTANTIUS FIRMIANUS (c. 260–c. 340), also called Lucius Caelius (or Caecilius) Lactantius Firmianus, was a Christian writer who from the beauty of his style has been called the “Christian Cicero.” His history is very obscure. He was born of heathen parents in Africa about 260, and became a pupil of Arnobius, whom he far excelled in style though his knowledge of the Scriptures was equally slight. About 290 he went to Nicomedia in Bithynia while Diocletian was emperor, to teach rhetoric, but found little work to do in that Greek-speaking city. In middle age he became a convert to Christianity, and about 306 he went to Gaul (Trèves) on the invitation of Constantine the Great, and became tutor to his eldest son, Crispus. He probably died about 340.
Lactantius’ chief work, Divinarum Institutionum Libri Septem, is an “apology” for and an introduction to Christianity, written in exquisite Latin, but displaying such ignorance as to have incurred the charge of favouring the Arian and Manichaean heresies. It seems to have been begun in Nicomedia about 304 and finished in Gaul before 311. Two long eulogistic addresses and most of the brief apostrophes to the emperor are from a later hand, which has added some dualistic touches. The seven books of the institutions have separate titles given to them either by the author or by a later editor. The first, De Falsa Religione, and the second, De Origine Erroris, attack the polytheism of heathendom, show the unity of the God of creation and providence, and try to explain how men have been corrupted by demons. The third book, De Falsa Sapientia, describes and criticizes the various systems of prevalent philosophy. The fourth book, De Vera Sapientia et Religione, insists upon the inseparable union of true wisdom and true religion, and maintains that this union is made real in the person of Christ. The fifth book, De Justitia, maintains that true righteousness is not to be found apart from Christianity, and that it springs from piety which consists in the knowledge of God. The sixth book, De Vero Cultu, describes the true worship of God, which is righteousness, and consists chiefly in the exercise of Christian love towards God and man. The seventh book, De Vita Beata, discusses, among a variety of subjects, the chief good, immortality, the second advent and the resurrection. Jerome states that Lactantius wrote an epitome of these Institutions, and such a work, which may well be authentic, was discovered in MS. in the royal library at Turin in 1711 by C. M. Pfaff.
Besides the Institutions Lactantius wrote several treatises: (1) De Ira Dei, addressed to one Donatus and directed against the Epicurean philosophy. (2) De Opificio Dei sive de Formatione Hominis, his earliest work, and one which reveals very little Christian influence. He exhorts a former pupil, Demetrianus, not to be led astray by wealth from virtue; and he demonstrates the providence of God from the adaptability and beauty of the human body. (3) A celebrated incendiary treatise, De Mortibus Persecutorum, which describes God’s judgments on the persecutors of his church from Nero to Diocletian, and has served as a model for numberless writings. De Mort. Persecut. is not in the earlier editions of Lactantius; it was discovered and printed by Baluze in 1679. Many critics ascribe it to an unknown Lucius Caecilius; there are certainly serious differences of grammar, style and temper between it and the writings already mentioned. It was probably composed in Nicomedia, c. 315. Jerome speaks of Lactantius as a poet, and several poems have been attributed to him:—De Ave Phoenice (which Harnack thinks makes use of 1 Clement), De Passione Domini and De Resurrectione (Domini) or De Pascha ad Felicem Episcopum. The first of these may belong to Lactantius’s heathen days, the second is a product of the Renaissance (c. 1500), the third was written by Venantius Fortunatus in the 6th century.
Editions: O. F. Fritzsche in E. G. Gersdorf’s Bibl. patr. eccl. x., xi. (Leipzig, 1842–1844); Migne, Patr. Lat. vi., vii.; S. Brandt and G. Laubmann in the Vienna Corpus Script. Eccles. Lat. xix., xxvii. 1 and 2 (1890–93–97). Translation: W. Fletcher in Ante-Nicene Fathers, vii. Literature: the German histories of early Christian literature, by A. Harnack, O. Bardenhewer, A. Ebert, A. Ehrhard, G. Kruger’s Early Chr. Lit. p. 307 and Hauck-Herzog’s Realencyk. vol. xi., give guides to the copious literature on the subject.